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The situation in Afghanistan is a growing asylum and refugee crisis that is testing not only the international refugee resettlement system but each American’s humanity and ability to take action in the face of injustice and a divided nation. A system of pillage and proxy wars that we partly created was behind horrific scenes of thousands of panicked Afghans gathered at the Kabul airport, handing out their babies or clinging to U.S. Air Force planes. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than a half-million Afghans have been internally displaced since the beginning of 2021. The United Nations is urging states to respect the core principle of the 1951 Refugee Convention — non-refoulment — where refugees should not be returned to places where they would be at risk.
We all can and must refuse the dehumanization of the Afghan refugees and internally displaced persons we left behind and ask for tangible, immediate actions by our government and citizens. The ask is not to “humanize” Afghan refugees when they arrive at our clinics and neighborhoods since we can only “humanize” those who are not fully human. Moreover, the reduction of Afghan people to victims and refugees to be saved by white saviors is dangerous and fundamentally unfair. The ask is to pause during these trying times and ask ourselves how it is that some of us have failed to see the already present full humanity of those seeking refuge and to realize our responsibility towards them.
In terms of immediate action, there is a shortage of medical care in Afghanistan which, according to the World Health Organization, includes reproductive and child health. We must advocate for aid entry into the country while the situation unfolds. Also, more direct aid is needed for organizations working in Afghanistan. Women for Afghan Women is providing “safe shelter, resources, and aid to the thousands of women, children, families, and staff” and the International Medical Corps is working to secure emergency relief funds. The Afghan American Foundation has compiled a list of verified organizations that are directly working with Afghans.
Most importantly, although America’s military presence ended on Aug. 31, the U.S. has processed only 8,000 Special Immigrant Visas this past week from Afghanistan, whose population size is almost 39 million. It is our duty to contact our local government officials and advocate for the expansion of the SIV program. As we increase the number of Afghan refugees allowed and remove quotas, we must also advocate for the reinstatement of the Temporary Protected Status, a governmental status for select countries in crisis that allows incomers to live and work in the U.S. As American cities receive SIV refugees and many more initiate resettlement mechanisms, local resettlement agencies will be in dire need of volunteer support.
At Harvard, we must collaborate with local partners to welcome and assist refugees throughout their transition. In the long term, there is an urgent need to produce more research focusing on understanding and bettering the health of refugees. Recent evidence is showing that the health of refugees and their offspring deteriorates over time after they are resettled in the U.S. This is contrary to what is seen in other immigrants who have lower mortality and morbidity rates compared to those in the hosting country, a phenomenon known as the “healthy migrant effect”. We still do not understand well why this happens and how to reduce health disparities among refugees. We must leverage our research partnerships and scholarship with communities directly impacted by this crisis and demand that philanthropists, foundations, and donors in the U.S. support refugee-health research, which we normally struggle to fund. We, at Harvard, are well-positioned to lead such research and partner with other research institutions in regions where refugees are resettled.
As healthcare professionals of Middle Eastern heritage, we understand the intergenerational trauma related to being a refugee. We understand that achieving health equity for refugees requires solidarity and multi-sectoral action. As healthcare and public health providers, we must expand our interpreter capacities, work with local resettlement agencies on health screenings and vaccinations for new incoming refugees, and refresh our trauma-informed care approaches. The dialogue about forced migration and its impact on the mental and physical health of future generations of refugees is extremely timely and important and should take place at our clinics, institutions, and homes.
At this time, it is easy to blame politicians for the Afghan disaster and let this pass by as another political failure. But we challenge what we can do, as Americans, and academics more precisely, to aid Afghans and welcome refugees. From donating to advocacy to research, there is much we can do. Our collective consciousness depends on it.
Sara A. Al-Zubi is a third year student at Harvard Medical School and Tala Al-Rousan is an Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of California San Diego and a Bernard Lown Fellow at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
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