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Fort Wayne organizations help Afghan refugees settle in

Camp Atterbury media tour of Operation Allies Welcome Afghan evacuees settlement
Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar
The Indianapolis Star, pool
A worker in the intake facility wears a translated welcome sign on her back as she talks with media on a tour of in-processing areas at the Operation Allies Welcome Afghan setup Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 at Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh, IN.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Abbett Elementary School.

Fort Wayne committed to taking in 75 Afghan refugees following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. So far, 60 of those refugees have been placed in the city, with many of them having children who’ve already begun school.

Organizations throughout the city prepare for these types of refugee situations to help them succeed once they’ve been resettled.

Refugees begin their journey in safe haven camps, like the Indiana National Guard’s Camp Atterbury in south-central Indiana. However, the people resettled in Fort Wayne may not have necessarily come from that camp.

Nicole Kurut is the mission advancement coordinator for Catholic Charities in Fort Wayne, an organization that has been helping resettle refugees in the area for decades. She said the first priority is to place refugees near family in the states.

“The goal is to first resettle them near family, if they have family. If they don’t have family, then they’ll be resettled where they can be accommodated,” she said.

Kurut said the process for resettlement started well before refugees began moving into the city.

“We’ve created several different committees that are gonna be targeting these barrier areas. So, things like housing, employment, language, cultural orientation.”

When the family or individual arrives at the airport, Catholic Charities picks them up and takes them to their housing to help them settle in.

Within 30 days of arrival, Kurut said children must be enrolled in school. Within 90 days, she said, the hope is to have them settled in fully and on the job hunt.

“So, that’s our number one goal; get them in the house, get them acquainted and find them work,” she said.

Kurut said in their normal refugee program, 86 percent of clients find work within 4-6 months of being settled.

Catholic Charities relies heavily on volunteers.

“Since talking about our plans of resettlement, we have had an overwhelming amount of calls in support of what we’re doing," Kurut said. "People reaching out ‘what do you need?"

Kurut said people have offered furniture and other material donations. But, she said they have had many people reach out to help on a personal level, Catholic Charities tries to pair at least five to six people with a family to act as mentors and help address any issues with schools, culture or any questions about the city.

But, Kurut said, the reality of the trauma refugees go through can’t be understated.

“These people’s lives have changed, literally, overnight,” she said.

Catholic Charities works with a large group of organizations throughout the city and county to help prepare for refugees and set processes in place to help them succeed in Fort Wayne.

The Bowen Center offered their services to help the refugees work through the trauma of resettlement in their own time.

Rebecca Riley is the director of Bowen’s Fort Wayne Outpatient Office and Bowen Recovery Center. Riley stresses the importance of getting people settled and comfortable in a place where they feel safe before trying to address mental health needs.

“Somebody that doesn’t have housing or doesn’t have stability with food or having their basic needs met, is not in a position where they can start dealing with their trauma," Riley said. "Because sometimes talking about it can be very triggering and can make the situation worse.”

Camp Atterbury media tour of Operation Allies Welcome Afghan evacuees settlement
Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar
The Indianapolis Star, pool
Operation Allies Welcome evacuees wait outside a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 at Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh, IN.

In Afghanistan, there is a lack of medical infrastructure for psychological support, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Every country is different and every situation is different, so we definitely want to be adaptable and flexible”

Riley said it’s most important to get their other needs addressed first and build a relationship between Bowen’s mental health professionals and the individuals. This might mean helping them get other medical care and going with them to doctor’s appointments or helping them access other resources.

“And then I think that coming alongside people in that way, then they become more trusting and then they’re more willing to open up about some of the mental health concerns that they might have,” Riley said.

Kurut said around 40 percent of the refugees at Camp Atterbury were under the age of 14 and, while Fort Wayne has had a few individual adults resettle in the city, most refugees resettled here are families.

Catholic Charities works with the school systems in Allen County to prepare for incoming refugee students. Fort Wayne Community Schools’ Abbett Elementary School already has five students who’ve been resettled and enrolled.

Frank Kline, the principal at Abbett, said as soon as he saw the situation happening in Afghanistan, he made the assumption they would be seeing some of those students.

“I had talked with my English Language Learning team about just kind of starting to get our heads wrapped around (that) we are going to be receiving students.”

Kline said he was working in Fort Wayne Community Schools when the Burmese refugees were being resettled in the 1990s.

“When I was looking at the Burmese refugees coming in, I didn’t really pay as much attention to the geopolitical piece that was going on and I felt like I was playing catchup a lot of times when students were coming into the building” he said.

Kline said he learned to better communicate and to better be aware of cultural differences and how to address them.

"So, the first piece is getting our mindset right and making sure we’re in that welcoming frame to help them.”

The second step is building communication pieces to address language barriers. Some of these things can be having a pictograph in place for students to point to if they need something, having bilingual students who may be able to communicate better help new students, and walking parents through the first day or two of school so they know where their students will be.

When it comes to helping these students learn the language, Kline said they have a good system in place but students are also great at adapting.

“The beauty of children especially is that their minds are so able to absorb information, especially if we have them in a safe space," Kline said. "Because if you’re in a safe place, then in your cerebral cortex, you’re ready to learn.”

Kline said Abbett is a minority-majority school, so kids are used to being exposed to cultures different than their own. He says they haven’t seen much xenophobic bullying or problems with his students.

He said the school has a simple set of rules; Kind feet, kind hands, kind words, first time, everytime.

“Say something nice. Find a way to compliment someone, find a way to engage our newcomers in our school. And most of my kids are really, really good at that," he said.

While the city is currently committed to resettling 75 refugees, Catholic Charities says that number is constantly being assessed based on need and capacity.

Ella Abbott is a multimedia reporter for 89.1 WBOI. She is a strong believer in the ways audio storytelling can engage an audience and create a sensory experience.