Iowa refugee resettlement agencies struggle to find homes for influx of Afghan refugees
Reza Akrami knows a lot about building a home.
Since he was 18 years old, he would take old properties in the province of Bamyan in central Afghanistan and reconstruct them into something new. He’d transform simple brick structures into beautiful buildings with ornate balconies.
But, today he sits far from those buildings and the country his family had called home for 75 years. He and his family were among more than 75,000 Afghan people to come to the U.S. after their country fell to the Taliban.
“It was so difficult. With crying, we were getting out from Afghanistan. Believe me. You know, our home,” he said. “That is the only place that we are comfortable. That’s the only place that is so invaluable for us.”
Now, he’s looking to build a home somewhere entirely different: Sergeant Bluff, Iowa.
He is one of 600 Afghan refugees who have been resettled in Iowa since November. This surge of new arrivals comes as Iowa faces a shortage of affordable housing options, providing a challenge for many refugee resettlement agencies charged with welcoming Afghan refugees, like Akrami, to the state.
Akrami said since he landed in America five months ago, he has always felt welcome. After several months on a crowded military base, he and ten other family members were greeted at the Sioux City airport with flowers by Mercedes Dimas, the refugee coordinator for the Mary J. Treglia Community House.
She took him to a house stocked full of furniture, food and toys for his wife and two children.
“In my whole life – I'm 28 years old – and in these 28 years no one has helped me in the same way that she did. Believe me,” he said.
Dimas said it has been challenging to find homes that are affordable for incoming refugees like Reza. She’s had to negotiate with landlords and look outside the city limits of Sioux City to Sergeant Bluff and Le Mars, almost 30 miles away.
“The way that I was thinking about it this whole time is putting myself in their shoes,” she said. “And thinking, Okay, what could I realistically afford, you know, for me and my family, if I just had a couple of months of work in,” she said. “And everything here is well over $1,000 a month.”
She has resettled 20 Afghan individuals into permanent housing in the surrounding areas so far, but she expects up to 30 more refugees for her agency alone.
A compressed timeline for resettlement
When Mak Suceska, the bureau chief of Refugee Services in Iowa, first thought about resettling hundreds of additional refugees in Iowa, one thought kept popping up in his head.
“The first question was: Where the heck are they going to live?” he said.
He said finding affordable housing has always been a challenge for the state’s resettlement agencies, and, now, they are working against a compressed timeline. With Afghan refugees, resettlement organizations are only getting a day’s notice when a refugee will arrive, compared to the week they would normally have to prepare for other resettlements.
“It was really just trial by fire,” he said. “Working around the clock and just trying to tap into those resources that we didn't think of before and that are going to help us in the long run.”
He said they’re partnering with other state agencies like the Iowa Finance Authority and Iowa Economic Development Authority to bring about more housing options. But for now, many Afghan refugees in Des Moines are staying in temporary living situations, like hotels and Airbnbs.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Des Moines Director Kerri True-Funk said that’s because many refugees from Afghanistan are coming as families. There is a high demand for units with multiple bedrooms, but not a lot of availability in central Iowa.
“When you have a wife and four or five kids, you can't live in a one bedroom apartment. That's just not livable,” she said. “And here in Des Moines, finding three bedroom, even market rate apartments is hard and expensive.”
On top of that, True-Funk said they need to consider homes within walking distance from grocery stores, schools and public transit – further limiting viable options.
A 'depleted' system
The influx of refugees comes after some of the infrastructure for resettlement was lost under the previous presidential administration.
Many refugee resettlement agencies had cut down on staff, leaving them with fewer people equipped to handle the surge of refugees. At USCRI Des Moines, True-Funk said they quickly learned they would need more than the one staff member who had solely overseen resettlement for almost two years.
The organization now has three full-time employees and two part-time employees in their resettlement program, but True-Funk said it hasn’t been enough.
“We should have at least four if not five, five full time case managers in our program right now,” she said. “And so we're really struggling to keep our head above water.”
Refugee resettlement organizations operate under a timeline of 90 days once a refugee arrives to set up medical appointments, enroll children in schools and find well-paying jobs.
“It is not important where you are living. Location is not important. What is important is the heart of the people,”
But, True-Funk said it’s been difficult to meet their expected timeline. As the coronavirus pandemic overwhelms hospitals and medical providers, booking medical screenings for refugees is taking a lot longer.
“It's overwhelming some days thinking about the number of things that we need to do,” she said.
Suceska said it’s been difficult, but he hopes this experience will lead to a greater conversation of how to build a better infrastructure for state-wide resettlement.
“Everything that has happened and really the trinity of natural disasters, from health and safety to now a humanitarian crisis, really has allowed us to have more robust conversations on how we develop viable infrastructures,” Suceska said. “Not just for refugees, but in general, for our residents and citizens across the country.”
Looking beyond a home
Finding a physical home for refugees is only the first step of resettlement.
Whether the refugees are landing in Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs or Des Moines, Dimas said, most of all, refugees need community. She said they need to be seen as humans, not just refugees.
“I wish people could see that, you know, that they are not anywhere near helpless, like, they're so much more incredible even than me, then a lot of people I know,” she said. “It's just a terrible situation that they're in. But if they had the support then we could all thrive together and learn from each other.”
Back in Sergeant Bluff, Akrami is grateful that his children have a house to roam around and play in. But he says the feeling of community means even more to him.
“It is not important where you are living. Location is not important. What is important is the heart of the people,” he said. “We will spend the rest of our lives here like it’s our home.”
He dreams of someday using his own knowledge of constructing and selling homes right here in Iowa. He just has to start building.