Afghan DMV evacuees struggle to pay rent after federal aid expires

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Some Afghan evacuees who resettled in the Washington area after fleeing the Taliban are now struggling to pay their rent and avoid eviction after struggling with unemployment and exhausting the limited government assistance they have received, according to local activists and resettlement agencies.

In one case, four ex-Afghan army personnel received an eviction warning, saying they had 10 days to find $4,592 in unpaid rent for their Prince George’s County apartment they had been told that the resettlement agency that placed them there never paid.

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

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

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

Many evacuees do not speak English and, since arriving in the area, have only received online language lessons – a pandemic precaution that has made it harder for them to develop enough skills to pass a job interview. hiring.

Others have yet to receive federal work authorization or Social Security cards that were due to arrive months ago.

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Still more have lost touch with overwhelmed social workers from resettlement agencies who are supposed to help them with their job searches and additional help – due to staff reductions made by the agencies after the Trump administration reduced the number of refugees.

“It’s a multi-layered 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 agency’s social workers. resettlement.

“The rate of depression increases with these families,” Tavakoli said. “Domestic violence between men and women is on the rise. Children 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 lot of homelessness in the different counties. »

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

All evacuees are entitled to food stamps, although some say they have not yet received them.

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

Resettlement agencies say they refer evacuees to these and other services while stressing the importance of taking any available jobs, but have acknowledged that some clients have fallen through the cracks.

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

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

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

‘It is not my fault’

Many evacuees began to turn around to local community organizations and volunteer groups for help, an informal network that grew largely by word of mouth as desperate Afghans scramble to find other sources of help.

These groups raise funds for rent, furniture or groceries – often acting as intermediaries between evacuees and resettlement agencies. They also learn of the bureaucratic confusions that have prevented some of the evacuees from finding stability.

An example is what contributed to Jalalzai’s impending expulsion.

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

“I have nine family members 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 housemates learned last week that their monthly rent of $1,415 had never been paid by IRC. Although the roommates have part-time security guard jobs, they are all unsure how they are going to find what they need.

One of the roommates, Nooroddin Emamzada – a burly former Afghan intelligence officer who is still recovering from being shot in the rib by a Taliban fighter – has become upset over how their concerns have shifted from fighting for their homeland wondering if they can hang on to that little new house in suburban Maryland that has a broken radiator.

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

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IRC would not comment on the men’s case.

But the agency said in a statement it was in communication with landlords who owe rent and was working to enroll its Maryland evacuees needing additional assistance in an expanded Maryland case management program. which recently started offering three months of additional rent support for those experiencing hardship.

“We recognize the challenges during this unprecedented resettlement effort and are working tirelessly to resolve all issues experienced by our customers,” 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 seem to be bending under the heavy load of clients, leaving evacuees to fend for themselves before they can .

She cited another case where a family near College Park learned from their IRC social worker that an agency fund for housing assistance that relies on donations had dried up and that she, the family, should probably find $1,993 in back rent since January. .

The IRC also wouldn’t comment on the matter, but said that while donations have dwindled since the arrival of the evacuees, the Rental Assistance Fund is one of several pools of money in which he draws to help customers.

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

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

Akbar Sherzad – a pediatric surgeon in Afghanistan who removed a boy’s bursting appendix in an impromptu operation at Kabul airport while awaiting evacuation – was thrilled when his family of eight was placed in an apartment two bedroom apartment in Alexandria with stunning 11th floor views.

State Department money allocated to each family member initially helped manage their nearly $2,000 monthly rent and other expenses, giving Sherzad a sense of ease when considering job prospects. .

A hospital invited him to interview for a nursing assistant position. He skipped the appointment for the low-wage, low-experienced job, he said, explaining that “it wasn’t my field.”

But no other job offer came and, with the May rent now the responsibility of the family, their relief money is almost exhausted.

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

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

Sometimes agencies “will wait until a client gets an eviction letter because that’s when the client is really going to come up to the job developer and say, ‘I’m ready to take a job.’ “Sabbagh said, adding that resettlement agencies usually go to great lengths to prevent deportations from happening.

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

These days, however, donations for Afghan evacuees are harder to come by, resettlement agencies and 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 the fact a recent day while shopping for groceries.

When she prepared to pay, Azimi said, an email asked if she was willing to donate to help refugees from Ukraine.

Without being begrudgingly about these efforts, the idea of ​​channeling aid to Ukrainians in need at the push of a button underscored how “we had to beg for money, clothes, shoes, little matter,” Azimi said.

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

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