Afghan evacuees in DMV struggle with rent after running out of aid

Some Afghan evacuees who have resettled in the Washington region after fleeing the Taliban are now struggling to pay their rent and stave off eviction after grappling with unemployment and exhausting the limited government aid they have received, local activists and resettlement agencies say.

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

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

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

The reasons for the problems vary, activists and resettlement agencies say.

Many of the evacuees don’t speak English and, since arriving in the area, have been offered only online language courses — a pandemic precaution that has made it more difficult for them to develop enough proficiency to interview for a job.

Others have not yet received federal work authorization or Social Security cards that were supposed to arrive several months ago.

Still more have lost contact with overwhelmed resettlement agency caseworkers who are meant to help them with job searches and further aid — a result of the cutbacks in staffing that agencies made after the Trump administration reduced refugee intake.

“It is a multilevel problem,” said Minoo Tavakoli, who is part of a group of Iranian American volunteers in Maryland who have stepped in to help dozens of Afghan families unable to reach their resettlement agency caseworkers.

“The depression rate is going up with these families,” Tavakoli said. “Domestic violence between men and women is going up. Kids are very frustrated because their parents cannot support them. If the government doesn’t come up with a better solution, we’re going to have a huge number of homelessness in the different counties.”

Limited resources

When the evacuees arrived after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August, each one received between $1,025 and $1,225 in U.S. State Department “welcome money” meant to help them gain a foothold in this country by covering basic expenses — including housing, clothing and diapers — for about three months.

All of the evacuees are eligible for food stamps, although some say they’ve yet to receive those.

They can also qualify for federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits and a federal matching grant program with resettlement agencies that offers eight months of additional aid if they show they show they are actively seeking work.

Resettlement agencies say they are steering the evacuees toward those and other services while stressing the importance of taking any job available, but acknowledged that some clients have fallen through the cracks.

The available aid 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 employment, the resettlement agencies said.

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

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

‘It’s not my fault’

Many evacuees have begun turning to local community organizations and volunteer groups for help, an informal network that has grown largely through word of mouth as the desperate Afghans scramble to find alternatives sources of aid.

Those groups raise funds for rent, furniture or groceries — often acting 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.

One example is what helped lead to Jalalzai’s pending eviction.

The ex-Afghan air force pilot said he was eager to start working after he and his roommates — who hail from different branches of their former government’s 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 authorization card that would have allowed him to do so arrived with someone else’s photograph on it, rendering the document useless.

Then, Jalalzai and his roommates learned last week that their $1,415 monthly rent had never been paid by IRC. Although the roommates have part-time security guard jobs, they’re all at a loss over how they’ll come up with what they owe.

One of the roommates, Nooroddin Emamzada — a burly former Afghan intelligence officer still recovering from being shot in the rib by a Taliban fighter — fumed over how their worries have gone from fighting for their homeland to wondering if they can hold on to this tiny new home in suburban Maryland that has a busted radiator.

“It’s not my fault,” Emamzada said in Dari, as Jalalzai interpreted. “I’ve earned gold medals in my field. It’s not my fault.”

Agencies buckling under demand, activists say

IRC would not comment on the men’s case.

But the agency said in a statement that it is in communication with landlords who are owed rent and is working to enroll its Maryland evacuees in need of further assistance in a Maryland Extended Case Management Program that recently began offering three months of additional rent support to those experiencing hardship.

“We acknowledge the challenges during this unprecedented resettlement effort and we are working tirelessly to address any issues faced by our clients,” the statement said. “While we are aware that some Afghans are behind on 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 appear to be buckling under the heavy load of clients, leaving the evacuees to fend for themselves before they’re able.

She cited another case where a family near College Park learned from their IRC caseworker that an agency fund for rental assistance that relies on donations had dried up and that they, the family, would likely have to come up with $1,993 owed in back rent since January.

IRC also would not comment on that case but said, while donations have dwindled since the evacuees first arrived, the rental assistance fund is among several pools of money it draws from to help clients.

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

“But they’re going to be back in the same boat come May 1,” when the rent is again due, she said. “The whole situation is dire.”

Professional pride

Akbar Sherzad — a pediatric surgeon in Afghanistan who removed a boy’s bursting appendix during an impromptu operation at the Kabul airport while awaiting evacuation — was pleased when his family of eight was placed in a two-bedroom apartment in Alexandria that offered commanding 11th-floor views.

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

A hospital invited him to interview for a position as a nurse’s assistant. He skipped the appointment for the low-experience, low-paying job, he said, explaining that “it wasn’t my field.”

But no other job offers have come and, with the May rent now the family’s responsibility, their relief money is almost gone.

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

Layth Sabbagh, a director of employment services for Lutheran Social Services in the National Capital Area, said such cases damage relations resettlement agencies have with potential employers, making it harder for other evacuees to find work.

At times, an eviction letter will prompt a more aggressive job search because that’s when the client is really going to come to the job developer and say: `I’m ready to accept a job,’ ” Sabbagh said, adding that resettlement agencies generally go to great lengths to stop evictions from happening.

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

Donations drying up

These days, however, donations for Afghan evacuees are harder to come by, both resettlement agencies and the volunteer groups say.

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 she was buying groceries.

When she prepared to pay, Azimi said, an electronic message asked if she was willing to donate toward assisting refugees from Ukraine.

While not begrudging those efforts, the thought of funneling help to needy Ukrainians with a simple touch of a button underscored how “we have had to beg for money, for clothing, shoes, whatever,” Azimi said.

“To see how that it’s just there for people to be able to donate to when they check out at the grocery store line is just baffling to me,” she said.

Antonio Olivo covers government, politics and other issues in Northern Virginia. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Mexico after joining The Washington Post in 2013
Afghan evacuees in DMV struggle with rent after running out of aid