Afghan evacuees in DMV fight to pay rent after federal aid expires

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Some Afghan evacuees who have resettled in the Washington region after fleeing the Taliban are now struggling to pay their rent and stave off deportation after battling unemployment and exhausting the limited state support they have received, say local activists and resettlement agencies .

In one case, four former members of the Afghan military received a warning of eviction, saying they had 10 days to come up with $ 4,592 in rent for their apartment in Prince George’s County, that they were told that the resettlement agency, which placed them there, never paid.

In another, a family of seven in Alexandria was informed by their resettlement agency that as of May, they were responsible for their $ 2,700 rent, even though neither parent has been able to find work.

“I do not know what to do,” said Hekmatullah Jalalzai, 24, one of the four roommates facing eviction. “I do not know how to pay that amount in 10 days.”

The causes of the problems vary, say activists and resettlement agencies.

Many of the evacuees do not speak English, and since arriving in the area, they have only been offered online language courses – a pandemic precaution that has made it harder for them to develop enough skills to be interviewed for a job.

Others have not yet received a federal work permit or social security card that was supposed to arrive several months ago.

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More and more people have lost touch with the overwhelmed resettlement agency caseworkers designed to help them with job search and further assistance – a result of staff cuts made by agencies after the Trump administration reduced refugee intake.

“It’s a multi-level problem,” said Minoo Tavakoli, part of a group of Iranian-American volunteers in Maryland who has stepped in to help dozens of Afghan families who are unable to reach their resettlement agency caseworkers.

“The rate of depression is rising with these families,” Tavakoli said. “Domestic violence between men and women is on the rise. Children are very frustrated because their parents can not support them. If the government does not come up with a better solution, we will have a huge number of homeless people in the various counties. ”

When the evacuees arrived after Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban in August, each received between $ 1,025 and $ 1,225 in the US State Department’s ‘welcome money’, intended to help them gain a foothold in this country by covering basic expenses – including housing, clothing and diapers – for about three months.

All the evacuees are eligible for food stamps, although some say they have not yet received them.

They may also qualify for Federal Temporary Assistance to Families in Need (TANF) and a federal matching grant program with resettlement agencies that offer eight months of additional assistance if they show that they are actively seeking work.

Resettlement agencies say they are directing evacuees against these and other services, while stressing the importance of taking any vacancies, but acknowledging that some clients have fallen through the cracks.

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The assistance available is limited, making it harder to help evacuees, who in many cases have experienced severe trauma from years of war and may not be motivated to seek work, the resettlement agencies said.

“There are significant start-up costs to build a new life, and the bills keep coming,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, executive director of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

“Our customers have needed everything from clothing to food to housing to medical care,” Vignarajah said. “The assistance they received through refugee resettlement benefits is quite modest, and above all they are temporary.”

‘It’s not my fault’

Many evacuees have begun to turn around to local community organizations and volunteer groups for help, an informal network that has largely grown through word of mouth like desperate Afghans struggle to find alternative sources of help.

These groups provide funds for rent, furniture or groceries – they often act as intermediaries between the evacuees and the resettlement agencies. They also learn about bureaucratic mix-ups that have kept some of the evacuees from finding stability.

An example is what led to Jalalzai’s pending postponement.

The former Afghan Air Force pilot said he was eager to start work after he and his roommates – who come from various branches of their former government military – were placed in their two-bedroom Hyattsville apartment by the International Rescue Committee ( IRC) resettlement group in January.

“I have nine members of my family still in Afghanistan,” Jalalzai said. “I want to send them money.”

But the federal work permit card that would have allowed him to do so arrived with someone else’s photo on it, making the document useless.

Then, last week, Jalalzai and his roommates learned that their $ 1,415 monthly rent had never been paid by the IRC. Although the roommates have a part-time job as a security guard, they are all in doubt about how they will figure out what they owe.

One of his roommates, Nooroddin Emamzada – a powerful former Afghan intelligence officer who is still recovering from being shot in the ribs by a Taliban fighter – shuddered at how their concerns have gone from fighting for their homeland to speculating, whether they can hold on to this little new home in suburban Maryland that has a blown up radiator.

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“It’s not my fault,” said Emamzada in Dari, as Jalalzai interpreted it. “I have won gold medals in my field. It is not my fault.”

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The IRC would not comment on the men’s case.

But the agency said in a statement that it is in communications with landlords who owe rent and are working to enroll its Maryland evacuees in need of additional assistance in a Maryland Extended Case Management Program that recently began offering three months of extra rent support for them. experiencing adversity.

“We recognize the challenges of this unprecedented resettlement effort and are working tirelessly to address any issues facing our customers,” the statement said. “Although we are aware that some Afghans are behind with their rent, no clients have been evicted as a result.”

Megan Flores, executive director of the nonprofit Immigrant and Refugee Outreach Center in McLean, Va., Said some of the resettlement agencies seem to succumb to the heavy burden of clients, leaving evacuees to fend for themselves before they are able to.

She cited another case in which a family near College Park learned from their IRC caseworker that a donation agency dependent on donations had dried up and that they, the family, would likely have to come along $ 1,993, due in rent since January. .

The IRC also declined to comment on the case, but said that although donations have dropped since the evacuees first arrived, the rental assistance fund is among several money pools it deducts to help customers.

Flores said her organization found donors to pay the rest for the family.

“But they will be back in the same boat on May 1,” when the rent is to be paid again, she said. “The whole situation is serious.”

Akbar Sherzad – a pediatric surgeon in Afghanistan who removed a boy’s ruptured appendix during an impromptu operation at Kabul airport while awaiting evacuation – was delighted when his family of eight was placed in a two-bedroom apartment in Alexandria that provided an impressive views from the 11th floor.

The State Department’s money allocated to each family member initially made their nearly $ 2,000 monthly rent and other expenses manageable, giving Sherzad a sense of ease as he entertained job prospects.

A hospital invited him for interview for a position as a nursing assistant. He skipped the appointment to the low-skilled, low-paid job, he said, explaining that “it was not my field.”

But there have been no other job offers and with the May rent now family responsibilities, their relief money is almost gone.

“It’s so high,” Sherzad said of the rent. “I want to be independent as soon as possible.”

Layth Sabbagh, director of the employment service for Lutheran Social Services in the national metropolitan area, said such cases damage relationships that resettlement agencies have with potential employers, making it harder for other evacuees to find work.

At times, a eviction letter will encourage a more aggressive job search because that’s when the client really comes to the job developer and says, “I’m ready to accept a job,” Sabbagh said, adding that resettlement agencies generally go to great lengths to prevent postponements.

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“If a client is willing to accept the first vacancy, we will go to the end of the world,” Sabbagh said. “We go to a mosque or a church to make sure they can pay their rent. But that comes with it [job-seeking] participation.”

These days, however, it is more difficult to obtain donations for Afghan evacuees, say both resettlement agencies and the voluntary groups.

Asma Azimi, who is part of a group of Afghan American volunteers helping evacuees in northern Virginia, said she was struck by that fact one recent day while shopping for groceries.

When she was ready to pay, Azimi said, asking an electronic message if she was willing to donate to help refugees from Ukraine.

Although not envious of these efforts, the idea of ​​sending aid to needy Ukrainians with a single touch of a button emphasized how “we have had to beg for money, for clothes, shoes, whatever,” Azimi said. .

“Seeing how it’s just there for people to be able to donate to when they check out the grocery line is just confusing to me,” she said.

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