Danbury group seeks help to resettle Afghan refugees: 'We're really helping them start from scratch'

When Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi saw thousands of Afghan citizens descend “like ants” onto a U.S. military plane taking off from Kabul’s airport last week, a familiar feeling of shame resurfaced.

“I hate to see that in this world, that people are driven to that point,” he said.

With the Taliban in control of Afghanistan’s capital city, questions linger about what will become of the refugees fleeing the militant group’s rule. One group, Danbury Area Refugee Assistance, is preparing to receive Afghans with Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, as soon as this January.

Since 2015, DARA has provided support to refugee families that have resettled in the greater Danbury area from other parts of the world. Its network of volunteers helps these individuals find employment, learn English, enroll their children in school, schedule medical visits and shop for groceries, among other tasks.

“We’re really helping them start from scratch,” board member Kristy Jefferson said.

With the help of Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, based in New Haven, DARA co-sponsors refugee families as they work towards becoming self-sufficient members of the community.

Jefferson said IRIS is “well-positioned” to soon resettle Afghan refugees with SIVs. Unlike an asylum seeker who may not be vetted, a person with refugee status undergoes comprehensive background checks by the U.S. State Department before they’re allowed into America.

On Thursday, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy joined their congressional colleagues in urging the Biden administration to evacuate Afghan SIV applicants and their families from the crisis in Kabul. The letter also calls for the immediate implementation of the Afghan Allies Protection Act, which expands the SIV program and streamlines the application process.

DARA hopes to begin resettling Afghan refugees by early 2022, but since the organization saw a “drastic decrease” in operations during COVID, it needs more money and more volunteers to do so.

Jefferson believes more people will volunteer for the same reason she did. After seeing “horrific images” from the Syrian conflict in 2016, she joined Ridgefield’s refugee resettlement group, which was eventually absorbed into DARA.

At the time the organization was able to resettle a Syrian family in Ridgefield, but not without vitriol. Marconi recalled two women who came into his office to protest: “Not in our town,” they had said.

“There’s nothing wrong with public discourse and debates and having your individual opinions — that’s the foundation of our country — but the anger that’s coming with it now ... is bothersome to me,” Marconi said.

“They need to have somewhere to establish themselves as human beings,” he said of the refugees.

Jefferson agreed. “I think we all feel this devastating sense of déjà vu from when we were inspired to get involved,” she said. “A lot of us look at this situation and feel so helpless — this could be any of us.”

For more information about DARA or to volunteer, visit www.daract.org.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com