BISMARCK — North Dakota will become home to 49 refugees from Afghanistan in the wake of a Taliban takeover that compelled thousands to flee the Asian country.

Though state officials had said last month North Dakota was unlikely to receive any Afghan refugees, the U.S. State Department recently approved a proposal made by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, North Dakota's refugee resettlement agency, to take in the 49 evacuees. Minnesota is slated to take in 275 refugees.

Most of the North Dakota-bound refugees will resettle in Fargo because the city offers the best access to social and health services, English-language instruction and public transportation, said Dan Hannaher, North Dakota field director for LIRS.

Resettlement programs aim to place refugees where their family members already live, but Hannaher said it's likely those resettled in Fargo won't have existing family ties in the U.S. Any arrivals who do have loved ones in North Dakota would likely live close to them, whether in Fargo or some other city.

Hannaher said his agency does not yet know the identities of the refugees coming to North Dakota, adding that they could arrive any time between this month and March of next year. Those eligible to be resettled in the U.S. under the federally funded Afghan Placement and Assistance program either worked for the U.S. military, a U.S. government-funded program, an American media organization or a non-governmental organization like the Red Cross.

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The evacuees coming to live in North Dakota have likely experienced an "extremely traumatic last few months" that may have included physical abuse as the Taliban retook Afghanistan and American forces rushed to withdraw from a 20-year war, Hannaher said.

Before the refugees arrive in the country, they must complete a "rigorous vetting process" through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that includes fingerprint-based background checks and other security screenings, according to a news release from the state Department of Human Services. The refugees will also receive medical screenings, a COVID-19 vaccination and work authorization.

Most of the refugees bound for new homes in the U.S. are currently being vetted at military bases overseas or on American soil, Hannaher said.

Dan Hannaher recently started as North Dakota field director for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, a national nonprofit group that jumped in to fill the void left by the closure of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. David Samson / The Forum
Dan Hannaher recently started as North Dakota field director for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, a national nonprofit group that jumped in to fill the void left by the closure of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. David Samson / The Forum

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum embraced the move to accept refugees into the state.

“North Dakota resettles legal, thoroughly vetted refugees and has had success at integrating refugees who have become responsible citizens and members of the workforce," Burgum said in a statement. "We expect the same with the resettlement of these Afghan evacuees, and we welcome them to Fargo and North Dakota and thank those who helped and worked alongside U.S. soldiers and personnel in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., blamed the administration of President Joe Biden for failing to effectively pull out of Afghanistan.

“Because of President Biden’s haphazard withdrawal, the United States is moving quickly to receive Afghan refugees, including a relatively small number who are coming to North Dakota," Cramer said in a statement. "As those efforts are a function of private organizations and the State of North Dakota, I look forward to working with them as needed to ensure any refugees are properly and thoroughly vetted and accounted for.”

Spokespeople for Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, both Republicans, did not respond to Forum News Service's request for comment.

By taking in refugees from Afghanistan, Hannaher said North Dakota is performing a humanitarian duty, promoting national security interests and helping fill jobs in a labor-starved economy.

The 49 refugees destined for North Dakota are part of 37,000 humanitarian evacuees who will be resettled across the country. North Dakota has not been a frequent destination for Afghan refugees in the past, only resettling 115 over the last two decades, however Fargo and Grand Forks have taken in thousands of African and Asian refugees over that same period.

California is expected to lead all states by welcoming more than 5,200 Afghan refugees through the mass resettlement program, while South Dakota, Wyoming, West Virginia, Hawaii and the District of Columbia are not planning to take in any evacuees from the first group of arrivals, according to data first reported by The Associated Press.