Afghanistan to Fort Wayne: How Catholic Charities’ Immigration Services make a global impact

On August 15, 2021—after nearly 20 years—the United States military withdrew from Afghanistan. Within hours, the country’s capital, Kabul, fell to the Taliban. Over the next several days, thousands of Afghans fled to the airport, trying to secure seats on limited-occupancy flights out of the country. Many of them had worked alongside U.S. service members as interpreters, guides, and pilots—but their pursuit of safety was not as simple as a flight to the United States.

Sami Ahmadi*, a pilot who worked with the U.S.-established government before it fell to the Taliban, traveled with his pregnant wife to wait outside the Kabul airport. He didn’t know it yet, but he was about to begin a three-month journey to Fort Wayne, Ind.

“There were thousands of people,” Sami says. “It wasn’t safe for my wife because of the crowd and the hours of waiting to reach the entrance, so I told her I’d call her when I got into the airport and I’d get help to bring her inside.”

When Sami finally entered the airport, he asked the soldiers to help his wife—but the soldiers told him they could not help anyone outside the premises of the airport. 

“That’s when I knew the Taliban had started searching homes for previous military, and it would be too dangerous to leave the airport,” he says. “I thought if I made it out of the country, I could find a safe way to reunite with my wife again.”

Luz Ostrognai with Catholic Charities fills out forms during a meeting.On August 24, 2021, Sami arrived in the United States—having left his wife, his family, his possessions, his career, and every semblance of normalcy behind. From Kabul, he was transported to Qatar and then Germany, where he stayed for three days with little food and no way to contact his family. Upon arrival in the U.S., he went to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, where he waited alongside nearly 13,000 other displaced Afghans for resettlement.

After three months in Wisconsin, Sami received the news that he would be resettled in Fort Wayne. He didn’t know anything about the community he would soon call home—he only knew that a caseworker would meet him there. When he arrived at the Fort Wayne International Airport at 8:00 p.m., he had a welcome committee of two: a caseworker and an interpreter, both from Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Catholic Charities serves a wide range of needs in the community, seeking to support and inspire people from all backgrounds, social statuses, and walks of life. They facilitate connections in the community for people in need, whether their needs involve health services, food insecurity, addiction or mental health counseling, or immigration support.

Luz Ostrognai with Catholic Charities demonstrates what a meeting with immigration clients would look like at the Archbishop Noll Catholic Center.When people like Sami arrive in the U.S., many of their opportunities depend heavily on the immigration status assigned to them. Afghans—and more recently, Ukrainians—fleeing war are not classified as “refugees,” but as “parolees.”

At the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security, humanitarian parole can be granted to “any noncitizen applying for admission into the U.S. temporarily for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit,” according to the Immigration and Nationality Act. Parole is often implemented in cases of humanitarian emergencies that require immediate action, such as the fall of Kabul and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The process of establishing a refugee classification for admittance to the U.S. could have taken years, which is why parole was granted instead. However, the parole classification precludes migrants from entitlements and benefits that are automatically provided to refugees, such as cash assistance, food stamps, and access to caseworkers who can help them pursue legal permanent residence.

Within a year of arriving in the United States, parolees must apply for asylum—which allows them to stay in the country without fear of deportation. It also qualifies them to work, travel abroad, and apply for their spouse and/or children under the age of 21 to join them in the U.S. One year after being granted asylum, asylees can apply for a Permanent Resident Card and, eventually, become U.S. citizens.

Luz Ostrognai, who serves as the Immigration Director at Catholic Charities, knows all the finer points of immigration law. She advises clients as they prepare for citizenship, residency, humanitarian visas, and more; she is also fully accredited through the Department of Justice to represent her clients in immigration court. Ostrognai started building the immigration program at Catholic Charities in 2001—the same year the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. Twenty years later, Ostrognai’s work holds strong.

Luz Ostrognai, Immigration Director at Catholic Charities“Our immigration office is pretty much 24/7,” Ostrognai says. “My days are usually packed with appointments three months in advance. A lot of times, people need advice about the immigration benefits they can apply for because they don’t know what’s available to them. We have to find a pathway to permanent residence and make a list of all the information required for it. It’s often overwhelming for clients.”

In many cases, clients who are pursuing permanent residence struggle to find or secure the documentation they need. Even when they know the requirements, making them a reality is more difficult.

“A lot of our clients are women who have been victims of domestic violence or undocumented residents who have been victims of a crime,” says Ostrognai. “They’re scared to come forward because they believe their immigration status is in jeopardy—but there are policies and procedures that can provide immigration relief; our clients just don’t know about them.”

Through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), immigration law provides that undocumented persons who are married to a citizen or legal permanent resident can self-petition for legal permanent resident status. Similarly, undocumented persons who witness or are victims of a crime and are willing to testify in court can apply for a U visa as a path to permanent residence. These humanitarian provisions create opportunities for those who might otherwise live in fear of deportation.

Luz Ostrognai with Catholic Charities shows off available resources at the Archbishop Noll Catholic Center.“Our clients have so much fear,” says Ostrognai. “My job is about giving them the resources to escape that. That’s the top priority of what we do here—focusing on humanitarian visas to give hope to our clients.”

For people like Sami, Ostrognai’s commitment to that hope is a lifeline.

“The Fort Wayne community has been good and kind to me since my arrival—especially the people at Catholic Charities,” he says. “From the day I arrived in Fort Wayne, they helped me with finding housing, applying for jobs, and applying for benefits like SNAP and Medicaid. They even offered job-readiness classes to help me prepare for working in the U.S.”

In addition to providing legal counsel, Catholic Charities offers education and outreach to immigrants in Fort Wayne. The process of becoming a U.S. citizen is difficult, and Catholic Charities provides classes to prepare clients for the required test and interview. Ostrognai and her team advocate for clients on every step of their citizenship journey—from claiming asylum to achieving legal permanent resident status to pursuing citizenship.

Luz Ostrognai with Catholic Charities works in her office at the Archbishop Noll Catholic Center.Catholic Charities’ devotion to supporting immigrants and refugees in the Fort Wayne community makes them a key partner for the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, which was formed in 1998 with the sale of St. Joseph Medical Center. The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, who once operated the hospital, wanted the funds from its sale to go toward supporting vulnerable populations.

“The teams Catholic Charities has put in place to support immigrants and refugees are excellent,” says Meg Distler, Executive Director of St. Joseph Community Health Foundation. “They really have a pulse on the needs of that community—and how we can invest in their efforts to help people adapt to this new environment.”

St. Joseph Community Health Foundation takes the biblical principle of welcoming a stranger seriously, and they support Catholic Charities by providing funding to hire paralegals who can walk immigrants and refugees through the process of applying for asylum, legal permanent residence, and citizenship. On March 30, at the Allen County public library, they’re hosting a free one-hour workshop, where the public is invited to learn about refugee immigration and new governmental programs. Speakers include So Min Oo, a refugee from the Thai-Burma boarder now living in Fort Wayne, Desiree Koger-Gustafson, an immigration attorney, and Elizabeth Frank, director of The Welcome Corps.

Sami is one of 133 Afghans who have been resettled in Fort Wayne and supported by Catholic Charities. He has not seen his wife in more than 18 months. He has never met his daughter. He may never go back to Kabul. But, thanks to Catholic Charities, he sees hope in the future.

Luz Ostrognai with Catholic Charities demonstrates what a meeting with immigration clients would look like at the Archbishop Noll Catholic Center.“Because of Catholic Charities’ efforts, I was finally granted my asylum,” Sami says. “I am so excited to be working in the U.S. and building a community here—and my dream is to be reunited with my wife and baby by bringing them here. I want to have my own house and work hard to create a good life in this country.”

The work of Catholic Charities feeds the dreams of people like Sami, providing a tangible pathway to goals that once seemed impossible. Someday, he hopes to work as a pilot again—but this time as a U.S. citizen, in the country he now calls home.

*Due to safety concerns, Sami’s name has been changed to obscure his identity. His story, experiences, challenges, and joys remain true.

You can learn more about refugee resettlement at St. Joesph Community Health Foundation’s free workshop on March 30 at the Allen County Public Library. This event is free and open to the public. Register here.

This story was made possible by underwriting from the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, whose commitment to serving refugees and immigrants serves as the impetus for their support of Catholic Charities’ work.
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