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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Kelsey Brown sorts through donations on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. Bridge Refugee Services helps refugees rebuild their lives as they join the Chattanooga community.

As chaotic scenes from Afghanistan unfolded on TV in the past few weeks, Marina Peshterianu, associate director of Bridge Refugees Services, felt certain she would be helping to resettle Afghan refugees in Chattanooga in the near future.

It's all just a matter of when and how.

While there is no set timeline, Bridge has kept its State Department contracted agency, Episcopal Migration Ministries, up to date with what resources are available in the area. The organization is now awaiting further instruction from the government on how to best proceed following the unprecedented evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies at the conclusion of the 20-year war.

"We wait, just like everybody else, for the big government decisions [on] how to do it right," Peshterianu said. "Our allies are running from definite death and very strong and growing persecution, there is no doubt in my mind.

"As Americans, as Chattanoogans, we've always opened our welcoming hands and our big hearts to people in need. Hopefully, we will be able and well equipped to do it now."

The airlifts are unlike anything that Peshterianu has seen in her 21 years working to provide services to refugees. Usually, resettlement can take as much as an average of 20 years. She hopes that the quicker process will help the refugees reach some sense of stability and community in Chattanooga earlier on.

Before being placed in specific locations across the U.S., the refugees must go through security checks, health screenings, employment authorizations and other legal or visa-related procedures. According to a report by The Associated Press, there are an estimated 50,000 incoming displaced Afghans already in or headed to the country.

HOW TO HELP

For those interested in donating or volunteering, Bridge Refugee Services can be reached at bridgerefugees.org, or by emailing volunteermanager@bridgerefugees.org.

People are asked to make arrangements ahead of time to drop items off due to COVID-19 and to ensure that someone is there to take donations inside.

 

 

"It's a question of how quickly we can process, and of course, I think personally that for people who are traumatized, people who live through this, who saw their friends jumping off the plane, we have seen all these images ... people went through emotional hell, and of course to process them quickly, and to put them in a situation where they can start healing, they can start looking for their relatives, making phone calls, at least you know getting some information, it would be the right thing to do."

So far, Bridge has seen an influx of requests from the Chattanooga community about how to help.

"We received an overwhelming community response," she said. "We received hundreds and hundreds of emails ... some came through phone calls, through our website or Instagram account ... People want to support the Americans and our community members want to support and help the Afghan allies who are arriving."

At the moment, the biggest need is affordable housing amid the current shortage. Peshterianu also is anticipating the need of groceries, baby supplies, transportation, as well as legal services and general volunteers.

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Bridge Refugee Services Associate Director Marina Peshterianu, right, works with Sam Lecksell on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. Bridge Refugee Services helps refugees rebuild their lives as they join the Chattanooga community.

"We believe that can be only successful if community members participate," she said. "It's about collaboration and partnership more than financial support. [Refugees] can work, people can support themselves. They need very little initial assistance. What we want and what we are always looking for is the ability to integrate, the ability to not be a stranger in your own community."

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's administration also is planning to work alongside Bridge to facilitate the settlement of the refugees ahead of additional plans to open an Office of New Americans, pending approval of the administration's budget by the city council.

"Mayor Kelly is committed to making sure that Chattanooga is a welcoming city that opens our arms for some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and of course right now, those are Afghan refugees," said Joda Thongnopnua, Chief Policy Officer.

"We think they make our community a stronger and more vibrant and economically sustainable city. And we're just excited for the prospect of having some new neighbors."

Contact Tierra Hayes at thayes@timesfreepress.com.

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