FT. WORTH, TX – As many as 50,000 Afghan refugees will soon be re-settling in US communities, most fleeing right after the Taliban takeover of their country in August. The regime change happened at breakneck speed, forcing many, like former US Army interpreter "Zaheer" and his family, to flee with little more than a small bundle of personal items.
Zaheer initially applied for his SIV visa in 2018 but admits he struggled in August when it became clear he and his family must go. "It's very difficult to walk away," he said. "I got only one small bag with me, a little bit of clothes."
Thanks to the faith-based resettlement agency World Relief and church volunteers in the Ft. Worth area, Zaheer and his family were able to rent an apartment and find furniture. Zaheer's priority now is to find a car and a job. He's willing to take anything to provide for his family.
In many communities, churches partnering with resettlement agencies are among the first to welcome these newcomers and some believe their outpouring of hospitality in 2021 may represent an attitude shift among evangelicals towards refugees.
In north Texas, hundreds of church volunteers have signed up for training to work with the new wave of Afghan refugees. The Lone Star state expects 4,000 to arrive in the coming months.
Northwood Church Pastor Bob Roberts says the moment may mark a change in how evangelicals think about refugees.
"I think there's a shift that's taking place," he said. "We're coming back to who we are – and we've always cared about people."
Northwood is sponsoring three Afghan families. A volunteer team has acquired apartments for them for 12 months. Other volunteers will help them find jobs and some are focused on supplies like food and clothing.
April Haile signed up at Northwood to volunteer after watching Afghanistan on the news this summer.
"I found myself at home watching everything unfold, feeling helpless and just wishing that I could find something to do to help them," she said. "So when I found out that we're going to help some families through our church – there it is. There's my answer."
Her desire to help may represent the swinging pendulum when it comes to how evangelicals think about refugees.
Churches across the country have worked with refugees for decades. When Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980 it created a resettlement program that provides for basic needs like food and housing for the first few months in the US. Many churches then began providing the extended lifeline that refugees also need; offering friendship and community, English classes, and help with practical hurdles like buying a car.
But in the last four years, as the Trump administration drastically cut the number of refugees the US admits each year, faith-based resettlement agencies struggled to keep their doors open.
Many refugee advocates also wondered if anti-immigrant and anti-refugee political rhetoric was seeping into the church.
A 2018 Pew poll found just half of all Americans and one in four white evangelical Protestants showing support for a US responsibility to accept refugees.
But that tide may be turning now as refugees arrive from Afghanistan. They're coming as the Biden administration is expanding the refugee cap and new polls show Americans may be more inclined to welcome them. An Associated Press survey shows 7 in 10 Americans favor refugee status for Afghans who've helped the US.
Also, a National Immigration Forum poll in September shows 65% of Americans say the US should have a legal, secure process to welcome people seeking refuge. Those who identified as "born again" in the poll were even more committed. Sixty-eight percent said they support that process.
Roberts thinks the number of Christian ministries in Afghanistan may have helped to pave the way for churches here to welcome Afghan refugees, as well as the veteran community that recognizes the safety issue faced by Afghans that helped the US military and now live under Taliban control.
"We've already been embarrassed by the withdrawal," he said. "But God help us if we have to hold our heads in shame because we turned our back on people that helped us. That's not America."
Dr. Stu Cocanougher, a pastor at Southcliff Church in Ft. Worth, oversees a refugee ministry that started 20 years ago when the church began an English as a Second Language (ESL) program to serve the Bosnian refugees in an apartment complex in its neighborhood. Alongside the ESL classes, the church provides childcare and dinner.
Through the years, it's grown to one of the largest in North Texas, and today many who come are Afghan refugees. Most have families that are trying to get out of Afghanistan.
Helmand Wardak has 20 family members that worked with the US government and are hoping to leave. He's on the phone with them daily. "We are just trying to speak with them, talk with them every day, just to calm them down," he said.
Southcliff has been organizing welcome kits filled with hygiene items, kitchen supplies, and bed linens for the new refugees and looks forward to welcoming them to its ministry.
Cocanougher says he understands how it's easy for some to not see refugees as people they need to be concerned with but he believes the Bible shows how important it is to help those in need.
"As I look at the church in America I think we always have a tendency just as humans to fear what is different," he says. "But the Bible is clear. As Christians, we're commanded to show hospitality to strangers. That's not an option for the church."
Over the years, he's watched refugees struggle to make it in the US and he sympathizes with what they experience. "Many of them get a head start from the US government but very soon they're paying all their own bills. And they've even paid back the plane ticket that the government bought for them to get to America," he said.
Cocanougher's goal is to help them navigate the new terrain safely, make friends and introduce them to Christ.
He and other North Texas churches that have volunteered to help are ramping up for a busy year. World Relief in North Texas expects to quadruple the number of refugees it typically resettles and it's leaning heavily on its partner congregations.
Director Garrett Pearson says church support can accelerate the timeline in which refugees transition from survival mode to stable, productive lives in the US.
"When churches get involved with refugees I think it speeds up the process with which they can acclimate and start contributing to the community," he said. "Having that support base, people who care about you, finding the small obstacles that can keep you from your goals…really makes a difference in the long-term health of these families."