Southern Colorado’s sole resettlement agency is preparing to assist at least 75 Afghan refugees who had worked with United States troops in their homeland before last month's military withdrawal, according to Floyd Preston, program director of the Colorado Springs office of Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains.
But it could be more, he said.
“That number could fluctuate; we just don’t know,” Preston said.
Officials from state agencies announced Monday during a virtual presentation that they anticipate Colorado will receive 1,000 to 2,000 refugees fleeing Afghanistan after 20 years of U.S. occupation and now under Taliban control.
They expect 90% of the state’s total allocation to live in the Denver area and 10% in Colorado Springs.
The White House previously had said 865 evacuees would be sent to Colorado.
Also unknown is when the influx will arrive, Preston said, but likely it will be in a few weeks. Families are processing paperwork and documents at military bases, he said, though he wasn’t sure where.
Some refugees attended a resource fair at the Metropolitan Denver North Islamic Center on Saturday, according to media reports.
Before they are integrated into communities, the Afghan refugees also are getting tested for COVID-19 and vaccinated for the novel coronavirus, polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps and rubella, said Registered Nurse Patty Nyquist-Heise, refugee coordinator for Peak Vista Community Health Services in Colorado Springs.
There’s much to be done in the meantime.
Afghanistan is among a range of countries of origin of the 150 to 165 refugees the local office works with annually, but Preston said the situation involving this particular group is different.
They are being classified “humanitarian parolees,” Nyquist-Heise said, and will not be eligible for subsidized federal assistance programs as expatriates normally are.
That includes Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, and the welfare-to-work program.
Children who come with their families can qualify for supplemental food, Preston said.
“That could change tomorrow,” he said. “There are so many uncertainties.”
Because of the lack of government aid for the evacuees, Preston’s office is calling on churches, apartment owners, businesses and residents to contribute to the resettlement process.
“Finding rentals in Colorado Springs is a huge issue, being that this is a hot market,” he said. “Housing is the biggest need for us.”
For the first time, his organization is asking private landlords to consider giving the refugees a break on leasing by offering sliding scale pricing — which Preston said is normally not done.
“They usually have to pay rent with no discount because we’re dealing with the general public who have businesses to run,” he said. “We’re now asking private ones to give us flexibility.”
The new refugees will have opportunity to apply for asylum, state officials said, but that takes time.
Preston said Lutheran Family Services, which has had an office in Colorado Springs for more than 40 years, only works with people who legally can be in the United States and have approved status as special immigrant visa holders, asylum seekers, human trafficking victims and Cuban Haitian entrants.
Local refugees also have emigrated from the Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Bhutan and Iraq, Preston said.
In the past five years, the largest numbers of refugees landing in Colorado have been from Afghanistan, Meg Sagaria-Barritt of the Colorado Refugee Services Program said in the virtual presentation.
Of the state’s 185 arrivals of new refugees, special immigrant visa holders and Amerasians from Oct. 1, 2020 through June 30, 40.5% came from Afghanistan, according to data from the Colorado Department of Human Services, which oversees the refugee and asylum program.
In addition to helping families find housing, Preston's organization introduces kids to local schools, enrolls the new arrivals in English language classes, points them to job openings, introduces them to American culture and pairs them with trained community volunteers.
The volunteers assist with moving into a new home, acquiring furniture and other household goods, taking field trips, integrating into neighborhoods, practicing English, going grocery shopping, learning to understand societal systems and more, Preston said.
“They really become a friend to them,” he said.
New refugees also will receive medical care through Peak Vista Community Health Services, Nyquist-Heise said.
Since they won’t have access to Medicaid, refugees' health care costs will be covered by the organization’s internal program for uninsured clients or those ineligible for government assistance, she said.
After a review of medical histories, refugees will receive any medical treatment they might need, Nyquist-Heise said, and become patients of the system, which operates 29 clinics in the Pikes Peak region.
“We can see them here, but they wouldn’t be covered at a hospital or a specialist,” she said. “But it gives them a medical provider until they’re able to apply for asylum.”
With asylum status, the refugees could apply for Medicaid and other federal programs.
“Colorado Springs has a very tight community of people who work with refugees,” said Nyquist-Heise, who has been in her job for 12 years. “It’s like the spokes of a wheel, and it takes the whole community to make it happen.”
To contribute to the resettlement effort, go to https://www.lfsrm.org/programs-and-services/refugees/colorado-springs/.