Written by: Annie Quinn
The Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), the only community-based resettlement agency in the United States, experienced unprecedented and rapid growth in 2022. This expansion was driven by two significant global events: the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Although these events unfolded thousands of miles away from ECDC’s offices in Virginia and Maryland, this non-profit agency had to swiftly transition from its original capacity, designed to handle approximately 150 refugee resettlements per year, to an organization capable of resettling over 1,000 individuals on a lengthy and intricate journey towards a fresh start in the United States.
The numbers alone tell a compelling story. From fiscal year 2018 to 2021, ECDC’s Virginia office averaged around 140 refugee resettlements annually. However, in fiscal year 2022, this number surged to 641, primarily due to the Afghan Placement Assistance (APA) program administered by the U.S. State Department, in collaboration with other federal entities such as the Department of Homeland Security (Operation Allies Welcome) and the Department of Health and Human Services. The APA program, which constituted 99 percent of ECDC’s clients during this period, was designed to support Afghans who had worked alongside U.S. soldiers and diplomats during two decades of conflict in Afghanistan. While initially responding to the sudden influx of refugees following the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the flow of Afghan refugees continued into 2023. ECDC anticipates ongoing efforts to resettle an additional 600 refugees in the current fiscal year.
To accommodate this staggering volume, ECDC had to hire additional staff, expand office space, and enhance its programs. These measures were essential for assisting newly arrived refugees in navigating life in the United States, from acquiring social security numbers and driver’s licenses to securing permanent housing, employment, enrolling children in school, and accessing healthcare.
Sarah Zullo, the Executive Director of the African Community Center – DC Metro, ECDC’s local branch in the DMV area, recalls the challenging early days of the APA program in 2022. “We would receive calls on a Saturday morning, informing us of a family’s imminent arrival at the airport in just a few hours. It was an incessant demand.” Sarah, with her extensive experience in the resettlement field, described 2022 as one of the most demanding years of her career. “I’ve been in this field for a long time, and we’ve never encountered challenges of this magnitude before.” Nevertheless, under Sarah’s leadership, ECDC managed to triple its staff size, leveraging its resources to meet the needs of the families under its care.
Despite the intensity of the work, it can be deeply gratifying for ECDC staff to be present at the airport, welcoming newly arrived families as they set foot on U.S. soil. These dedicated staff members guide families through those initial challenging days, helping them with paperwork for healthcare, touring potential apartments, sending children off for their first day of school, and preparing for job interviews. Nicole Hager, an ECDC Case Manager who joined the team early on during the APA period, reflects, “I’m thankful I started then because I learned so much. The impact I was having was so direct, even though my caseload was three times as much as it is now.” Many of ECDC’s Afghan and Ukrainian clients are highly educated and experienced individuals who left successful careers and lives to start anew in the United States. Their qualifications and work experience from their home countries often do not directly translate into equivalent jobs in the U.S. ECDC staff invest hours with each refugee family to understand their unique needs, listen to their stories, and support them through challenging times.
ECDC’s efforts not only matched the increased numbers but also improved the quality of services. The organization doubled its program staff, introduced five new programs, and even hosted a Refugees First Thanksgiving Dinner, welcoming over 600 refugees from Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Central America for an evening of food, music, and fun.
2023: Reflecting on Lessons Learned
Looking ahead to 2023, it’s a year for reflection on the lessons learned in 2022. While resettlement programs have traditionally focused on short-term assistance, there is a growing recognition of the importance of long-term integration programs. These programs aim to equip newcomers with the tools and resources they need to fully integrate into, contribute to, and benefit from their local communities. To this end, ECDC/ACC-VA is implementing programs to address mental health, employment, legal aid, education, youth services, health education, and more.
Despite the organization’s sudden growth spurred by crises and hardships in the past year, it has laid the foundation for better client service through programs focused on long-term success, self-sufficiency, and community integration. Despite formidable obstacles, the organization has witnessed numerous success stories and achievements, both from its staff and clients. In 2023, ECDC looks forward to sharing these inspirational stories with its supporters and partners.
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- Operation Allies Welcome Fact Sheet (dhs.gov)
- Operation Allies Welcome | Homeland Security (dhs.gov)