Life in the US isn't what these Afghans expected

Sahar Ibrahami, 13, takes down laundry outside the basement apartment where part of her family has been staying in Modesto, California. Her family was separated when they fled Afghanistan.

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN

(CNN) -- Shila rushes into the living room when she hears her nephew scream.

He's just stepped on a staple that was jutting out of the damp floor in their Maryland apartment, and his toe is bleeding.

"The floor is very dangerous," Shila tells CNN as she tries to comfort the 2-year-old and convince him to put a Band-Aid over the wound.

The carpet was ripped out after flooding this week, exposing staples and nails on the floor.

This isn't what the 23-year-old was expecting a year ago when she fled Kabul.

Shila, who asked to be identified only by her first name and for her face not to be shown to protect her family, is one of more than 75,000 Afghans brought to the United States last year as part of Operation Allies Welcome.

She'd been working as a sergeant for a US-trained special forces wing of the Afghan Air Force and says she got a warning in a text message from her unit commander after the Taliban took over: "Hide yourself someplace or leave the country."

It's been a year of uncertainty, she says, and just three months since a resettlement agency placed her in this one-bedroom apartment with her sister and nephew. Already it's flooded twice in heavy rains. Management from the apartment complex removed the carpet and promised to replace it once the floor was dry, Shila says. Many of the few things they'd acquired since arriving in the US were damaged or destroyed.

And that's just one of the many problems weighing on her.

In the chaos of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the evacuation flights that took people to safety in what administration officials described as "the largest airlift in history" were a ray of hope for many. Translators, Afghan veterans, humanitarian workers, journalists, women's rights activists and others who were allied with US military efforts in Afghanistan were among those onboard.

"Once screened and cleared, we will welcome these Afghans, who helped us in the war effort over the last 20 years, to their new home in the United States of America," President Biden said in an August 2021 White House address. "Because that's who we are. That's what America is."

But a year later, advocates say some Afghans who were brought to the United States are still struggling to find their footing.

Housing is a major area of concern, as rents in the US have skyrocketed and a growing number of Afghans can't find affordable places to live or like Shila, find themselves living in deteriorating conditions.

Joseph Azam, who chairs the board of the Afghan-American Foundation, calls it a crisis.

"People were brought here with the understanding that they'd be able to have a home here and live a life...and that's not happened. Instead, they've been added to this juggernaut of trying to get affordable housing in the US, which is a big problem," he says. "Really, they are being set up to fail."

The State Department says teams have been working around the clock to help Afghan evacuees

Zuhal Bahaduri has been leading outreach efforts to help Afghans arriving in northern California. And she says the words of an Afghan translator stick with her.

She met him at an extended-stay hotel in California where he'd been living in limbo for months, waiting for a permanent housing placement. Bahaduri says the translator told her that he'd worked with the US military, and now felt the US government wasn't doing enough to support him.

"He pulled me aside and said, 'I've never felt so disrespected in my life,'" Bahaduri says. "He felt like he lost his dignity."

Community groups like hers, the 5ive Pillars Organization, have stepped in to try to help refugee resettlement agencies find affordable housing for Afghan families and connect them with job opportunities. But still, "many of them are being placed in homes that they cannot afford," she says, "and when that happens, their struggles continue."

Asked for a response to advocates' housing concerns, the State Department says dedicated teams have been working around the clock to help Afghan evacuees begin new lives in the United States. When possible, Afghans have been resettled in areas that have "reasonable and available housing," the department says. And they may be eligible for emergency housing assistance and other benefits.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services says its Office of Refugee Resettlement has been issuing additional funding to states and resettlement agencies this fiscal year to help Afghans with housing, and more is planned for 2023. The office also has a program to help Afghans save for various goals, including securing rental housing and buying a home.

In parts of the country with high costs of living, such as Sacramento, officials only placed Afghans there who were joining immediate family "due to an extreme lack of available, affordable housing," the State Department says. "Some Afghans may choose to move to areas like this on their own, but are counseled extensively against doing so, given the seriousness of the housing crisis."

"Resettling over tens of thousands of new Afghan arrivals in less than five months would truly not have been possible without the dedication, persistence, and sheer force of will of local resettlement agency staff and other partners, as well as the phenomenal support from local communities -- whether as volunteers, sponsor groups, employers, or just welcoming new Afghan neighbors in their daily lives," the department says.

While affordable housing availability remains a concern, a recent government survey of resettlement agencies across the country found that 97% of Afghans being served by respondents are now in permanent housing, "a truly remarkable outcome," a spokesperson for the State Department says. And the spokesperson says the majority of Afghans who are eligible to work have found jobs, too.

But some community organizations who've been helping Afghans adapt to life in the United States say that's only part of the picture. They argue the government can -- and should -- do more to help.

"I have many sleepless nights," says Yaqub Zargarpur, who chairs the board of the Muslim Association of Virginia and the Dar Alnoor mosque.

The mosque has been helping a growing number of Afghans who are asking for assistance paying their rent, he says, but available funds are limited.

"In another 3-4 months, a lot of people are going to be evicted. ... The crisis is real. These people will be homeless," Zargarpur says.

She struggles to care for her mother, who has severe asthma

It's a fear that haunts 25-year-old Sodaba, who's living in a one-bedroom apartment with her mom in northern California and struggling to afford it.

She says her dreams of becoming a lawyer slipped away in an instant when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. In the US, she thought she'd find hope. But for different reasons, she's fearful for her future in this country, too.

"I'm afraid I'm going to be stuck. I'm not going to be able to improve my English. I'm not going to be able to go to school. ... I thought I was going to get more help," she told CNN through an interpreter, asking to be identified only by her first name and declining to share a photo of herself to protect her family.

Already this month, she hasn't been able to pay their $1,558 rent in full.

Sodaba says she worries about paying the rent constantly and is trying to work, but she's afraid to leave her mom -- who has severe asthma -- alone for long. Already her mom has been hospitalized three times since their December arrival in California.

So Sodaba says she's working as much as she can -- about 14 hours a week shelving items at the retailer Burlington.

Sodaba still lights up when she talks about the Marines she met while at a camp where Afghan evacuees were placed temporarily last year in Quantico, Virginia. The Marines' dedication to helping Afghans amazed her. She felt hopeful during those months at the camp.

But she says trying to make it on her own in America has filled her with stress and anxiety.

"It's very difficult. There's a lot of pressure on me. I'm really worried," she says. "But I have no choice but to move along."

The affordable housing shortage isn't the only problem Afghans in the US are facing

Advocates say high housing costs are far from the only problem that many Afghan evacuees in the US are facing. Add to that the challenges of finding jobs that pay well, struggles with language and transportation, and overwhelming fears for family members who remained behind in Afghanistan.

On top of all that, advocates say many are also dealing with uncertainty about their own futures in this country, because Congress hasn't yet passed a law that would give them a path to permanent residency. That's something the Biden administration has pushed for, and something advocates describe as a critical step that's been overlooked for too long.

"It just kind of compounds itself. All of these different issues seem like they're smaller things, but they add up very quickly," says Megan Flores, executive director of the Immigrant Refugee & Outreach Center (IROC), an organization that's been helping Afghan evacuees in the DC area.

For Sultan Mahmood Goya, an Afghan evacuee in northern California, finding a job to support his family is a growing concern. He's just learned his wife is pregnant with their third child, and that in a matter of months they'll have to move out of the apartment where they've been living rent-free.

Goya has multiple sclerosis and says he had to quit a job in a juice shop because he couldn't spend so many hours on his feet.

"I believe a man's character is defined through his hard work. and right now I'm in despair," he told CNN through a translator, "because I don't know what's going to happen to my family and where we're going to stay if I don't have a secure job."

In addition to worries about flooding in her apartment, Shila says she's facing an even more pressing concern: Her food stamp and cash assistance money recently was stolen -- a problem advocates say is increasingly common and affecting many Afghan evacuees in Maryland, where CNN affiliate WMAR has reported that scammers have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of benefits from families across the state.

Flores says it appears they're being hacked. And as reports of thefts increase, Flores says her organization has been getting a steady stream of requests for emergency grocery deliveries.

"They're basically calling in desperation, saying 'Can you help us with food? I need formula for my baby. I don't have any food in the house for my kids.'"

Speaking with CNN through a translator, Shila says her family relies on the food stamp and cash assistance benefits to get by. The money her sister makes working as a cashier isn't enough to support them, and Shila says she isn't able to work because she has to stay home and take care of her nephew, whose mother is still in Afghanistan.

She canceled her card and requested a new one, but she doesn't know when it will arrive. She's been getting emergency grocery donations from IROC, but fears she won't have enough food for her nephew.

"It's a bad situation," she says.

Even so, she says she wants to find a way to bring her nephew's mother and other family members to the United States. They tried to evacuate together, but were separated in the chaos, like many others who tried to flee. Given the ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan, she's worried they won't survive.

There have been creative solutions and success stories, too

The challenges Afghans in the US are facing vary significantly based on location, says Azam of the Afghan-American Foundation. Some states, like Colorado, he says, have better programs aimed at welcoming refugees and helping them find affordable places to live.

In some places, creative solutions have emerged. In Florida, some Afghans are working in senior communities that helped them secure housing. In other states, Afghan evacuees are living on college campuses.

The success stories are inspiring, and important to keep in mind, says Zainab Chaudry, Maryland director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. But Chaudry says she's also met with Afghans who are scared to go outside because they were placed in an apartment complex where crime is rampant.

Far too many Afghans are living in precarious conditions across the US, she says, and that should be a top concern.

"It's said a nation is judged on how it treats its most vulnerable residents. These are some of the most vulnerable members of our community," she says, "because they don't have access to the resources, to privilege. They don't understand how the system works."

Related story: A friendship forged in wartime changed their lives -- and gave them hope

These volunteers trying to stop evictions are feeling 'hopelessness and anger'

In Iowa, at least one Afghan family recently received an eviction notice, according to volunteers with Des Moines Refugee Support.

"It was terrifying for them," says Mallory Bennett, a social worker and volunteer family outreach coordinator for the group.

Ultimately, the case was dismissed after back payments were made by a resettlement agency and the family, Bennett says.

But other families are worried they could be next, and volunteers are racing to file rental assistance applications before a state fund runs out.

Bennett says the situation leaves her and other volunteers wavering "between hopelessness and anger."

"When are things going to start falling into place for them?" she wonders. "And why did it ever get this bad?"

She's worried for her nephew's safety and unsure of where to turn

At first Shila saw the water pooling in the parking lot of her apartment complex in the DC suburbs, slowly creeping toward her ground-floor unit.

Before long, outside it was knee-deep as neighbors waded by. Inside the apartment, it covered her nephew's toys with mud, damaged door hinges and soaked the carpet. Each time a car drove past, more water rushed in. She tried to use her nephew's diapers to stop it.

Eventually the water receded after the storm passed, but Shila says her worries have only grown.

She's been getting rent assistance from a resettlement agency. But she says she's not sure where to turn about the recurring flooding.

"I can't live like this all day in the middle of water. I'm sick and I have an innocent child with me," she wrote in a text message after her apartment flooded a second time just hours after CNN visited last week. "Believe me, I haven't slept for a week."

More than anything, she says she's worried for her nephew's safety. The carpets have been replaced. And a volunteer recently brought donated sneakers he can now wear to protect his feet. But she's noticed he's been getting bug bites ever since the flooding started; she's concerned the dampness might be drawing insects into their home.

She also doesn't know how to stop her family's food stamps from getting stolen, or when she'll have enough money to buy groceries again.

One thing Shila does know: She needs more help.

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