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Gul Rahim fled Afghanistan last August, waited five months at a U.S. military base, and eventually found a home in St. Paul for his family of 13.
Six months after arriving in Minnesota, he’s facing eviction.
“We fought for America for 20 years in Afghanistan,” said Rahim, who served with the Afghan National Security Forces, the military under the country’s former government. “I lost my home, my life, and all my hopes and aspirations. Then, I came here. The U.S. government should not leave me alone.”
Rahim, 36, recently spoke to Sahan Journal through a translator at his family’s two-story, seven-bedroom house. His oldest child is 17 years old and his youngest is 14 months old. He has a baby on the way.
The federal government pre-paid Rahim’s rent for the first six months under typical resettlement protocol for Afghans who fled the Taliban takeover of their country in early 2021. But by August, he’ll have to show proof of income and take over the payments.
Rahim hasn’t found work because he doesn’t speak English and doesn’t know how to find or apply for a job in the United States. On top of that, three of his children and his wife are sick.
The state of Minnesota has welcomed more than 1,200 Afghans since last August. But that feeling of welcome has turned into stress and frustration for some refugees and the community members advocating for them. Nearly 600 Afghan families face what advocates call a housing crisis in the Twin Cities exacerbated by rising rent rates.
Afghan refugees are on their own to find a job and pay rent after their first six months in the country, according to the state’s resettlement plan.
“We predicted this housing crisis was going to come at the end of six months,” said Amina Baha, the operations director of the Afghan Cultural Society of Minnesota. “These folks don’t have jobs. Most of them don’t know how to take the bus. They’re facing so many issues.”
The Afghan Cultural Society is working with at least five households who have no means to pay their rental leases, which are up for renewal in June and July. Requests for help are quickly piling up.
The society began as a community organization for new Afghans in Minnesota, but quickly assumed a role advocating for Afghans who struggle to find work, utilize public transportation, pay rent, and navigate the school system. The group has voiced their concerns to state officials in weekly virtual meetings; housing has been a topic of discussion in nearly every meeting since September. The group is currently working on at least 50 cases covering a range of needs, and expect 20 more cases in the next week.
Baha works with landlords to accommodate Afghan tenants. While some landlords have agreed to extend leases with prepayment of rent to give refugees time to find jobs, Baha said this is not sustainable.
“The purpose of the resettlement agencies was to get these people housed, find them a job, or connect them with a job counselor or network to get them on their feet by 90 days,” Baha said. “That did not happen.”
After the Taliban re-took Afghanistan on August 15, 124,000 people evacuated the region in one of the largest emergency airlifts in history. Some 75,000 evacuees were sent to eight military bases across the United States. Many of them had worked for the U.S. military, the former Afghan government, or human rights organizations as translators, interpreters, and other workers.
Minnesota initially pledged to resettle 65 Afghans, but the need exploded over the last 10 months, and many more started a new life in the state.
Nearly all of the refugees moving to Minnesota first lived in a hotel designated as transitional housing. From there, five resettlement agencies tasked with making sure refugees met their most immediate needs within 90 days found housing for each family and individual. The state partnered with the agencies and community organizations like the Afghan Cultural Society to connect refugees to appropriate resources.
Families and individuals affected
Rahim sat on a small couch this past Sunday and, over tea, shared his family’s struggles as his children played on a twin-size mattress on the living room floor. The family lives in a modest house on a quiet street in a suburb east of St. Paul.
Rahim’s family had received a notice from their landlord the previous day ordering them to vacate the premises by 6 p.m. on August 3. His daughter handed the letter over as a visibly frustrated Rahim spoke in his native language, Pashto, and explained their situation. The letter said he elected not to renew his lease. Rahim said through a translator that he had no other option since he doesn’t have proof of income. His wife, Najiba, is also unemployed.
Rahim’s oldest son, Nik Mohammad, attends public school with three of his brothers and four of his sisters. His three other siblings are too young for school. Nik said through a translator that he’s worried about his family and feels helpless.
“I wish I could work here,” said Nik, 17. “My sisters and I will work hard in the future to pay the rent.”
Rahim said that even if he and Nik both found jobs, it would likely be insufficient to pay their monthly rent of $2,700.
“I don’t have money to pay the rent. My children will be on the street. I don’t know what to do and where to go,” said Rahim. “I can’t live under a tent—what can I do?”
Large families like Rahim’s aren’t the only ones facing eviction. Mohammad Ismail Himmat, 24, lives by himself in a one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. His lease ends at the end of July. Himmat’s landlord asked if wanted to renew his lease, but Himmat declined since he doesn’t have money to pay the monthly $1,100 rent. Himmat is unemployed and also struggles to find work.
“I don’t know what to do,” Himmat said through a translator. “I’m looking for friends to share a house or to help find a job so I can pay the rent.”
Himmat arrived in Minnesota in February. He had worked as a mechanic repairing generators at U.S. military camps in Afghanistan. He searched for work the last two months, but can’t read or speak English. Himmat said he has not been connected with any job agencies.
“I will do any job,” Himmat said. “I have to find a job, otherwise I will be kicked out.”
Community organizations shoulder strain
Resettlement agencies secured six-month leases for refugees to coincide with the federal rent support, expectating that families’ primary earners would find employment in time.
But it wasn’t that simple. Job searches have been all but impossible for Afghan refugees to navigate since many have limited to no English proficiency, no access to a car, no driver’s license, and no familiarity with the process.
“There are all these other things that come in when you bring somebody from another country to a different country,” said Naheed Murad, co-founder of ZACAH, a local charity organization. “To sustain rent you have to work. You have to get the money from somewhere. And to be able to work you need to commute.”
Resettlement workers like Baha with the Afghan Cultural Society are working with landlords and rental assistance organizations like ZACAH to keep families housed if they can’t pay rent after six months. Refugees who can’t pay won’t be allowed to return to the transitional housing facility; they may have to move to more affordable housing. Advocacy organizations are working to make sure that at the very least, refugees will avoid homelessness.
“Becoming homeless is just going to be so heartbreaking—to see these families that were already uprooted from their own country coming here and having to deal with that,” Murad said.
ZACAH and resettlement agencies partnered to channel federal rental assistance to Afghan families in Minnesota. The organization provides two months of rental assistance, and has granted an average of $2,500 for two months. Murad added that assistance depends on the size of a household; the group granted up to $5,000 for two months’ rent on one occasion. ZACAH has helped about 100 Afghan families since November. The resettlement agencies provide rental assistance for the remaining four months.
ZACAH recently received an influx of requests from Afghan refugees panicking about paying rent beyond the six-month mark. In one 48-hour period, the organization received 16 emails about the issue. Murad said ZACAH immediately brought those concerns to the state.
Rachele King, the state refugee coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said in a community meeting on June 14 that the state has gained access to federal resources to invest in sustainable housing for Afghan refugees. That would include increasing the capacity to find employment for people and lowering rent through public housing options or rent subsidies. While King could not disclose further details about the plan, she said ZACAH would continue to coordinate that effort.
“We are pushing state systems the best we can to get resources in place,” King said in the meeting. “We’re towards the finish line.”
A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Human Services told Sahan Journal in an email that finding stable housing is a difficult process that takes resources and time. The Minnesota Department of Human Services is working with federal and local partners to identify gaps and resources to overcome barriers to stability and permanency in Minnesota.
Getting a job is just one piece of the puzzle for many Afghan refugees. Mohammad Farshad Bahrami, 26, lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood with his wife Hamida and their 2 ½-month-old daughter.
In Afghanistan, Bahrami and his family lived in a large, two-story house with eight rooms in Kabul. Seven of his family members, including his mother, brothers, and sisters still live there. Bahrami and his wife fled Afghanistan because he worked as a trainer for the U.S. government’s corrections program there.
Bahrami starts a new job on June 14 at Fabcon, a cement and concrete manufacturer in Savage. He’ll be working in quality control for $23.50 an hour. He’s excited about the job, but also worried about the approximately 20-mile distance between his home and employer.
Bahrami anticipates using the public bus system to get to and from work. He wants to obtain a driver’s license, but failed his driving test earlier this week. He also has no leads on an affordable car
“The [bus] from here goes to Burnsville,” Bahrami said. “From Burnsville to Savage, there’s no transportation. I’ll have to get an Uber or Lyft.”
Bahrami’s not sure whether he’ll be able to cover all of his expenses. His rent goes up to $1,000 a month in August.
Here’s how you can help Afghans in Minnesota struggling with housing
- If you are, or know of, an Afghan refugee who has not been connected to an employment counselor, email Patricia Fenrick, the workforce development and outreach specialist for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, at email@example.com
- Landlords interested in renting to Afghan refugees can fill out a form with the International Institute, a local resettlement agency. Agencies are looking for 3- or 4-bedroom units, but all low-rent housing is welcome.
- The Afghan Cultural Society is accepting monetary donations to help families pay for rent when federal assistance is up. If you have information about potential affordable housing options for refugees, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Community-based organizations and resettlement agencies working with Afghan refugees in need of rental assistance can contact ZACAH, a local charity organization, through an application form to receive two months of rent.
- County employees, social workers, donors, or advocates can find more information about how to support Afghan refugees through ZACAH by emailing email@example.com or calling (651) 456-8891 or (612) 361-9976.
- ZACAH also accepts monetary donations.
- Alight, an international refugee resettlement agency with a local office, has created an Amazon Wishlist of items that are delivered directly to families. Alight is also collecting new and gently used furniture and household items. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- The Salvation Army is searching for volunteers to support Afghan arrivals. Email Suzi.Kissinger@usc.salvationarmy.org to get involved.
- ServeMinnesota is looking for AmeriCorps members to support Afghan refugees for two paid positions. More information can be found here.
- The Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans hosts weekly Afghan Evacuee Community Roundtable meetings. Email email@example.com if you would like to attend the virtual meetings.