Afghan-escalator05-22 — A newly arrived refugee rides the Portland International Airport escalator toward his new life. Ramin Raheel, a refugee services case manager with Catholic Charities, is at his side. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Afghan-escalator05-22 — A newly arrived refugee rides the Portland International Airport escalator toward his new life. Ramin Raheel, a refugee services case manager with Catholic Charities, is at his side. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
As Ramin Raheel waited for an Afghan refugee to arrive at Portland International Airport on a gray afternoon in mid-February, he taught two volunteers how to say “welcome” in Farsi, a language closely related to Dari, one of the official languages of Afghanistan.

Khosh-Amadaid,” the two women repeated after him, learning that the phrase’s literal translation is, “Happy arrival.”

That, in two words, is the essence of Catholic Charities of Oregon’s Refugee Services mission: to welcome refugees and work with them to ensure they successfully make a new home here.

Raheel, a refugee services case manager with Catholic Charities, came to the United States from Afghanistan two decades ago, when he was 17. He returned to that battle-scarred country while serving in the National Guard.

Now he helps Afghan families as a Catholic Charities refugee services case manager.

“There he is,” calls out one of the volunteers as a lanky young man appears in the arrivals hall. The young man’s eyes are smiling above his face-mask as he recognizes the Catholic Charities group with their welcome sign.

He and Raheel converse in Farsi, Raheel translating when one of the volunteers offers a question or comment.

“The airport welcomes are the highlight of any week for us in this work,” said Matthew Westerbeck, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities of Oregon. “Knowing we’re helping is incredibly rewarding.”

Nearly 76,000 Afghans were flown out of Afghanistan. After their cases were verified and they were screened as being legitimate refugees, they were sent on to temporary housing at a handful of military bases in the United States.

Of that number, Oregon is welcoming 1,200.

These are the people airlifted from the Kabul airport in the dangerous and chaotic last weeks of the U.S. presence there. They are the families of Afghans who worked in the U.S. embassy, for a western NGO or for the U.S. military — as translators, drivers, cooks, physicians, managers, engineers and teachers. Refugee experts say at least 200,000 more Afghans who worked with Americans to stabilize Afghanistan are still there, potentially Taliban targets.

Those who made it to the United States are now moving on to welcoming communities. Texas and California have taken in the most refugees, some states have taken none.

Catholic Charities is one of the organizations helping families in Oregon.

Babies are a difference between the Afghan refugees and those from other countries that Catholic Charities has helped in the past.

There haven’t usually been babies.

That, said Westerbeck, is because most of the 76,000 Afghan refugees in the United States are here as humanitarian parolees rather than having formal refugee status — a designation that can take years.

If a refugee, waiting in a third country, gave birth, their newborn would need to begin the screening process himself and would not be allowed to accompany his parents when their visa came through. Refugees awaiting entry into the United States are therefore careful to avoid pregnancy.

That’s been different this time.

Westerbeck grins at the memories of making certain families with pregnant moms or newborns have the right services, including diapers and car seats.

The Afghan refugees who are humanitarian parolees now have two years in which to complete the onerous process of receiving a formal refugee status.

John Herrera, immigration legal services director at Catholic Charities, helps families with that.

Westerbeck has great admiration for the work Herrera does. “I’ve heard that immigration law is the most complicated field after tax law,” Westerbeck said. “They’re struggling to meet the need.”

Westerbeck also has praise for the parishes and individuals who have donated furniture, time and dollars to help. “The community engagement is phenomenal,” he said.

St. Ignatius Parish in Southeast Portland and the Jesuit community have partnered with Catholic Charities for about three years to provide support for refugees, including finding homes. Their experienced help — modeled somewhat on Holy Trinity Parish’s work with refugees in Beaverton — proved invaluable.

“They have a volunteer group committed to helping the families,” said Westerbeck.

The refugees do need help and reassurance. Not only have they been ripped from their homes and families, frequently they are tortured by the knowledge that family members left behind in Afghanistan are in danger. “There are some heartbreaking stories,” said Westerbeck.

Another part of what the refugee services office does is family reunification — helping family members in Afghanistan apply for refugee status.

The numbers of refugees Catholic Charities is currently helping is many times that of 2020 and other recent years. Staff has grown from 10 to 30 — with “unlimited” unpaid internships with serious responsibilities advertised on Catholic Charities’ website.

Catholic Charities’ refugee services continues to serve refugee populations after they’ve settled in housing. During the past two years, that has stretched to include a new service: a COVID-19 team. It’s needed because refugees may not have access to accurate and culturally appropriate information about the COVID-19 vaccine. They are also prey to vaccine scams.

“The work I do is a lifeline,” Mohamed S. Ali said earlier this year. Ali works as a COVID-19 community outreach and support specialist. He speaks Somali, Swahili, Maymay, Brava, Bajooni and some Arabic, and works mostly with the Somali community. Ali is also an imam at the Masjid An-Noor Islamic Center.

Ali acknowledges that his position as an involved member of the community means people will listen to him.

Lung Wah Lazum, originally from Myanmar is another COVID-19 team member — even as he’s studying in the MBA program at George Fox University and attending Oregon State University’s community health worker training program. He emphasizes the need for health education and services, including those who are self-quarantining.

The work, said Westerbeck, is deeply satisfying. “It’s an amazing privilege to witness the strength of the human will to persevere. And it’s deeply grounding in being part of our one human family. We all have an obligation to offer a shoulder to help or an ear to listen.”