‘Concerns’ about services provided to Afghan refugees at Las Cruces church prompt investigation

By: - March 28, 2022 5:00 am

Ehsanullah Ehsan, an Afghan refugee, sits in a courtyard at the Las Cruces hotel he’s stayed at since early February. (Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

An organization overseeing the resettlement of 100 Afghans by a Las Cruces church is investigating whether the church has provided inadequate services, following “concerns” the parent organization recently received, according to a spokesperson. 

El Calvario United Methodist Church is one of two organizations in Las Cruces being paid to connect Afghan refugees with services and community. About 225 of them have arrived in the southern New Mexico city since November after fleeing their home country and spending several months on military bases. 

El Calvario is one of 39 affiliates nationally for Church World Service, which is one of nine agencies in the United States that contracts with the federal government to resettle refugees across the country. Part of its mission is to regularly review and monitor how affiliates are doing, according to spokesperson Chris Plummer. 

This is part two in a series about Afghans seeking refuge in New Mexico and working to build new lives.

It’s drawn from interviews with 16 newcomers, plus experts, state and federal officials, and leaders of the two resettlement agencies in Las Cruces.

“Our staff is currently undertaking a review of the El Calvario as part of our oversight responsibilities,” he said. “We have had some concerns reported to us about service provision at El Calvario, and CWS is working to respond to and resolve these concerns, including by conducting an in-person evaluation.”

Plummer declined to disclose what the evaluation has found so far, saying it’s ongoing. An employee at El Calvario also declined to comment.

“CWS takes any concern raised by clients about service provision very seriously,” Plummer said. “While issues are rare, we acknowledge with any undertaking of this size issues with individual partners and cases will arise.”

In addition to in-person evaluations, Plummer said, the church’s review of El Calvario will include staff interviews and a financial audit. 

While it’s not yet clear what concerns Church World Service is investigating or who raised them, seven Afghans under El Calvario’s care spoke to Source New Mexico recently about what they see as insufficient support, including lack of connections to housing, transportation, legal representation and jobs. 

No refuge: Afghans describe challenges in building new life in New Mexico

The 76,000 Afghans who needed rescue to the United States arrived abruptly last summer amid an imminent collapse and takeover by the Taliban. Afghans described harrowing escapes in military aircraft, with little time to collect documents, belongings or the rest of their families. 

The seven people interviewed in Las Cruces said finding jobs is crucial, because they are desperate to send money home to their families left behind in Afghanistan. 

“I need to work here,” said Tor Gul, an Afghan who has since decided to leave El Calvario for Nebraska, per an interpreter. “I need to give a life for myself, for my green card, for asylum. I need to support my family. I need to pay money for housing.”

A review by Source New Mexico suggests that El Calvario is lagging behind the other resettlement agency in Las Cruces — Lutheran Family Services, which has offices in Las Cruces and Albuquerque.

For example, Lutheran Family Services secured rental apartments or houses for all 125 of the Afghan refugees under its care in Las Cruces before they arrived, according to Andrew Byrd, the organization’s coordinator for southern New Mexico. But at least four Afghan clients at El Calvario were still staying at hotels as of March 18, nearly two months after they’d arrived. 

El Calvario isn’t alone in having difficulty finding housing. Thousands of Afghans across the country still live in hotels, due, in part, to rising home and rental prices, according to a report from NPR.

In addition, it appears that people are leaving El Calvario at a higher rate than they are leaving Lutheran Family Services. At El Calvario, 12 of 98 people have left Las Cruces within three months of arriving. At LFS, which also has re-settled 318 Afghans in Albuquerque, 18 of a total of 443 Afghans across the state have left “for greater employment opportunities,” said Nolan Bell, the refugee coordinator for the state Human Services Department.

Bell said the number of Afghans leaving LFS is a “very low number” based on a review with other state refugee coordinators, though he did not provide additional data. 

Finally, LFS has found jobs for 23 of its Las Cruces clients, Bell said. At El Calvario, 10 Afghans had jobs as of March 15, according to interviews and documents obtained by Source New Mexico.

Both groups of Afghans include a large number of women and children who aren’t seeking employment or aren’t able to work. 

The state has job numbers for Afghans being helped by Lutheran Family Services only because it is paying the organization more than $700,000 to work with the refugees. 

Those with questions or complaints about service provision at Lutheran Family Services or El Calvario United Methodist Church can reach out to the following phone numbers or emails:

 

Lutheran Family Services:

The New Mexico Human Services Department’s constituent services call center:

1-800-283-4465

El Calvario United Methodist Search

Church World Service’s compliance hotline:

[email protected]cwsglobal.org

A contract with the state, which existed before the influx of Afghan refugees, requires Lutheran Family Services to develop individual employability plans for each person, provide job counseling, make eight calls a month to prospective employers and provide detailed outcome data to the state, among other requirements.

The state has no oversight of El Calvario, Bell said, because it is an affiliate of Church World Service and not a state subcontractor. 

It’s less clear exactly how Church World Service measures success for its clients and if it requires the same level of outreach, outcomes or detailed reporting from El Calvario regarding job placements as the state does from Lutheran Family Services. 

Rev. George Miller, who runs El Calvario, told Source New Mexico that the church is required to submit job data to CWS and that its benchmark is to “get everyone employed, basically.”

Plummer at CWS said that, broadly, the organization evaluates its affiliates on whether refugee families are in a safe environment, can navigate relevant systems, are connected to support, and understand their surroundings and situation. 

Church World Service rapidly expanded the number of its affiliates recently. In 2020, it had just 17 affiliates across the country, and that number has now more than doubled to 39.

The nation’s nine so-called “voluntary agencies” place refugees on behalf of the federal government, and they had to rapidly scale up to accommodate the sudden arrivals. Many of those organizations also had to build anew after years of atrophy under the administration of ex-President Donald Trump, who dramatically slashed the numbers of refugees allowed into the United States in any given year. 

In its most recent annual report, Church World Service said it was working with federal agencies to “rebuild” its resettlement programs. 

Miller spoke to Source New Mexico briefly on Thursday before CWS told Source New Mexico that it had received complaints about services. He’s been unavailable for comment since, but he did speak broadly about his church’s efforts.

299 evacuees from Afghanistan destined for NM resettlement

Afghans need a huge amount of support when they arrive, Miller said, and his agency requires immense energy from his small staff and volunteers to find housing, schools,  English classes and other services. Jobs typically come farther down the line, he said. 

“Now we’re getting into the couple months where employment is the thing,” he said. “That’s why it’s an urgent project.”

He also said he’s unaware of any complaints from Afghans under El Calvario’s care about the services the church provides.

This is the first time El Calvario has resettled refugees from the Middle East. Previously, the church helped with refugees from Central and South America. 

Miller and Byrd of Lutheran Family Services also said they’ve encountered delays at the federal level when it comes to the approval of work authorizations and Social Security numbers, which makes it difficult to quickly connect Afghans with jobs. 

Byrd, in a recent interview, said he has no special insight on whether El Calvario could or should be doing more to find jobs for the new arrivals, saying it’s a different organization with its own standards and procedures. But he did credit his organization’s outreach efforts in finding potential employers. 

“People have to know we exist,” Byrd said. “And that’s probably the greatest help to us. Just put it out to the community to say, ‘Hey, if you’re an employer and you’re hiring, let us know.’”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

MORE FROM AUTHOR