By Elijah McKee
Photo, left: Jill Galante and Peggy Han, volunteers with El Cajon Helping Refugees
November 10, 2021 (El Cajon) — “We regularly, four or five times a day, get messages saying ‘Please, my family is so hungry. Please can you visit,’” said Jill Galante as she scanned the newly assembled single bedroom, now ready for four people.
After just one hour of flurried food stocking, donated furniture assembling and bathroom scrubbing, Galante and a group of volunteers from Helping El Cajon Refugees effectively transformed the bare El Cajon apartment into a welcoming place for Sara, her husband who worked with the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, and their daughters: four-month-old Sana and three-year-old Asra. “We try to make it look like a home,” said Galante.
Sara’s is one of many Afghan families that took a gamble at the Hamid Karzai International Airport as the window for evacuation was waning in late August. They were four of the 50,000 who still awaited processing in eight military bases across the country — until now, as they watched the aid group Helping El Cajon Refugees (HECR) finalize their new apartment.
Photo, right: Airlift of Afghan refugees out of Afghanistan, courtesy of the Pentagon
Steered by Galante and Peggy Han, this volunteer effort has organized to address the needs locally of incoming refugee populations for over five and a half years. The bulk of their recent capacity has been thrust towards welcoming the influx of Afghans who have fled their home in the wake of the Taliban takeover.
Currently headquartered on a Facebook page, the group is pulling together donations and getting them where they are most needed around the clock. The night prior to moving in Sara, they were delivering mattresses to a family of 10.
In the weeks following the August 15th seizure of Kabul, the gaze of American news media was decidedly glued to Afghanistan’s capital. Yet since the United States military officially left the country on August 30th, less and less mass attention is being given to the Afghan people, despite the surge of refugees at America’s doorstep who need — and deserve — American help.
Resettlement agencies and grassroots aid organizations working in East County, such as HECR, are doing all they can to house, feed, and clothe arriving Afghan families, with hopes of setting them up for long-term success in this strange new place — but doing so is proving to be a steep uphill battle with the highest of consequences.
REBUILDING ON THE GO
While this is not the first time San Diego County has been an epicenter for people seeking refuge from violence (think Saigon, 1975), the current moment is hitting a new decibel of intensity for both refugees and those in positions to help.
“What we’re dealing with is an unprecedented amount of refugees who are arriving here with literally nothing,” described Galante. “The case workers are so overloaded.”
Most Afghans have come into the United States as Special Immigrant Visa holders, parolees, or under Humanitarian Protection. More Afghan Placement and Assistance designees are starting to be processed as well. Very few come to the country independently or with no ties here. Upon arrival in San Diego, people either seek out short term housing with someone they know, or get assigned to one of four local resettlement agencies.
In some cases, the latter can lead to marginalization at an extended stay hotel or Airbnb while the agency scrambles to find permanent housing. HECR gets information from those caseworkers, as well as from their own network, so they know how best to help.
“Their SIMs don’t work so they don’t have phones. They don’t have food. They don’t have Social Security numbers so they cannot get SNAP or cash aid,” listed Galante. “They’re just like, in a holding pattern.”
“To be able to do this,” she said as she gestured to the filled apartment around her, “just saves them one out of the 100 traumas they’re going to have to deal with.”
Photo, left: Volunteers work to set up a bedroom for the newly arrived Afghan family of four in El Cajon.
During the first half of 2021, the new Afghan arrival numbers for the entire region were below 20 people each month. As the summer unfolded into the fall, though, that trend began to shoot upwards. It last peaked in October at 560 people, according to the latest report by the San Diego Refugee Forum. Several thousand more are expected to come to the United States in the coming weeks, but just how many will end up in San Diego remains unknown.
“It’s all happening at a pretty rapid clip,” said Donna Duvin, Executive Director of the San Diego International Rescue Committee (IRC) chapter. She explained how in the past, agencies have had up to two weeks to prepare support, but right now are working with just 24 to 48 hours notice of when individuals are heading their way.
With that turnaround time, the IRC assisted 181 refugees in San Diego from September 1st to October 25th. Duvin put that in perspective, noting how, “That compares to 170 total refugees that we were able to support in the entire fiscal year previously. So it definitely has a different pace.”
To make matters harder, resettlement agencies are still recovering from the Trump administration, which put in place policies that damaged their capacity, slashed resources and made refugee support a partisan issue, despite an all-time high of 26 million refugees worldwide.
Things were improving in mid-August as revived federal support approached with the October 1st fiscal year — and then the crisis happened.
“It caught us totally unprepared to support those numbers,” recalled Etleva Bejko, Director of Refugee & Immigration Services at Jewish Family Service (JFS). “So we are building capacity as we are serving the clients.”
Lucky for these longstanding agencies, their internal foundations remained and can be ramped back up over time. Still, the dire circumstances underscore their need for more in-kind, financial, and volunteer support.
From Bejko’s standpoint, the current pace and numbers are exposing weaknesses in the processing system. “There is a backlog,” she said, “because they came all at the same time but they can’t all go out at the same time.”
Bejko made clear how before anyone can leave a military base, they must pass medical and criminal background checks, get fully vaccinated, complete a quarantine, and coordinate a plan for travel. Families have been stuck on bases for months as these processing requirements slowly get met, in an environment that, according to Bejko, is “no condition for families to be in.”
On top of everything else, only those with a United States tie are being let off the bases. In Sara’s case, her family only made it to the U.S. via Qatar and left the Fort Lee Army Base with the help of Mohammed “Fahim” Hamidi, an acquaintance from Afghanistan who came to America himself three years ago. He and Sara’s husband briefly worked in the same warehouse that was contracted with the U.S. Embassy, but it was enough.
“If you have just a hi and bye with somebody over there, it’s like they’re your brother here because you don’t know anybody else,” said Hamidi with a smile. He was also at the move-in to help translate for Sara and her family. Since arriving in 2018, he has helped many friends and former coworkers leave Afghanistan and get settled in California, actively partnering with HECR.
Still, connecting with a loose tie is more often than not a temporary step towards what has proven to be the biggest challenge for Afghans coming to San Diego — finding affordable, safe, and permanent housing.
GETTING A FOOT IN THE DOOR
In the past, employment was the bigger issue, with refugees finding success in forming pockets of community — particularly in El Cajon where a large number of Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghans have resettled, and in City Heights, where over 80 languages are spoken.
But today, housing is the principal need in the resettlement process. Until finding employment, Afghans are living off of a one-time federal emergency appropriation of $1225 per person, which is not much to completely rekindle one’s life. They can qualify for additional aid like the CalFresh program, but the wait time is a three week minimum.
Meanwhile, even if they could devote their budget solely to housing, they would likely be short on rent in a matter of weeks — assuming a vacancy was found in the first place.
“Housing is a California challenge,” affirmed Bejko. “In addition to availability, it’s also the new property managers,” she continued, explaining how many still require high credit scores and proof of income that is double or triple rent — things refugees can seldom provide right away.
“Our longstanding, loyal partners that we have worked with around housing have changed hands,” said Duvin as she reflected on the realities of four years of refugee suppression. “So we’re in rapid rebuilding mode, and that includes with our property management partners.”
According to Galante, most of the refugees were upper middle class in Afghanistan, but fled with virtually nothing, making the transition to living in cramped quarters in a new land all the more daunting.
Efforts have been made to mitigate the gaping housing need in resettlement, such as a $3,200 Airbnb incentive for property owners to subsidize refugee housing. The measure has helped some but hurt others.
“The gouging that’s going on right now is disgusting,” remarked Galante. She explained how most legitimate Airbnb owners didn’t bite on the offer because they can make more money elsewhere. Instead, non-affiliated landlords profited off of completely empty apartments, much like the one Sara would have moved into if not for HECR’s efforts. “These slums became Airbnbs overnight,” she said uneasily.
Ironically, refugees can become some of the most reliable tenants in the face of these barriers to housing. “The rate of clients being evicted because they are not paying is very low,” reported Bejko, who has overseen the placement of thousands of people in El Cajon and City Heights. Newcomers have sought these two places out because of the many Middle Eastern residents and strong pre-existing networks of support that are there; it’s clear that they want to stay once they have made it.
“That community was built over years, with language and cultural capacity to provide services,” explained Bejko. El Cajon has accessible schools, walkable streets, caring and knowledgeable mentors — it can make a world of difference.
Yet the housing shortage is constricting this option. Families are ending up miles away in places like Escondido, or even placed in other states. Sara and her family were first only offered resettlement in Alaska; it was their connection to Hamidi in San Diego that enabled them to come to California instead.
The refugees asked not to be photographed, but Sara and her children smiled as volunteers put the finishing touches on their apartment.
During the move-in, Sara spoke of her hopes for her children, who clung tight to her. “She wants them to do their education,” translated Hamidi, “become a good person and achieve their goals.”
Hamidi spoke with Sara some more, then continued. “She’s missing her parents,” he said. “All those families left behind there, they don’t have peace of mind.”
On top of the political turmoil, a drought and the pandemic, Afghanistan is facing an economic crisis. Bank withdrawals and international transfers have been restricted, assets are frozen, and work is scant, according to a Reuters report.
Sara and her immediate family may have escaped the darkening situation back home, and they do have a housing success story here for now — but the journey ahead is still murky.
“Right now they really need a job,” voiced Hamidi. “We applied for benefits through county but it’s not approved yet, so I’m helping them with food. When we asked them to expedite the process for CalWORKS, they are not doing it.”
Looming beyond finding employment is the myriad of cultural adjustments to make. Just understanding the banking, healthcare, and school systems in America, and the language they function in — not to mention unpacking trauma once “survival mode” has lessened — all takes longer than the 90 days agencies have to provide immediate support.
“Longer term case management would make it easier for clients,” urged Bejko, “to actually start on the path towards integration. Because they are here to stay.”
Existing helping hands on that path include the Afghan Community Culture Center and the Islamic Center of San Diego. If new federal initiatives like the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans go according to plan, even more community partners may be found.
FILLING THE GAPS: WHAT'S NEEDED
While groups like JFS, the IRC, and HECR are scouring the area for open housing and facilitating move-ins, resettlement work does not stop there. Taking it to the necessary level of long-term sustainability requires the whole community’s engagement.
“Agencies never do this work by themselves,” said Duvin. She cited the important collaboration between groups like HECR and the IRC to galvanize support from the community at large in the form of in-kind donations.
“We’re seeing a ton of interest,” added Donny Repsher, Development and Communications Manager at the IRC. “A lot of our work then becomes about framing exactly what the need is,” he continued. “Everything that we are able to generate support for is offsetting the money that is allocated per family, that can then be spent on other things.”
Items must be in new or like-new condition. The needs of resettlement are specific and quality must be high. People need bunk beds, mattresses, warm clothes, baby formula and medicine, not bags of tattered hand-me-downs.
For more information about donations, visit the IRC’s Amazon Wish List, and learn how to further help them here. Read JFS’s statement and consider donating and volunteering here. To join HECR and get involved, visit their Facebook page. For additional information, refer to the San Diego Refugee Forum and the County Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.
While local agencies and the people within them provide immense aid, city governments can also step up in stride with their communities. “People want to know how they can best welcome a stranger,” said Duvin. “You do that by showing you care.”
In the midst of finishing up the details on Sara’s new apartment — down to quarters for the laundromat, stuffed animals, flowers, and welcome letters from schoolchildren — and preparing to do it all again tomorrow, Galante asked for more care from those in the county and city charged with oversight.
Photo, right: Families assisted by El Cajon Helping Refugees receive welcoming letters written by local children.
“There’s such a flood of money going to the country, to the state of California, to the County,” she said. “Why aren’t we incentivizing landlords? Why isn’t the food bank partnering with refugee groups? Why aren’t you shadowing a caseworker for the day to see where you would place your line items in a meaningful way? Why haven’t you come and done one move-in, to see what needs to be done, where the money might need to go?”
The bottom line is clear. Afghans are risking it all to get here, to start over in East County — and following up on the rush of headlines from August with tangible actions and quality resources today is a must for all public institutions, local governments, and residents.
“This is not going to end tomorrow,” said Bejko. “It’s not in the media anymore, but we are at it still.”