Maine’s refugee resettlement agency has begun to receive Afghans who were evacuated as U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August.

Catholic Charities Maine welcomed one evacuee who arrived Thursday at Portland International Jetport from one of eight military bases in the United States where evacuees are awaiting resettlement.

“We anticipate 11 more arrivals within the next week,” said Hannah DeAngelis, director of refugee and immigration services at the faith-based agency.

Among the 12 individuals are four families, all of whom have relatives living in Cumberland County, DeAngelis said. Three of the families will be living temporarily with relatives; one family is large enough to need temporary housing elsewhere, which has been secured, she said.

The anticipated arrivals include school-age children who will be enrolled in local public schools within the next three months.

“One of our responsibilities is assisting in the enrollment process within the resettlement period,” DeAngelis said.

Catholic Charities Maine is leading the resettlement effort as the state’s designated administrator of the new Afghan Placement and Assistance Program, which was created by the federal government in the wake of the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Through that program, Catholic Charities has been approved to resettle 67 to 100 Afghans in Maine who technically lack refugee status but are considered immigration parolees, DeAngelis said.

They are among 57,000 immigration parolees who made it out of Afghanistan and have been on the military bases awaiting resettlement. They will arrive with limited federal government funding that is meant to last 90 days, DeAngelis said.

Nearly 130,000 people were airlifted from Afghanistan in the final days of the evacuation, including about 70,000 who have special immigrant visas because they worked with U.S. forces. Some of the 70,000 are also waiting on military bases and destined for Maine, and some Afghan Mainers are working to bring family members here as humanitarian parolees.

The Afghans who will be in Catholic Charities’ care could arrive in Maine anytime through March 30, 2022, DeAngelis said. It’s the largest number of newcomers that the agency has resettled since it welcomed 623 refugees in the fiscal year that ended in September 2016.

Catholic Charities Maine has resettled fewer refugees in recent years, because of restrictions imposed by the Trump administration and challenges of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Maine received 623 refugees in 2015-16, DeAngelis said. By 2017-18 that number had fallen to 66 and it has yet to rebound.

Catholic Charities Maine resettled 37 refugees in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, DeAngelis said. All have arrived in the last six months, and they have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iraq and Syria.

Refugee arrivals are down nationwide to about 10,000 this year, DeAngelis said, despite the Biden administration raising the cap from 15,000 to 62,500 this year, and pledging to increase the cap to 125,000 next year.

Still, DeAngelis and her staff are geared up to welcome Afghans to Maine. They have been busy lately, resettling two families from the Congo in September. Her staff includes former refugees from the DRC, Somalia, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.

“It’s absolutely exciting and our team is good at this,” DeAngelis said. “Many of them were refugees themselves. They understand the process and the challenges.”

Afghans currently waiting on military bases are being processed through immigration programs, undergoing medical screenings and vaccinations and receiving other temporary assistance, according to U.S. State Department officials.

Gov. Janet Mills’ office announced in August that Maine was prepared to welcome Afghans fleeing their homeland, but it was more a statement of willingness than an assessment of the state’s readiness.

Greater Portland, Lewiston, Biddeford and Augusta are among the communities that have been preparing to welcome Afghan families because they already have social services, schools with multilingual programs, job training, public transportation and other services in place to assist immigrants. Maine is home to about 500 Afghan Americans, clustered mostly around Portland.

DeAngelis said teams of volunteers working with the Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta are ready to welcome Afghan evacuees to central Maine.

“If we receive a case without ties to the Portland area, they may be a good fit for the Capital Area group,” she said. “They are very ready.”

Each person arriving through the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program will be given $900 to cover housing, food and other basic needs for 90 days. A network of social service agencies, Afghan community members and volunteers has rallied to help the new arrivals get settled, apply for asylum, find work and learn about their new home.

“It feels like a group project to make sure the Afghans coming to Maine have a smooth transition and a safe resettlement experience,” DeAngelis said. “Many have experienced trauma and still have family in Afghanistan, so they are concerned for their safety as well.”

After three months, Afghans arriving through the new placement and assistance program will have none of the federal financial support that is available to immigrants who have official refugee status. However, many Afghan evacuees speak English and have already applied for expedited work authorization, DeAngelis said.

Those arriving in Maine will be applying for asylum with help from the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project, which has offices in Portland and Lewiston, she said. Legislation making its way through Congress also could expedite the asylum process, which usually requires several months to gain legal resident status and green cards.

The Immigrant Resource Center of Maine in Lewiston and Prosperity Maine will help the newcomers submit rental assistance applications to the Maine State Housing Authority, which has tapped federal funding available through the CARES pandemic relief act.

While Catholic Charities has been able to secure temporary housing for the first Afghan evacuees, there is growing concern that it may be difficult for them to find permanent homes because apartments are so scarce amid a pandemic-driven real estate boom.

Plus, Portland already has 478 asylum seekers waiting for housing in its Family Homeless Shelter and area hotels – most of them migrants from central Africa who came here via the southern U.S. border. Their temporary housing costs about $1 million a month and is covered by the city’s General Assistance program, which is mostly federally and state-funded. Portland officials have reached out to the state and other municipalities for additional assistance.

“Housing will continue to be a challenge,” DeAngelis said.

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