These past several weeks have been challenging. Witnessing the humanitarian crisis — and the largest evacuation by airlift in history — that resulted from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has been distressing for many of us.
Church World Service Lancaster is supporting national efforts to process and welcome Afghan evacuees while working locally to prepare for arrivals. We are proud to have deployed six members of our staff to serve on the front lines of welcome at Army bases throughout the United States. These staff members are returning to our office with hearts heavy with concern for the refugees’ plight and the promise to continue helping our Afghan friends here at home.
While we do not know when we will start receiving evacuees from Afghanistan here in the Lancaster region, we have indicated our ability and interest to do so to the U.S. Department of State. We anticipate that the first arrivals will happen over the coming weeks and months.
We have been overjoyed with the response from the local community in support of Afghan allies and refugees. In just one recent week, we received more than 150 calls and emails from individuals, faith groups and other organizations wanting to aid newly resettled Afghans refugees. And while we are overjoyed, we are not surprised. Lancaster County’s welcoming community is regularly, and rightly, recognized as a key component of successful refugee resettlement in the region.
Although the current situation in Afghanistan and the national response continue to evolve, one thing remains clear: Refugee resettlement saves lives.
This is true for those who have been displaced immediately due to war and conflict; it is also true for individuals and families who may be languishing in refugee camps for decades, waiting for the opportunity to begin new lives in safety.
As I write this, we are continuing to welcome new arrivals from around the world to our beautiful city, with 32 new clients scheduled to be resettled in Lancaster in September. These individuals and families are coming from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and El Salvador — countries far less likely to make it into the news cycle. These families have been waiting for years — sometime decades — to be settled in a place that is safe, free and welcoming, just like Lancaster.
The current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan represents just one conflict that forces individuals and families to flee their homes. The 2020 report from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, on global trends in forced displacement indicates that over 82 million people were forcibly displaced — with 26 million of those displaced recognized as refugees. (According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”)
While individuals and families continue to be forced to leave their homes and face uncertain futures, typically less than 1% of refugees are ultimately resettled in a third country.
As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the U.N. Refugee Convention, the landmark treaty affirming the need for international protections for those fleeing persecution, it is important that the United States continues its commitment to a robust resettlement program and asylum protections.
Here at home, Church World Service Lancaster remains ready to welcome new neighbors from Afghanistan and around the world. Together with generous volunteers, landlords, employers and good-hearted neighbors, we are making Lancaster County a stronger and more diverse community.
Valentina Ross is the office director at Church World Service Lancaster, a nonprofit serving refugees and immigrants. Lancaster city Mayor Danene Sorace will host Church World Service Lancaster in a “Live at 5” livestreamed event at 5 p.m. Wednesday on the City of Lancaster’s Facebook page.