2022 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Holly Herrera, Hilary Ingraham, Kiera Berdinner and the Operation Allies Welcome Resettlement Team

Coordinated the largest resettlement of refugees in modern U.S. history, providing housing and services in record time to more than 72,000 people who fled from Afghanistan in 2021 as American military forces withdrew from that war-torn country.

In the late summer of 2021 as the Afghan government fell and the Taliban took over, tens of thousands of Afghan citizens—interpreters, guides, cooks and civil employees who had risked their lives to help American forces—were desperate to leave. If they couldn’t get out, they would face death or prison at the hands of the Taliban.

But even if they could get out, the United States was not prepared to resettle so many individuals because the capacity for aid, housing, food, transportation and more had withered under politics and budgets during the Trump administration.

Into this crisis stepped three State Department public servants: Hilary Ingraham, Holly Herrera and Kiera Berdinner. Working in the department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the three women led an extraordinary mobilization that coordinated, moved and found housing and services for more than 72,000 of the 76,000 Afghans who initially came to U.S. military bases across the United States.

“What they achieved was nothing short of impossible,” said Uzra Zeya, the State Department undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

In record time, Ingraham, Herrera and Berdinner developed ways to expand the network of national and local resettlement agencies and pair them with Afghan refugees. Serving as de facto social workers, logisticians, cultural advisors and advocates, they built partnerships with private companies and nonprofit groups, resulting in the largest single resettlement effort in recent U.S. history.

This was all the more remarkable because the annual number of refugees admitted to the United States had dropped as low as about 11,000 per year, and funding was significantly reduced as a result. About 100 of the country’s 300 resettlement offices had been closed and the federal government’s collective knowledge for resettlement had suffered.

“You can’t just flip a switch and bring it back,” said Curtis Ried, a National Security Council presidential advisor on global refugee admissions.

“There weren’t any rule books or templates for this,” Ingraham said.

The process started in August 2021, with Afghans arriving at temporary housing on eight U.S. military bases. To this point, Ingraham was responsible for refugee processing and led the creation of a system to plan the resettlement of each family based on resettlement agency capacity, refugee vulnerability and the order of base closure. Without this system, the team could not have managed the enormous flow in an orderly fashion.

Herrera was State’s chief for this resettlement effort and Berdinner, a program expert, was her second in command.

Some of the arrivals were already eligible for refugee assistance as a result of their work in Afghanistan for the United States. But the vast majority were processed as parolees, a designation that allowed them to enter the country and apply for more permanent status.

Ordinarily, this could have made it harder to provide aid because parolees are not normally eligible for the same benefits as refugees. That’s where this team’s work made a big difference.

“They set up a parallel system for Afghan parolees to provide them similar benefits as refugees,” explained Nancy Jackson, a senior State Department official in the refugee bureau. “They had to do it with separate funding authorities, separate cooperative agreements and new partnerships. They stood it up in a matter of days.”

A program of this scope would normally take six months to develop at minimum. “I think we ended up doing it in 10 days from conception to posting an announcement to implementation of a completely new program,” Berdinner said. “I’ll never forget how surreal it felt.”

On U.S. soil, the arrivals were assigned to one of the local resettlement partners. Ingraham, Herrera and Berdinner worked to quickly stand up additional resettlement communities. To help find short-term affordable housing while local staff searched for permanent housing, the team developed a Housing on Demand program based on a model traditionally used for disaster relief.

They also partnered with Welcome.US, a new nonprofit sponsored by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors to mobilize airlines and businesses, including Airbnb, to provide free temporary housing, flights to local communities and other commitments to assist resettlement agencies. With Welcome.US, the team enlisted large organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse and Islamic Relief USA to mobilize their own national networks to resettle refugees.

Ingraham, Herrera and Berdinner praised the readiness of the resettlement coalition to step up. But Berdinner recalls how she told them, “That’s amazing – can you do more? We kept pushing.”

State Department officials said that rather than a one-time endeavor, the trio’s work will serve as the way this process is managed from now on.

“It’s really revolutionized everything,” said Sarah Cross, deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. “And we will see that pay off over the years to come.”

While establishing an effective system is gratifying, Ingraham said the work has been “the highlight of all our careers because we helped get our Afghan allies resettled across the United States where they are already contributing to their new communities. These Afghans are some of the most vulnerable people in this world and also some of the strongest people I have ever met.”