The first Afghan refugee arrived in the Quad-Cities Wednesday night.
The young male in his 20s left everything behind to move to a place he's never been — where he has no job, no family and no friends. At least not yet.
World Relief Quad Cities, the nonprofit refugee settlement agency at 1852 16th St., in Moline, will help the Afghan man get settled, make sure he has food, clothing and a place to stay. They also will show him around town, how to navigate the city bus system and provide financial, emotional, cultural and spiritual support services.
"The Afghans will be a new population here," Laura Fontaine, World Relief Quad Cities director said. "I would love to see Afghans welcomed and to establish their families here."
The young man will be the first of 175 Afghan refugees expected to arrive in the coming months to the Illinois Quad-Cities. Fontaine said World Relief originally planned to accept 150 Afghans, but once more funding came in, that number rose to 175.
"I knew we could count on foundations and our donors to help support a new population," Fontaine said. "With advocacy at the state and federal level, we've been able to ensure they can get all the benefits that our refugees get as well. Gov. (JB) Pritzker has asked all resettlement agencies to increase numbers to show we are a welcoming state.
"We always need volunteers; we always need funding, especially with a new population coming to our community. Donations go directly back to our clients. We help with housing, medical bills, medical care and employment services."
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, helped obtain much of the funding Fontaine spoke about. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Bustos helped secure $6.3 billion in funding for communities and agencies helping Afghan refugees following the downfall of the Afghan government after U.S. troops withdrew in August.
Bustos met with Fontaine Wednesday afternoon to discuss the Afghan refugee resettlement program.
"I think what could make this go the best possible (way) is if our community stands up and is helpful and welcoming," Bustos said. "If you see somebody that looks new to our community or see them out and about, be welcoming. This is what our country was built on; people who came from all over the world and settled in this country. That's what makes us a strong community."
Bustos said she visited Afghanistan in 2014, where she observed the situation on the ground and met with American military personnel and members of the Afghan Parliament.
Fontaine said the United States is trying to resettle all Afghan refugees currently staying on U.S. military bases by January. She said refugees must live in the United States for two years before they can have a change of status, meaning they can apply for asylum or as victims of human trafficking or torture.
Fontaine said there are only two or three Afghan families currently living in the Quad-Cities and that World Relief will depend on them to assist with language interpretation and cultural integration.
Bustos followed Fontaine through the World Relief office, past shelves filled with dozens of quilts, blankets and bedding; bookcases stacked high with children's books, and into a back room stocked with toiletries, cleaning supplies, shelves of dishes, glassware and random donated furniture — all ready to fill the homes of arriving refugees.
Fontaine was eager to greet the Afghan man at the airport Wednesday night, along with World Relief social workers and an interpreter.
"It is one of the most emotional and beautiful things to watch our refugee families come out and welcome them with open arms and know they are beginning their life here in the Quad-Cities," she said. "It's special; we are part of their history and they're becoming part of our family."
Fontaine said the young Afghan man has "no U.S. connection. There is no family here for him; World Relief will be his first family."