Months after he escaped Afghanistan aboard a U.S. military plane, Mohibullah Hasrat found himself walking the sidewalks of Philadelphia, hoping to find what for many evacuees had become an elusive prize:
A place for his family to live.
He traversed the city, north, south, east, and west, but found few homes or apartments for rent. And when he did find one, the landlords had set high rent — too high for someone new to the United States, who had neither a job nor a reference.
Eventually, Hasrat, 30, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, found an apartment in West Philadelphia and was able to move in earlier this year, weary but thankful.
“We’re finally in our home,” he said.
In Philadelphia and elsewhere, the effort to resettle 76,000 Afghan war allies continues to collide with the U.S. housing crisis. But today more evacuees are finding places to live, sometimes in unexpected places.
Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church welcomed a family to live in its parish house, and the Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon is providing a two-bedroom apartment in Wayne for a family of four.
“We’re all operating in a nationwide affordable housing crisis,” said Gretchen Shanfeld, senior director of program operations at Nationalities Service Center, a major Philadelphia resettlement agency. “When we knew what was going to be asked of us, housing was immediately our number-one concern.”
At NSC, more than seven months after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, staffers continue to work the phones every day. They hunt properties for clients who departed quarters on U.S. military bases and then found themselves living at the Marriott Residence Inn in Center City while awaiting permanent housing.
In the last six weeks the agency has managed to reduce the number of Afghans at the hotel from 250 to 100.
Now NSC has agreed to resettle an additional 100 people, part of what it anticipates will be a new U.S. program to reunite Afghan families. That’s on top of the 500 people the agency took on initially.
HIAS Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is hiring new staff to accept 60 more Afghans, having resettled 110. In Baltimore, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has managed to find homes for all but seven of the 1,100 evacuees being resettled through its largest office, in Alexandra, Va., though challenges remain in other housing markets.
New arrivals initially get government assistance but need to be able to pay their own rent after three to six months.
Ahead looms even more demand for housing, locally and nationally, as the Biden administration prepares to accept 100,000 Ukrainian war refugees into the United States.
Hasrat understood the logic of his problem in finding an apartment — “Why would somebody give their home to somebody who doesn’t have anything?” — but its impact was punishing.
The family, including his spouse, who did not wish to be named, and their children, Taeeba, 7; Madina, 6; Beheshta, 3; and Mohammad Rezwan, 2; evacuated Kabul on Aug. 27, landing the next day at a processing center in Germany. They spent six weeks there before coming to the United States. Then came a month at Fort Lee in Virginia, and transfer to the Philadelphia hotel in mid-November.
They lived there two months before finding an apartment.
Hasrat, who has a master’s degree in business administration from Kardan University in Kabul, continues to look for a job. His children have started school. He said many Afghan friends in other states have found housing, though some continue to look.
In some places there’s simply not enough physical stock. In others, apartments and houses have become much more expensive. Sometimes it’s both. Some Afghans believe they have been discriminated against by property owners who don’t want immigrant tenants.
Rents have risen in Northeast Philadelphia, where many Afghans have settled in recent years, and agencies say they need more two- and three-bedroom units to accommodate families with children.
“That’s true for Afghans, and that will be true for Ukrainians,” NSC’s Shanfeld said. “If Philadelphia wants to be a welcoming city, we have to be sure that people can afford to make new lives here.”
The chaotic evacuation of Kabul commenced the largest resettlement since the Vietnam War, and from the start it’s been complicated by two main factors.
One is its sheer size. The United States brought 76,000 Afghan nationals to this country, moving them to “safe haven” housing at eight U.S. military installations, including Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey.
As people moved off the bases — the last left in February — they often moved to hotels, waiting for permanent housing. In the past, during “normal” times, it was unusual for a refugee to spend even one night at a hotel.
That has offered some benefits, introducing flexibility to the system that’s allowed people to explore different communities and have greater say in where they might wish to settle. It’s also created a lot of frustration.
The second factor, and one that promises to challenge a Ukrainian resettlement, is the Trump administration’s starvation of the refugee-admissions system. Record-low arrivals and consequent, shrinking reimbursements caused about a third of the nation’s 300 local refugee-resettlement agencies to go out of business or suspend operations.
Those that survived were weakened by layoffs and departures. Long-term relationships with landlords withered.
In fiscal 2016, the Obama administration admitted 84,994 refugees, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. In fiscal 2020, Trump accepted 11,814.
The Biden administration dramatically raised the cap on admissions, to 125,000 for fiscal 2022, but through February had resettled only 6,494 people.
“The agencies have been tasked with this herculean feat of ramping up as quickly as possible after four years of decimation,” said Sasha Chanoff, CEO of RefugeePoint, a Massachusetts-based agency that assists in resettlement. “They’re doing a heroic job. But this is an unprecedented situation.”
A private-public partnership called Sponsor Circles has worked to handle the crush of arrivals, involving American families and groups in essentially serving as mini-resettlement agencies. So far 149 groups comprising about 700 people have been approved or are awaiting approval.
“We’re at this really important moment,” Chanoff said. “This is not going to be front and center in people’s minds forever.”
Ahmad, 26, who wanted his last name withheld for safety reasons, tallies his journey from Afghanistan in the stations along the way: two days in a refugee camp in Qatar, 22 days in a receiving center in Germany, two months at Camp Atterbury in Indiana.
From there he, his wife, and 15-year-old brother were flown to Philadelphia for permanent resettlement. His cousin lives in the Northeast, and he figured he would soon settle nearby.
Instead, he spent three months at the Marriott.
“I found four homes,” he said, but each was quickly snapped up by someone else. “Everything is too expensive. ... They say these landlords are not going to rent to refugees.”
In Kabul he and his family lived in a four-floor luxury apartment. That changed when Taliban fighters entered the capital on Aug. 15, and people panicked in the streets.
“You see zombie films?” he asked. “When the zombies come, everyone’s trying to hide.”
He’s found his economics degree from the University of Afghanistan means little in this country. He’s been issued his Social Security card and work authorization, but it took time before he could land a job, as a cashier in a grocery store.
In February, about six months after he left Afghanistan, Ahmad was able to get an apartment in the Northeast.
“It’s so difficult,” he said, “to find a home in Philadelphia.”