The first stop for the former Afghan government official was a massive processing center in northern Virginia. After fleeing his country last August in the biggest airlift in US historythe man’s family joined thousands of others at the complex.
They were among the lucky ones. With help from a sponsor, he and his wife and children made their way to New Jersey. A nonprofit, Welcome Home Jersey City, found them an apartment and paid their first few months of rent.
Almost six months later, the man says he’s “incredibly thankful.” He knows thousands of others are still living on military bases or in hotel rooms, waiting for a permanent home.
“The start has been difficult for us and others Afghan families, but now we are settled,” said the ex-official, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals against relatives in Afghanistan. “We respect the values and diversity in this great country and learn every day. In fact, everyone is helpful with new Afghan evacuees, which is a great honor.”
While I have found stability, many other Afghan evacuees are still struggling to secure permanent housing, supplies and services, advocates said. Resettlement agencies have scrambled to hire new staff and meet families’ needs, but their capacities have been tested amid an unprecedented surge in cases.
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As of Feb. 2, the US had welcomed more than 76,000 people through Operation Allies Welcome, the federal effort to resettle Afghans, according to the State Department. About 68,000 have moved into local communities with assistance from nine national resettlement agencies and their affiliates, including about 700 individuals in New Jersey.
The quick and massive evacuation agencies meant that they had helped dozens of refugees in a year were suddenly responsible for hundreds – a mobilization made even tougher by the coronavirus pandemic and a severe shortage of affordable housing. In the meantime, many Afghans remain in extended-stay hotels and temporary Airbnb rentals.
“At times, we are finding out about people coming to our office the day they are arriving,” said Courtney Madsen, director of the Jersey City office of Church World Service, one of the nine resettlement agencies. “We can’t really plan. Landlords want to know who is moving into their unit and that is changing constantly.”
“This is not a traditional resettlement program; this is really more crisis response.”
The surge is not over. Some 7,000 Afghans remain on two US military bases, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst near Trenton. Another 3,000 are at overseas bases going through processing and waiting to depart for the US
Church World Service had just begun rebuilding its New Jersey refugee program when the Afghan evacuation unfolded. The service had been placed on hiatus after President Donald Trump made deep cuts in US refugee admissions.
The charity’s Jersey City office received 100 Afghans in December and expected another 150 by the end of February. The group has doubled refugee program staff since the summer, now employing 20 people, Madsen said in a January interview.
Challenges have been plentiful. Afghan clients were arriving quickly and often without the advance notice needed to find permanent housing and negotiate leases.
Resettlement funding covers refugees’ rent for 30 to 90 days; after that, refugees may get additional support funds from agencies or nonprofits and can apply for federal housing benefits. But they have been vying for space in a tight housing marketin which landlords are less likely to take in newcomers who lack a job or credit history.
the International Rescue Committee, with an office in Elizabeth, is the state’s largest refugee resettlement organization. It has received 245 Afghan clients in New Jersey since August while continuing to serve refugees from other countries – including 72 who arrived since October.
Their cases rose 700% in the past six months, compared to the same period last year, said Avigail Ziv, the agency’s executive director in New York and New Jersey. The group has scrambled to double the size of resettlement caseworkers and support staff in the New Jersey office, she added.
The same was true for Interfaith-RISE, a resettlement office in Highland Park, which received 235 Afghan clients, according to the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, the executive director. Normally, the agency averages 60 to 80 refugees over an entire year, he said.
Interfaith-RISE tripled its staff from to 45 and opened a second office in Vineland in December to meet the needs. The group has been able to place clients in permanent housing because it is part of a housing corporation that administers affordable apartments, the pastor said.
“The pace has been brutally hard,” said Kaper-Dale, adding that “you cannot expect a system that is set up for one thing to do something that is totally different.”
Agencies are working with community and faith groups to find and furnish housing. Many community members have asked how they can help. Ziv encourages them to reach out to the New Jersey officeespecially those with tips about available rental units.
Monetary donations are also encouraged. Resettlement directors say federal funding to find refugee new homes falls short of what is needed, especially amid rising inflation and high living costs in New Jersey.
Local agencies get a one-time payment of $2,275 per refugee to cover their first one to three months. Of that, up to $1,225 can be used for direct assistance like shelter, food and clothing, with the rest going to administrative costs.
“The funding per refugee is not enough,” said Madsen, of Church World Service. “We have multiple funding sources, mostly grants, and are able to cover needs as they emerge right now. But we are diverting some of our administrative funding to support things like food and additional housing funds.”
‘not enough food’
In the frantic push to get newcomers settled, some families aren’t getting the support they need, according to advocates. Four volunteers told The Record and USA TODAY Network that they had worked with families who needed help with medical issues, work permits and supplies, but had not heard from their resettlement caseworkers.
Shahira Asadi, an Afghan American volunteer from Westwood, said some families lacked furniture when they finally did secure housing. The US refugee program has a stated goal of having refugees employed within six months of arrival, but “no one is helping them find jobs,” she said.
Sikandar Khan, executive director of Global Emergency Response and Assistancea Paterson-based organization that supports refugees, shared similar concerns.
“The biggest issue we are coming across is that resettlement agencies drop off the families at a hotel or house secured for them and then [the refugees] don’t hear back from caseworkers,” he said. “Almost every family has been reaching out to us and saying there is not enough food.”
Community-based organizations like his are overwhelmed with requests for assistance and were offering groceries and rent support. Complicating matters, some families who sought help included people who had “walked off” military bases before they were connected with refugee resettlement services and resources, he said.
Advocates said people have left the temporary housing provided on bases for a mix of reasons. Some were frustrated with long waits, others with lack of privacy. Still others had connected with local volunteers and did not want to be sent to a far-off state. Some have reached out for help to local groups, mosques and Afghan-American organizations, learning of them via word of mouth.
Khan called on the International Rescue Committee to do more to aid clients, who he said were struggling in their new communities.
Ziv, the regional IRC director, said new clients receive groceries and a prepaid debit card upon arrival and are given information to contact caseworkers, a manager and a director.
Government processing delays have resulted in delays of food or medical benefits in some cases, she added. In these situations, IRC has worked with local health clinics and social service agencies to address the needs, she said.
“Our teams are operating under rapid timelines and constrained resources,” Ziv said. “Where we face challenges, we always want to learn from them. Our highest priority is the well-being of our clients and we strive to serve them with the best services possible and be responsive to their calls and inquiries as quickly as we can.”
the Office of New Americans, part of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, oversees and administers refugee resettlement in the state in partnership with the International Rescue Committee.
Asked about the complaints, Tom Hester, a department spokesman, said local agencies were dealing with “an unprecedented number of arrivals in a brief amount of time” and “were working around the clock” to provide services like housing, food, clothing, employment assistance and childcare.
Citing funding cuts under the Trump administration, Hester said, “these agencies have had to quickly ramp up capacity to arrange hundreds of airport pickups and set up service coordination during a pandemic.”
New Jersey is hardly alone. Across the US, reports have emerged of Afghan evacuees staying in hotels as agencies struggled to find permanent shelter, hire staff and deliver services in a post-Trump era.
The US State Department, which oversees resettlement, “takes concerns seriously” and ensures that the agencies that it contracts are fulfilling their responsibilities, a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
The agencies were working every day “to serve the largest number of new arrivals at one time in over 50 years” and “in the midst of both a housing and staffing shortage and an ongoing pandemic,” according to the statement.
At Church World Service, caseworkers were prioritizing the most vulnerable, including those with medical needs, Madsen said. The agency is coordinating food deliveries and trying to link refugees with jobs, which will make it easier to get permanent housing, she said.
“My hope is that as arrivals start to become a little less frequent, we can go back and make sure all of our families have all the things they need,” she said.
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, bias and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
E-mail: [email protected]
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism