Dozens of Afghan evacuees in the Washington, DC area, languish in cramped hotel rooms, where parents sleep on the floor while their bored children share a bed.
Months after their arrival, overwhelmed resettlement groups have been unable to find affordable permanent housing for many of the evacuees. So while these organizations tend to other newly arrived families, the evacuees are left to fend for themselves for weeks in rooms shared by up to five people, according to community activists.
During the day, the families have little to do, as the adults have not yet received a Social Security number or federal work authorization documents. Children, having no permanent address, cannot enroll in school.
The problem is particularly acute in Maryland — and could soon get worse, resettlement groups say, as federal officials plan to send more evacuees to the region.
“We know that securing safe and healthy affordable housing is a top priority,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, executive director of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The organization is one of nine national refugee groups coordinating the resettlement of more than 76,000 Afghan evacuees who arrived in the United States as part of the historic airlift out of Afghanistan that began in late the summer.
After the Trump administration reduced the US cap on refugees to historic lows, many resettlement groups scaled back operations. Now, during the biggest influx of refugees since the end of the Vietnam War, they have had to work quickly to rebuild their staff and their relationships with landlords who were once willing to rent to refugees, Vignarajah said.
“It can be difficult to convince a landlord to rent an apartment to a family without a guaranteed income, rental history, landlord reference or social security number,” she said.
Thousands of people resettled
As of Thursday, about 4,430 Afghan evacuees have been resettled in Virginia since mid-August, a US State Department spokesperson said. Nearly 1,640 were placed in Maryland, while none were resettled in Washington, D.C.
Other families are expected to arrive after US military bases across the country closed their temporary Afghan housing after mid-February. The Biden administration is also accelerating efforts to resettle other Afghan evacuees currently being housed outside the United States.
In the Washington metropolitan area, the housing problem was initially concentrated in northern Virginia, a primary magnet for Afghan evacuees due to the region’s already large Afghan diaspora.
But after state officials imposed restrictions that limit resettlement to evacuees who have family ties able to help them find shelter, the bulk of the housing problems shifted to Maryland, which is n has no formal family connection requirement and leaves responsibility for finding homes to resettlement agencies.
The International Rescue Committee has so far faced the toughest challenges.
About 40 Afghan families supported by the IRC have been sheltering since early October in a hotel in Linthicum Heights, just outside Baltimore, as the organization has been unable to place them in permanent accommodation. that they consider safe.
Several of these families said the IRC had offered to move them to a high-rise building near Druid Hill Park in northwest Baltimore, which – although a short walk from a nearby mosque – has suffered violent crime, according to community activists.
The families told the Washington Post they declined the option after hearing from others placed there without furniture or help with food.
The IRC, these families said, informed them that they would have to cover hotel costs themselves or leave, offering to provide them with federal aid they could use to find accommodation on their own. themselves.
The evacuees – designated by the federal government as “humanitarian parolees” authorized to stay in the United States for two years – are each eligible to receive $2,275 in federal aid intended to cover housing costs, job training and other expenses over a three-year period. – period of months.
“I’m tired of fighting”
Niamatullah Armani, a former Afghan National Army special forces member who has been living at the hotel with his family for nearly three months, said he was unsure of his next steps.
“I’m tired of fighting,” Armani, 27, said through an interpreter. “I want to go somewhere where I can relax with my family. With a good school.”
Like other hotel evacuees, Armani said he went weeks without hearing from an IRC social worker, even though his wife was pregnant when they arrived in Maryland from a base. Wisconsin military with their two other children, Tajala, 2, and Jalwa, 3.
The night his wife gave birth earlier this month, Armani said he called the social worker but couldn’t come by. So he turned to hotel staff for help, convincing them through another evacuee who speaks English to call an ambulance to take his wife to hospital. .
Now their baby girl, Nurjala, sleeps in a portable crib on a hotel bedside table while Armani’s wife and their two children share a queen-size bed. Armani sleeps on the ground.
The IRC did not agree to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, a Stanford Prescott spokesperson said the organization had doubled its staff in Baltimore over the past three months to try to meet unprecedented demand for services. So far, the IRC has resettled 500 Afghan evacuees in the Baltimore area, Prescott said.
“Our teams are operating with fast turnaround times and limited resources,” he said. “Our top priority is the well-being of our customers and we strive to serve them with the best services possible.”
State Department officials said they were monitoring problems in Baltimore. While it is ideal for evacuees to be placed in a home where they feel comfortable and safe, an agency spokesperson said the shortage of affordable housing makes it imperative that they accept what is offered to them if these homes meet federal requirements.
“If families refuse the accommodation offered or are slow to accept the accommodation offered to them by resettlement agencies, it is often very difficult to find alternative accommodation,” the spokesperson said.
Community activists say they are able to help IRC find better homes for evacuees in Baltimore and surrounding neighborhoods where they would have community support. But, so far, their offers have been rejected, campaigners said.
Zainab Chaudry, Maryland director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said several mosques and community groups in the Baltimore area have contacted the IRC without success.
“These are reputable advocacy groups who have agreed to step in, saying, ‘We can help provide housing. We have resources. We have links with landlords that we can work with to help find solutions,” Chaudry said.
“We understand they’re overwhelmed,” she said. “But what is glaring is that if the IRC does not have the bandwidth to provide these important services, it is not acceptable to block other organizations, mosques and agencies that deal with the resettlement of refugees.”
Munir Ahmad Sadaqat, a former US Marine Corps interpreter in Afghanistan, took a chance on the money offered by the IRC and, with the help of local activists, began moving his family out of the hotel on Friday. the Baltimore area where they had been living for three months. Their new two-bedroom apartment will be in Ellicott City.
After fleeing the Taliban in August and then bouncing from refugee camp to refugee camp in several countries with very little to eat, Sadaqat said the stress of finding a stable home in the United States was overwhelming. Every day, he said, his wife and 7-year-old daughter asked when they could leave their cramped accommodation, while he went crazy without his federal permission to look for work. This document, he said, was mistakenly sent to St. Louis.
Meanwhile, Sadaqat worries about the safety of her mother and other relatives left behind in Afghanistan.
“When I go out, I cry,” he said soberly.
His wife and daughter, oblivious to what he was saying because they spoke no English, stood at the cramped counter in the hotel room’s kitchenette to finish their lunch.
“But I can’t show my tears to my family,” Sadaqat said. “Because they will become sadder.”