Hundreds of Afghan refugees have stayed at this Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, county officials confirmed Wednesday. Credit: Photo By Steve Bohnel

This story was updated at 12:50 p.m. Dec. 23, 2021, to include a comment from Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman at the Maryland Department of Health and Human Services.

Hundreds of Afghan refugees have stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda in recent months while receiving medical treatment, county officials said Wednesday.

In October, a county official told Bethesda Beat that 37 refugees were being housed at the Bethesda Hyatt on Wisconsin Avenue.

On Wednesday, county officials confirmed in a news briefing that hundreds of refugees have stayed at the Hyatt, although they didn’t have a specific number.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security asked the county’s Office of Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security to reserve up to 200 beds, Oscar Mensah said at the time. Mensah, a social services officer, is the acting chief of Children, Youth and Family Services in the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Since October, Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, has directed a Bethesda Beat reporter to contact the state’s Department of Human Services.

Earlier this month, Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman for that department, directed a reporter to general information about the resettlement process statewide. On Thursday, she wrote in an email that “refugee placement is identified and conducted at the federal level, not at the state or county level.”

County Executive Marc Elrich and James Bridgers, the county’s acting health officer, said Wednesday that the refugees still there are receiving medical treatment. 

Bridgers said officials from the county’s Department of Health and Human Services are also providing family support and other services, and are briefed about every week or two by the state’s Department of Health and Department of Human Services. 

Elrich said he supports the Hyatt’s ability to house refugees while they receive medical care. He said Montgomery County and the U.S. are helping refugees who helped the U.S. and fled their country before and during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“I don’t understand anybody who’s got an issue with them being, God forbid, in a hotel here while they get hospital care … after what these folks have been going through on our behalf,” Elrich said. “So, I know they’re there. It doesn’t bother me that they’re there.”

But Reardon Sullivan, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, said he had concerns about the hotel housing refugees who might have the coronavirus or other unknown health conditions, and how that could endanger county residents.

He contacted Bethesda Beat after Laura Ingraham, who hosts a program on Fox News, aired a segment about refugees staying at the hotel and some of the children enrolled in local schools. Ingraham called for transparency about the situation and where else it might be happening, saying “it’s time for answers.”

Sullivan said in an interview that it’s good that the U.S. is supporting refugees who helped troops during the withdrawal, but it’s “ironic” that Montgomery County is perhaps not considering the health condition and impacts of those who come here, while pushing for mask mandates and a vaccine passport. 

On Wednesday morning, when a Bethesda Beat reporter stopped at the Hyatt Regency, it was relatively quiet, with some guests entering and some taxis parked in front of the hotel.

In a phone call earlier that day, Amit Verma, the manager of the hotel, declined to comment, citing the privacy of his guests. He directed a Bethesda Beat reporter to Operation Allies Welcome — the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s plan for incoming Afghan refugees.

A statement about Operations Allies Welcome says: “On August 29, 2021, President Biden directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to lead and coordinate ongoing efforts across the federal government to support vulnerable Afghans, including those who worked alongside us in Afghanistan for the past two decades, as they safely resettle in the United States.”

According to a press release last month from the operation’s webpage, more than 25,000 Afghan evacuees have resettled in the United States. In October, Mensah said that about 1,400 were expected in Maryland, and of those, up to 700 could go through the county’s resettlement agencies. 

Sean O’Donnell, the county’s public health emergency preparedness manager, said Wednesday that there have been “multiple cohorts” of refugees who have come through the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, but he did not have a specific number on how many are still there and how many are working with outside agencies to find more permanent homes.

Chris Cram, a spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools, wrote in an email that the international admissions office has enrolled 34 students from Afghanistan, out of a total of more than 1,900 international students.

“The office of International Admissions provides and coordinates a wide variety of support for newly arriving families to ease their arrival to MCPS and the county,” Cram wrote in an email about MCPS’ role for Afghan refugees in schools. “If it is not a direct function from MCPS, they connect them with county or other local support agencies.”

The Office for Refugee Resettlement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to an email or call for comment Thursday.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com