In the coming year, about 100,000 people from Afghanistan will begin new lives in the United States: new beginnings that will require an incredible amount of coordination between federal, state, and private organizations.
At the White House, Jack Markell, a former Delaware governor, is responsible for making sure this goes as smoothly as possible.
“It’s a big job,” he said in an exclusive interview with NPR. He ticked some recent statistics that illustrate the scope: 53,000 people are currently waiting at US military bases, another 14,000 people will arrive at the bases in the next week. You will end up living in more than 200 different communities across the country – the largest war evacuated resettlement since Vietnam.
When governors and mayors have questions about the numbers and procedure, Markell is often their point of contact. He is an old friend of President Biden and is awaiting confirmation from the Senate as Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
But by the end of the year, Markell will be working to bring all the actors involved together: the defense, state and homeland security departments; state and local governments; Resettlement organizations; and private sector groups that can help.
“It’s a sprint to make sure this process is really going through well and we’re getting the insights and input from all of these organizations,” said Markell.
Getting it right is at stake for the refugees. There are also political campaigns for the White House – although Markell insists that it is not about politics. The government was stung by criticism of its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Biden’s polls took a hit.
“I think people across the country understand – led by our veterans who have been particularly vocal – that we have a duty to give our allies in Afghanistan this safe and dignified welcome,” said Markell.
“We’re also focused on making sure they are on their way to self-sufficiency, that the American dream can be just as real for them as it was for previous generations,” he said.
No surprise … the Marines join @MCB_Quantico are swept away! Thank you Gen VanHerck and SgtMaj Porterfield for joining Gov. Markell and Mr. Fenton @Allies_Refuge and show the great efforts of the Interagency team that support them #OperationAlliesWelcome. pic.twitter.com/EzKAYO8mmN
– U.S. Northern Command (@USNorthernCmd) 09/22/2021
He is asked how refugees are screened
The last time Markell was governor was when a large group of refugees arrived from a war-torn country: Syria. At first there was support from Americans for the idea of helping people flee. But that changed after a terrorist attack in Paris. About 30 governors, mostly Republicans, called for a stop.
In 2015, Markell was one of the most outspoken governors to take in refugees. He said he hoped politics would stay out of relocation this time.
“That’s not blue, that’s not red,” he said. “I mean, this is a fundamental value of the United States. This is our story, a story of immigrants, a story of refugees.”
But the governors still want to know how the review works. “I think people can have legitimate questions and we need to give them straight answers,” said Markell.
“I state that … no one has flown directly from Afghanistan to the United States, and the intelligence, law enforcement and counter-terrorism services have gone through this entire review process,” Markell said.
These questions came up while Markell was speaking with Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican woman chairman of the National Governors Association.
“I actually asked him to go through it step-by-step,” Hutchinson told NPR, explaining that while he was a firm believer that his state of Arkansas – and the rest of America – should take in Afghan refugees, he needed information that he with others in his condition.
“That is the first question a lot of people ask after the arrival of refugees. What does this mean for our security? How is this supposed to work? And I had to be able to trust these steps.”
Hutchinson also wanted more transparency from the White House. He told Markell he didn’t want to keep hearing about Afghans in his state in his local paper. And he said he appreciated Markell’s answer.
“He immediately said, ‘You’re absolutely right. I assure you this won’t happen. We’ll have this flow of communication. And I’ll arrange that. And you tell me otherwise. And here is my cell phone number if you have any problems have, “said Hutchinson.
Was delighted to meet the Honorable Jack Markell, White House coordinator for the operation @Allies_Welcome, at our listening session with Afghan families who @LIRSorg & @CompassionVann support are. Thank you for coming and guiding!
: Mariah Miranda pic.twitter.com/cLaDQjxEIE
– Krish O’Mara Vignarajah (@KrishVignarajah) September 21, 2021
Markell is also coordinating with the private sector
Markell also takes calls from non-governmental organizations and private sector groups.
“We are in contact with Governor Markell five times a day,” said John Bridgeland, who heads Welcome.US, a group supported by three former US presidents that helps Afghan refugees with everything from donations to job opportunities.
Bridgeland, a top adviser to George W. Bush’s White House, said coordination was essential given the size of the task.
“It’s going to be very difficult and uneven,” said Bridgeland. “But Markell prepares this for a better chance of reaction than we’ve had in the past.”
His grandparents came to America as refugees
For Markell, this job is personal too. His grandparents fled Belarus as refugees in the 1920s and worked to bring their extended family to America.
“When my appointment to this position was announced, I heard from one of my cousins who said, ‘Doesn’t that close the whole story?'” Said Markell. “Here we have the opportunity to help people on a much larger scale now.”
He says he feels an obligation now to help arriving refugees – people like Homayoon Sarwary, who was legal advisor at the US embassy in Kabul, and his son Ahmad Sarwary. Her family barely escaped after she was first shot back by gunfire.
You are now at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, waiting to see what’s next. That’s where they met Markell. Ahmad Sarwary, 20, told him he was eager to continue his studies.
“I hope I can study computer science here,” Sarwary told NPR.
Markell shared Sarwary’s story a few days later when he met AirBnB co-founder Joe Gebbia. They talked about the company helping to accommodate tens of thousands of evacuees, but Gebbia said he could provide other help too. He suggested gathering other tech leaders to find ways to get Sarwary and other refugees into programming bootcamps.
“The more we can do in the tech industry to connect the dots between those who either have the skills or want to learn the skills with jobs in engineering, the better,” Gebbia said. “I think it’s really just a matter of how can we help?”
NPR producer Barbara Sprunt contributed to this story.