Afghan refugees find generosity, chaos as they settle in California county
The Orange County Register February 2, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — Nasema’s immense pride for her younger sister as a member of the famed Afghan Girls Robotic Team turned to fear last August.
That’s when an American contact told Nasema that the girls on the Robotic Team, and their relatives, could be in danger as U.S. troops evacuated Afghanistan and the Taliban retook control of the country. So Nasema, her husband, Firooz, and their three sons soon fled from their hometown of Herat and made their way to Kabul.
Two days later, Americans took the family as close as they could safely get to the Kabul Airport, where U.S. forces were rushing to airlift out vulnerable Afghans. The family walked the last two miles, then fought through a chaotic crowd of thousands to get inside the airport gates and, eventually, to a waiting plane.
After a week in Kuwait, and three months in the barracks of a military base in Wisconsin, the family has spent the past 69 days living in one-room hotels in Irvine, Calif., still waiting for a place to call home.
Nasema and her family are among roughly 400 Afghan refugees who’ve arrived in Orange County, and more than 76,000 who’ve come to the United States, over the past six months.
All once worked with American troops or had other ties that would put them at risk in a country now under Taliban rule. (Their relatives in Afghanistan remain vulnerable, which is why Nasema and others in this story are not being identified by their full names.)
Another 100-plus refugees are expected to arrive in Orange County in the next few weeks, as the State Department transfers the final 10,000 people still living in temporary mini-cities on three U.S. military bases.
The refugee wave, locally, has generated many examples of people stepping in to welcome the new arrivals. That includes businesses, like a TV station in Little Saigon that raised $80,000 for Afghan families from a Vietnamese audience that understands what it’s like to be a refugee. And it includes individuals like David and Darlene Gray of Seal Beach, who are sponsoring a family of three and planning a shower for the Afghan American baby they’ll soon welcome.
“God told us to do two things: Love Him and love others,” said Darlene Gray, 74. “We feel like this is a real opportunity to love others in His name.”
Such support is generating some early successes. A man who worked as a civil engineer in Afghanistan recently landed a local job in his field, making more than $170,000 a year. And a nail artist recently was promoted to a lead role at her salon, just two weeks after she landed the job.
But the Afghan resettlement process in Southern California also has been messy, local aid workers and refugees say.
Assistance programs are strained, with reports of communication gaps and a backlog of cases because so many families need help at a time when the resettlement program is only starting to ramp up after being virtually dismantled during the Trump administration.
Most notable is a shortage of available housing. For now, dozens of families like Nasema’s are living for weeks on end at long-term hotels in south Orange County as they wait to find landlords who will rent to them.
“There’s just so much uncertainty as to what’s going to happen,” said Jose Serrano, whose Garden Grove-based nonprofit World Relief Southern California helps settle refugees.
To create more success stories — and ease the hiccups — Serrano said “it’s really important that people in the community get involved and walk alongside resettlement agencies.”
A winding road
For the refugees, the wait to find a new home started long before they checked into local hotels or other temporary housing.
The Grays are sponsoring Ahmad, who worked for the U.S. government in Kabul. As soon as Ahmad was told to evacuate, on Aug. 18, he tried to get his pregnant wife and 2-year-old son out of the country. After waiting for hours outside the gates of Kabul Airport with no food or water, with desperate crowds pushing from behind and Taliban soldiers firing warning shots from a nearby wall, Ahmad abandoned his luggage and forced his way back through the crowd with his frightened family. By the time he made it out, every button on his shirt was missing.
Ahmad was certain they’d never find a way out.
“I was hopeless,” he said.
For the next week, Ahmad and his family hid at home. Then they got word to be on a particular street corner at a particular time, where a bus would be waiting to get them past the airport gates. After another round of hours on the tarmac, and a night sleeping in an abandoned plane, the family was loaded onto the floor of a C-17, along with 300 other refugees, and airlifted to Kuwait. There, they spent four days in a tent on a military base in the desert, going through rigorous security and health screenings and getting vaccinations and COVID-19 tests. On Aug. 31, they were allowed to enter the United States.
Initially, most of the new arrivals were sent to one of eight military bases. In recent weeks, five of those bases have said goodbye to their final refugees, while bases in Wisconsin, Virginia and New Jersey each continue to host several thousand people.
Ahmad and his family spent two months at the base in Virginia. They slept in bunk beds, in a large room with a dozen other families. Like everyone in the barracks, they used bedsheets to create some privacy.
It was clear the bases initially were unprepared to feed and clothe thousands of people. For the first month, Ahmad would line up at 4:30 a.m. to get breakfast at 8 a.m. He’d bring food back to his wife and son to eat in their bunks. At that point, he said, it was nearly time to line up for lunch.
In the second month, conditions improved. Donated clothing started to roll in and families could pick out socks and pants. Wait times for meals dropped to around 40 minutes, and a little store that once sold cigarettes and Red Bulls to soldiers started carrying baby strollers and sewing kits.
At 4 p.m. each afternoon, Ahmad said, hundreds of people would gather around a piece of paper taped to a wall to read the names of refugees who’d had their cases picked up by a resettlement agency. If your name was on that list it meant you could leave the camp and head to the community that might become home. Ideally, once there, you’d find some family or friends to offer some support.
After nine weeks without seeing his name on those lists, Ahmad opted to leave on his own. Since he had a sister who’d gotten a special immigrant visa to come to Westminster six months earlier, she was able to arrange flights for his family. On Nov. 6, they had a tearful reunion at John Wayne Airport. She then brought his family of three to her home, a one-bedroom apartment that they shared with her family of four.
Many people aren’t so fortunate, Ahmad acknowledged. Several colleagues he worked with in Afghanistan have spent five months living at U.S. bases, waiting for a resettlement agency to take their cases.
Nasema said her brother and his family have been at the base in Wisconsin for six months. Through a translator, she said the agency that helped her get to Orange County told her they’re currently at capacity.
Homeland Security says it hopes to have all refugees cleared from military bases by the middle of February.
Orange County steps up
Once families arrive in Orange County, there’s a complex network of agencies, organizations and volunteers who team up to help them build new lives in the region.
For those who aren’t able to rely on family, the way Ahmad did, resettlement agencies get them into temporary housing and offer federal support for their first 90 days. That means help in everything from food to healthcare to enrolling their kids in local schools.
In Orange County, that agency has been Uplift Charity in Anaheim, which has served local refugees since 2006. In October, Uplift became a State Department contracted resettlement agency, and on Nov. 8, organization President Owaiz Dadabhoy said, they picked up their first family from the current Afghan exodus at LAX.
The pace has been challenging. With as many as 25 people arriving in a single day, Dadabhoy said his staff has been clocking overtime every weekday and on weekends. And they’ve been relying on donations to sustain many local families, with federal funds falling far short of meeting all of their needs.
To help with the workload, in late January the state named a second local resettlement agency, the Fullerton-based chapter of the Islamic Center of North America.
“We want all of these families to be success stories,” said Abdullah Zikria, a local manager for the Islamic Center. “We’ll get it done, but it’s going to require a lot of support.”
Solid support is coming from the county itself, Zikria and Dadabhoy said. Orange County Supervisors Doug Chaffee and Andrew Do led an early effort to get county staff and resources to help with Afghan resettlement. The county’s Social Services Agency signs refugees up for benefit programs, such as CalWORKs and Medi-Cal, while other staff members help address everything from financial support to school access.
Still, both the resettlement agencies and the county said they’re depending on local nonprofits and residents to help refugee families build new lives here.
“It’s really about the community stepping up,” Chaffee said.
Help is coming from nonprofits such as Afghan Refugee Relief.
Volunteer Sonik Sadozai came with her mother to the United States from Afghanistan four decades ago, when she was 13 years old. She’s worked in property management in Orange County for more than a decade and is now part of a 10-member housing committee for Afghan Refugee Relief. Over the past two months, they’ve placed 19 families in long-term housing, with Nasema and her family next on the list.
Once Sadozai lines up housing, she contacts the nonprofit’s furniture committee. That group then gets busy sorting through donated items at a former Sears building in Orange, which they’re being allowed to use rent-free. And if they’re missing any essential items, the committee puts out a call and more furniture rolls in.
While some organizations said they’ve seen a dip in donations since the initial surge, as stories about the Afghanistan crisis dominated the late summer news cycle, Families Forward in Irvine said support has continued to pour in.
The nonprofit has helped Orange County families with housing needs since 1984. But chief executive Madelynn Hirneise said the scale of need now, with so many Afghan refugees arriving at a time when housing is as tight as it is, presents additional challenges.
So far, Families Forward has committed to help five local Afghan families who Hirneise said all have close ties to the Irvine area. They’ve settled three families so far, in Irvine and in Westminster, and they’re still hunting for homes for the other two families.
“We’ll take anything we can get,” Hirneise said.
While Ahmad was able to live with his sister when he arrived in November, he was anxious to get his family into their own place. In Afghanistan, he’d earned an MBA, and was able to pretty quickly get a job as a filing clerk at a bank in Santa Ana. In December, he moved his wife and son into a one-bedroom apartment in Westminster.
The Grays and other community members helped furnish the home, and they’ve been pitching in on transportation, preparing Ahmad for his driver’s license test and planning a baby shower for his wife, who’s expecting their first daughter on April 12.
“She’s going to be a citizen of the United States right away,” Ahmad said with a crack in his voice.
More help needed
Despite the generosity of many local people, volunteers say the housing situation is getting so dire that some refugees could be on the brink of homelessness in another month.
Real estate firms are reporting a vacancy rate of around 1.2% for Orange County apartments, with prices soaring and units for larger families scarce. Families such as Nasema’s have already been in hotels for two months. And since the federal government only covers case management services for 90 days, those benefits will soon run out.
Along with case management services, refugees get a one-time federal “welcome” stipend of about $1,225 per person to help with long-term housing. Resettlement agencies have been trying not to tap that money to pay for hotel rooms. But as hotel stays drag on, Sadozai fears those welcome funds will dwindle, leaving refugees fully dependent on donations to pay for security deposits and initial rent payments once long-term housing is secured.
Firooz was a cook in an Afghan restaurant back home. His oldest son, Shoaib, 22, made jewelry. They’re eager to get new jobs and become self-sufficient. But like many families, they have no idea which city they’ll eventually call home. They also don’t have cars. So they feel like everything is on pause until they get into long-term housing.
In the meantime, their family starts each day by taking an elevator from their third-story hotel room to the lobby for breakfast. They then walk around the hotel complex or nearby neighborhood, and talk with a half dozen other Afghan families living in the same hotel. Nasema cooks them lunch and dinner in their room’s tiny kitchen, or a larger space the hotel provides, using groceries another Afghan Refugee Relief volunteer helps them collect.
When the weather is good, the younger sons — Shikib, 17, and Shahab, 8, who have both been deaf from birth — might play basketball on the hotel’s mini court, using a Golden State Warriors basketball given to them by a hotel clerk.
Somewhere between Kuwait and Wisconsin, the family’s luggage was lost. So they’ve come with only the clothes on their backs, a well-worn Islamic prayer book, and a single strand of white and black prayer beads. They’ve since collected some donated clothing, a Quran, and a tan stuffed dog for Shahab, who sported a NASA t-shirt.
The family also received one cell phone to share when they landed in the U.S, which only works for local calls and on Wi-Fi. Shikib eagerly pulled up a photo. Someone had written “deaf” in red marker on a piece of paper and snapped a picture with the phone, so he could show it to strangers when needed. And he’s saved a video of an American Sign Language lesson, which his dad said he’s anxious to learn.
Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan said the city has been working with Families Forward to help support the five families with local ties. But she was shocked to learn Uplift Charity had placed dozens of families at local hotels, even though most don’t have family members in Irvine.
Dadabhoy, with Uplift, said his organization didn’t notify city officials because everything has happened quickly and they’ve just had their “heads down,” working around the clock. He said a couple hotel chains that have stoves and refrigerators stepped up to make rooms available, so they jumped at the offer.
Having so many families in just a few hotels makes things logistically easier, Dadabhoy said, since they can bring services and arrange transportation from a single location. And, he argues, community resources haven’t been strained, since these families are essentially staying at the hotels unless an aid worker comes to assist them.
As for a lack of local family connection, Dadabhoy explained that the refugees will not all be settling long-term in the communities where they’re now staying.
“That would not be a recipe for success,” he acknowledged, given the local housing market.
Some refugee families who landed for a time in Irvine hotels already have gone to other parts of Orange County or to more affordable areas, such as Riverside or San Bernardino counties, and as far away as Houston, where Dadabhoy said they had family or friends.
For those who have family locally, or who otherwise want to remain in Orange County, there’s no easy answer to the housing squeeze.
Sadozai spends much of her day reaching out to landlords. Many say they were burned during the pandemic, when some tenants were unable to pay rent — or were told they didn’t have to — and landlords couldn’t kick them out. And none of these new potential tenants have the credit checks, work history and other documentation typically needed to qualify for an apartment.
To convince landlords to rent to refugees, Sadozai said she sometimes has to agree to pay as much as six months of their rent in advance. Her organization and some local families also have agreed to co-sign on a few apartments.
“It’s been tough,” she said, “but one at a time.”
Once landlords agree to rent to refugee families, Sadozai has to scramble to get funding.
One man who bought a condo as an investment property told her he’d rent to a family of seven refugees, but he wanted first and last month’s rent plus two more months upfront, for a total of $12,000 to move in. The federal “welcome” funds only added up to $8,575 for this family of seven. So, on Jan. 18, Sadozai rushed to pick up a check from Access California Services in Anaheim to cover the difference before the landlord changed his mind.
Aid groups are asking anyone who owns property — particularly larger apartments or single-family homes — to consider renting to a refugee family. They’re not asking for handouts, just some flexibility in terms of working with people who don’t have standard documentation.
In turn, Sadozai said they’re happy to walk landlords through an explanation of the income streams and support systems currently behind these families. Families Forward, for example, provides help with minor apartment maintenance, 24-hour support and other benefits for tenants it places in local housing.
Anyone willing to offer employment and reliable cars also would help, aid groups say. And cash donations to the organizations supporting refugees are always needed.
Firooz, the one-time cook, said they’re immensely grateful to the United States for getting them out of Afghanistan, and to local groups for putting a roof over their heads.
“Now,” he said, “we just want to start a new life.”
Staff writer Jeff Collins contributed to this report.
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