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‘American Poverty Is No One’s Salvation.’ Afghan Evacuees in the U.S. Struggle to Find Housing

9 minute read

It 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. After brief stays in Qatar and Germany, they arrived in the U.S. in late August. Like many of the more than 74,000 Afghan evacuees who settled in the country last year, Khadija is safer now, but she faces a new, towering challenge: finding a permanent place to stay during a national housing crisis.

Upon their arrival, Afghan evacuees receive assistance for housing and basic necessities through local resettlement agencies for at least 30-90 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 in the U.S. can also apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits and food stamps if they meet income and other 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 Refuge: How the State Shapes Human Potential. “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, who has yet to find a job, knows they will have to leave. 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. Thousands of evacuees in Maryland, Iowa, and Michigan are reportedly still living in 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.”

The fact that the U.S. is unable to find stable housing for a refugee population that it helped create deserves more scrutiny, Gowayed says. It also raises questions about what Afghans should be allowed to expect from their new home, she adds. “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.”

A State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the federal government has been actively working to identify affordable housing but acknowledged the difficulties.

“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.

Some individuals and organizations have stepped in to try and make it easier for families to deal with the complicated rules. Over the last few months, Mumtaz Momand, a consultant at United Women of East Africa Support Team who moved to the U.S. from Afghanistan in 2014, says he has put his name down as a cosigner or rented properties to then pass on to about a dozen Afghan evacuees who arrived in the most recent wave. “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, an Afghan-led community group in Northern California, is actively looking for property managers, landlords, and developers willing to bypass some of these more traditional requirements and rent properties at below the market rate.

Even when families find a place, their struggles often continue. 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.

Nationally, rent has been rising at the fastest rate in decades; prices for a one-bedroom apartment have risen an average of 12% between March 2021 and March 2022. The effects have been felt across the country but particularly hard in big cities such as New York, Miami, San Diego and Boston.

Read more: The Afghan and Ukraine Crises Showed How the U.S. Can Rebuild Its Refugee System

Zarmina lives with three children in a two-bedroom house in the Northern California city of Martinez. Her resettlement agency is currently covering her $1,800 rent, she says. “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 that TIME withhold her last name for safety reasons because she still has family in Afghanistan.)

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. Without a car, she walks her 12-year-old daughter an hour to and from school each way. Her husband and 4-year-old daughter are still in Afghanistan; they were separated at the Kabul airport after a hand grenade injured the child. While her daughter has physically recovered, Zarmina is still distraught from the separation. “My daughter cries a lot and asks ‘mommy where are you?,’” she says.

Over 500 miles south in El Cajon, Calif., Sahar Yasir, 34, and her husband are facing similar challenges. The couple and their three young children arrived in San Diego County on May 1 after receiving a Special Immigrant Visa.

For now, they secured an apartment that costs $2,500 a month. 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. That same friend loaned them money for the first month and deposit. 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, who used to do development work with USAID, says the couple spent all their savings after the Taliban took over Afghanistan and they 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. So far, nothing has worked out. She’s also sent at least $400 back home to her parents who don’t have jobs.

In addition to the logistical challenges of making ends meet, Khadija and her brother, Mujtaba, are dealing with trauma. 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. As they flocked to the Kabul airport on August 18, along with thousands of Afghans, chaos ensued. A hand bomb detonated, injuring her brother Mujtaba’s leg and they were separated from their parents. They later got on the plane without them.

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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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com