Recent Afghan refugees are getting creative to find a home in tight housing markets: NPR

Zahra Yagana, her daughter Parisa and son Jawed spent nearly two months at Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin.

Eman Mohammed for NPR


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Zahra Yagana, her daughter Parisa and son Jawed spent nearly two months at Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin.

Eman Mohammed for NPR

The camps at military bases around the United States are supposed to be temporary, the last stop for newly arrived Afghan refugees before moving to permanent homes.

But for many, the weeks stretch to months, with no clear end in sight.

“They told us you would eventually leave camp, but it was an unsafe situation,” said Zahra Yagana, who spent close to two months at Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin with her two children.

Months after the airlift out of Kabul, about 42,000 newly arrived Afghans still live at seven military bases around the country – including about 8,700 at Fort McCoy alone, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Refugee resettlement organizations have helped more than 23,000 Afghans resettle in new homes so far, according to DHS. But that effort has been hampered by a shortage of affordable housing. Several thousand others, including Yagana, have found their own way away from the bases.

Zahra Yagana (right), family friend Susannah Washburn, Nabil Mahrammi, Hossein Mahrammi and Jawed Yagana eat on the floor of Zahra Yagana’s apartment in Silver Spring, Md.

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“There were too many people in the camp, it was hard to get used to the new conditions,” Yagana said in Dari through an interpreter. “The whole environment had gotten me a little worried.”

Yagana, 39, said it was a relief to be out of Afghanistan, but life at Fort McCoy was tough. Yagana and her children – Parisa, 21, and Jawed, 18 – slept in a two-story barracks with seven other families. There were people coming and going all the time, she said, and children crying around the clock.

It wasn’t just the lack of sleep that made Yagana uncomfortable. At least two Afghan men living at Fort McCoy have been charged with crimes including assault and sexual intercourse with a child.

“That was one of my biggest concerns,” Yagana said. “I did not want us to be in an environment where we were exposed to bad news every day.”

Yagana is not easily shocked by violence. She married as a 13-year-old to a violent man whose drug abuse occupied a large portion of the family’s income.

“In Afghanistan, many women have the same fate,” she said. Yagana divorced her husband and took her children to Kabul, where she began a new life as a writer and human rights activist. “I wanted to help people do great things,” she said.

Zahra Yagana in a Park in Silver Spring, Md. The environment at the bases worried her, so Yagana took the initiative and found housing for her family.

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Compared to her past, Yagana said, whatever happens to her now is no big deal. But she was worried about her children at Fort McCoy – especially her son Jawed.

“My son was such a sociable person before and had become really quiet. I think the mental side effects of living in the camp are still with him,” Yagana said.

Yagana said she would start planning her new life and future in the United States, but “it was something I could not do in camp.” The chaos at the base was too stressful. She knew she had to get her family out.

Yagana said she asked representatives of Fort McCoy refugee resettlement organizations how long her family might be there, but she never got a clear answer.

These resettlement agencies are working to rebuild their capacity on the go after deep cuts during the Trump administration, when the U.S. refugee program was cut to the smallest number in decades. At the same time, these agencies say they are facing another important bottleneck: a nationwide shortage of affordable housing.

“It’s still the biggest and most pressing issue because we’re struggling to find enough vacant housing,” said Erol Kekic, senior vice president at Church World Service, one of the nine national organizations with which the federal government has contracted about resettling refugees.

Kekic says the problem is particularly acute in places that already have large Afghan populations, such as northern Virginia and Sacramento, California.

Resettlement agencies are increasingly looking to other communities that have not received as many Afghans in the past, Kekic says. And they are also trying to identify new landlords who have never before rented out to refugees. But it can be a difficult sale.

“They have no credit history in the United States, which is obviously a big issue for many landlords,” Kekic told NPR.

Back at Fort McCoy, Zahra Yagana did not think about the housing market. She was just trying to get her family away from the base as much as she could.

Yagana went to work. She started reaching out to all her contacts in the US and looking for help. And she found it – from a group of people she had never met.

Shahid Mahrammi (right), Jawed Yagana and Hossein Mahrammi drop off donations to the Yagana family.

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One of these people is Hossein Mahrammi.

“She contacted me [and said] OK, we’re really tired, we want to go out, “Mahrammi recalled Yagana telling him on the phone.

Mahrammi knows on his own how difficult it can be to resettle in a new country, even with the help of a resettlement agency. He and his family left Afghanistan in 2017 on a special immigrant visa – a category created by Congress to provide protection to Afghans who worked directly with the US government or entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. Mahrammi, his wife and four children settled in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC

Mahrammi did not know Yagana, but a friend who knew about her work in Afghanistan put them in touch. Mahrammi wanted to help. But as a trained economist, he also knew he could not pay the bill alone. “I said, let me think and find out if it is possible or not,” Mahrammi said in an interview.

Like many Afghans who fled when the Taliban took over in August, Yagana left Kabul with no money and almost no belongings. She is on a waiting list with a resettlement agency and she is entitled to housing benefit and other benefits when her turn comes.

But Mahrammi knew it could take months for Yagana’s benefits to get in. Meanwhile, it would cost thousands of dollars to fly his family from Wisconsin to Maryland and cover their rent and security deposit.

Mahrammi says he called everyone in his circle of friends and many of them agreed to help financially. Then he called Yagana back.

“‘Yes, you can come,'” Mahrammi said to her. He bought train and airline tickets for her family and organized donations of furniture and household items. A friend of his created a GoFundMe page for Yagana’s family.

Mahrammi had another crucial thing he could offer Yagana. He manages the small apartment building where his family has lived since arriving in the United States. Mahrammi knew there was an empty apartment and he approached his landlord to rent it to Yagana – even though she had no credit history and no previous registration of any kind. in USA

“He knows me. I got his trust,” Mahrammi said. “And he said, as long as you support her, I have no problem.”

That’s how Zahra Yagana rented an apartment in Silver Spring, Md. She proudly showed the apartment to reporters earlier this month.

“Small room, it’s nice room. Very clean,” Yagana said in her available English with a big smile on her face. There is only one bedroom, plus a living room and a small kitchen. The white walls are freshly painted and the living room floor is covered with an Afghan rug.

Hossein Mahrammi’s youngest son, 6-year-old Nabil, jumps up to play with a decoration that Parisa Yagana has made for her family’s apartment.

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Yagana says her new home is peaceful and she can sleep well and cook, something she loves to do. When journalists visit, there is a knock on the door and it gives a donation of a new set of plates, kitchen utensils and a 25 pound bag of jasmine rice.

Yagana’s daughter Parisa serves green tea. She says she hopes to be able to continue her studies in the United States soon.

“In Afghanistan, I’m studying at a university. And my major is dentistry,” Parisa said in a stopping English. “But when the Taliban come to Kabul, I can not continue.”

Zahra Yagana is not yet sure what she will do next, but she also hopes to continue the work she started in Afghanistan. She founded a non-profit organization, Green Home, which helped provide scholarships and health care to children affected by suicide bombings.

But that work made her a target for the Taliban, along with the fact that the family belongs to the Shiite minority Hazara ethnic group that has historically been persecuted by the Taliban. She was forced to flee the country quickly when Kabul fell.

Now this woman, who was used to helping others, must even ask strangers for help.

“This is not strange to me,” Yagana said in Dari. “There were people I had never met because they lived in other provinces, but I helped them and I felt like I had known them personally, even though we had never met each other in person.”

At the same time, Yagana said, it seemed strange to ask for help in the United States, a country where she was unfamiliar with the customs and culture. She was not sure it would work. “But there was this confidence. Sometimes I told people a little bit about myself in the hopes that they would help me,” Yagana said. “I believe there are good people out there.”

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