Afghan Refugees in U.S. Struggle to Find Permanent Housing

Itt has been nine months since 22-year-old Khadija, her 14-year-old brother and 32-year-old cousin fled the Taliban’s takeover in their home country of Afghanistan. They arrived in America in August after brief stops in Qatar and Germany. Khadija and many others who fled Afghanistan last year are now more secure, but they face a daunting challenge in finding permanent housing during an escalating national housing crisis.

Afghan refugees receive housing assistance and essential necessities from local resettlement agencies upon their arrival. This is for a minimum of 30 to 90 days. That includes roughly $1,200 per person in federal “welcome money.” Khadija, who asked TIME to withhold her last name for safety reasons because she still has family living in Afghanistan, ended up spending most of the cash on daily essentials, not rent. “At that time, we needed the money because we are human. We needed clothes and food,” Khadija says.

Afghans who reside in the U.S. may also be eligible for temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) and food stamps, provided they fulfill income and other eligibility requirements. But for many Afghans who are wrestling with trauma, navigating the bureaucratic process to obtain benefits can be a maze; resettlement agencies sometimes help individuals access these benefits but with high caseloads and limited funding, they’re not always able to devote large amounts of time to each family. And some experts say it’s just not enough money.

“The federal assistance is simply insufficient to cover any of the basic sh-t,” says Heba Gowayed, an assistant sociology professor at Boston University and author of The State and Refuge: Human Potential in the Making. “Folks are coming into this country, and they’re getting caught in a deficient and defunded safety net.”

While a local church has committed to covering Khadija and her family’s $3,000 monthly rent in Gaithersburg, Md., for June and July, it’s too expensive for them to continue living in the apartment once their rental assistance ends. Khadija knows she will need to move, even though she has not found a job. But she doesn’t know where they will go.

It’s a major challenge that many Afghans who arrived in the U.S. as part of last year’s influx are struggling to overcome. Maryland is home to thousands of evacuees. Iowa, According to reports, people in Michigan and Ohio are still staying at hotels. Resettlement agencies are “short staffed, overwhelmed, and struggling to find affordable housing,” says Dr. Nadia Hashimi, a board member of the Afghan-American Foundation, who spent months working with Afghan evacuee families on a psychological support program. “The financial support that they’re getting for housing is temporary, and so in a relatively short amount of time, they have to get on their feet and find a job, because they’re going to have to take over paying that rent.”

Gowayed believes that America’s inability to provide housing for refugees it has helped create is worthy of more attention. She also raised questions regarding what Afghans should expect from their new country. “What happens is that people are admitted and they’re expected to be grateful, to live the American dream,” she adds. “Admitting people into American poverty is no one’s salvation.”

In an email statement, a spokesperson for the State Department stated that while the government was actively trying to find affordable housing, it acknowledged the challenges.

“In addition to a housing shortage, there is also a staffing shortage at many refugee resettlement agencies, health care facilities, and community organizations that support resettlement, the spokesperson said. “Temporary lodging has often been necessary for a period of time, until permanent housing can be secured.”

Unique challenges

Finding housing comes with unique challenges: fronting a security deposit and additional month(s) of rent, as well as needing to show a credit score, previous employment history, a cosigner and required documentation such as work permits or social security numbers—all of which are requirements that newcomers to the U.S. may lack or need extra time to secure.

Families have been made easier by the help of organizations and individuals. Mumtaz Momand is a UWA Support Team consultant who has been living in America since 2014. He says that he was a cosigner and rented property to be passed on to approximately 12 Afghan evacuees. “I’m a human being and I cannot see these people suffering and that there’s no one to help them,” Momand says. He does, however, worry about the financial liability, saying that “it’s a huge responsibility.”

5ive Pillars in Northern California is seeking property developers, landlords and property managers who are willing to skip some of the more formal requirements, so that they can rent properties for a lower rate than market.

Families often struggle to find housing even after they have found a home. Some are resettled into homes they can’t afford after their rental support expires—requiring them to leave or face potential eviction, says Zuhal Bahaduri, co-founder of 5ive Pillars. “The resources they are receiving (from the government) don’t really correlate with California’s cost of living.” For example, median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Diego is $2,390—up 32.8% in 2022 from what it was in 2021, according to rental platform Zumper.

The national rent rate has been at its fastest in many decades. Between March 2021-2022, the average price for a 1-bedroom apartment rose 12%. These effects are felt all over the country, but they have been most severe in major cities like New York, San Diego, San Diego, and Boston.

Learn more What the U.S. can do to rebuild its refugee system after the Ukraine and Afghan crises

Zarmina, her three-year-old children, lives in Martinez in Northern California. According to her, the $1,800 she is paying in rent has been covered by her resettlement agent. “I’m really stressed out because I don’t know when the rental assistance will stop,” Zarmina tells TIME in an interview interpreted by a 5ive Pillars staff member Farkhanda Omar. Zarmina asked TIME to withhold her name because of safety concerns. She still has Afghan family.

Zarmina speaks little English and says she doesn’t know how she would go about getting a job. She’s busy taking care of the children and doing household chores. She walks her 12-year old daughter, aged 12, an hour each way to school without a car. She and her husband, along with their four-year old daughter, are currently in Afghanistan. They were separated when a handgrenade caused injuries to the girl. Zarmina, despite her physical recovery, is still grieving the loss of Zarmina. “My daughter cries a lot and asks ‘mommy where are you?,’” she says.

Sahar Yasir (34), and her husband, are currently facing similar difficulties over 500 miles away in El Cajon. After receiving a special immigrant visa, the couple arrived in San Diego County with their children on May 1.

They have now secured a $2,500 per month apartment. But that’s only after a friend in the same complex intervened on their behalf, convincing the landlord to let them pay a $3,000 deposit because they didn’t have a social security number. They were lent money by the same friend for their deposit and first month. Without jobs, they’re unsure how they will come up with the necessary money to pay next month’s rent and have not yet received any formal rental assistance. Yasir is a former USAID development worker. She says they spent everything after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. They also lost their jobs. “I’m thinking about people who cannot speak English, who don’t know someone here. What kinds of problems are they surviving?” Yasir says.

Finding a job quickly isn’t always realistic for evacuees. Back in Maryland, Khadija has applied to multiple postings in retail—all under a 30 minute walk from her home because she doesn’t have a car and public transport options are sparse. Unfortunately, so far nothing seems to have worked. She’s also sent at least $400 back home to her parents who don’t have jobs.

Khadija, along with her brother Mujtaba are also dealing with the challenges of making ends meets. As a former member of the Afghan military and part of Afghanistan’s ethnic minority Hazara community—which the Taliban and ISIS has brutalized for years—Khadija fears for the safety of her parents and two siblings, who remain in Afghanistan. On August 18, chaos ensued when they arrived at Kabul Airport with hundreds of Afghans. A hand bomb detonated, injuring her brother Mujtaba’s leg and they were separated from their parents. Later, they boarded the plane together.

For now, Khadija is focused on building a life for Mujtaba in the U.S., but she also can’t stop thinking about her family back home and is desperate for a way to bring them to safety. “My situation right now is not good and I don’t know what I should do and how I can help my family,” she says.

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