Santa Clara County is expecting a dramatic increase in refugees following the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan, with nonprofits estimating that more than 500 people will need to be resettled over the next 12 months.
The incoming surge of refugees means hundreds of newly arriving families will need immediate access to everything from housing and food to English instruction and job training. Yet funding for these services is limited and has been curtailed in recent years. Santa Clara County's Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to beef up that funding, providing an extra $880,000 to assist in refugee resettlement.
More than 50,000 Afghan refugees are expected to enter the United States following the military withdrawal from Afghanistan on Aug. 30, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials. Santa Clara County is one of only California eight counties with an obligation to accept refugees, and two local agencies -- the Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) -- are solely responsible for resettlement.
County Supervisor Otto Lee said there has been desperation among those fleeing Afghanistan, and that those fortunate enough to make it to America need to be supported. He pointed to the violence and chaos that has broken out in the country following the end of America's 20-year military presence.
"I am personally appalled by the lack of proper planning of this drawdown," Lee said. "Those who think we are now 'done' with Afghanistan are sorely misinformed. The work is far from over. For our county right here in Santa Clara County, our work has just begun."
Lee and Supervisor Susan Ellenberg spearheaded the effort to boost funding for refugee resettlement, arguing that the county needs a quick, well-funded response to those arriving in the county from Afghanistan. About 25 people landed in Santa Clara County in August, and 17 more are expected in the coming weeks.
"This is a rescue operation of significant magnitude, and increased funds are necessary for them to continue with this critical work to address a crisis for which the United States bears a measure of responsibility," Lee and Ellenberg wrote in their recommendation.
Refugees are currently arriving at Mineta San Jose Airport with just two or three day's notice, said Mindy Berkowitz, executive director of Jewish Family Services, and it's going to be difficult to keep up. Her organization, along with the IRC, are expecting to go from resettling 55 refugees last year to more than 500 over the next 12 months. Each arrival needs to be connected with housing, food, doctors, schools and government assistance, she said, along with career counseling and job training to ensure they will become self-sufficient.
Berkowitz said the county has reduced its funding to Jewish Family Services over the last seven years, and right now it would be impossible to meet all of those needs. Housing stipends alone range from $1,000 to $2,500 per household, and can quickly eat through the organization's current budget. On top of that, she said many of those arriving are suffering from PTSD and will need mental health counseling.
"The need for these services will grow as more people from Afghanistan arrive in Silicon Valley," she said.
Lee, an immigrant who served in Iraq, said the thousands of families who were in harm's way and fled Afghanistan last month are among those who supported Americans overseas during the war -- including assisting in combat situations that helped save lives. He said the county owes it to them by supporting refugees the same way it would support returning service members.
Several faith-based groups backed the funding plan, which includes $130,000 in increased service contracts and $750,000 in one-time money. Diane Fisher, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said the Jewish Family Services and the IRC are both shouldering a "tremendous burden," while Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz said the U.S. -- a country of immigrants -- ought to stand with refugees.
"This is a moral obligation for all of us, to welcome those who need a place and who need support," she said.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian said he had previously worked with the IRC 20 years ago to support refugees arriving from Albania and Kosovo, and that it was clear to him that the county needs to step up with its own funding regardless of what state and federal resources may be available to pick up the tab.
"Having seen firsthand both abroad and here in our county the work of refugee relief and resettlement, I think the need for these services couldn't be clearer," Simitian said. "Each of us has a responsibility to do what we can."