Pleas for peace in Afghanistan, and protection for the human rights of the country’s women and children, echoed down Detroit Avenue on Cleveland’s west side Saturday. That’s when dozens of Afghani Americans and concerned community members marched in opposition to the Taliban and in support of their family members still on the ground in Afghanistan.
“As much as Americans care about their country, we care about our country too,” said one young woman, waving the Afghani flag in the bed of a pickup.
Demonstrators marched to the Carl B. Stokes U.S. Courthouse, where Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office is located. Some in the group took turns speaking to the crowd, leading chants warning against trusting the Taliban and calling for the U.S. government to help relatives and friends seeking to flee Afghanistan.
The Afghan group’s rally hasn’t been the only local effort to support the Afghan community in Cleveland and raise awareness about the situation abroad. Along with several other local organizations, Global Cleveland, Catholic Charities, and the Cleveland branch of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants mobilized quickly to help bring Afghan immigrants to Cleveland in the wake of proliferating human rights violations in Afghanistan last week.
After the U.S. State Department identified Cleveland as one of 19 welcoming communities for Afghan immigrants, Catholic Charities and Refugee Response led a charge among Cleveland’s resettlement agencies to amass more than $100,000 to help incoming Afghans cover visa application costs, which can range between $105 and $575 per person, said Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland.
Cimperman estimated that Cleveland could accept anywhere from 500 to 2,000 Afghan people over the next few months, but with so many waiting in a queue for visas, he said it was too early to predict with certainty. Next week, he said, the agencies plan to host legal clinics for local lawyers to brush up on immigration processes and laws as part of a push to bring in as many visa-eligible Afghans as possible.
“There’s people that have been in the queue for coming,” he said, referring to those with pending visa applications. “Now the queue is about to open wide. Here’s why: People who are in Cleveland from Afghanistan are eligible now to seek a petition to get their families out of Afghanistan and into Cleveland based on the I-131 visa.”
The I-131 visa form allows applicants to acquire, among other documents, refugee travel documents or advance parole documents, the latter of which can grant temporary entrance to the United States to those in humanitarian crises who may have otherwise been denied entry. Family members in the United States can then sponsor the applicant through an I-134 form.
Basheer Niazi, an Afghan immigrant who took part in Saturday’s demonstration, said local and national agencies kept his family safe. Niazi worked as a translator from 2012 to 2016 for Mission Essential, a government contractor that worked with the United States military in Afghanistan.
He came to the U.S. in 2016, but he was not able to bring the rest of his family from Afghanistan. As the Taliban roiled huge swaths of Afghanistan, eventually taking Kabul, Niazi feared retribution against his family who still lived there.
“The night the Marine helped my family to get to the airport, the same night, the Taliban was searching my home,” he said. “Imagine if he was late by one day or one night, what would be the situation for my family?”
He said his family was rescued from their home by a U.S. Marine. He said his family members now plan to resettle in Akron, Bringing nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Yet those looking to resettle in Cleveland will have to overcome a few hurdles, chief of which is finding affordable housing. Cimperman said the U.S. State Department offers immigrants three months of free rent and nine months of food stamps, but finding stable housing for people beyond those safety nets has become increasingly challenging in recent years. Some buildings that often housed immigrants weren’t in good shape and have since been demolished, he said, while other communities like Ohio City and Tremont have grown unaffordable for many.
Josh Helderman, a local social worker, attended the protest in support of the many Afghan people he’s built relationships with while helping them settle into new lives in Cleveland. He said finding housing for people he works with has grown increasingly challenging in the past few years, as landlords began increasing income verification requirements during last year’s shutdowns.
“At the end of the day, a three bedroom house is now like 1,200 bucks,” Helderman said. “And a lot of the families that come over, you know, they have one income earner. Sometimes they don’t speak any English. We can get them jobs, but they’re like 12 bucks an hour.”
But Cimperman remained confident in both the existing Afghan community in Cleveland and the agencies working to ensure the safe arrival and settlement of newcomers. He said local resettlement agencies have been planning meetings with officials from municipalities like Lyndhurst, Euclid and Solon to gauge the potential of resettling refugees there.
Cleveland has a long history of resettling people from conflict zones, Cimperman said, pointing to the city’s efforts to resettle Japanese-American survivors of internment camps in the wake of World War II and other programs. “We’ve read the book,” he said. “We’ve studied it, and we’ve passed the test.”
Amer Odat, a demonstrator who came to Cleveland from Jordan about a year ago, said the city has treated him well, though he constantly misses his home. He came out to demonstrate both to support the Afghan community in Cleveland and to show people that the repressive actions of the Taliban do not represent the beliefs of Islam, his faith.
“These people do all of that, the Taliban, and they’re doing it under the name of Islam,” he said. “This is everybody’s job. Every Muslim should be here tonight, not just Afghanis.”
As far as what people could do to help, Odat recommended taking to social media. As a social media content creator with nearly 90,000 followers on Instagram, he’s seen the power it can have. Hashtags, he said, can spread even more than the voices of the demonstrators on Detroit Avenue that day.
Cimperman said Clevelanders could help incoming Afghans by donating grocery store gift cards and helping newcomers find housing.
“If you know somebody who has a unit, if you have a house, if there’s an apartment available, offer it up to one of the three resettlement agencies [Catholic Charities, USCRI and Global Cleveland] because everyone right now is looking for housing,” he said.
Michael Indriolo is an independent journalist based in Kent, Ohio.
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