UPDATE: Santa Clara County approves more funding for Afghan war refugees
Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg discusses the importance of increasing funding for refugee resettlement at a Sept. 13 news conference. Photo courtesy of Supervisor Otto Lee's Office.

Hundreds of Afghan war refugees are expected to settle in Santa Clara County in the next year. County officials want to help make that transition more comfortable.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved $1 million of increased funding on Tuesday for organizations that help refugees resettle in the region. Much of the funding will assist refugees starting a new life in the U.S following the recent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Santa Clara County is one of eight California counties required to resettle refugees, supervisors said.

“I think the need for these services couldn’t be clearer,” said Supervisor Joe Simitian. “Each of us has a responsibility to do what we can to do our share and then maybe just a little bit more.”

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who co-sponsored the agenda item with Supervisor Otto Lee, said the urgency of approving additional funding is “really significant.”

“There are folks that are already coming in,” she said.

‘We need to do everything we can’

Residents spoke in overwhelming support of approving the additional funding at the meeting.

“As an American, we must honor the promises we’ve made and keep our word,” Aisha Wahab said.

Wahab, who described herself as Afghan American and the daughter of refugees, called the funding referral timely and much needed.

“Your decision to increase funds will ensure that these families thrive when they arrive,” she said.

Santa Clara County needs to support Afghan refugees who spent 20 years serving alongside American troops, resident Maie Abed said.

“They have put their life on the line,” Abed said.  “We need to do everything we can so that their fight wasn’t in vain and we haven’t put their lives on the line without supporting them.”

County contracts with Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley and the International Rescue Committee will be increased from $185,000 to $250,000 annually for each organization, an increase of $130,000 total. Both are the only two organizations in the county federally approved to handle refugee resettlement.

County leaders also approved $750,000 in one-time funding to be allocated through local, state or federal sources.

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said over 60 refugees have already settled in the county since the recent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Supervisor Susan Ellenberg’s office.

‘It’s our moral obligation to help them’

Jewish Family Services Executive Director Mindy Berkowitz told supervisors the county will need to resettle more than 500 refugees in the next 12 months, compared to about 50 last year—with at least 300 refugees coming to the country on special immigrant visas. The extra funding will help them prepare for the influx of refugees who need assistance, she said.

“Since 9/11 20 years ago, these refugees risked their lives to help American soldiers. And now it’s our moral obligation to help them fleeing from violence and persecution,” Berkowitz said.

Traditionally, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement funds the county’s contracts with Jewish Family Services and the International Rescue Committee, according to county documents.

However, the federal fiscal year doesn’t start until Oct. 1 and the county would otherwise have to wait until November to find out about any additional funding to help with the predicted local influx of refugees. It’s unclear who will foot the bill for the extra $130,000 in annual funding, which could come out of the county’s general fund if the state or federal government provide no extra financial support.

Ellenberg previously said the county will seek reimbursement from federal and state sources for the funding if it becomes available.

“My concern is that we get the money out the door quickly and then figure out how to backfill it, rather than waiting on these other plans when the need is urgent right now,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight on Monday. The funding will go into effect on Oct. 1, county documents show.

Returning the favor

Berkowitz said Jewish Family Services and International Rescue Committee had their funding reduced over the last seven years as the Trump administration scaled back the number of refugees allowed into the country.

Jewish Family Services has already resettled 25 Afghan refugees, while the International Rescue Committee has helped at least 60, Ellenberg said at Tuesday’s meeting.

At least 50,000 Afghan refugees have resettled in California, more than in any other state, county documents show. Santa Clara County is home to 50,000 refugees, which means that 1 in 40 county residents have utilized resettlement services. The county has historically been a resettlement location for refugees from Bosnia, Ethiopia and Myanmar, formerly Burma.

The extra funding will go to helping refugees make a sustainable start in Santa Clara County, Berkowitz said. Services will include help attaining housing, case management, mental health services, career counseling, English language learning, gift cards to stores like Target and even help obtaining a cell phone with a U.S. carrier.

Afghan refugees resettling in Santa Clara County will mostly be people who served as translators for the American military and their families, according to county documents.

Lee, a military veteran of the Gulf War who also served a one-year deployment in Iraq in 2008, says he understands firsthand how vital the work these refugees did was for American troops, risking their lives and those of their families in the process. He wouldn’t be alive today without the support of people like them when deployed, Lee said.

“They protected us then. Now we have the honor, the duty and the moral responsibility to care for them and their families to transition to their new lives here,” he said.

Contact Cassie Dickman at [email protected] or follow @byCassieDickman on Twitter.

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