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Regional Interests

‘Welcome to America’: Afghan Arrivals Greeted by the Bay Area – and Its High Cost of Living

“Welcome to America!” That’s how Mohammad, a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holder, remembers being greeted upon his arrival to the Bay Area from Kabul, Afghanistan in December, 2020.

He fondly recalls the volunteers and others from Jewish Family & Community Services (JFCS), East Bay who first greeted him when he arrived.

“I will always remember that,” he says. “My kids remember and ask, ‘Where is that lady?’” It was one of the volunteers from JFCS who first welcomed him and his family to the Bay Area.

In the wake of the Taliban takeover of Kabul in mid-August, JFCS has resettled 77 Afghans in the East Bay – about as many people as it typically resettles in six months. JFCS said in a recent update that it expects September to be about the same. The organization has received an outpouring of community support for Afghan refugees in the form of volunteers, with 2,800 people in the Bay Area signing up to support resettlement efforts, from greeting families at the airport to connecting families to needed services – everything that goes into creating a new life in a new place.

Mohammad, whose name KQED has changed due to fears of violence against his family still in Afghanistan, is now based in Concord with his wife, a former teacher, and their three kids. Prior to coming to the U.S. he worked as a technical advisor for an international organization doing development work in Afghanistan.

“We worked a lot to build our country,” he tells KQED. “We struggled to develop it.”

But in the last year, Mohammad said the security situation was very bad. His organization was attacked and he was stopped several times and asked who he worked for. While he says he might have been able to continue working, Mohammad wanted to provide a better life for his kids.

“I decided to immigrate here. We are now happy that at least my kids will have a bright future,” he said.

He’s been working as a paralegal for a Fremont-based law firm assisting with immigrant asylum cases. He wanted to volunteer his services for other organizations that might need his help, but since his commute is 1.5 hours each way, he doesn’t have time.

Mohammad said he never would’ve imagined what has happened in Afghanistan. “A lot of people are left behind, and they need to have humanitarian aid,” he said – even “before the Taliban took over, the country was in a humanitarian crisis.”

“We should not forget Afghanistan and those who work shoulder-to-shoulder for democracy, for human rights,” Mohammad added.

For some Afghan refugees who arrived in California and the Bay Area prior to 2021, the adjustment was difficult, but not extremely unmanageable. For those arriving now – some with only the clothes they were wearing when they left – the trauma of waiting at the Kabul airport for hours amid a crumbling country and seeing violence take place in front of their children’s eyes makes the transition more challenging.

‘I sit here sometimes, and I look at my daughter and I’m like, man, how lucky are we to be here? And then I look at all those people, all the kids bleeding, crying … Like as a parent, you have no choice but to feel their pain, you know?’ said Kais (left) in Fremont, on August 27, 2021, a day after a bomb blast killed over 100 people in Kabul. Kais runs Maiwand Market, a staple for many in the Afghan community. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Refugee & Immigrant Transitions, an Oakland-based nonprofit, is “preparing for the arrival of hundreds of vulnerable Afghans as part of an emergency evacuation effort,” according to a statement from board chair Malaak Malikyar Sills, who fled Afghanistan at age five.

While RIT normally focuses on what they call “post-resettlement” — everything after the first few months – they’re expecting to ramp up efforts to be able to welcome additional newcomers and support other Bay Area resettlement organizations. RIT will offer resettlement support, in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee and JFCS. They’ll work to help families access necessary health services and public benefits; providing assistance with registering for school as well as post-resettlement support in the form of education, and family engagement through field trips and support groups.

Some evacuees qualified for a visa under the Special Immigrant Visa category — established in 2008, initially for Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters, but expanded in 2014 to include those employed on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan. Others are arriving in the early stages of the visa application or via the humanitarian parole program, which means they may need legal assistance in addition to support for basic needs since humanitarian parolees are ineligible for food assistance services like SNAP.

In a Sept. 3 address, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said Afghan evacuees include “U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, Special Immigrant Visa holders, individuals who have assisted the United States in Afghanistan, and all other vulnerable Afghans, such as journalists and vulnerable women and girls.”

Mayorkas said in the past few weeks roughly 120,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul. “We have a moral imperative to protect them, to support those who have supported this nation,” he said.

A sense of home

For some Afghan families who may be used to a multigenerational family structure in which parents, kids and grandparents often live together, community is at the heart of a sense of home.

Also at the center of home is food. And for newly arrived Afghans, some East Bay cities offer both a sense of extended support within the already established Afghan community as well as access to Afghan food staples – like the homemade bread and Halal meat from Fremont’s Maiwand Market.

Esmatullah Asadullah and his family, including his parents and three sisters, came to the Bay Area last year after first being placed in Louisville, Kentucky with the help of the International Rescue Committee. “There were only 50 [Afghan] families,” he said. Asadullah, 20, said the IRC helped their family for around 3-4 months. They decided to move to San Jose to be among a larger Afghan community in 2020.

Esmatullah Asadullah’s father buys Afghan bread made at Maiwand Market in Fremont on Aug. 27, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“One of my mom’s friends lives here, and she really liked it,” Asadullah said. He’s now working for Tesla and going to school in San Jose. Watching what’s happening in Afghanistan from afar, he said it’s difficult: “Like as an Afghan … It’s hard — it’s like all [of] Afghanistan is like my family.”

For others who are arriving more recently, the challenges are more complex.

Housing costs ‘a constant challenge and shock’

JFCS says housing is the biggest challenge in their resettlement efforts, as property managers are reluctant to rent to new arrivals without a standard rental history or credit score. 

“The high cost of housing is a constant challenge and shock for incoming refugees,” said Holly Taines White, director of development and community engagement at JFCS. “Finding an affordable, safe, appropriate place to live — especially one that is somewhat nearby family and friends – is one of the things JFCS assists with the most.”

She shared one example of how challenging the search can be for someone who has recently arrived: A family found a relatively affordable $2,500 per-month apartment in Walnut Creek — but the property manager required they show income of five times the monthly rent.

“That is not something that a newly arrived family can do,” White said. “In cases like this, we provide a lot of advocacy, trying to help property managers understand the situations that our clients are in.” They’re also matching families with community members who are willing to serve as co-signers on the lease.

Christopher Cambises, immigrant affairs manager at the office of racial equity for the city of San Jose, helps ensure refugees and immigrants are welcomed and able to connect to services in the city.

“Right now a major need is housing, and everyone recognizes that housing is a challenge in Silicon Valley, in California as a whole,” he said.

Beyond housing, there’s a need for everything else that comes with starting a new life in a new country — getting kids into schools, getting connected to mental health resources, and basic furniture and household goods.

Cambises, himself an immigrant from the U.K., said there’s a shared sense of belonging amidst displacement. “This is a city that has an extremely long history of welcoming refugees from around the world and fostering that sense of community belonging for new arrivals,” he said. “We’re tied together by a shared sense of displacement, relocation, and resettlement.”

From California to Afghanistan, and back

“When I think about refugee resettlement, I think about housing,” said Shawn VanDiver, founder of the Truman National Security Project, San Diego chapter.

“We have a major housing crisis here,” VanDiver said. “But also California is a welcoming place.”

VanDiver, a 12-year Navy veteran, said he wants to make sure Afghans, specifically those who served the U.S., are welcomed. One of the people he worked with on civic engagement projects is a former Afghan interpreter named Lucky.

Lucky, a nickname given to him because he survived two IUD blasts (he prefers this name, for fear of what the Taliban might do to his family still in Afghanistan), received his SIV in 2016 after working as an interpreter for the U.S. for nearly 10 years. He now has a green card. Lukcy had been living in San Diego for the past several years, but went back to Afghanistan in May to see his aging mother and help her with care. While visiting his mother in the hospital his brother told him the Taliban were attempting to take their village. Around August 13 he went to help. Without enough people or ammunition to support the village, he said they had to surrender.

“I was stuck there,” Lucky said. He ended up pretending to be a truck driver to make his way back to Kabul and then spent 12 hours at the airport, waiting for a flight, with his wife and their 4-year-old and 7-month-old children.

In part with the assistance of Afghan Evac, a San Diego-based initiative started by veterans, Lucky arrived back in the U.S. at the end of August.

“My kids, they just can’t sleep,” he said. “They have nightmares … My daughter, she’s not letting me go. She’s still scared, she thinks she’s still in Afghanistan, and there’s going to be bombing.”

Lucky told KQED he was planning to move to Texas, to be closer to family and because the cost of living is high in California.

Bay Area Resettlement Organizations

Jewish Family & Community Services, East Bay Refugee & Immigrant Transitions International Rescue Committee

Copyright 2021 KQED