LEWISTON — Maine could receive as many as 100 displaced Afghan refugees between now and March, according to Catholic Charities Maine, which briefed dozens of municipalities and social services groups on Thursday.

While Lewiston has historically received about 40% of resettled refugees, that might not be the case this time.

“I think compared to other places in the state, there’s a very small, current Afghan community — most Afghan families we know live in Portland and Augusta,” said Hannah DeAngelis, program director for Catholic Charities Maine Refugee Immigration Services. “For that reason, Lewiston might not be first on the list, however, we know that Lewiston resources of support are very, very strong. Our partners are very wonderful and very knowledgeable and I think very ready to step in and help.”

Since 2013, Catholic Charities Maine has resettled 105 refugees from Afghanistan in the state. As the new refugees slowly arrive over the coming months, they’ll look at cities where people have family ties, as well as access to public transportation, affordable housing and employment opportunities, she said.

Catholic Charities Maine had been prepared to resettle 400 international refugees in the coming year, most of them with community ties in Maine, and local immigrant groups had already started organizing around how to welcome them.

DeAngelis said the estimated 67 to 100 new Afghan refugees were in addition to that number, but that original 400 figure was now in doubt due to the pandemic.

“It feels unlikely at this moment that we will see 400 refugee arrivals, largely due to overseas processing delays or pauses even because of COVID,” she said. “There are about 23,000 Afghans at U.S. military bases nationally right now, already, who are going through processing (to) their final destinations in the U.S., so they’re already folks in the country. So I do think that that will go quite differently than international refugee resettlement.”

They’re formally arriving through the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration’s Afghan Placement and Assistance Program without official refugee status and will need to apply for asylum, according to a press release sent late in the day.

Afghan refugees who resettle here will receive core services through Catholic Charities Maine for 90 days with help locating an apartment, finding furniture and enrolling in school, DeAngelis said.

“The largest difference is that this new population will not be eligible for federal services after that 90 days, the ones that we provide or that any other partners provide,” she added.

Lewiston city officials were on the briefing call and up next for the city is collaborating with Catholic Charities Maine and other social service agencies to meet the needs of any new arrivals as they become clearer, said Police Chief and interim Deputy City Administrator Brian O’Malley.

“At the present time, there is no specific numbers of Afghanistan refugees being resettled in Lewiston,” he said. “There is a shortage of housing in Lewiston so these refugees most likely will be placed in other municipalities.”

Amina Abdi, executive director of Her Safety Net, a Lewiston nonprofit organized to support education, advocacy and health care for women, was also on Thursday’s call. When she saw the crisis playing out in Afghanistan last month with the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the end to that long war, Abdi said she reached out to other local immigrant groups such as Abdikhadar Shire’s AK Health and Social Services.

“When people are displaced, they end up anywhere,” she said. “It’s natural to think some might come here.”

The groups quickly mobilized a call for donations within the immigrant community for bedding, clothes, jackets, shoes and household items for the refugees.

“Oh my gosh, the community came together,” Abdi said. “We’re grateful for them.”

There will be challenges to acclimating in Maine, she added, and she’s already thinking about the, “gender-based violence such as rape, who knows what sexual assault (and) domestic violence” that Afghan women may have experienced back home.

“I know that they are the vulnerable population there and they will need much more help compared to everyone who is getting here,” Abdi said. “Some women, they might not have worked when they were there, or they were not allowed to go to school, they will be here and they will do much better, I’m sure. We need to support them with anything.”

Shire estimated 50 to 60 people were on the Zoom briefing Thursday. Language could be an issue with any new arrivals as he isn’t sure if anyone in the local community speaks Pashto or Dari, the official languages of Afghanistan.

It might, though, create new jobs for any Afghan refugees who interpreted for the U.S. military, Shire said. “We’re hoping that there’s some that speak English.”

The AK Health and Social Services offices at 157 Main St. will continue to be a collection point for donations, he said, and if it turns out the city doesn’t receive many resettled Afghan refugees, there is still plenty of need here and use for the items. He anticipates giving out some of the care packages to the homeless this fall.

Heather Rae Turner of Lewiston said she, too, was inspired by the events in Afghanistan and tired of seeing both overt and subtle discrimination toward immigrants and refugees on social media. She formed L/A’s Refugee Welcome Wagon two weeks ago.

She’s pulling together “Welcome Wagon bags” of household cleaning supplies, wipes, masks, hygiene products and coloring books, and pitching in, like getting volunteers to help organize the donations for Abdi’s and Shire’s effort.

“We don’t have a great track record of being welcoming to people who may not sound like us or look like us. I just think it can be different and should be different,” Turner said. “Certainly we can put together a welcome pack with a note that says, ‘Welcome home, we’re really glad you’re here.’ We have zero intention of taking away from the efforts done by the immigrant groups already doing this work. I think it’s just time for the community as a whole to welcome folks.”


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