MS O’MARA VIGNARAJAH: Hi, all. Good afternoon. Thank you so much for being here. My name is Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, and I’m the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It is so nice to be back here. Just a week ago, we opened officially this office, and it is really so nice to be here. I just wanted to say once again, gratitude to Peace Lutheran and Pastor Sarah for the hospitality and the support.
Today I am delighted to welcome Secretary Antony Blinken. Secretary Blinken has helped shape U.S. foreign policy to ensure it protects U.S. interests and delivers results for the American people for over three decades and three presidential administrations. He served as deputy secretary of state for President Barack Obama from 2015 to 2017, and before that as President Obama’s principal deputy national security advisor.
Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us here at our LIRS Alexandria office. Our incredible staff before you – 14 to date, 13 of whom are Afghans – have already served nearly 500 individuals in these halls, and as you’ll hear more about, hold sobering and personal perspectives of the Afghan resettlement experience.
On behalf of all of us at LIRS, welcome. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Krish, thank you very, very much. And it’s – first of all, it’s wonderful to see you again. For those of you who don’t know, Krish is a former part of our State Department team. I’m so glad that you’re continuing your remarkable service in this capacity. And Pastor, to others who are here, I really came with a few words.
First of all, it’s wonderful to be in this space where so many good things are happening and will continue to happen. To the colleagues from Lutheran Services, the Catholic Bishops, as well as the Ethiopian community who are doing so much to welcome to our country friends, partners, comrades from Afghanistan, we’re so grateful for everything you do. And I think all of you know that if you are making the most wrenching of decisions to leave everything you know behind, to – family, community, friends – and come to a place that you’ve probably never been to before, making that journey and then trying to get settled, quite literally, is in and of itself an extraordinary thing. And to know and to have such remarkably dedicated people showing the humanity, the care, the decency that really is America at its best is a very, very powerful thing and it makes all – I know it makes all the difference in the world to those of you who have made that journey.
So to all of you who are involved in the resettlement effort, thank you, thank you, thank you for showing the best of our country. And to those who’ve made the journey who are side by side with our diplomats, our men and women in uniform in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, we’re so grateful that you’re here and we want to do everything we can to welcome you warmly to our country.
Yours is part of a continuing story, because the story of the United States has been, generation to generation, new arrivals from all parts of this planet coming here, working to make a better life for themselves and their families, and as a result, making our country better and better, greater and greater, and making an even better life for all Americans. That is the story of this country. You’re now fully, fully a part of it and we’re so grateful to have you.
Another word I want to say as well: To those of you who stepped up and volunteered in one way or another to help this effort, that too is America at its best, and I’ve seen and heard about some of the stories. We know what volunteerism can do, what it can produce. There are a couple of you who may be even here today – Natalie Perdue, Dan Altman looked to their neighbors to help with housing for a few families, and all of a sudden neighbor after neighbor kicked in and from 10 families you went to about 55 families that you’re helping. It’s a powerful example of what people standing up, volunteering, being part of the effort can do.
This has been an extraordinary effort. Seventy-five thousand friends from Afghanistan relocated to the United States, about 3,000 here in Virginia to date and more to come. The resettlement effort itself has been quite remarkable. We’ve had a resettlement system that was in the midst of difficult times in recent years. We’ve had to really jumpstart many efforts, and the result, though, is that just in the month of October we were able to resettle more people in a given – in one month than we’d ever done before in the history of our resettlement programs. That’s a testament to, again, the remarkable work that the resettlement agencies and partners have done, and I think as well, I have to say my colleagues at the State Department, particularly in our PRM Bureau have done a remarkable job in being partners in this effort.
So it’s the holiday season. I thought it was a fitting way to mark the holidays by simply coming here and saying thank you to all of those who have been working on this effort. And to our newest neighbors and friends, welcome, we’re so glad to have you, and have a wonderful, wonderful holiday season. Thank you. (Applause.)
(Secretary Blinken speaks with attendees.)
MS O’MARA VIGNARAJAH: Now we’ll be able to actually go and sit down and have a conversation.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good. I know we’re going to have a conversation with them.
MS O’MARA VIGNARAJAH: Yeah. Thank you for finding the time not just to express your gratitude and for us to appreciate your leadership, but to actually sit down and have an honest assessment of what we’ve done well and where there are gaps. So our hope was to draw a few perspectives. Obviously, so many of them share personal experiences. So thank you for this opportunity.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thank you, Krish. And that’s what I’m eager to do. I know that besides our resettlement partners, we have some folks who have benefitted from those services, and I know we have some individual volunteers who sort of stepped up to participate. I was mostly really interested in hearing from each of you from your different perspectives what’s working, what needs some help and is not working quite as well as it should, and how we can do an even better job in welcoming the newest arrivals to our country.
So I was able to – eager to hear that from all three perspectives. And as I said earlier, it has been to date a remarkable, remarkable effort. And if you look at it in historic context, it probably is extraordinary. But we also know that there are immense challenges that go along with it, and that’s what I really want to hear about and figure out how we can do even more and do even better by our newest neighbors.
So with that, I think we’re going to have conversation.
MS O’MARA VIGNARAJAH: I think we’re going to pause just a moment in order for the press —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, folks. Thank you.