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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Inslee heads to airport to welcome Afghan refugees arriving in Washington while many more are on their way

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee walks past a sign welcoming visitors to the Afghan Welcome Center, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, following a news conference at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. Inslee said that refugees who continue to arrive in Washington state from Afghanistan are welcome and pledged his support to cultural and business leaders offering resources for resettlement efforts.  (Ted S. Warren)

OLYMPIA – Washington is ready to embrace Afghan refugees, Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.

Inslee welcomed arriving Afghans at an event at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s Afghan Welcome Center on Friday. He was joined by leaders from the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, Microsoft, Alaska Airlines, Airbnb, the Seattle Foundation and Washington’s refugee resettlement agencies.

“This is an expression of who we are,” he said, standing in front of a sign that said “We welcome our Afghan Neighbors. We embrace people of diverse backgrounds.”

Washington is expecting 1,700 Afghans who fled the Taliban takeover in their country. About 340 people already have arrived, and others will be here in the coming weeks.

Spokane is expecting 300 Afghan refugees, said Mark Finney, director of the Spokane office of World Relief. In the last month, a few dozen already have arrived, but the numbers likely will increase sharply in the next couple of weeks, he said.

Their arrival will require assistance from the federal administration, state agencies, private funders and local communities, Inslee said.

Local organizations already have stepped up to help, Inslee said. They’ve found shelter, processed visa applications and provided additional funding. Specifically, he mentioned Microsoft, which pledged $1 million to the effort; Alaska Airlines, which donated domestic flights to bring people to Washington; and the Seattle Foundation, which is building the initiative for private donors.

The Seattle Foundation, which runs the state’s All in Washington COVID-19 relief effort, will accept donations and allows contributors to donate goods or money directly to organizations working to resettle.

At SeaTac, Aneelah Afzali, executive director of American Muslim Empowerment Network, said the state’s resettlement systems will be tested in “unprecedented ways” as Afghans begin to arrive very quickly.

“They simply cannot do the work by themselves,” she said.

In Spokane, Finney said the biggest need is housing and funding for housing, especially with the city’s current housing crisis.

“It really requires a government effort to address that on a large scale,” Finney said.

Inslee said Friday there is much more to do – specifically, locate long-term housing for families who are arriving, though he did not mention any government funds to do so.

Nationally, Airbnb has offered temporary housing to Afghan refugees. Ayisha Irfan, public policy manager at Airbnb, said Friday the company has helped house 2,000 refugees in the last month, including 130 people in Washington.

Finney told The Spokesman-Review last month that World Relief Spokane would have access to some of the Airbnb credit.

Finney added that mental health funding and resources will be needed at a large scale.

Many refugees who arrive in the U.S. had been living in camps for months before arriving here, he said.

The Afghans who are coming fled the Taliban and their home country only a few weeks ago.

Nicky Smith, at the International Rescue Committee, said those who are coming likely are only arriving with the clothes on their back, after experiencing “enormous trauma.” The humanitarian aid and relief organization works with refugees once they arrive to greet them at the airport, place them in housing, get them a job, social security cards and health checks. The immediate process takes about 90 days, Smith said, but resettlement takes a lot longer than 90 days.

“That’s why we can’t do this without the community,” she said.

The most important piece in the resettlement process is creating a welcoming environment for those who will be arriving, Afzali said Friday.

The community in Spokane helped in some “amazing ways,” Finney said. The mayor, City Council, senators and other politicians have worked directly with their office, he said, but even just local faith communities and residents have stepped up.

Refugees often arrive with only one or two suitcases for their family, Finney said, but so many people in Spokane already have donated furniture and household items that their warehouse is filled.

“So many faith communities and individuals have stepped up,” he said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.