The first refugees from the frantic exodus that followed the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan are safe in Ann Arbor. In late August, staff from Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Washtenaw County, along with a translator, met the family at the airport, got them housed, and ushered them into a network of support services, including English lessons.

JFS development director Devon Meier can’t share details about the family for privacy reasons and to protect relatives left behind, but she says JFS has already gotten calls from community members wanting to help. That’s needed, because they arrived on “special immigrant visas” and can’t take jobs until they get work visas, which will take several months. The organization is holding its first post-pandemic fundraising event, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” in October.

Jewish groups have a long history of assisting immigrants. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was founded in 1881 to help Jewish newcomers get established and expanded its mission to encompass all refugees in the 1970s, when the U.S. government needed help resettling people fleeing the communist takeover in Vietnam.

The local group started soon afterward as a grassroots effort to resettle Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union. Officially established in 1993, JFS has since helped thousands of refugees from all over the world fleeing political tyranny, wars, or persecution as minorities.

Resettlement director Shrina Eadeh says the group helped 165 people in 2017, with the biggest group coming from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year, the Trump administration’s immigration curbs and the global pandemic cut the number to forty-eight.

With a new administration and new crises, refugee numbers are rising again: according to a September article, “hundreds” of Afghans are expected in Michigan. How many will be coming here?

“It’s the million-dollar question,” says Meier. “We just don’t know. But we’re ready.”