Lessons we learned from two young Afghan women

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Ukrainian evacuee Luda Oksonenko holds her two-month-old baby after crossing the Ukraine-Romania border on March 16, 2022.

Armend Nimani | Afp | Getty Images

The following commentary is from Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and the inaugural Milken Institute Asia Fellow, and Laura Deal Lacey, executive director of the Milken Institute Asia Center.

With the number of refugees fleeing Ukraine now surpassing 2 million people, countries around the world are responding.

Poland has welcomed more than 1.8 million Ukrainians. Hungary, Germany and Spain, among other nations, have opened their borders. Even Japan, which accepts very few refugees annually, has worked to set up a support system to accept Ukrainians fleeing their homeland.

Yet, amid this necessary attention on this new wave of refugees, it is critical that government, business and community leaders not forget the plight of Afghan refugees. Covid-19 worries, concerns about jobs and inflation, and now Ukraine understandably dominate the news.

As context, in 2021 the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, reported that there were 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees in the world, of whom 2.2 million were registered in Iran & Pakistan alone. Another 3.5 million were internally displaced, having fled their homes for refuge within Afghanistan. Those numbers will likely continue to rise.

For us, it is personal. Every year, the Milken Institute hosts a class of 15 to 20 interns in Asia. The program is designed to attract rising stars from across Southeast Asia, and developing economies across the Indo-Pacific region. Over the years, the program has included interns from Afghanistan.

With the withdrawal of U.S. forces last year, two of our former interns were evacuated from Afghanistan. We followed their journey from Kabul airport to refugee camps to resettlement.

Thankfully, both young women are now safe and healthy. One is starting her life in Finland and learning to adapt to the winter in Helsinki. The other moved to Tempe, Arizona, in the United States. She is studying, along with more than 60 other young Afghan women, at Arizona State University as part of a resettlement partnership co-sponsored by the International Rescue Committee and ASU.

3 lessons on how to help

So, what do you do when your interns become refugees? Our experience and lessons learned from our former interns suggest ways that most anyone — with or without a personal connection to Afghanistan, or Ukraine for that matter — can help those lucky to have moved on beyond refugee camps and who are now forced to build new lives.

First, identify trusted organizations that are providing assistance, and learn how you or your organization can best assist. It could be funding — cash donations are typically the most flexible way to help address urgent needs when in-kind contributions are not feasible — or it could be volunteering and sharing your time and knowledge.

Support for jobs, housing and education are all critical, as is the provision of mental health support. As with those fleeing Ukraine today, many who fled Afghanistan may well face “survivors guilt” driven by worries and concerns over family members and friends left behind. Here, small and medium sized enterprises and organizations engaged already at the local, community level can play a key role.

Assistance is being provided by government, business and not-for-profit organizations but programs need to be scaled up and sustainably resourced.

In one example, World Education Services has launched a Gateway Program to assess the educational credentials of Afghans who have been displaced and have limited proof of their academic achievements. This is critical to helping eligible individuals continue their education, become licensed in their field or take the next step on their career pathway in the United States.

At the government level, the United States since August 2021 has welcomed some 80,000 Afghans suddenly forced to flee their country, with the International Rescue Committee alone resettling 10,000 new arrivals. Roughly 90% of the 80,000 airlifted to the United States have been moved off military bases and resettled in American communities, with the help of some $13 billion in government spending, according to the Washington Post.

Yet of those Afghans who made it to the United States since August, many still face the prospect of deportation due to their rushed arrival under what the U.S. government calls humanitarian parole. This is an emergency status that extends the right to work and live in the United States for just two years without a means of qualifying for permanent residency.

Second, make the time to stay engaged and to learn more about a refugee’s home country — Afghanistan or Ukraine or elsewhere — even as the news cycle moves from one crisis to the next. That knowledge can be put to use in continuing to leverage your voice and platforms — from community organizations to social media — to address important geopolitical issues such as the future of Afghanistan, to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and to encourage legislative or policy changes as well as bilateral and multilateral support to those most at risk and left behind in Afghanistan. This too will be critical in the case of addressing the needs of Ukrainian refugees.

With the situation in Afghanistan continuing to deteriorate and hunger and misery on the rise following the U.S. departure, we were particularly pleased to see the Asian Development Bank board of directors step up this January to approve $405 million in grants to support food security and the delivery of essential health and education services for the Afghan people.

Under its “Sustaining Essential Services Delivery Project (Support for Afghan People), the ADB will provide direct financing support to four U.N. agencies which have presence and logistics in Afghanistan for immediate humanitarian support. This direct support will be implemented through agencies including UNICEF and the World Food Programme and their partner non-governmental organizations.

Third, look behind the numbers to the individual — beyond the stereotypes and fears that too often reemerge in difficult economic times. Of the tens of thousands of Afghans who were able to escape their country, we have been blessed to know and worked with two of them when they were interns. Each also helped put a human face on a continuing tragedy, helping win support for them and others in their shoes.

Our colleagues at the Milken Institute stepped up and collectively donated to the Arizona State University Foundation’s Educational Futures for Afghan Refugees Program. With both of us having spent part of our childhoods in Arizona—and one of us having had family dating back to 1898 in what was then the territory of Arizona—it was particularly rewarding to see Arizona play a key role in helping young Afghan women in their journey to independence in the United States.

It also has been heart-warming to see friends, family and professional acquaintances offering financial assistance and other types of support such as mentorships for the young women on courses of study and potential career paths in the United States. For our intern in Finland, it has been a similar experience as friends and strangers alike extended our reach in finding support on the ground in Helsinki.

It takes a village to make refugees feel welcome. Each of us — in business, in government, in civil society and in our local neighborhoods — can be part of a humane and sustained response to a refugee crisis, whether or not the headlines have moved on.

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