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Agencies Scramble To Resettle Afghan Refugees In The Seattle Area

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

U.S. officials say more than 10,000 people were flown out of Kabul in a 24-hour period from Sunday to Monday and another 6,000 in the following 12 hours. As the pace of evacuations picks up, refugee resettlement agencies here in the U.S. are scrambling to prepare.

One of the main destinations will be the Seattle area, where NPR's Martin Kaste filed this report.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The government contracts out the work of resettling refugees to nonprofits, many of them with religious ties. One example is World Relief, whose Seattle director is Chithra Hanstad.

CHITHRA HANSTAD: It's what I call beautiful chaos (laughter) because we have the joyous job of welcoming folks.

KASTE: She says her office used to welcome about 19 people to the Seattle area per month. Now they can see that many arrivals in one day. Complicating matters is the fact that her agency is understaffed after the slower pace of arrivals during the Trump years. They're now rushing to hire more staff and to find volunteers with logistics experience. Hanstad says retired military people could be especially helpful. And, of course, they need to find homes.

HANSTAD: Even on my street, (laughter) I've got my neighbor mobilizing my street to find extra bedrooms and mother-in-law units and things like that.

KASTE: Another one of her neighbors happens by and assures her that he's thinking about it. In the meantime, World Relief and other agencies rely heavily on churches.

KENNETH MARTINEZ: In the Bible, you find all these commandments and requirements from God to take care of the foreigner, the immigrant. So we really believe in that.

KASTE: Kenneth Martinez moved here from Mexico 10 years ago to work for Microsoft. He and his wife, Adriana Suarez, live in the suburbs on a Spielberg-esque (ph) cul-de-sac. And now they have a newly arrived Afghan family in their spare bedroom. There's a mother, father, two little kids and a baby on the way. Speaking out on the back deck to avoid disturbing her guests, Suarez says, as an immigrant, she can imagine the family's culture shock.

ADRIANA SUAREZ: They were asking for Afghan food. So I'm pretty sure that they're trying to find food to feel like they're at home, especially for their kids.

KASTE: She says all the family found to buy at their local supermarket was bread. But they did find a local Afghan restaurant for their first day. The agency says these cultural problems can get better once the refugees connect with other Afghans who live in the area. Also, refugees tend to be in a hurry to get out and find a job. The real problem, though, especially in a place like Seattle, is housing.

Ali arrived in Seattle just a few days ago.

ALI: From Kabul we went to Qatar just for a few hours, then from Qatar to Washington, D.C. and from Washington, D.C. here.

KASTE: He worked with the U.S. military and fears Taliban retaliation against his relatives back home. So we're using only his first name. Just yesterday, Ali, his wife and their toddler moved into a tiny post-war house in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, a house that volunteers have spruced up with new paint and furniture.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you.

ALI: Thank you very much, from all of you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I know it's - what to do with that (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you.

ALI: Yeah.

KASTE: The volunteers included picture books and a rocking horse for the baby. But the boy's eyes go straight to the rubber ball.

ALI: He had the same in Kabul. But yeah, we left it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

ALI: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think that came...

KASTE: This house is scheduled to be torn down next spring to make way for new apartments. But until then, the developer, FA Johnson, says the little house can be a free landing place for arriving Afghans while they search for more permanent homes. It's a help, but it's not nearly enough, given the wave of people who are on their way.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONOCOLE TWINS' "INFINITE TIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.