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SEA Airport Prepares a Welcoming Environment for Afghan Refugees

September 8, 2021

Earlier this summer, nonprofit groups and the United States began a major refugee resettlement program to help Afghans looking to escape the Taliban. With the withdrawal of United States military troops, that effort hit its peak in the last few weeks.

While it’s unclear how many refugees will arrive through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), the Port of Seattle is already preparing for their arrival. In response to this crisis, the Port draws upon not only its existing partnerships with local organizations but also its long-standing policy of welcoming refugees and immigrants.

Responding in a crisis

Landing at an airport in a new city can add additional stress for refugees, particularly if they do not read English language signs, do not have U.S. cell phones, and do not know where to connect with resettlement organizations.

To make arrival more welcoming and efficient, the Port partnered with current tenants and nonprofit partners to create a dedicated, private welcome and work area where nonprofits can connect with arriving Afghans. Airport dining and retail tenants will donate refreshments and other supplies for refugees to this welcoming location.

Additionally, the Port of Seattle is working with our nonprofit partners to ensure that refugee resettlement case workers can go through security to meet arrivals directly at the gate — instead of searching for each other in the busy baggage claim area.

A smaller, yet significant gesture, is a welcoming sign. The Port created signs for the welcome space, as well as on exit and digital signs on the bag claim monitors, which read “Welcome to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). We are glad to have you here” in Dari, Pashto, and English.

“I know from the experience of my own immigrant parents, the challenges of moving to a new country where you don’t speak the language or know the system. That’s why it’s crucial that we provide a welcoming environment and the necessary services to refugees settling in their new home,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Sam Cho. “This country and our region has a long tradition of welcoming refugees. We are working around the clock to continue that tradition.”

For years, the Port of Seattle has worked to be a safe place for arriving refugees. In the years to come, SEA will continue to make our airport as welcoming as possible, especially since it will be one of the first spaces refugees see in America.

“Greeting refugee clients in a respectful, organized, and welcoming manner immediately builds confidence during a time of extreme uncertainty,” said Katie Stoppler, World Relief Health and Wellness Manager. “We are greeting people who have given up everything they know to secure their family’s safety. It is so important that we are organized and prepared so our refugee arrivals can focus on supporting each other and building a new life in our community.” 

A history of allyship with refugees

Historically, Washington has been one of the most welcoming states to refugees. In the years after the Vietnam war, thousands of Vietnamese refugees resettled in Washington, thanks in large part to the leadership of Governor Dan Evans. Since 2010, Washington State has received more than 30,000 refugees, including more than 4,100 Afghans.

More recently, the Port of Seattle stood with immigrant and refugee communities when former President Trump passed an Executive Order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. The Port Commission adopted  a ‘Welcoming Port Policy’ which protected immigrants and refugees by prohibiting denial of services based on immigration status, prohibiting Port employees from asking for places of birth, citizenship, or immigration status, as well as collaboration with local immigrant and refugee community stakeholders.

Later that year, the Port of Seattle increased its efforts to support refugees and immigrants, in partnership with One America and World Relief. With the help of these partners, the Port of Seattle expanded its resources for arriving refugees and created programs to help eligible legal permanent residents apply for citizenship.

Our partners

However, the Port of Seattle can’t (and shouldn’t) do this work alone. An integral part of refugee response has been partnership with local nonprofit organizations. A person’s journey to the United States doesn’t end at the airport — it continues as they try to find housing, a job, and community. Through programs like our South King County Fund and workforce development partnerships, we provide economic development and community support to refugees and immigrants. Some of these partners work specifically with refugees and immigrants, including Bridging Cultural Gaps, Bhutanese Community Resource Center, Partner in Employment, Tilth Alliance, and Port Jobs.

World Relief Seattle has been a central part of Western Washington’s response to refugees and is one of the Port’s partners in helping the current Afghan refugees. Stepping off of a long flight into an unfamiliar community can be a daunting process for newly arrived refugee families. With resettlement caseworkers having the ability to meet families directly at the gates with a warm welcome, some of the anxiety can be eased. From there, families will receive supportive integration services including securing housing, enrolling in ESL classes, finding first jobs, navigating the medical system, and so much more.

Finally, many immigrants and refugees launch their American job search at SEA Airport. We are proud that our workforce development partner Port Jobs works with a large number of immigrant and refugee clients. As an international airport, we deeply value the skills and perspectives of our diverse workforce. We are stronger together. 

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