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Work to resettle 31 Afghans in Berkshires proceeds, four years after federal policies halted resettlement of Syrian refugees

Afghan Refugees Silicon Valley Clinic

Afghan evacuees, including a couple pictured in California earlier in December, have been arriving in their new communities, many after long stays at U.S. military bases. Fifteen of 31 expected new residents have arrived in Berkshire County, four years after federal policies obstructed an earlier effort to resettle Syrian refugees in the Berkshires.

PITTSFIELD — Berkshire County now is home to 15 Afghan evacuees, and it will welcome 16 more by the end of January.

Since August, evacuees have been escorted by U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, brought to military bases across the U.S. and, finally, resettled in their new communities.

Planning for resettlement in the Berkshires during an earlier humanitarian crisis, leaders say, left them well prepared to accommodate Afghan evacuees in recent months.

Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts, a Springfield-based resettlement agency, has resettled asylum-seekers for decades, and many Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union resettled in Berkshire County during the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet resettlement work in the Berkshires dissipated until Jewish Family Services teamed up with elected officials and community partners in 2016, planning to resettle refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Those plans, however, fell through in 2017 when President Donald Trump cut refugee admissions and banned Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. for several months.

“We were about to launch a robust Berkshires program when the presidential administration changed, and the immigration policies changed,” said Maxine Stein, president and CEO of Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts. “And then the situation in Afghanistan pops up, but even before that we already had started engaging in the hopes that the Berkshires might be interested in trying this again.”

Jewish Family Services had discussed resettlement possibilities earlier this year with Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, Pittsfield state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and some community groups. A group of leaders from Berkshire Area Support for our Immigrant Community (BASIC) and a group of interfaith leaders provided valuable support, Stein said.

After the U.S. military airlift in August, local veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq jumped in to fulfill what one veteran called a “moral debt” to Afghans who supported U.S. troops.

Tyer was “honored and proud to say that Pittsfield would welcome refugees from Afghanistan,” she said.

“We certainly developed a partnership back in 2016, which really benefited us when we started talking about Afghanistan,” Tyer said. “So, we were able to reconvene quickly and talk about how we might be a location for [people] from a country that is in turmoil to find a new place to call home.”

An affordable housing shortage and the need for translation help have been the top challenges for resettlement.

Jewish Family Services continues to seek leads for affordable three-bedroom apartments or larger, although it has made at least temporary arrangements for everyone expected to arrive — “not without a lot of knocking on doors and following up on every possible lead,” Stein said, referencing the work of Berkshire resettlement coordinator Gabriela Sheehan.

One family of seven will stay temporarily at a home in Williamstown through June, although most families will have permanent housing in the Pittsfield area.

Each family is matched with a local “host” organization, which is a group or partnership of groups that has volunteered to provide guidance and support to evacuees.

Stein added that the AlKhalil Islamic Center in Pittsfield is a valuable resource, and that a family of three sisters visited the mosque and community center last week.

Jewish Family Services continues to seek applications for a caseworker with Dari, Farsi or Pashto language skills, and it welcomes people who wish to volunteer or donate.

Stein said she hopes that the Berkshires will continue with resettlement of asylum-seekers beyond the 31 Afghan evacuees who will live in the county by the end of January, citing the high level of engagement among community members.

“You can go into a community and say, ‘We are resettling here,’ but that’s not the way that we want to do it,” Stein said. “We really want to engage with the community and make sure it is not just your agenda but their agenda as well.”

“The situation in Afghanistan pulled at the hearts of so many Americans all over the country, and that is true of the Berkshires. My dream and my hope is that the Berkshires will ultimately continue on with refugee resettlement once they are in the groove.”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

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