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Afghans helped us; now we must help them

I still have trouble at times talking about Sept. 11, 2001. I was living in New York City, embracing my job in midtown Manhattan and living in the still-gritty-not-yet-trendy Brooklyn. I was several miles uptown from what became ground zero when the first plane struck, and it was the walking journey to my apartment that day that remains so vivid it feels like this past Tuesday, not a 1,000 Tuesdays ago. From seeing a banked F-16 screaming down the East River so low I could see the pilot’s helmet, to returning home across the river and seeing cars caked in concrete powder and office papers that floated from the towers, I knew we were forever changed.

The 20 years since have brought much transition in my life and in the fabric of our country’s resolve. Like many, I’ve experienced growth from marriage, new jobs and pleasure of living and working around the globe. In life’s journey we take memories of where we were with us so we may improve upon the idea of placing life in better context.

That’s why I cannot help but see an apparent intersection of needs of my Mahoning Valley hometown with moral obligation our nation has to these people that worked to help make America safer after our security was shaken 9/11.

Youngstown and Warren should make efforts, with support from the entire Mahoning Valley community, to welcome Afghan refugees in such a way that it would prepare these heroes (and victims) for long-term success in the United States as contributing citizens.

The U.S. State Department has recommended 19 cities with more immediate resources respond to the urgency to settle refugees. Cleveland and Pittsburgh are on the list. Mahoning Valley anchor cities, in my opinion, have even greater resources to assist Afghans in the long run — organizations that are large enough to commit to them in the long run, but small enough to be adaptive and flexible.

Of course the immediate need is housing stock. While its easy to say many abandoned homes can be “fixed up” quickly, the truth is many houses need costly renovations to be livable. The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership both have data needed to ascertain where refugees can be located, and on-the-ground relationships to know what neighborhoods would benefit the fastest from an influx of new residents. Serious financial resources must be committed in a dedicated program for the refugees. The Valley has the capacity to find those resources within and outside of the region.

Where the Valley can positively create a win-win scenario is the job training and job placement for its new residents. As many of these refugees assisted U.S. forces, the families have a working knowledge of English that can easily be improved upon. Then with guidance from Valley educational and vocational resources, the new residents can fill voids with many employers right now. There is a strong need for CDL drivers; I suspect many can fill those jobs. Manufacturers in the Valley constantly seek hard-working, intuitive workers. I suspect the work ethic of our country’s newest residents would be strong.

Such an initiative would not be easy, but investing in the future of Youngstown and Warren is worth it. There will be the cynical who would question why “foreigners” are getting hand-outs in the form of subsidies and renovated houses. If done correctly with a well-structured plan, these new residents can be tax-paying contributors within two years and for decades after. That could help cities hire police and others needed to maintain quality of life for all.

I have been heartened to hear stories that both left- and right-leaning foundations and groups banding together to help these refugees. I suspect they feel how I feel: The refugees are close to being U.S. veterans but with different passports. Many of our veterans know how these refugees once risked their families’ security to keep our sons and daughters safe while serving in hostile lands.

Last week, just a few subway stops from the 9/11 Memorial, a Brooklyn film festival featured the documentary on a group of people trying to save Youngstown’s neighborhoods. Let’s hope that symbolic connection can unite our nation’s 9/11 healing with my hometown’s healing of its neighborhoods.

Eric Planey is a Mahoning Valley native who lives in the Hudson Valley in New York, and is CEO of a western Massachusetts green technology company. The views expressed are his solely.

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