It seems fitting that 20 years after we launched war in Afghanistan because the country was said to harbor al Qaeda, the terrorist group founded by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 mastermind, that we are readying now — in Chattanooga and across the nation — to take in Afghan refugees who assisted the U.S. military during our no-win, ill-conceived, 20-year war.
We must welcome these refugees — many of whom, or their family members, helped our fathers, husbands, sons and daughters sent to fight in Afghanistan.
These refugees are people who were on our side, often at great risk to themselves or their families, in a war that came about after 19 men, mostly from Saudi Arabia, armed with box cutters and propelled by the twisted ideals of bin Laden, hijacked four commercial planes loaded with fuel for cross-country flights.
Twenty years ago today, those 19 used the hijacked airliners to down two New York financial power towers, a section of the Pentagon and would have crashed the U.S. Capitol had passengers not revolted. Ultimately the fourth plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
There was not an Afghan among the 19. Some 15 were from Saudi Arabia, one was from Egypt, two were from the United Arab Emirates and one was from Lebanon.
We already mentioned that bin Laden himself was from Saudi Arabia, born to a Saudi construction magnate who immigrated there from Yemen. But in 1979, bin Laden traveled to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the Soviet Union. He stayed there a decade and founded al Qaeda in 1988, just before the Soviet Union withdrew.
The rest is history, and the U.S. government at the time used the fact that Afghanistan was the first home and base of al Qaeda to wage war over the entire country to get at the terrorist cell and the Taliban. The debacle — from start to end — changed both Afghanistan and America. None of us will ever again feel as safe as we once did.
That makes it all the more important that we welcome these refugees and help them make new homes, new lives, new beginnings.
Chattanooga's Bridge Refugee Services Associate Director Marina Peshterianu last week told the Times Free Press that the local agency was ramping up to help. Even as the frightening scenes of American and refugee evacuations from Afghanistan poured out of our TV screens, Peshterianu said she felt certain we would soon see new neighbors in need of resettling. The question was when and how many.
Those questions remain, she told the Times Editorial Page editor on Friday. And the readying continues. As do the needs.
"We've received just a great support and overwhelming support from our community. Right now it seems the biggest need is housing. We need people who own hotels, b&bs and duplexes, and small apartment complexes. [We ask] will they be able to provide, free of charge or at very low affordable charges, a place for these people?"
It's no small ask in a city that already has too few affordable housing units.
It's also no small ask in a city and region with a recent history of following the national trend of being anti-immigrant. You might remember the recent outcry from many of our Republican leaders, including our governor, about a temporary shelter in Chattanooga for unaccompanied migrant children from countries below our Southern border.
But Peshterianu remains optimistic.
"We have not experienced negative emotions from our community. I have been here since 9/11 in 2001 and we resettled a Muslim population from Bosnia at that time. We' had nothing but support. Nothing but welcoming."
She said she thinks of the South with its reputation of hospitality as always welcoming, and of Tennessee as the Volunteer state.
"This is where so many of the veterans that were in Afghanistan are from and these people helped our young men to survive. We're grateful for having our sons and our husbands back, right? Because these people risked their lives to ensure that. So, no. I do not anticipate any backlash," she said.
National news reporting and a CBS News/YouGov poll also reflects optimism. The poll, released in August, found 81% of 2,142 U.S. adults surveyed said the U.S. should "help those Afghans come to the U.S.," while just 19% said they should not.
Taking in these Afghans, who worked as translators, intelligence sources, drivers and in other support roles, has support from 90% of Democrats, 79% of independents and Trump voters and 76% of Republicans in the poll.
Forbes added that more than a half dozen Republican governors expressed support for taking in Afghan refugees — this despite right-wing Fox host Tucker Carlson's arm waving that the refugees would "dilute American culture" and harm the GOP because they would become "loyal Democratic voters."
It turns out that Americans may have longer memories than we sometimes fear. That's especially true as our veterans continue to remind us that Afghans worked as their military partners against the terrorists and the Taliban.
Remember those recent video images of babies being lifted over barbed-wire fences to American soldiers, the shots of people clinging to departing planes and the pain of that deadly terrorist attack against thousands massed at the airport.
In honor of those we lost on 9/11 and since in Iraq and Afghanistan, reach out to Bridge Refugee Services and help.