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Learning from Afghan Refugee Resettlement in Rhode Island

In the fall of 2021, tens of thousands of Afghan citizens were evacuated out of Afghanistan as the Taliban re-took the country. Many of these people resettled in the United States, and many more will resettle here in the coming years. 

Yet despite their growing numbers in America, and their unique relationship to the United States, there’s much we don’t know about their specific needs as refugees. 

On this episode of Trending Globally, you’ll hear from one man who fled Kabul with his family about their journey from Afghanistan and resettlement in Rhode Island. You’ll also hear from researchers at Watson’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies and Rhode Island’s Refugee Dream Center, who are working together to learn how these refugees can be better supported after such a traumatic evacuation and rapid resettlement in a new country. 

In the process of this research, these experts are also learning firsthand what needs to be done to make humanitarian evacuations safer and more humane. Because sadly, whether we’re talking about Myanmar, Ukraine, or countless other places in crisis, there will be many more emergencies requiring humanitarian evacuations in the future, resulting in refugees who must make new lives for themselves in communities around the world. 

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies

Learn more about the Refugee Dream Center

Meet Omar, Adam, and Alexandria and learn more about their work on Wednesday 9/21 at the Watson Institute. 

Read a recent article by Brown University on the research collaboration

One final note: This is Sarah Baldwin’s last episode as host of Trending Globally. We’re sad to see her go, but the show won’t be going anywhere. Dan Richards (who you’ve heard before, including on our last episode with Andrew Schrank) will be filling in as our host, and we’ll also be having guest hosts in the coming months. We’re excited for what’s come, and so grateful for everything Sarah brought to the show. Thank you, Sarah! 

Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. Amin Faqiry left his home a little over a year ago, in July Twenty Twenty-One.

AMIN FAQIRY: I actually come from a very remote village in Kunar province, the eastern part of Afghanistan.

SARAH BALDWIN: Kunar province was reclaimed by the Taliban that month. Amin was an interpreter for the US military and had been for 15 years. He knew he and his family were no longer safe there.

AMIN FAQIRY: We moved to Kabul.

SARAH BALDWIN: But of course, the next month--

AMIN FAQIRY: 14th of August, the Taliban entered Kabul. They took over the national television and radio stations and everything, and they started shooting all over Kabul city. And people were scared. People who worked for the government were waiting for the Taliban to arrive and arrest them.

SARAH BALDWIN: Amin got to work figuring out how to get himself and his family out of the country.

AMIN FAQIRY: I started calling my friends in America and my friends who I knew. And finally, the US troops on the ground there cooperated with me.

SARAH BALDWIN: Amin had been a long serving interpreter for the US Army, and that helped him get a flight out of the country in October of Twenty Twenty-One. He began counting down the weeks, days, hours.

AMIN FAQIRY: It was very heartbreaking and sad scenes from back then. I really witnessed people die on roadside and on the streets, which I had never seen in my whole life.

SARAH BALDWIN: Finally, the day arrived. He, his wife, and his four kids got ready to go.

AMIN FAQIRY: The morning we were leaving Kabul, I got everything in place, and I had people waiting for me at the airport to get out.

SARAH BALDWIN: But as anyone who watched the news during the US evacuation of Afghanistan last year can recall, getting on the plane-- heck, even getting to the airport was a harrowing experience.

AMIN FAQIRY: And my kids, I mean, they were so scared.

SARAH BALDWIN: Amin was, in some ways, one of the lucky ones.

AMIN FAQIRY: We got to the US forces, and they took us inside.

SARAH BALDWIN: He did get out, and as you'll hear, has made a new home for himself. But one year after the evacuation of Afghanistan, the trauma of that experience remains, for Amin and for many refugees.

On this episode, we'll follow Amin on his journey out of Kabul. We'll also hear from researchers and activists who are trying to learn what Amin and his fellow Afghan refugees need to thrive in the US. In the process, they're also learning what this unique group of refugees can teach us about how the US military can better serve people in disasters and emergencies.

Back to Amin. He and his family were first flown to Qatar. And from there, they actually had some say in terms of where in the US they'd settle. They decided on Providence, Rhode Island, which had been recommended to Amin by a psychologist there who had worked with Amin at an NGO back in Afghanistan. The decision ended up making Amin and his family the first Afghan refugees to resettle in Rhode Island. Amin's former colleague and friend who lived in Providence then told this man about Amin's planned arrival.

OMAR BAH: My name is Omar Bah. I'm the founder of the Refugee Dream Center.

SARAH BALDWIN: The Refugee Dream Center is what's called a post-resettlement refugee agency. They pick up where federally funded agencies leave off in terms of providing support and resources for refugees.

OMAR BAH: From English language learning, to youth mentoring, to case management, interpreting transportation access to services, referrals, health promotion, preventative health-- literally everything.

SARAH BALDWIN: Omar would become not just a key part of the welcoming party for hundreds of Afghan refugees to Rhode Island, he would also become the link between many of these refugees and researchers at the Watson Institute. But before we get to all that, let's hear a little more about Omar, because his life has given him a unique view into the challenges refugees face. Omar is a psychologist and an expert on refugee trauma. He's also a refugee himself, before coming to America.

OMAR BAH: I was a reporter, a newspaper reporter in the Gambia.

SARAH BALDWIN: Omar's reporting on the justice system in the Gambia got him in trouble with the government.

OMAR BAH: I was declared a wanted man.

SARAH BALDWIN: He was arrested and tortured for reporting a story. Ultimately, he fled to neighboring Ghana.

OMAR BAH: And in Ghana, I would live for one year.

SARAH BALDWIN: Eventually, he was authorized to enter the US as a refugee. He was sent to what is, objectively speaking, according to the production team here at Trending Globally, the greatest city in America.

OMAR BAH: I remember asking a case worker, where am I going to in America? Then the person said, very colloquial, very relaxed, and said, oh, you're going to Providence. I loved the name. It was so calm. The name sounded so beautiful. Then I said, well, whoever chose this must be a genius, because I'm coming from the smallest country on the mainland of Africa to the smallest state.

SARAH BALDWIN: Omar came to Rhode Island and received support from a federally funded refugee agency in Providence. That support lasted, as it often does for refugees in America, for just three months.

OMAR BAH: It's different from other countries that resettle refugees and serve them for three years, everything provided. America, the model is, come in. Within three months, be like every other American.

SARAH BALDWIN: Despite this, Omar managed to become an active member of the refugee community in Providence. He also started taking night classes to become a psychologist. And in Twenty Fifteen, he founded the Refugee Dream Center.

OMAR BAH: I thought it is necessary to extend services to people for as long as they need it so that they can properly integrate into American culture.

SARAH BALDWIN: Even though this center is designed to pick up after federal resettlement agencies finish their three months of support, often, Omar and his team get involved sooner. In the case Amin, they got involved as soon as he arrived.

AMIN FAQIRY: And when I was coming in, I arrived in the T.F. Green Airport, Omar and his wife, Teddi Jallow, they had come to welcome me.

OMAR BAH: When we went to receive him at the airport, he was really excited. He had the Afghani flag. It was really a great sense of feeling, because it reminded me of myself the day I landed there. When I came, I was by myself. It was late at night. I had one case manager to pick me up. I didn't have an idea what to do with my life. And I was happy for him, because he had his family. He had his flag. He had also a lot of people coming there to receive him. And then he was just highly welcomed.

SARAH BALDWIN: Amin was the first of hundreds of Afghan refugees to come to Providence over the next year. And while Omar couldn't meet them all personally at the airport, he's been working to make sure that the Refugee Dream Center is there for all of them. As refugees started to arrive, Omar realized something. Many of them had a pretty different experience compared to most refugee groups. Of course, the experience always has its own unique challenges. But this group was really different. Here's what I mean.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

First off, many Afghan refugees who have come to America so far had worked with the US military in Afghanistan, like Amin. As a result, before even arriving in the US, many of these refugees already had a strong connection to American culture. As Omar put it--

OMAR BAH: Some of them may speak here, you will think somebody was born here with very limited accent or 100% American accent. If you are not careful, they'll be dropping the bomb word.

INTERVIEWER: Like the F bomb?

OMAR BAH: The F bomb, yes. They'll be using those kinds of languages. So they really are integrated into American culture.

SARAH BALDWIN: Nothing more American than that. This group also, because of their unique relationship with the US government, bypassed many of the experiences most refugees have.

OMAR BAH: They were not traveling like the regular refugees. Displaced, go to a camp for a couple of years.

SARAH BALDWIN: As Omar makes clear, many of those experiences in refugee camps helped to create a sort of shared identity and community among refugees, regardless of the countries they came from. For example--

OMAR BAH: Well, we had the World Refugee Day in June this year at our parking lot, where hundreds of people came. We celebrated together.

SARAH BALDWIN: World Refugee Day is celebrated on June 20th around the world.

OMAR BAH: That is like our Thanksgiving for every refugee.

SARAH BALDWIN: But Afghan refugees had a surprising question for Omar.

OMAR BAH: What is this? What is World Refugee Day? That is a surprise question for any refugee to ask. Some people spend 10, 15 years in the refugee camp. That is the only day that they will drink Coke or eat meat. That's all the best food and dress their best dress.

SARAH BALDWIN: Again, every refugee and every group of refugees have distinct struggles and experiences. But the sheer number of unique aspects of the Afghan experience was remarkable to Omar. It was also becoming clear that this group was going to become the largest incoming refugee population for the foreseeable future in the US.

OMAR BAH: I mean, over five million people have been displaced in Afghanistan, and at least probably 100,000 will end up in America.

SARAH BALDWIN: For all these reasons--

OMAR BAH: It just dawned on me that we may not be prepared enough for this population.

SARAH BALDWIN: Omar realized that these refugees and organizations around the world that support them needed to better understand their experience. Which brings us to this man.

ADAM LEVINE: My name is Adam Levine. I am a Professor of Emergency Medicine and Health Services Policy and Practice here at Brown University. And I'm also Director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies at the Watson Institute.

SARAH BALDWIN: That center studies how to improve humanitarian responses to crises around the world, be they pandemics, natural disasters, or military conflicts. Because these responses, as Adam has seen firsthand, don't get the level of attention and research they deserve.

ADAM LEVINE: Pretty soon after finishing my training, I started working in the field actually with a number of humanitarian organizations, partners in health, International Medical Corps, Medicines Sans Frontieres. And really quickly realized that humanitarian response today was a lot like medicine 50 years ago-- based on anecdote rather than evidence. Everybody, very well meaning, trying to do the best that they could for the populations they were trying to serve, but doing it without any real evidence to show them that what they were doing was working and having a positive impact.

And also for the most part, without any really specific training. People might be trained as doctors or nurses, but not really trained to work in a humanitarian setting, where things are very different than where you may have trained originally.

SARAH BALDWIN: Adam and Omar became friends in Twenty Fifteen, when they were both named Rhode Islanders of the Year by Rhode Island Magazine. And they realized their two organizations, the Refugee Dream Center and the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies at Watson, could benefit from working with each other. They worked together on some smaller projects, and Omar would occasionally visit Adam's classes at Brown.

In Twenty Twenty-One, Adam and Omar began discussing the challenges surrounding the potential influx of Afghan refugees. But they realized that there might also be a lot to learn from this group. How so? Well, in two ways. First, these refugees represented an early glimpse into what would become maybe the largest refugee population in America in the coming years.

OMAR BAH: If we do research, it may be one of few about this population across the country. And it can be used by others who are serving this population across the board.

SARAH BALDWIN: Second, this group also had experience with, as Adam described--

ADAM LEVINE: The largest humanitarian evacuation in at least a generation, if not more.

SARAH BALDWIN: Adam and Omar began to envision a study that could help provide clarity on two pressing issues.

ADAM LEVINE: Number one, understand the needs of the refugees coming from Afghanistan to the United States, especially the ones coming here to Rhode Island. But number two, in order to have a better understanding from the perspective of those evacuees about the process of the evacuation and how it could be improved for the future. Because certainly, it won't be the last humanitarian evacuation in history.

SARAH BALDWIN: Adam then connected Omar with this person.

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: My name is Alexandria Nylen, and my job title is Civilian Military Program coordinator at the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies. That is a mouthful, so we shorten it to the Civ-Mil Program coordinator.

SARAH BALDWIN: The Civilian Military Program studies the subset of humanitarian projects that involve cooperation with the military.

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: Essentially, it is looking at how civilian institutions and military work together in crisis response.

SARAH BALDWIN: Which, once you give it any thought, is all the time.

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: Almost every disaster setting, there are armed actors present alongside humanitarians.

SARAH BALDWIN: Every time there's a disaster and you hear on the news that the military or the National Guard were called in, those are the moments they study. One of the most recent examples we all probably experienced firsthand.

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: The COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly every country in the world mobilized their militaries to support their national pandemic response.

SARAH BALDWIN: Alexandria and Adam and their team worked to better understand what works and what doesn't in these moments and how to improve them. Because armed military groups and civilians-- not always a natural fit in times of crisis.

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: It might be obvious from the outset, but humanitarian actors and military and armed actors have very different operating procedures. They have different organizational goals.

ADAM LEVINE: Yeah, the military-- a very hierarchical, very authoritarian structure. Humanitarian organizations tend to be much more flat, much more communal in terms of the way they work. You bring these two communities together, they're not necessarily going to be on the same page in any way. They also have very different missions. But of course, the military has a lot of money and logistical infrastructure that humanitarian organizations might not have.

Most humanitarian organizations don't own cargo planes, for instance, or ships that can transport millions of gallons of water. And so there sometimes are needs for interactions and coordination. And we have to figure out how to do it well really to benefit civilians.

SARAH BALDWIN: But despite the challenges and the prevalence of these collaborations--

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: There's actually very little research or understanding around how humanitarians interact with armed actors.

SARAH BALDWIN: So Omar, Adam, and Alexandria designed a study interviewing recent Afghan refugees in order to A--

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: Find out the immediate needs of this population resettling in Providence, Rhode Island.

SARAH BALDWIN: And B--

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: To learn larger lessons about humanitarian evacuations.

SARAH BALDWIN: They started working on the project just as Amin and the first group of Afghan refugees arrived in Providence. The study consisted of surveys as well as in-depth interviews. They spoke with over 100 Afghan refugees at the center.

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: Interviews were conducted in English and Pashto and Dari.

SARAH BALDWIN: Researchers heard and recorded the stories, impressions, and experiences of evacuation and resettlement. It was a slow process, given the language barriers and the often traumatic experiences folks were being asked to recount. Stories like the one a woman who was evacuated from Afghanistan recounted on the first day of interviews.

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: She went to the airport with her family, and it was very hectic. She ended up getting separated from the rest of her family at the airport. And she was with her young daughter. Before she was able to find the rest of the family, her younger daughter actually got pulled onto one of the planes that were going to evacuate a batch of Afghan evacuees. So she had to make a split decision on whether she wanted to stay at the airport and find the rest of her family or if she wanted to get onto the plane with her daughter, who was now going to be bound for the US.

She chose to get on the plane with her daughter. Her story really shows how chaotic the experience at the Kabul Airport was for a lot of individuals.

SARAH BALDWIN: As Amin described the chaos that had surrounded him when trying to get out of the country--

AMIN FAQIRY: A situation where people wanted to die to get to a plane and to get on a plane to leave Afghanistan. Situation where people left their kids and their loved ones behind. It was very inhumane situation and time that I witnessed.

SARAH BALDWIN: The team plans to publish their findings in the next few months. But already, they've noticed things from these interviews that could help make the resettlement process not only safer, but more humane. One example.

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: In one of the staging bases in the US, there was a supply closet where individuals get a certain amount of time to go into the supply closet and get what they need. So things like food or various sanitary needs. And the amount of time that people were given was really based off of the assumption that it would be one individual going into the supply closet and coming out.

SARAH BALDWIN: But often that's not how it worked in practice.

ALEXANDRIA NYLEN: What ended up happening was that most of the people who would go into the supply closet were women, and they would be accompanied with young children. And anyone with children knows that when children get into a public space, they tend to scatter. And so it was found that this time that was based on an individual going in and very quickly grabbing stuff was not sufficient for the women who were bringing their children in with them. So it's not surprising that gender matters. But it was interesting to see how it played out in this particular situation.

SARAH BALDWIN: Hopefully learning in more detail about challenges big and small at every part of the resettlement process will help all the organizations that interact with these refugees. Alexandria and Adam also hope their findings can help the US military better understand how to have safe, productive relationships with civilians. And the findings won't just benefit refugees from Afghanistan. As Omar put it--

OMAR BAH: Findings about Afghani population's immediate needs or mental health status-- that may be adaptable to, let's say, Congolese refugees or Rohingya refugees. And it will inform how healthcare workers and educators all will work with the population across the country.

SARAH BALDWIN: There's one refugee group in particular that Omar can already imagine might be able to benefit from the study even more directly.

OMAR BAH: I think this is a good prelude to the arrival of the Ukrainians who will arrive in the next couple of months or years and in large numbers. Then because we'll be able to understand how we can do those basic, basic stuff. And for them also, the manner in which they left in large numbers and the violent manner, it's so abrupt. So they may also be very much aligned with the experiences of the Afghani population.

SARAH BALDWIN: And sadly, thanks to political instability and economic crises and climate change, the need to understand the nuances of the refugee experience are going to become more and more important.

OMAR BAH: Currently, we have over 200,000 people displaced somewhere in California.

SARAH BALDWIN: Hopefully you, dear listener, will never have to experience being a refugee. But it's almost a guarantee that such experiences will touch more and more of our lives. Maybe we can all then take some inspiration from the resilience of the many refugees who call our communities home and from the incredible work of people like Omar and Alexandria and Adam.

And what about Amin, you might ask? Amin now works in Rhode Island as an interpreter for a law firm. And he also recently opened an Afghan grocery store in Providence. And he seems keen to repay the kindness and support he's received from people like Omar.

OMAR BAH: I mean, he started his own store. He's working at a law firm. Interpreter. He's role model. And then he helps connect refugee teams and the Afghani community. He's taking leadership of the Afghani community. And so those are the kinds of role models that we use to help mentor young people to also navigate within the various complex ethnic communities.

AMIN FAQIRY: Rhode Island is amazing. When I first came here, people respected me. They gave me so much love. My kids and I, we have been pretty much overwhelmed by the love of Rhode Islanders. So I want to say thank you to the people of Rhode Island for hosting all Afghan families, including my family in Rhode Island.

OMAR BAH: It is hard to lose home, to lose everything, to begin a whole new life. But it is a blessing to know that there is hope. And you can do much better things at the end of the day.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Sam McKeever Holtzman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Original music by the Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks to Adam Levine, Alexandria Nylen, Omar Bah, and Amin Faqiry. You can learn more about the Refugee Dream Center and Watson Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies by following the links in our show notes.

If you're in the Providence area, there will be a live event hosted by Adam and Alexandria about their work on Wednesday, September 21st, Twenty Twenty-Two, from 6:00 to 8:00 PM at the Watson Institute. We'll put a link to that in the show notes, too. If you like the show, please don't forget to subscribe on whatever podcast app you use. And if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for guests or topics, email us at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that's all one word. trendingglobally@brown.edu.

On another note, I'm sad to say this will actually be my last episode as host of Trending Globally. I'll be leaving you, but the show won't. Dan Richards, whom you've heard before including our last episode with Andrew Schrank, will be filling in as our host. And we'll also be having guest hosts in the coming months. And I'm sure that even though in my official capacity I'll no longer be host, you'll be hearing me here again.

It's been a privilege and a joy to host this show and share it with you all. So from the bottom of my heart, thanks for listening. We'll see you in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally.

About the Podcast

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About your hosts

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Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
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Dan Richards

Host and Senior Producer, Trending Globally