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Children are 40 percent of Afghan refugees. Nonprofits are tasked to find them homes


The Pentagon report says that, as of early October, approximately over 40% of the more than 50,000 Afghan refugees processed at U.S. military bases were children. They are among the refugees who fled Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban takeover. The majority of these children traveled with families. Hundreds are by themselves. The challenge of reuniting these children with family, the terror of finding them new American foster homes now lies with several nonprofit groups who work with the U.S. government. Krish O'Mara Vignarajah is president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and joins us now from Baltimore. Thanks so much for being with us.

KRISH O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You have met many of these children and have assisted Afghan families. What's it like to meet these children? What do some of them say?

VIGNARAJAH: They're incredible in the sense that the resilience - you can see it on their faces. There's obviously hope and excitement about a new future in a new country. There's certainly anxiety and fear because even though they are children, they still know the potential risks for family that they've left behind.

SIMON: How are they cared for? How are they living?

VIGNARAJAH: So many of them are on the military bases. Federal officials who are running military bases have set up recreational activities for the Afghan kids so they can check out books. They can watch movie screenings. The government has also provided spaces for games. There is also some ad hoc educational instruction that's set up focused especially on teaching English as a second language, cultural orientation. But, you know, candidly, the classes, they're not robust.

SIMON: Do they have contact with their families in Afghanistan? Or is that just risky?

VIGNARAJAH: So some do. We do try to facilitate connections with family back home. And then beyond that, we're trying to figure out the support networks for them, even here in the U.S. Some of the children are in the care of our licensed foster care families, but we also know that many of those families are not Afghan American. They're not Muslim American. And so we're trying to be creative in terms of pairing the foster care parents with members of the community who can give them more of that culturally sensitive upbringing and care.

SIMON: But hope is there that they can be reunited with their family in a matter of weeks, not years.

VIGNARAJAH: What we have found is that many of the children who come here to the U.S. are initially designated as unaccompanied children, but they do have a parent or a guardian who will ultimately serve as their sponsor. But for some, they don't have parents. You know, they may be orphans. It may be that their parents are in Afghanistan still. So what we try to do is reunify those children that we can and then provide the care that any parent would want for their own children for those who don't have any other options.

SIMON: I think people listening will want to know, is there something they can do?

VIGNARAJAH: Well, these children have experienced various degrees of serious and life-changing trauma. We know that that trauma - that they're, you know, leaving family behind, that they are losing the only homes they've ever known - that's difficult. So we are providing therapeutic care, mental health services. But on top of that stress, these children now face the challenges that you might expect any child would when moving across the world. So they're navigating a new life and a new language. In terms of what people can do, what we hope is that we'll continue to see the generosity and compassion of the American people. We know that this is work that isn't going to be done in just the next few weeks, but really in the next few years.

SIMON: Yeah. How do people talk to youngsters about what's going on in their lives, their emotional and mental state given some of the separations of language and youth and culture?

VIGNARAJAH: So we try not to talk about it as therapy. We try to talk about it as listening to the trauma they may have experienced and working it through with them. Children are sometimes initially reluctant to open up and share their feelings. But once you develop a level of comfort with them, they are willing to talk about their recent experiences. They are willing to share their feelings.

SIMON: You don't call it therapy. It's conversation. It's getting to know them.

VIGNARAJAH: That's right. And the other thing is that - you know, we began this program launching mental health for unaccompanied children and their sponsors in light of the surge at the southern border. So we've actually had to shift our attention realizing the trauma of the Afghan unaccompanied children that we've begun to work with. And so we are actually looking to find clinicians who speak Dari or Pashto - not an easy task.

SIMON: What's their citizenship status, their legal status?

VIGNARAJAH: So they'll be entering the country through the humanitarian parole system, which means that for the families, they'll be humanitarian parolees. And they'll get the same types of services and programs that they would have if they had arrived as refugees or as special immigrant visa holders. For the unaccompanied children, that's a great concern for us because we want to ensure as much stability and certainty as quickly as possible. And so what that means is not moving them from program to program. So our aim is and our advocacy efforts have been centered on convincing Congress as well as the White House to designate them as unaccompanied refugee minors. If they are designated in that fashion, then they will have legal relief, and they'll be able to stay in the unaccompanied refugee minor program that we run until they're adults.

SIMON: Krish O'Mara Vignarajah is president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Thank you so much for being with us.

VIGNARAJAH: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.