‘Where the world collides’

Della Lamb prepares to welcome Afghan refugees

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

Like many refugee resettlement agencies, Della Lamb Community Services at 500 Woodland Ave. is preparing to ramp up their resources, staffing and volunteers as the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 30.

The U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack on the United States, orchestrated by al-Qaida while sheltering under Taliban rule.

The Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, planning a May 2021 exit. President Joe Biden extended the deadline to the end of August and the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31, 2021 as the Taliban quickly regained control of the country.

Della Lamb’s Executive Director Ryan Hudnall said the agency was already planning to increase their capacity since the Biden administration had raised the cap to 62,500 after facing bipartisan pushback for his delay in increasing former President Donald Trump’s record-low 15,000.

“We’re not just preparing for an influx of new cases, but there has been a historic swing,” Hudnall said. “The volatility is so high in what refugee resettlement has been for the past four years and what we’re anticipating for it to be.The numbers, based on administrative policy and COVID-19, have been at historic lows for the past 50 years and now we’re anticipating – if you add the evacuees from Afghanistan and if the numbers are close to the ceiling that’s established – we’ll be at one of the all-time highs in terms of resettlement within the past 50 years.”

Refugee resettlement is the newest of the agency’s core programs. After having provided services to refugees living in Kansas City for decades, Della Lamb was approved as a Refugee Resettlement Agency by the U.S. State Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“I think about Della Lamb, how do you have such lasting power 125 years later?” Hudnall asked. “I read something new that said Della Lamb was a genius in friendship, and so I think about how she invited people from across different walks of life to come together. Her initial efforts were to care for working Italian immigrant mothers, so she brought people across lines, Protestant and Catholic, to simply say, ‘I see you, I want to support you.’ What a forebear for what we are striving to do today.”

In April, 2014, Della Lamb resettled its first refugees. Within two years it became Della Lamb’s fastest growing program. The agency has resettled 840 individuals since 2014. According to Della Lamb, 40% of displaced people are children. Right now, about 80 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, and 26 million of those are refugees.

There are three refugee resettlement agencies in the Kansas City metro, two in Jackson County – Della Lamb and Jewish Vocational Services – and one on the Kansas side, Cathollic Charities.

“Each one of us reports to a different national agency – there’s nine national agencies that resettle those who’ve been displaced from across the globe to metropolitan areas all across the country. Della Lamb’s partner is known as the Ethiopian Community Development Council, or ECDC for short,” Hudnall said. “All the local affiliates are working closely with the national agencies right now to answer questions regarding the timing of the arrival of evacuees, the volume, benefits questions – what coverages will be provided, what won’t be provided – and how this differs from our typical resettlement process.”

Preparing for arrival

The agencies typically get at least two weeks’ notice to prepare for a refugee’s arrival, but Della Lamb anticipates the notification of arrival will be quite a bit shorter with the new Afghan refugees. Hudnall said due to the urgency created by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Afghan refugees will most likely be in addition to the anticipated increased presidential determination.

“We were already anticipating an increased number of refugee arrivals,” Hudnall said. “With the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, and the speed at which it deteriorated, that’s complicated things as we’re working through, ‘How do you vet well, how do you receive well, how do you understand the families that we’re going to receive and make sure that we’re responsive to their needs?’”

With the urgent situation, many were evacuated to foreign countries or U.S. military installations. While preparing for their arrival, agencies like Della Lamb try to answer questions like what the best environment for those being resettled looks like and what relationships they already have with people across the United States to provide wraparound support.

“Much of refugee resettlement – not just with Afghan evacuees, but for those who have been displaced – much of the resettlement system is based upon this concept of relationship,” Hudnall said.

Residents of the U.S. can even submit paperwork, an affidavit of relationship, for someone who has been displaced to increase their likelihood of being resettled in a specific destination.

“You want a community of support to help someone navigate all the questions it is with coming to a new place, having a new language, understanding new laws, so it makes sense to go to a place where you have a natural community of support,” Hudnall said.

By the time refugees make it to Della Lamb, they’ve already undergone an extensive vetting process, background checks and health screenings. Resettlement is the last step in the process, which includes multi-disciplinary services, most prescribed by the Federal Government.

“One, you’re hoping that you can return to your country of origin, that the displacement is not permanent and that you can return – repatriation,” Hudnall said. “Or you can assimilate into the other environment in which you’ve been displaced from. You may have similar cultural competencies, similar language, so it may be more natural to assimilate into the culture of a neighboring country.”

However, if there are continued factors that put them at danger of persecution or they’re unable to naturally assimilate, at that point the United Nations or government agencies will assess the individual or family that needs to be resettled.

“They’re going through a number of different vetting processes,” Hudnall said. “They’ll check international agencies to determine that there’s no red flags… It can be a very an extended process for this to be done, then they’ll connect with the State Department and the national agencies to work to determine what is the best environment for someone who has been approved to be resettled to come to the United States.”

Those coming from Afghanistan were considered evacuees until they were outside their country. These terms are defined by not only U.S. law, but the United Nations. For all the other displacement crises across the globe, there are specific legal markers that are required to be met for someone to be characterized as a refugee.

“In order to receive this designation as a refugee, you have to be outside your country of origin,” Hudnall said. “But in this specific instance, we are evacuating those who are in their country of origin, so legally right now, you’ll hear the names of these programs and they’re not technically called refugees, although they’ve faced significant persecution.”

There’s always layers of persecution, Hudnall said. It can be based upon ethnic, religious affiliation or other factors. Once that’s identified, that’s when someone will be characterized as a refugee. Asylum seekers, which are familiar to Americans with the current situation of gang violence and poverty leading to displacement in Central America, have no natural or identifying factor of persecution rooted in a certain class like religion or ethnicity. Once they get to the U.S., they can then seek asylum status.

A mid-sized metro like Kansas City in a mid-sized state won’t receive as many refugees as places like California, New York or Texas.

“However, the environment here is incredibly favorable,” Hudnall said. “You have affordable housing. You have employment opportunities. So the resettlement environment is exceptional compared to some of those other higher cost environments.”

Housing is the most difficult question that the agencies have to overcome between identifying affordable housing and completely furnishing the space. Once they get a notification, the wheels start to turn and they begin by identifying the family or individual’s needs without being fully informed on their situation.

“Imagine someone picking out a house for you,” Hudnall said. “You may not know their style, you may not know what their space needs are, might not know what all their physical needs are. We do our best to try and understand those things and select housing.”

They try to find housing close to the area where the refugees have an existing relationship, or even move them in with a family member. The agency pays the rent, arranges for deposits and for utilities to be connected. Then they stock the unit with basic housewares, beds, bedding and food.

“We like it if it’s in the Historic Northeast, one, because of the richness that it adds to the already diverse community, but also because it provides easy access so for this initial period we can help with the transition process into life in the U.S.,” Hudnall said.

Upon arrival, the family is taken to its new home, oriented to the features and appliances like a gas stove, furnace, thermostat, hot tap water, bathroom facilities, smoke alarms and more. The family is also provided with a hot meal of their native culture before they end their first day in Kansas City.

“We get a wide variety of the composition of families, sometimes a single parent household with one or multiple children, sometimes young, sometimes teenagers, we’ll receive singles who have been displaced or received for family units,” Hudnall said. “Sometimes we’ll receive full family units but they’ll be on different cases. So, thinking about the different cultures that we welcome, all the different family compositions that we resettle, it adds to the complexity of the work.”

Moving toward self-sufficiency

The ultimate goal of the Refugee Resettlement Program is to move the refugee family toward self-sufficiency, with the Federal mandate to make them self-sufficient within 90 days of arrival. Della Lamb has multiple programs that provide the first steps toward English language acquisition, focusing on “functional” language skills related to learning basics, such as the calendar days of the week, telling time, the money system, basic nouns/verbs to identify the refugee’s home or identify actions.

Cultural orientation classes assist the refugees to adjust to functioning in the community. The agency provides practical assistance related to grocery shopping, accessing public transportation, basic health and hygiene practices, and other life skills.

“The Northeast has something to offer that we don’t see across the city,” Hudnall said. “I mean, as you interact with someone you come across a startling realization that every person has a story. And then if we tap into it, we unearth something that can really enrich our city and our lives.”

Della Lamb’s initial 30-day program, Reception and Placement (R&P), provides required services mandated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. A myriad of services must be completed within a specific time frame. Children must be enrolled in school by the fifth day after arrival, Social Security numbers must be applied for and received before the adult members of the family are eligible to work, and medical exams must be completed by the seventh day. R&P case managers also assist the client to access legal and financial services, establish bank accounts, make referrals for medical care, and provide interpreters.

The stipend to help with the transition that each refugee gets is about $1,000 per person at the start of the resettlement process. The process is employment-driven, so agencies focus on helping them navigate the Social Security system and other government agencies to help them become employable. They consider their education, their work experience and giftedness to find employment opportunities. Often refugees have been in “refugee camps” for extended periods of time, maybe years, and have little or no practical experience.

“Sometimes, the first step of employment will not be what you hope to be the final step of employment, but getting it, finding an employment opportunity is one of our primary roles,” Hudnall said.

The agency’s employees work with efficiency to assist them in finding employment, as the Job Preparation and Placement program is ultimately the final step in ensuring the refugee family will be in a situation to become self-sufficient. The staff assists with job applications and interview skills, resume development and computer skills.

Upon job acceptance, the staff works with the refugee to understand responsibilities, specifically related to their job: work hours, being on time, where to board the bus, clock-in and lunch break procedures, and how to contact a supervisor about an issue.

“It is almost always extended out to 90 days, and so we do our case management work – there’s funding that all has to to be accounted for, within that 90 day period,” Hudnall said. “There are other programs available based upon the needs of those resettled, as well as their ability to work that [they] can enroll in, but that is through a different federal government agency.”

However, the work of their Refugee Resettlement program continues. When a refugee is employed, prior to the 90-day deadline, they will still need continued assistance accessing government services, more information about rent and utility payments, communicating with their children’s school or a medical provider.

Hudnall said one agency is responsible for the initial resettlement, and others, through the Department of Health and Human Services, oversee the mid-term to long-term transition benefits, which are available for up to the first five years of a client being in the U.S.

“With the Missouri Office of Refugee administration, we work to provide services to anyone who has been resettled within the past five years,” Hudnall said. “Certainly, we’ll help anyone that we’ve resettled but as far as our reporting to the state, it is for those who have been here for five years or less.”

Agency considers affordable housing, limited resources
Della Lamb is actively thinking about affordable housing issues, as are so many people across the city.

“When we’re at our best we can do it in such a way where it’s in a community of natural support, but there’s a limitation on available housing, employment opportunities,” Hudnall said. “Particularly with the situation in Afghanistan serving as a catalyst, we’ve been contacted by a number of employers, thinking about opportunities available to those who come.”

Hudnall said it’s an unique situation, as many of those evacuating Afghanistan have been working with the U.S. military for a number of years so in terms of their ability to transition, in some ways, it’s less complex. Many of them will speak English, which affords them different employment opportunities than others who don’t speak any English when they arrive.

Because the nature of resettlement is so reactive, Della Lamb hopes to create health in the system. The staff at Della Lamb are multi-cultural themselves, some who have been displaced, some who were born internationally and some who are first generation Americans. The staff understands the process in terms of integrating into a new culture and walking alongside someone to understand that process.

“We have team members from Mexico, Somalia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Hudnall said. “We’re hiring someone from Tanzania, from Cameroon, we’ll also be looking to hire right now those who speak the Afghan dialect or Pashto, so that the work is incredibly diverse and there’s beauty in that.”

Hudnall said among the refugees he’s encountered there’s an amazing grasp of the so-called “American dream” about the opportunities for education and all the resources available to pursue those things.

“You look at our Olympics team for crying out loud. The World Champion, the gold medalist Suni Lee, Hmong refugee,” Hudnall said. “My hope is that we can create an environment where anyone has an opportunity to thrive.”

Since 1975, U.S. agencies have resettled refugees from all over the world, nearing 3.5 million.

“Seeing the images emerge from Afghanistan is a trigger for many of them because they’re deeply haunted by some of the memories that they’ve faced as part of their own displacement and the ongoing challenges for the nations that they’re from,” Hudnall said.

Hudnall said statistically, refugees are much more likely to be entrepreneurs, and because they contribute tax dollars, there’s certainly an economic case to be made.

“But I think about when I share a table with someone who’s been displaced and we have an opportunity to see each other’s humanity,” Hudnall said. “There’s something pure in that. I would simply invite others who have concerns to share presence with someone who’s been displaced. You’ll see the beauty of their lives and that transformation will take place.”

Della Lamb faces questions like how to have functional space at 500 Woodland for private meetings to respect the confidentiality of our clients. They have needs for new computers to equip all of the new case managers, transportation costs for taking clients to different meetings and appointments, and going to the airport.

“The amount of moving that we’ll do, the number of homes we’ll furnish, we’re actively thinking about partnerships to streamline how we furnish apartments and houses as part of receiving someone,” Hudnall said.

Della Lamb is seeking in-kind donations of gently used, functional furniture, household items, toys and books. They also collect financial donations for rent and utility payments beyond the first 90 days, and to meet specific needs that are also always arising like transportation, medical support, and more. Those who are interested in both long-term and short-term volunteer opportunities can fill out a contact form at dellalamb.org.

“It’s someone who’s been displaced and has endured so much, it’s an honor to welcome them to our city,” Hudnall said. “To think about how to equip them, we’re looking for a number of ways to be able to provide wraparound support. If someone is interested, connect with us, and then we’re going to provide healthy ways for both volunteers and for the refugees to be able to connect and actively work together towards a healthy transition.”

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