Community colleges’ role in helping Afghans

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An article I recently found reminded me of the great potential that community colleges have in assisting in welcoming refugees to the U.S.  

As the Kabul airlift unfolds, parallels are being made to the fall of Saigon in 1975. I will leave it to military and policy wonks to draw comparisons, but we know that nearly 800,000 Vietnamese came to the U.S. between 1974 and 2013. And many of them ended up in America’s community colleges. A photo in the Houston Chronicle from June 9, 1976 shows Vietnamese refugees in an English as a second language (ESL) class at Houston Community College. For many fleeing Vietnam, community colleges provided a safe and nurturing space for learning and adjusting to the U.S. 

Once again, we are faced with the rapid influx of those fearful of their lives and looking for a better future. As the airlift proceeds, focus will now be on the resettlement of Afghans in multitudes of American neighborhoods, many served by community colleges. Community colleges are stepping up. Northern Virginia Community College is doing its part as a transfer point by providing temporary lodging and necessities. All community colleges can play an important role, be it as a place for learning or a place of shelter and comfort.

My own work has straddled the fence between community colleges and their ability to promote peace and social justice, and advancing peacebuilding in youth, including Afghans. During my time at the U.S. Institute of Peace, I would meet regularly with young women and men striving to put their lives and their country on a path of peace and prosperity, where education and economic advantages were open to all, especially women. It is truly heartbreaking to see what is happening now, and like many, I am putting my energy where I can to ensure that the dreams and aspirations of young Afghans are not crushed.

A leading model

Soon communities around the U.S. will see new faces. Many will speak little English and will be anxious and apprehensive. Many Afghans have been traumatized by the recent collapse of their country. And most every Afghan who arrives here would have left loved ones who now face a precarious future.

Community colleges, as democracy’s colleges, can play a pivotal and unique role in the resettlement of Afghans in the U.S. We all can do something, but community colleges as centers of local life and the most accessible places for basic education, can play a leading role.

Many Afghans will need, first and foremost, to learn English. Offering open access and free course offerings will be important. Afghans will also need support in navigating American society. Classes on culture and expectations will go a long way to raising the comfort level of many.

And finally, workforce training opportunities are important. We now are recognizing the shortages of workers in many parts of our economy. Restaurants can’t hire enough workers, there is a nursing shortage, and finding trades people is difficult. Directed programs for Afghans that can start immediately would not only solve our economic shortfalls but go a long way to raising the self-esteem and hope of those arriving now who will call America their home.

Now is a time for all hands on deck. And community colleges can be that deck.  

About the Author

David J. Smith
is an adjunct faculty member at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. He is the editor of "Peacebuilding in Community Colleges: A Teaching Resource" (USIP Press, 2013).