In announcing that as many as 5,000 Afghan refugees soon will arrive at Indiana's Camp Atterbury, Gov. Eric Holcomb saluted 22-year-old Cpl. Humberto Sanchez, one of 13 Marines killed last week by a suicide bomber attack in Kabul. The governor acknowledged the Logansport native's mission in Afghanistan.
“He served so the very people who will get off the plane – tired, off-balance, psychologically strained, hungry, dealing with health issues, maybe with only a backpack to their name, little money if any – so that maybe they could enjoy and appreciate that very same peace and security that we do right now,” Holcomb said.
Refugees arriving at the south-central Indiana post will remain there for at least a 14-day medical screening, but could resettle elsewhere within weeks. Based on Fort Wayne's past experience with Afghan refugees, we can hope some will resettle here. Northeast Indiana residents, with a long history of welcoming those from war-torn countries, can answer the governor's call to carry on the important work so many have done in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.
Fort Wayne resident Terry Dougherty operates Friends of Afghanistan, a network of Peace Corps alumni continuing to support the Afghan people. Since his own assignment in Afghanistan in 1973-74, Dougherty has hosted exchange students, helped operate a girls' school in Kabul and assisted refugees for decades, including some who have moved to Fort Wayne, found work, sent their children to college and found great success.
“These people are not freeloaders,” he said. “They come in and they go right to work. And their children go on to accomplish great things.”
Students that Dougherty assisted through a high school exchange program in the early 2000s attended classes at Heritage, Carroll, Canterbury and South Adams high schools. He traveled to Afghanistan in 2005 as a chaperone for some of the students.
“To my knowledge, they've all gone to college and been very successful,” Dougherty said Wednesday. “One young man just got a Fulbright scholarship. Some have come back to the U.S. for master's degree studies. One has an MBA; one's a professor of engineering and getting his doctorate in Germany right now. One of my kids at Heritage got a master's degree in international relations.”
Catholic Charities is the resettlement agency approved by the U.S. Department of State to work with refugees in northeast Indiana. Nyein Chan, the agency's resettlement director, said Thursday the agency doesn't yet know how many refugees might be resettled in Indiana. Officials consider staffing capacity and resources to determine the number. In past years, Catholic Charities typically resettled 200 to 250 people a year, but that has fallen to between 100 to 150 over the past few years.
Dougherty said the refugees arriving at Camp Atterbury are thoroughly vetted. The first to arrive in the U.S. have Special Immigrant Visas, awarded to employees of the U.S. government.
“Many, if not most, were interpreters for the U.S. military and are being sponsored by the commanding officer of the units that they served,” he said. “All were employed under direct contract by the U.S. government during the past 20 years, and are known to the U.S. government through the work they performed for the United States.”
In past years, refugee resettlement has challenged a safety net stretched thin by the region's economic woes. Today, employers here and across the state are desperate for workers. Nyein Chan said Catholic Charities received a call even before the Afghan evacuation from a local employer willing to hire refugees. The resettlement agency holds quarterly meetings with representatives involved in job placement, public health, education and other service providers. Churches and service groups also are prepared to step up.
“I want to aid those who aided us,” the governor said Wednesday. “I don't take for granted what these people have put on the line for me and for our state and country.”
Northeast Indiana residents have an opportunity to join Holcomb in what he describes as a mission. Our community will be stronger for it.