CLEVELAND — Cleveland has been designated as one of 19 possible cities nationwide where Afghan and Iraqi refugees will eventually resettle as part of a special immigrant visa program for those that assisted the United States government or military over the past two decades.
Officials from non-profit, refugee resettlement organizations said the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has forced them to accelerate plans for a potential influx in refugees.
Darren Hamm, the director of the Cleveland field office for the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said it remains unclear how many refugees will eventually come to the United States. Even murkier is just how many will come to Cleveland. At this point, however, Hamm said “several hundred” is the current working estimate.
All of the refugees admitted into the US as part of the special visa program have assisted American interests and armed forces in Afghanistan.
“Why it’s important is not only are we honoring a commitment that we made to those individuals, but we’re providing them safety and shelter if they are put in harm's way because of the work they’re doing on our behalf,” Hamm said. “[USCRI] provides everything from the immediate needs of those being resettled — immigrants and refugees — in Northeast Ohio. We bring them in, pick them up at the airport and find them housing. We connect their students and kids to schools and find them healthcare services.”
This assistance continues through what often becomes a three-year process of being resettled, Hamm said.
Joe Cimperman, the executive director of Global Cleveland, said the city has proven itself to be a welcoming place for refugees and immigrants of all creeds and nationalities. Since World War II, the city has welcomed in refugees of other conflicts, including Jews from Russia and Albania, Ethiopians, Kosovars and the Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon. Between the work of the USCRI, and two other leading refugee resettlement organizations, Catholic Charities and Us Together, the three organizations have more than 250 years of experience.
“These are organizations that measure their service in decades; they measure it in centuries,” Cimperman said. “We’ve seen this before. Every one of those communities that I mentioned [have brought] engineers, doctors, restaurants, homeowners, homebuilders. They make our community better by being here. I can tell you from all the communities that have come before, they inevitably make our general community better as a result of them being here.”
Over the past five years, USCRI-Cleveland has resettled 115 families from Afghanistan, including 40 so far in 2021. Hamm expects that number to rise precipitously in the coming months and into next year. Each one of those cases is rewarding, he said.
“It presents to us a real world opportunity to be human and to connect to a global society,” Hamm said. “Those of us in this line of work, I don’t think we can put that into words. There are plenty of studies and data that support how important these people are to the economic environment but, most importantly, they provide a much greater character to the communities that we all live in."
And, once again, Cleveland will play a major role in it, Cimperman said.
“There’s a saying, ‘leave the door open for the people that come after you.’ Clevelanders don’t just leave the door open; they take the hinges out and get rid of the door,” Cimperman said.