WASHINGTON – As a number of top American companies are promising to train or hire Afghan refugees resettling in the United States, questions remain about providing child-care services to the new workers.
The infusion of new talent should help offset nationwide labor shortages, said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.
“These refugees are such vital contributors to our economy and workforce,” Vignarajah said to CNS. “Just because these people have been persecuted doesn’t mean they aren’t coming with valuable skills.”
Maryland is slated to receive 1,348 refugees recently evacuated from Afghanistan, according to government statistics first reported by The Associated Press.
The odds of those refugees finding work are good: 61 percent of those in Maryland using employment services landed jobs in 2020, according to the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees. The state is ranked eleventh in employment outcomes for refugees nationwide.
But child care is absolutely going to be essential, said Alan Khazei, senior advisor at Welcome.US, a national coalition to welcome and support the incoming Afghan refugees through employment opportunities.
Afghan families are very large, said Freshta Taeb, a board member of the Afghan American Foundation and senior refugee interventionist for Cornerstone family and marriage intervention, a faith-based counseling organization.
“The biggest help any organization can have when hiring women is going to be the option of childcare,” said Taeb, who has been working with Afghan refugees at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, one of the primary entry points for Afghan refugees coming to the United States.
In July, The Economist evaluated countries with the most generous child-care policies, including leave, access, quality and affordability. America ranked number 40 out of 41 countries on the list.
Child care is an issue Welcome.US is trying to work on, Khazei said. However, he admitted that providing and funding child care will largely depend on volunteers stepping up and helping out, he said.
“We haven’t had this many refugees arriving all at once since the end of the Vietnam War, so it’s a huge challenge,” Khazei said.
In addition to companies and nonprofits, 16 governors joined Welcome.US, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.
“Our state is proud to be the fourth state in the nation for the resettlement of SIV recipients,” Governor Larry Hogan said during the livestream launch of Welcome.US on Sept. 14.
A 2018 Migration Policy Institute report revealed early childhood services for young refugee children are a low-priority issue and are often overlooked by both state and federal agencies, policymakers and departments responsible for refugee resettlement and integration.
The majority of the $6.3 billion in emergency funds the Biden administration received from Congress to help Afghan refugees will go to the Defense and and State Departments to support processing sites and transportation to and from those sites, Shalanda Young, acting director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a blog post.
Additional funds will go to health screenings, vaccinations and resettlement resources, Young said. Taeb said she has not seen Afghan refugee families coming to the base with fewer than six, seven or eight children.
Many of the women Taeb is seeing and interacting with on the base are pregnant, she said, adding that there have been over a dozen babies born so far at the New Jersey installation.
Working married mothers in the United States often reduce work hours, take pay cuts or drop out of the workforce altogether so that they can take care of their children, according to a 2021 study by the U.S. Census bureau.
Maryland’s refugee office has served 465 newly-arrived eligible Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants as of August 2021. The Special Immigrant Visa program is one of many programs authorizing Afghan refugees to resettle in the United States.
As of 2020, a report from Brown University’s Watson Institute said, over 18,000 Afghan applicants had received American government visas, along with over 45,000 of their immediate family members, and had immigrated to the United States.
Applicants for SIVs must meet certain requirements like working for or with the U.S. government in some capacity.
Between Oct. 1, 2020, and the end of last month, 330 Afghan SIV’s arrived in Maryland, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center, a case management system processing refugees in the United States.
Most women in Afghanistan are not eligible for the SIV program, said Devon Cone, a senior advocate for women and girls at Refugees International.
Cone said women have a hard time qualifying as primary SIV applicants because they had limited access to education and, even if able to work with the U.S. military, would have faced much higher personal risks in Afghanistan simply because they were women.
However, there are some Afghan women who have come to the United States through the SIV program but will face other challenges.
Deterrents around child care and transportation made it difficult for Afghan and Iraqi female Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) spouses to attend classes or employment, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress.
Female SIV spouses who wanted to work felt they needed to wait until their children were older or needed to learn the English language first, the GAO said.
Among other programs, child care and language adaptation are vital to the integration of refugees in the work environment, according to 2019 documents released by the International Chamber of Commerce.
The United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation earlier this month launched a coalition to help Afghan refugees find employment in the United States. The coalition also joined the Welcome.US campaign working with companies like UPS, Amazon and Walmart to offer assistance to Afghan refugees.
“…We know what a job means to an individual and to a community. It means dignity, opportunity, stability and hope for a better future,” Carolyn Cawley, president of the chamber’s foundation, said in a statement.
To ensure that their new workers stay employed, companies need to understand what skills Afghan refugees already possess and learn about Afghan culture, Taeb said.
Another challenge will be helping refugees adjust to American culture, Taeb said.
“If employees are not culturally competent or not aware of certain dynamics, you can’t expect someone from a different culture to come and assimilate overnight,” Taeb said.
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