‘There is a community that builds’: Duke and Durham welcome Afghan refugees, offer courses and resettlement agencies

<p>Downtown Durham.</p>

Downtown Durham.

“Our office phones have been ringing every day,” Kokou Nayo said as he recounted his time in his office since Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15. 

Kokou is the refugee community organizer at the Durham office of Church World Service, one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies partnered with the State Department, four of which have offices in the Triangle. Kokou helps build bridges between refugees and the broader Durham community. 

He’s been building lots of those lately. In the month since Kabul’s fall, the Durham community has begun welcoming Afghan refugees. 

“I’ve seen an influx of support,” Kokou said. “Not only financial but material support.” 

After Afghanistan’s capital and government fell to the Taliban in August, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees streamed to the U.S. Over 65,000 Afghans are being resettled across the country. Some have started arriving in Durham. 

World Relief has received around 30 Afghans in the past few weeks, according to Adam Clark, office director for World Relief Durham. They’re expecting about 80 more. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) in Raleigh has not yet received any individuals because of processing complications, but they have told the State Department they have capacity to resettle 100 people, according to Omer Omer, the director of USCRI’s Raleigh office. Lutheran Services Carolinas and Church World Service weren’t able to provide exact numbers, but it’s likely more than 100 Afghans will have arrived in the Triangle by the end of September. 

From Duke classrooms to Durham’s resettlement agencies, the community is stepping up to receive the new arrivals. Students are preparing to help tutor the refugees and organize paperwork. Resettlement agency staff are greeting Afghan refugees when they first arrive and helping them find jobs and housing. Community members are opening up their homes or donating supplies. 

“We’ve had around 40 offers for [temporary] housing in the last few weeks, including Airbnb and private homeowners,” Clark wrote in an email. Dozens of people have emailed the CWS office offering bedrooms in homes and apartments. 

More than 300 Amazon packages of toiletries and other essentials have filled World Relief’s office, to the point where they needed to rent more space. Adam said that 800 people in the past two weeks filled out volunteer applications, all only to one resettlement agency. Other resettlement agencies in the area, including the USCRI and Lutheran Services Carolinas, have also fielded overwhelming support

“Durham is ready to welcome Afghanistan’s residents to our city,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said at a recent press conference. “We will make a home for them here. No matter what your religion, no matter where you’re from, no matter what your race, no matter what language you speak, we want you here in Durham, and we’ll embrace you.” 

Duke’s Global Displacement course

Deborah Reisinger, associate professor of the practice of romance studies, teaches a course called Global Displacement: Voix Francophones, a service-learning course in which students partner with resettlement agencies to help with tutoring, advocacy, and employment. 

Students in the class are trained for the first few weeks before being paired with various resettlement agencies to help refugees, who are not only from Afghanistan but also from the Congo, Syria, and other countries. 

Students help with English as a Second Language tutoring with minors and adults. They will also support adults in job applications, social security registration and other crucial paperwork. Some students may be paired with advocacy teams in resettlement agencies. Their focus will be on increasing community awareness of refugees’ needs, such as long-term, affordable housing. 

One of the components of the training is understanding the fraught, complicated process of leaving home, said Mary Helen Wood, Trinity 21, who is a former teaching assistant for the course. 

“A lot of people miss home,” Wood said. People miss their community, their food, their culture. Retaining that culture is increasingly difficult when confronted with a whole new culture. “A lot of people are coming in because this is the safest option … but a lot of people want to go back home,” she said. 

Wood said she learned not to force refugees to completely embrace American culture. 

“We're not trying to change anyone, we're just trying to make sure they have the tools they need at their disposal to do what they need to do to make it,” Wood said.

Reisinger also requires students to hop on natakallam.com, a site where displaced people are hired to tutor, translate and talk with participants in their native language. The refugees are matched with students to talk about culture, politics, and even their lives before being displaced. However, students quickly learn that not every refugee wants to tell their life story. 

“They learned that these people want more privacy than that because they’re going through some serious trauma,” Wood said about last fall’s class. 

The goal is to prepare students to be a helping hand for the refugees as they build new lives. 

“We are looking at empowerment, not doing something for people,” Reisinger said. 

Reisinger walks the class through several case scenarios to reinforce empowerment. For instance, instead of calling the DMV to schedule a driver’s test for a refugee, the students plan to sit next to them and provide coaching while the person makes the call.  

“It’s very natural to step in and want to help someone … but you know that person has a much more capable feeling when they actually make the phone call themselves,” she said. 

The community

“It was weird being denied paper,” said Lydia Zakel of Church World Service, laughing as she recalled her 12-day trip beginning Aug. 20 to Fort Lee in Virginia and Fort Dix in New Jersey.

She and Jonitka Hall, another CWS staff member, were sent by CWS to help meet and process Afghan refugees disembarking at the two military bases. They had wanted to make welcome signs for an incoming plane of Afghan evacuees, but after gathering a bunch of highlighters, they were missing a critical component: paper

 They asked the nearest soldier if he could find some, as there must have been paper somewhere on the 32,000-acre military installation. But the young soldier said he wasn’t ranked highly enough to provide paper. 

Even though Zakel and Hall didn’t end up finding paper, the mood at both Fort Lee and Fort Dix was cheerful and enthusiastic.

“Everyone I met was putting their political differences aside to make sure people had a safe place to live,” Hall said. 

The Department of Defense is processing as many as 95,000 Afghans through the end of September across four military installations stateside, including Joint Base Mcguire-Dix-Lakehurst (Fort Dix in New Jersey) and U.S. Army Garrison Fort Lee (Fort Lee in Virginia). 

Zakel was only hired as a case manager for CWS one month ago, but she promptly signed up to be one of the first faces the Afghan evacuees saw as they disembarked from an Air Force C-130J Super Hercules into American life. 

For Zakel, the cases she manages aren’t just numbers in an excel sheet. They mirror the struggles her family went through when they resettled from Bulgaria and Romania to Brooklyn, New York more than 10 years ago.

“Growing up, my mom and grandparents always told me stories about their [resettlement] process,” she said.  

Zakel found her way to Durham after volunteering for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in a Palestinian refugee camp, an experience that convinced her to commit her life in service of refugees. 

“I really, really loved … all the ins-and-outs of helping refugees,” she said. 

USCRI brought Zakel on as an aid assisting case managers with interpretation in early 2021. Now, she works as a case manager for CWS helping manage every bit of the resettlement process, from employment to social security applications to finding transportation. 

After finishing processing at these military installations, the evacuees who choose to resettle in Durham are flown to Raleigh Durham International Airport. Zakel and others from various resettlement agencies connect them to temporary housing. After some rest and initial home visits from case managers, the refugees begin classes at their respective resettlement agencies. 

“The classes are set up to serve [the refugees],” said Nicole Dickinson, an English as a Second Language teacher for CWS. 

Dickinson left her business of many years behind to pursue a master’s degree in teaching ESL. Now, she teaches three ESL classes to adult refugees, four times a week. Much of her teaching focuses on social norms, like how to say “hi” and how to “click” with people in the United States, including other displaced people. 

“There is a community that builds there,” Dickinson said, describing how refugees from Colombia, Syria, Congo and Afghanistan are helping each other understand how the nuances of all their languages fit into English. 

“It’s a community of stories and learners,” where more proficient English speakers will reach out to less proficient English speakers to help, she said. During one of Dickinson’s recent classes, everyone was laughing about something a student had said in English, when a classmate suddenly said to that student, “I really love you,” and the whole class audibly agreed. 

Next steps

Kokou said that many Afghans who have been resettled in Durham for months to years have called the office offering to be interpreters or to simply be present for the new arrivals. This community of expatriates, career non-profit managers and lifelong North Carolinians are eager to continue welcoming more refugees to Durham. 

But in order to do that, support from the community must remain strong. “The [resettlement] process is longer than the news cycle,” Hall said. Refugees, not just from Afghanistan, will continue to need help long past September.

Kokou pointed to another way the Duke community can maintain support beyond September. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. This committee recommends to the president the number of refugees that should be admitted for the fiscal year. Kokou asked community members to call Tillis’s office to increase the number to 125,000 from 62,500 last fiscal year.

“We can always count on the community in the Triangle,” Kokou said.


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