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EXCLUSIVE: Governors have questions about Afghan refugees. Here's who they call

The White House point person on Afghan resettlement, Jack Markell, is trying to ensure a smooth — and politics-free — resettlement of the largest group of war evacuees since Vietnam.
Franco Ordoñez
The White House point person on Afghan resettlement, Jack Markell, is trying to ensure a smooth — and politics-free — resettlement of the largest group of war evacuees since Vietnam.

Over the coming year, about 100,000 people from Afghanistan will start new lives in the United States: new beginnings that requires a mind-boggling amount of coordination between federal, state and private organizations.

At the White House, Jack Markell, a former Delaware governor, has the responsibility of trying to make this go as smoothly as possible.

"This is a big job," he said in an exclusive interview with NPR. He ticked off some current statistics illustrating the scope: 53,000 people are currently waiting on U.S. military bases, with another 14,000 people arriving on the bases in the next week. They eventually will live in more than 200 different communities around the country — the biggest resettlement of war evacuees since Vietnam.

So when governors and mayors have questions about the numbers and the process, Markell is often who they call. He's an old friend of President Biden, and is awaiting Senate confirmation as ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But until the end of the year, Markell is working to connect all the players involved: the departments of Defense, State and Homeland Security; state and local governments; resettlement organizations; and private sector groups that can help.

"It's a sprint, to make sure that this process really gets stood up well, and that we're getting the insight and the input from all of these organizations," Markell said.

Getting it right has huge stakes for the refugees. There are also political stakes for the White House — though Markell insists it's not about politics. The administration has been stung by criticism over the chaotic way it withdrew from Afghanistan, and Biden's poll numbers took a hit.

"I think people across the country understand — led by our veterans who have been particularly vocal — that we have an obligation to provide this safe and dignified welcome to our allies from Afghanistan," Markell said.

"We are also focused on making sure that they are on a path to self sufficiency, that the American dream can be just as real to them, as it's been to previous generations," he said.

He gets questions about how refugees are vetted

Markell was a governor the last time a big group of refugees began arriving from a war-torn country: Syria. At first, there was support from Americans to the idea of helping people fleeing the country. But after a terror attack in Paris, that shifted. About 30 governors, mostly Republicans, called for a halt.

In 2015, Markell was one of the most outspoken governors accepting refugees. He said he hopes politics stay out of resettlement this time.

"This is not blue, this is not red," he said. "I mean this is a fundamental value of the United States. This is our story, a story of immigrants, a story of refugees."

But governors still want to know how the vetting works. "I think people can have legitimate questions, and we have to provide them straight answers," Markell said.

"I explain that ... nobody flew directly from Afghanistan to the United States, and the intelligence community, law enforcement and counterterrorism went through that whole vetting process," Markell said.

These questions came up when Markell spoke with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who chairs the National Governors Association.

"I actually asked him to go through it step by step," Hutchinson told NPR, explaining that while he feels strongly that his state Arkansas — and the rest of America — should take in Afghan refugees, he needed information to share with others in his state.

"That's the first question that many people ask about the refugees coming in. What does this mean for our security? How is this going to work? And I needed to be able to give that confidence as to what those steps are."

Hutchinson also wanted more transparency from the White House. He told Markell he didn't want to keep finding out about Afghans coming to his state in his local newspaper. And he said he appreciated Markell's response.

"He immediately said, 'You're absolutely right. I assure you, that will not happen. We're going to have that communication flow. And I will direct that to happen. And you let me know otherwise. And here's my cellphone number if you have any issues,' " Hutchinson said.

Markell also coordinates with the private sector

Markell is also taking calls from non-governmental organizations and private sector groups.

"We're in touch with Governor Markell five times a day," said John Bridgeland, who leads Welcome.US, a group backed by three previous U.S. presidents that is helping Afghan refugees with everything from donations to job opportunities.

Bridgeland, a top aide in the George W. Bush White House, said coordination is essential given the magnitude of the task.

"It's going to be really hard and it'll be uneven," Bridgeland said. "But Markell is setting this up for a better chance of a response than we've had in the past."

He feels a personal connection to the plight of refugees

For Markell, this job is also personal. His grandparents fled Belarus in the 1920s, and worked to bring their extended family to America.

"When my appointment to this position was announced, I heard from one of my cousins who said, 'Isn't this bringing the whole story full circle?'" Markell said. "Here we have an opportunity to now help people on this much bigger scale."

He says he feels a responsibility to help refugees arriving now — people like Homayoon Sarwary, who was a legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and his son, Ahmad Sarwary. Their family barely escaped after first being turned away by gunfire.

They're now at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey waiting for what comes next. That's where they met Markell. Ahmad Sarwary, 20, told him he was eager to continue his studies.

"I hope in here I can study computer science," Sarwary told NPR.

Markell shared Sarwary's story a couple of days later, during a meeting with AirBnB co-founder Joe Gebbia. They were talking about the company helping provide housing for tens of thousands of evacuees, but Gebbia said he could provide other help, too. He proposed gathering together other tech executives to find ways to get Sarwary and other refugees into coding boot camps.

"The more that we can do in the tech industry to connect the dots between those who either have the skills or want to learn the skills to the jobs in tech, the better," Gebbia said. "I think it's really just a matter of asking, how might we help?"

NPR producer Barbara Sprunt contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 8, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jack Markell's grandparents came to the U.S. as refugees. They fled Belarus and immigrated to America, but they were not refugees.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.