Refugee crisis turns into housing crisis

OWENSBORO, Ky. – After a painful escape from Afghanistan and three months on a military base in New Jersey, Mohammad bin Rahimi and his family of nine felt lucky to finally have a new home, in Owensboro, a small town of Kentucky on the Ohio River.

But they didn’t expect to find themselves on the edge of a farm in a small 1850s log cabin reminiscent of Daniel Boone and other American pioneers.

“We are very happy to be in Kentucky,” said Mr. Rahimi, 48, a former US embassy security guard in Kabul. He expressed his deep gratitude for the warm welcome to Owensboro, but said his family was afraid to venture outside at night, their new home was so far away. “We can’t wait to move into a real home,” he said.

As Afghan refugees are released from bases by the thousands every week to begin rebuilding their lives in the United States, they face an unexpected hurdle: the housing crisis.

Relocation agencies have struggled to find rentals in cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and St. Louis as well as cities like Owensboro and Reno, Nevada, where leasehold properties are scarce, expensive, or both. The coronavirus pandemic, complaints of discrimination and the large number of newly arrived Afghans have also posed challenges.

As of Monday, more than 40,000 Afghans had completed their treatment and moved to new homes; some 30,000 others remained on seven military bases which the government hopes to empty as soon as possible.

In Reno, a trending real estate market where the average apartment rent is $ 1,600, Afghans are placed in motels, mother-in-law units, basements and Airbnbs, said Carina Black, executive director of the Northern Nevada International Center, which absorbed more refugees in one month than in the past two years combined.

“We are so overwhelmed,” Ms. Black said. “These people felt like they were going to permanent accommodation when they left the bases. Instead, we are in a vast search for temporary accommodation.

Owensboro, a town of about 60,000, was considered a great place to resettle Afghan refugees: the cost of living is low, jobs are plentiful, and schools are solid.

But rentals are scarce.

Two Afghan families live in a 147-year-old convent 15 miles from town. Some are accommodated in youth centers in churches. And dozens are holed up in a motel.

“Here, we are very bored. My wife cries every day. She thinks about her family all the time in Afghanistan, ”said Zakirullah Ahmadzai, 32, as his wife, Noorsabah Quroishi, 24, wiped her tears with the fringes of her hijab in the dining room of a Comfort Suites. .

“We had a good life there. We had good homes. Now we are at zero, ”said Ahmadzai, who was a businessman in Afghanistan.

When would they have houses? Would they come with kitchens? Hot running water?

These were some of the questions 18 Afghans in the lobby of the Comfort Suites asked Khaibar Shafaq, an English-speaking evacuee who worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross and took on the role of interlocutor between his fellow Afghans and the International Center, the local resettlement agency.

“We are really happy here. But since we are with the family, it would have been much better to move into our homes, ”said Haji Mohammad Yarmal, father of four.

Property owners and managers, who can afford to be picky in a tight market, have been reluctant to try their luck with foreigners who still lack jobs and permanent resident status, and who often have large families. Many have demanded credit histories, background checks and co-signers, which are usually not required of newly arrived refugees.

“They’re not saying ‘no’,” said Diana Ford, a community leader who leads a large volunteer effort to help newcomers. “They say, ‘We have nothing available.'”

Unlike refugees who settle in cities like Sacramento and Houston, with established Afghan communities, evacuees arriving in smaller towns have no relatives to welcome them.

Ms Ford appealed to business and religious leaders and local foundations to help find housing for Afghans, cover their motel rooms and feed them – to save refugees from having to dip into their one-time allowances by US government cash, typically about $ 1,200 per family member, which is intended for rental.

In large cities, refugees find that rentals are plentiful but the cost prohibitive. In small towns like Owensboro, prices are lower, but stocks are extremely limited.

“We already had a shortage of rental housing, and now we have Afghan families desperately in need of a place to live,” said Jaclyn Graves, executive director of the Greater Owensboro Realtor Association.

The market has long been aimed at home buyers drawn to this city, located between Louisville and Nashville, where “you can get what you pay for,” Ms. Graves said.

But Afghans are unlikely to be able to afford a home until they have jobs and a stable income.

The idea for the log cabin originated when Bruce Kunze, a retired school counselor, received a call last month from Ms Ford, an old friend, asking if he knew where a newly arrived family of nine. could live temporarily.

“I told him, we have this cabin, it’s empty and we would be happy if they could stay,” Kunze recalls.

Since Mr. Kunze was out of town, Ms. Ford’s husband had to climb through the roof to get inside and unlock it. Soon the Rahimis moved in.

The pace of arrivals in the city has accelerated rapidly, with 30 people arriving on certain days.

By the end of November, the Comfort Suites had become a bustling Afghan hub. A team led by Mr. Shafaq created spreadsheets with details of the people in each room, including age, clothing size, languages ​​spoken, and occupations.

Ms Ford has raised funds to provide daily lunches at Panera, Red Lobster and other restaurants. A former US Army cook began cooking dinner each evening at First Christian Church, with donated ingredients and halal meat provided by a mosque in Evansville, Ind.

A sense of belonging has developed among the 160 Afghans at the motel, who come from different ethnic, educational and socio-economic backgrounds.

On a balmy autumn afternoon, children in the parking lot scrambled for a luggage cart. Others played volleyball with soccer balls, while adults tapped on their cell phones. Volunteers unloaded hygiene products, prayer rugs and other items from the cars and transported people to dental and medical appointments.

Over a dinner of Afghan chicken, cabbage stew and salad, several teenage girls who had become quick friends said they loved being in America, where bombs didn’t wake them up at night and where the Taliban didn’t wake them up. couldn’t stifle their dreams. Mursal Nazari, 15, who aspires to be a doctor, pointed out the greenery, calm and kindness of the people she had met in Owensboro.

But motel life is monotonous. Outings are limited to an occasional trip to Walmart, a park, or the mosque for Friday prayers. Although the refugees are grateful to be in the United States, frustration is mounting.

“People were told they would go straight to the houses when they left the bases,” Shafaq said. “What they were told is not actually happening. They lose confidence in the process.

Tom Watson, the mayor of Owensboro, said with so many refugees arriving at the same time, it was important to conduct arrivals reviews before settling them into permanent accommodation. “We don’t know who we got,” he said, noting that he had asked for a “dossier” on every Afghan. “I need to know only from a public safety point of view. “

Susan Montalvo-Gesser, a local lawyer who sits on the International Center’s board of directors, wrote a letter to Owensboro owners and property managers to allay any concerns.

Afghan refugees, she wrote, “have undergone more extensive background checks” than local rental applicants, whose records are only checked against state criminal and eviction records. The letter also stated that the resettlement agency was willing to co-sign leases.

A few days later there was a breakthrough.

“We have 12 to 13 more houses today,” said Anna Allen, director of the International Center. “Another owner said he not only had an apartment, but was going to have 12 more units available next month.”

“I feel on top of the world,” she said. “I can breathe.”

Ten miles outside of town, the two-room log cabin where the Rahimis stay is warm and welcoming. Its honey-colored interior features an antique spinning wheel, a wooden high chair and a stone fireplace.

But the Rahimis are still not used to their rustic, albeit temporary, home. After the noise and bustle in Kabul, they said the calm and the countryside creatures got on their nerves. Worried about the wasps that sometimes hide upstairs, all nine camp in the downstairs room.

“We grew up in the city,” said Mirnesa Rahimi, who has tried to reassure her seven children by telling them that in the silence enveloping the rolling farmlands that stretch in all directions, there is nothing to to fear.

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