Unsettled: the Afghan refugee crisis collides with the American housing disaster
The Abdils decided Afghanistan was no longer safe after their 14-year-old son, Abdul-Azim, was kidnapped on his way home from school. For years, the Taliban abducted children for ransom or used them as leverage in negotiating with the Afghan police. As much as it pained them to abandon their son, Fazela and Hakeem Abdil had other children — two teenage daughters — to think about. They were faced with a difficult choice: stay in an increasingly dangerous Afghanistan or leave their home forever.
Up until then, things had been peaceful for the Abdils. “We had a well-arranged life. We had work, a house. Life was pretty comfortable,” Hakeem says. But conditions in Kabul had grown worse when many assumed they’d get better. In February 2020, the Trump administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban, promising to withdraw all troops within 14 months so long as it abstained from attacking US soldiers. The violence did not end and, in fact, became more pronounced.
So the Abdils made the painful decision to flee, knowing that they would be leaving Abdul-Azim behind.
If the decision to leave is complicated, it is followed by the equally convoluted, bureaucratic process of emigrating. Hurriedly, the Abdils fled to Tajikistan where they awaited visas into Ukraine. Then they began a process to enter the US. After working alongside the Americans for nearly a decade in logistics and transport, Fazela qualified for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, granting her and her family permanent safety in the States. The SIV can be read two ways: as a reward for aiding American forces or an acknowledgment that helping the US can put an Afghan’s life in peril.
That process left them in nearly two years of limbo. But, last December, the Abdils finally arrived in California. From the airport, they were transported to a mosque near Union City, where they slept on floor mats for one night, shielded by a single curtain. Without any money to spend on Ubers or bus passes, the family walked an hour and 40 minutes to a local nonprofit, the Afghan Coalition, to begin the process of resettlement.
When I meet them, it is the first week of February 2022. The early afternoon sun is beginning to clear Northern California’s winter haze as Hakeem Abdil carries a laundry basket full of cleaning supplies to the door of his family’s first apartment in the United States. This arrival is long overdue, but the family has little time to ease into this new life. Shooing my hand away from the doorknob, the staunch middle-aged man welcomes me into their modest two-bedroom apartment in Fremont, just under an hour’s drive northeast of Oakland.
The kitchen is tiny; the living area is mostly empty save for a rug and a handful of bed pillows lined up against the wall for sitting. There’s a laptop on the floor of the first bedroom. Beside it are English-language learning workbooks and a binder of resettlement paperwork. In the second room, there is one queen-size bed, the largest piece of furniture in the home and the only place for any of the four people living in the home to sleep.
It’s not extravagant, but after two years without a permanent home, it’s a place of their own, at least for now.
“We are happy here,” Fazela says. She generously hands me a plate of mandarin oranges, and we sit on the living room floor as we talk. “Happy, but we would like to receive some support.”
The Abdils’ fraught living situation might seem surprising when you consider that, even still, they are some of the luckiest recent Afghan refugees. They’d left before the US announced it would pull out, giving them a head start of nearly a year on the wave of new refugees, many on SIVs, that would attempt to resettle in California. But, if finding semipermanent housing was so difficult for the Abdils, what can even newer Afghan families expect to find when they land in the States? And can an already strained housing crisis absorb 100,000 new people?
Hopefully, among those next to arrive in the US is Abdul-Azim. Just weeks after they left Afghanistan, the Abdils learned that their son had escaped Taliban captivity, ultimately making his way to Germany where he waits to join his family in California. When I ask about Abdul-Azim, Fazela leans forward, hiding her face, stifling tears between words. It’s been two years since she has seen him.
Last August, President Joe Biden confirmed that America would end its nearly 20-year involvement in Afghanistan by withdrawing its remaining military forces. But it wouldn’t just be the military returning to America; around 100,000 Afghan refugees would be resettled in the US — allegiance to Americans rewarded with a new life in the States.
Many Afghans would have trouble fleeing. As the Taliban encroached on Kabul, the fast-changing conditions on the ground made it difficult for Afghan allies, many of whom were admitted as humanitarian parolees. But if leaving was difficult, arriving would be as well. The largest Afghan population in the US exists in the Bay Area. The administration had promised refugees homes, and now, it attempted to place tens of thousands of families in densely populated areas that, for decades now, have been acutely afflicted by a lack of affordable housing.
In order to accommodate the surge of refugees, the Biden administration rolled out a series of resettlement programs that would be coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security and its Operation Allies Welcome. It’s a dizzying system: DHS handles the intake and initial processing of refugees, but a separate emergency program called the Afghanistan Placement Assistance Program, run by the State Department and in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services, helps to provide cash and benefits assistance. For decades, nine resettlement agencies have been contracted by the State Department to help, and those agencies have hundreds of satellite and affiliate groups to help refugees on the ground. Additional benefits ranging from healthcare to employment services are run through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
To complicate things further, benefits could vary depending on whether refugees were admitted to the US on SIVs or as humanitarian parolees. Though HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement was created by the United States Refugee Act of 1980, many refugee benefits are spearheaded by the State Department’s contracted nonprofits, like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Church World Service (CWS).
If the process is mired in bureaucracy and confusing acronyms, at least the mission on the ground is clear. Where government contracted resettlement agencies stumble, volunteers often pick up the slack to ensure dignity and safety for the Afghan families arriving in the US.
The sun is starting to set as I pull into the Zamzam Supermarket on a Friday evening in February. The market, which doubles as a restaurant, opened in Fremont, California, years after its owner, Gamal Siddiqi, immigrated to the US from Afghanistan. Madeena Siddiqui, a 30-year-old first-generation Afghan American, embraces me in a hug. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “I’m not wearing much makeup today.”
Since September, Siddiqui has been working for the Afghan Coalition, a Fremont-based nonprofit that’s filling in the gaps left open by the government and its contracted resettlement agencies. Over our dinner of kabob, dumplings, and Qabily, Siddiqui describes her role, likening it to holding a giant bowl above her head moving back and forth as she tries to catch the Afghan refugees the government can’t sustain on its own.
“I work 24 hours, seven days a week, even when I was sick,” Siddiqui says, not out of self-pity but pride. “I’m constantly checking my emails, taking calls, looking for homes for people. I’m on top of it.”
On top of her volunteer work and full-time job, she came down with a bad case of COVID-19 in January. The illness sent her to the hospital and caused “an eruption of toxins” in her body, she says. When she gets stressed out, her face swells up. It was so bad that morning that she skipped her usual deep mauve lipstick and black eyeliner. Despite the sickness and long hours, Siddiqui has helped around 250 Afghan refugees find temporary housing and navigate the complicated resettlement system that exists in the US.
In normal circumstances, resettlement organization employees tell me, agencies like the IRC would have two weeks to prepare for a refugee family to arrive in the country. They would find suitable housing, outfit it with culturally appropriate food and resources, and make preparations for the family to find jobs and receive the necessary documentation to work. But several resettlement agency employees across different organizations tell me the Afghan refugee crisis and the enormous influx of migrants has flipped the traditional system on its head, especially when it comes to housing.
During the Trump administration, major reductions were made to the State Department’s budget. For four years, these agency officials said they adjusted to the cuts that only allowed for around 15,000 refugees to enter the country annually by 2021. Following the rush to evacuate Kabul last August, that number grew exponentially. Resettlement agencies are not only scrambling to meet the demands of this torrent of clients due to a lack of staff and funding but also the hurried nature of the withdrawal, the ongoing housing crisis, and the pandemic. All of this made it virtually impossible for caseworkers to find housing for new Afghans.
In January, I spoke with Jessica Reese, the vice president of institutional development at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), one of the nine contracted resettlement agencies. Reese says that housing is “the most complex need, the most urgent need” facing new Afghan immigrants. “There’s a national housing crisis regardless of your nationality or status,” says Reese. “We went from having quite a strong resettlement team to cobbling together private and public and individual foundation funding to survive.”
Without credit, jobs, or family in the area, many Afghans have been resorting to more temporary solutions, like hotels and Airbnbs all across the country. Last year, on August 24th, Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky announced that his company would provide temporary housing to 20,000 Afghan refugees worldwide. In September, Chesky said the company would be extending its efforts to cover an additional 20,000 refugees for a combined total of 40,000 people. To reach this goal, Airbnb’s nonprofit arm initially provided emergency funding and support to IRC, HIAS, and Church World Service. That system has since been expanded, giving other nonprofit groups not contracted with the State Department access to Airbnb’s nonprofit funding and a special platform to book stays for refugees.
Resettlement workers tell me that Airbnb has been the main tool to place Afghan refugees. “Airbnb has really become the primary mode of housing, at least temporarily, because of the housing crisis through[out] the United States and with the rapid pace in which families are arriving,” Evangeline Long, national housing coordinator for Church World Service, tells me in January.
It’s difficult to nail down how long typical Airbnb stays are for refugees and their families. Some stay in a home for a weekend; others I met in February have been stuck in Airbnbs for weeks and months on end. (Mattie Zazueta, a spokesperson at Airbnb, told me the average stay for an Afghan refugee is 17 days.) Resettlement workers have said that the company has been incredibly flexible, allowing caseworkers to extend stays for refugees who still haven’t been able to find a permanent home. But many Afghans have been forced to move from one Airbnb to another after their stays are up. Some leave early, citing discriminatory behavior from hosts. Siddiqui tells me that she’s escalated at least two cases to Airbnb over the last few months, including one instance where a host allegedly complained about the food the family made in the home.
Asked what happens to refugees once their Airbnb stays are over, Reese was unsure: “I can’t say where they go right now,” Reese says. “The Afghan crisis just throws everything, everything up in the air.”
In March, one IRC employee, who requested anonymity, said she was responsible for at least 50 different Afghan families at any given time. This meant welcoming new Afghans at the airport, finding them housing accommodations, and filtering any questions or requests they had to the proper people or government offices.
The caseworker told me that a majority of the refugees she works with have grand visions of what their lives in America will be like. One client expected IRC to pay for an apartment for at least six months. Her main job, she told me, is to lower their expectations.
“The government has been awful in all of these situations,” the caseworker says. “I’ve never really seen it firsthand like this. Just the way that they have thrown this responsibility onto nonprofits and these counties and communities has been insane, just how they expected us and these refugees to adjust to these horrible conditions.”
The staffing issues have only gotten worse as they are expected to take on more and more cases. The IRC employee I spoke with was considering leaving the profession.
“It’s definitely made me rethink my life,” they told me. “I’ve always wanted to work in humanitarian fields and just continue with this path. It’s definitely made me acknowledge my privilege. I want to do everything I can to stay.”
Stanford T. Prescott, the acting senior communications officer for IRC, agreed that the housing crisis exacerbated the group’s ability to provide help to Afghans. “The national housing shortage limits housing options for all Americans, including refugees, and typical housing vacancy rates are significantly lower than past years,” he wrote in a statement provided to The Verge. “The housing crisis is already acute for Northern California residents, more pronounced than anywhere else in America, with a shortage of over a million rental homes for very low-income residents alone.”
The dramatic caseload has made it difficult for resettlement workers to stay on top of everything a client or family may need. When this happens, Siddiqui’s phone floods with complaints from families iced out of more help. “How can you freeze your services when we are in a crisis right now?” she says.
When these overwhelmed caseworkers can’t answer the calls or emails of new Afghan immigrants, Siddiqui does. Over the last six months, she’s booked dozens of Airbnbs, partnered with local food delivery and religious groups, and held the hands of dozens of Afghans as they build new lives in California, often while they wait to receive the money that comes from the government-aligned resettlement groups.
“Once I get an email, once I get a call, I screen the families. I see how desperate they are,” Siddiqui tells me. Then comes her triaging process. If a refugee family doesn’t have anywhere to stay or is sleeping at a mosque, she attends to them first. “Like snapping a finger. I put everything on pause and take care of them first.”
As we finish our meal, Siddiqui pulls out her phone. It’s been dinging nonstop with notifications from Afghan clients and friends who frequently call just to check in with her. After a while, she starts taking the calls with me there. Under the flickering lights of the market, we FaceTime one refugee after another. One man was a computer scientist in Kabul and recently found work as a security guard. He’s stable but unsure of his future.
“From the day I entered the United States, I’ve been taking a very strong dose of depression meds,” he says. “That’s the only thing that gives me relief for a temporary period of time. Like, nothing else can make me more happy than my medicine. That’s it.”
It’s the precarity of his situation — the job, housing, and food insecurity — that keeps him on edge. Like hundreds of other refugees, entering the US did not solve his problems. It created new ones.
Outside of the Islamic Cultural Center in downtown Oakland last February, around a dozen volunteers dressed in bright orange safety vests buzz from crate to crate, picking fruit, milk, eggs, and other canned goods for the day’s food deliveries. Salah Elbakri, executive director of the nonprofit Support Life Foundation, slaps the back of one volunteer, telling him he’s welcome for the free “gym membership.”
There’s a gravity to Elbakri’s presence when he enters a space. Raising his hands above his head, he speaks quickly but urgently. He’s an older, stockier man with graying hair, but he moves with a swiftness unmatched by the young 20-somethings packaging the day’s goods, striding from one person to another, shaking hands and giving thanks to everyone who arrived to help.
Over the last two years, Elbakri’s organization has delivered food to families as part of its You Are Not Alone program, which seeks to fill the needs of people suffering financially from the pandemic. But, over the last six months, they have expanded to provide weekly food packages for Afghan refugees in the Bay Area by partnering with mosques and immigration groups. Every other week, registered refugee families receive four parcels, including meat, dry goods, dairy, and produce. Volunteers package it up, and others arrive later in the day to deliver the items to their destinations.
Despite all of their work and an impressive Slack-based delivery assignment system (built in part by volunteer tech employees, Elbakri says), it’s difficult to keep track of the refugees the organization serves. Afghan families might move from one hotel to another or one Airbnb to the next because most refugees still don’t have a permanent place to live. Their migration process doesn’t end when they enter the States. Once in California, it’s the rising cost of housing that they try to outrun. Pointing at the building across the street from where we’re standing, Elbakri says that a one-bedroom apartment there could cost upward of $2,800 a month.
“I need to show you that this is the reality. I don’t think anybody amongst them thinks that,” Elbakri tells me of the refugee families he helps. “California is such an expensive place to live. I don’t know what awaits them… The next step is homelessness, because I don’t know when the government’s subsidies will run out.”
After volunteers load up his truck, I join Elbakri on one of his delivery routes. While Support Life aids refugees, it also makes weekly deliveries to some of Oakland’s desperate homeless encampments. The sites are “mostly immigrants,” he tells me — first generation from South Asia or South America. He delivers water, soap, and food to dozens of unhoused people living in shacks along the road.
“Looks like a war-torn country,” Elbakri says, showing his staff several blocks’ worth of plywood shelters over a Zoom call while we’re in the truck. “Thank you, Ronald Reagan.”
Elbakri fears that this is the future Afghans will face if change doesn’t come soon.
I drive to the Muslim Community Center (MCC) in the East Bay to meet with Sister Aminah Abdullah. The MCC provides dozens of different services for Afghans — from rental assistance to food delivery.
Abdullah walks me around the facility, packed with diapers, brand-name clothing, and bags on top of bags of food. The dispersal process is rock solid, and every volunteer whips around the building packaging donated items. There’s enough food and furniture to supply dozens of immigrant families. But you can feel the exhaustion in the building. There aren’t enough volunteers to solve every problem.
That Tuesday afternoon in February, a handful of Abdullah’s volunteers are making arrangements for new Afghans who lucked out and found permanent housing in the Bay Area. They’re hauling everything one family needs into a designated spot in the hallway for delivery: mattresses, bed frames, sheets.
“We’ve become a makeshift resettlement agency,” Abdullah says. “We have immigration attorneys that we work with, and one of them was like, ‘Do not give my number out. I’m working 20 hours a day with no sleep. I haven’t seen my kids in weeks.’ It’s just madness.”
Before the pandemic, the MCC held Sunday school classes for children. Those classrooms have been completely refitted as free clothing bazaars and markets. There’s one room with boxes of diapers stacked over 15 feet high. “It’ll be like this for a long time,” Abdullah says. “Families will get jobs and then something will happen, and they’ll lose jobs and need more help. They’ll have a baby and need more help. Or, God forbid, they’ll get COVID and they’ll need help. That’s just our mission. Our mission here is to help people.”
As we talk, Abdullah’s phone buzzes incessantly with calls and texts from clients. Once, we’re interrupted by a man looking to donate money. A second time, two refugee men arrive to pick up a car the MCC secured for them so they can commute across the Bay for work.
The biggest problem isn’t the money. Every year during Ramadan, the Muslim community makes generous donations to the organization’s Zakat fund. These charitable gifts allow the MCC to help pay rent for some refugees, at least for a few months. But they can’t help refugees solve their biggest problems: building credit or cosigning a lease.
“There’s not a day [that] goes by that I’m here and a refugee family doesn’t come in and say, ‘Cosign for me.’” Abdullah says.
Rental prices have skyrocketed over the last few decades and dramatically so over the last few years. It’s not lost on the community that Silicon Valley companies, like Google, Facebook, and Airbnb are some of the main reasons why.
“Google profits over $100 billion each quarter,” Elbakri tells me as we drive through a homeless encampment in Alameda. “You don’t think this whole crisis could be solved with $100 billion? You could solve most any crisis with $100 billion.”
While Silicon Valley giants and their rising profits make easy villains, housing has been an issue in California for decades, long before big tech completely took over the region’s economy. In his 2020 book, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, Conor Dougherty argues that the lack of affordable housing is widening the country’s economic divide, especially in population-dense cities.
“As the middle class has hollowed, we’ve gotten this very unequal structure to cities, where you basically have people in service professions having to live next to really rich people, because they’re effectively waiting on them. So it’s hard to construct a housing market around everyone,” he tells me.
To Dougherty, the Bay Area would be one of the most difficult places in the world to find apartments or homes for refugees. “Over the past few years, the housing situation has gone from really bad to impossible,” he tells me.
The following Saturday, I join Elbakri once again on a different delivery route. We meet in Santa Clara, about an hour southeast of Oakland. He’s loading up yet another truck, this time for dozens of Afghan refugees living in hotels in Turlock. Elbakri got a late start — volunteers who said they’d be there hadn’t shown up. He’s tired, but his voice is still lively as he greets those who do arrive, pumping them up as they start packing.
The Turlock Comfort Inn and Suites is three stories tall, overlooking the Golden State Highway and miles of open land. Elbakri warns me of the “fiesta” that’s about to take place. As we pull the truck into the parking lot, men, women, and young children file out of the hotel’s side doors.
I’ve already started piles of food for each family’s hotel room: a package of pasta, some milk, some eggs, a chicken. But the children, many in their pajamas and one in bright pink Crocs, take over. Some are toddlers with sleep in their eyes and messy hair. Others are between 10 and 12, mostly boys, whose stoic expressions make them appear much older than they actually are. It’s obvious they’ve done this all before. Playfully, the youngest kids waddle over with bags half their size, lining them all up in a row.
After the 20 or so piles are stocked, two children roll out the hotel’s luggage cart, stacking up deliveries to bring up to the third floor, where most refugee families are staying.
A short drive away from the Comfort Inn, Elbakri takes me to the Turlock Inn, a motel stationed along a highway. Dr. Sohrab Hashemi, an oral surgeon from Kabul, lives there in a room with three other Afghan men. His certifications aren’t accepted in the US, so Hashemi is studying to get back into dentistry in the States. Sitting in the truck, he shows me photos of his work on his phone: braces, extractions, dental surgeries. For now, he’s volunteering, distributing COVID tests with a friend of Elbakri.
At the Turlock Inn, Hashemi leads me through a handful of rooms. There are mattresses on the floor in rooms suited for two people at most. Dirty plates are scattered across dressers. There are no kitchens. The best cooking equipment they have are pressure cookers. A single free-standing oven is hooked up outdoors. Food spoils because the only options to store perishable items are the mini fridges or filling their room’s bathtub with ice. Walking down the outdoor corridor of rooms, I spot an IRC business card on a windowsill.
Hashemi encourages me to meet the family across the street; a father, a pregnant mother in her third trimester, and their seven kids. As we walk over, some of the children are playing in the gravel road, taking turns riding a rusty bicycle. After I knock on the door, the mother welcomes me in, wrapping a hijab around her hair. There are two beds; children’s clothing is scattered across the floor with nowhere to store or hang it. A stuffed teddy bear wearing a Captain America costume is lying facedown in front of boxes of crackers.
“The very day the Taliban took over Afghanistan, my husband was in a bad situation,” the woman tells me through an interpreter. He helped people escape the country, guiding them through the Kabul airport. He worked with the American military, she says. “I told him that this was enough. Many Afghans are going to the US.” She continues: “His death was written on his forehead. The Taliban was assassinating Afghan soldiers. They would pursue them and shoot them on their very heads.” They left Kabul in the clothes they were wearing.
As we talk, her husband, Ahmad Naeem, enters the room. Gathering one baby in his arms and adjusting her dress, he says that he walks his children an hour to school every day and an hour back. There’s no public transportation. The family doesn’t have a car.
“I come back here, and I’m tired. But, in the future, if I’m going to find a job, what about my wife?” Naeem asks. “How does she take all the kids with her to school and come back? We would need so many strollers or for all of them to hold hands. This is a big problem.”
The Naeems have lived in this motel room for over two months since fleeing Kabul and spending a few months at a Texas military base. Just like the other Afghans I meet, they haven’t been able to secure an apartment or home. They have no credit and no jobs. Until they can find someone to cosign a lease, they’ll continue living at the Turlock Inn, living off of the generosity of other Muslims like Elbakri and his organization.
“I thought our life would get better, that we’d find a house,” the mother says. “I told IRC we needed a house. I told them that my kids are small. We need at least two rooms. One room is not enough.”
Before fleeing Kabul, the Naeems had a plan. Most importantly, they had hope. If they boarded their flight and arrived in America, their worries would be gone. But the US greeted them with open arms and hands that held broken promises.
On our drive back to Oakland, Elbakri is exhausted. Normally a talkative, cheery man, he is silent as his GPS directs us northwest. He was out past midnight the night before organizing more deliveries, he tells me. He woke up around 5AM that morning to help load the 17,000 pounds of food his organization was scheduled to deliver out to Turlock and the surrounding areas.
“You really have to constantly think about why I am doing this,” he says. “I always tell my volunteers… ‘There are days when things are not working out.’ Like this morning. I didn’t want to do this because I was so physically exhausted from last night. I needed at least two more hours of sleep.”
Over the last two decades, the US government spent approximately $145 billion to rebuild Afghanistan and to bolster its army and security forces. (A large sum, to be sure, but one dwarfed by the $837 billion spent solely on warfighting efforts.) Despite the billions of dollars spent to stabilize a nation the US had invaded, thousands of people died, including 2,443 American troops and more than 48,000 Afghan civilians, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Toward the end of the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Kabul fell back into Taliban control. The war in Afghanistan ended just as it had been carried out for over 20 years: a lot of money was spent and very little was achieved. The same could be said about resettlement.
As thousands of Afghans boarded flights to America last August, President Biden delivered a speech marking the end of the war. He promised to do right by interpreters, engineers, and other allies, welcoming them into the US with gratitude for their service to the American cause. In this, Biden was not without clear precedent — in 1975, Gerald Ford led similar efforts after the fall of Saigon, passing legislation that allowed 130,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to resettle in the US.
“The United States will be a leader in these efforts and will look to the international community and to our partners to do the same,” Biden said during an August briefing. “The United States will do our part. And we are already working closely with refugee organizations to rebuild a system that was purposefully destroyed by my predecessor.”
When they first arrived, most Afghan refugees were processed at US military bases across the country. There, they found their first instance of temporary housing. But, despite being refitted with plastic curtains and makeshift beds, military bases were never meant to house refugees. Staying on the bases would not have been a solution. Sources detailed horrifying conditions on the bases, from reports of sexual assault to children playing in dirt. Bases in Virginia and Wisconsin reported measles outbreaks.
“My first family, I took in two little girls for malnutrition. Two girls, they were not able to eat solid food. That’s how, like, skeleton bones they became,” Siddiqui tells me. “If they made the conditions at least somewhat livable, people would not leave this easily.”
Some refugees make the difficult decision to leave the bases before they’re fully processed, according to an October Reuters report. As humanitarian parolees, these refugees can leave whenever they want. But, if they leave before they are processed, they forfeit many of the benefits they would otherwise receive.
Once unprocessed refugees arrive at their destinations with their own means, they can ask for help from local resettlement agencies, but they are often put on a wait list, and many are unable to receive aid — left in limbo without financial assistance or permanent housing for weeks and sometimes months at a time.
“One of the things our foundation’s concerned with is, like, in three to four months’ time, there’s going to be a crisis of homelessness,” says Joseph M. Azam, board chair at the Afghan-American Foundation and a member of Welcome.US, the government’s national welcome council. His concerns echoed those expressed to me by Salah Elbakri when we passed by the encampment in Alameda.
In similar counties like Santa Clara and Contra Costa, homelessness has risen anywhere from 3 to 35 percent since 2019, according to recent census data released in May. With an explosion of tent encampments, it has also become more visible. “This is a humanitarian crisis,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said of the homelessness in her city. With the influx of refugees, two humanitarian crises are poised to collide.
Last August, California Governor Gavin Newsom welcomed Afghans to California, declaring that it was “a state of refuge.” Weeks later, Newsom’s office reached out to Siddiqui. Newsom’s office wanted to publicize her successful resettlement work in the East Bay. She declined the governor’s offer. “His office reached out to me, and they wanted to do a kumbaya interview around the fireplace,” Siddiqui says, listing off instances in which Afghan families were robbed of their welcome money in Sacramento, where the governor’s mansion is located. “How are you telling me you want to run the success story when, in your own neighborhood in Sacramento, things like this are happening?”
(Gavin Newsom’s office did not reply to a request for comment.)
Even the families who have fared relatively well within the system are ashamed of the conditions they have been relegated to living in. The Abdil family in Fremont, who at first agreed to have their portraits taken, backed out of using their real names and images. Fazela followed me out of their new apartment, requesting that we didn’t post them online. She was partly worried that the government or the resettlement agencies might retaliate against the family for complaining. But she seemed most anxious about the embarrassing possibility that friends and family in Afghanistan would see their cramped apartment or read about their lack of job prospects.
In Kabul, Hakeem Abdil worked in a family-owned pharmacy, a career he picked up from his father. But now, in America, they have nothing.
After over a month at an Airbnb, applying to any apartment they could find, the Abdils were finally accepted by a retirement community in Fremont in January. Leasing an apartment is difficult for most people in the current market. It was even harder for the Abdils since no one in the family had a credit history — let alone a job.
“I didn’t have anyone that I could ask for money. I don’t have anyone,” Fazela says. “And then we found a friend who gave us money on loan. We borrowed the money. I don’t know why the government didn’t help us. They kept coming around for six months and assisted others with food and housing but didn’t help us at all.”
With their Zakat money, the East Bay Muslim Community Center offered to help the Abdils pay their rent — at least for a few months. The Abdils turned the money down, telling me that there are other families far needier than they are right now.
When we met in February, Fazela and Hakeem were consumed by the need to find jobs. Rent was coming due. Their 18-year-old daughter was too old for school but needed to speak better English before finding a job. The day before, Hakeem passed his learner’s permit test. Once he gets his license, he plans to do delivery work, possibly for Amazon. Although he was educated as a pharmacist, he speaks little English. His long-term goal is to operate a taxi or an Uber, but he can’t do gig work for the company until he’s driven in the US for at least a year.
A long road to stability still stretched out before them. Rent. Groceries. The loan for the deposit. They need a car, and once they have the car, they would need money for gas. Each new bill was a reminder of the beautiful house they had left behind in Kabul and the comfortable life they once led.
But Kabul had long ceased to be an option. In America, at least, they would have a chance to watch their children grow up without the fear that their loved ones will suddenly disappear.
So they forge on, dreaming of the day that Abdul-Azim, finally free of Taliban captivity, rejoins them. His twin sister began high school earlier this year, just weeks into the second semester. One day, Fazela hopes she will look out the window and see them both — their backpacks and textbooks in tow — two kids in America on their way back home.