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St. Joseph County nonprofits prepare for arrival of up to 60 Afghan refugees

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Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star
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St. Joseph County will soon be the home for up to 60 resettled Afghan refugees, and several local nonprofits are collaborating to help them settle in.

Last week, the United Religious Community of St. Joseph County, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, La Casa de Amistad and the South Bend city government announced the creation of a new Refugee Steering Committee to coordinate resettlement efforts.

The committee met for the first time earlier this month and will be meeting quarterly going forward.

John Pinter is the executive director of the United Religious Community. He said his organization will be helping resettle eight family units — about 30 people — with the first arrivals expected within the next few weeks.

The Catholic Charities are expected to handle another 30 refugees.

“We really want these folks to feel welcomed and thrive here in the area,” Pinter said. “We want these families to feel in charge as much as possible.”

The biggest priority right now, Pinter said, is getting people into affordable housing.

He’s been communicating with local landlords and is also looking for temporary places new arrivals can stay — such as short-term rental units or guesthouses — while looking for long-term housing.

“Quality kinds of places,” he said. “Hopefully near where if they’ve got kids, the kids are going to go to school, where the adults can learn English, close to bus lines and those kinds of things so they can get around town.”

Each refugee gets about $1,250 for resettlement needs. The money comes from the U.S. State Department and private charities and is administered by the URC. Pinter said the organization has also received some additional money from local congregations.

“We want that money to spread as far as possible,” he said.

Pinter said St. Joseph County has been a great community for refugee resettlement dating back to the Vietnam War, and that the URC has received a “highly positive” response for the incoming refugees.

“We know that this is a good, welcoming community that will help these folks to succeed,” he said.

The organization currently has very little information, but Pinter said most of the arrivals are expected to have little to no English skills.

After arrival, the URC will have a better idea of exact resource needs such as food, furniture, clothing, job training and language classes.

“We’ve been getting a lot of kind calls and emails from folks that say, ‘I have some furniture I can make available,’ some other folks that might be able to help with clothing,” he said. “We’re asking folks to hang onto that stuff — we don’t have anywhere to put it.”

The organization has also already received job placement offers from local employers.

“Saying ‘I have these kinds of openings, we would work with folks, help them get to and from the place,’” he said. “That’s the biggest measure of a family’s ability to be successful — are they independent financially? And that comes from having a job.”

The URC is a coalition of numerous area congregations and faith groups, such as Christians, Muslims, Jews and Baha’i.

“For example, it might be that your house of worship says ‘Hey, we’ll help furnish a house,’” Pinter said. “We’ll coordinate our network overall, as Catholic Charities will do with theirs, but the main thing is to make sure the community knows we’re working together on this.”

He said the Refugee Steering Committee will help keep everyone in the loop from public health and education officials to elected leaders and police departments.

In the news release announcing the committee, South Bend Mayor James Muller said he is “proud of URC and Catholic Charities for leading the way.”

“South Bend is a growing, inclusive city that welcomes new residents and embraces diversity,” Mayor James Mueller said in the release. “I appreciate the many contributions and sacrifices these families made for our country during the long conflict in Afghanistan and I look forward to welcoming them to our community.”

Indiana has been temporarily hosting Afghan refugees at Camp Atterbury since the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban earlier this year.

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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