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The next challenge for Afghan refugees is finding affordable housing and jobs

Feraidon Hakimi, wearing Afghan clothes, stands outside Fort Pickett military base in Blackstone, Va. in October 2021. Hakimi spent four months on the base before moving to Maryland.
Feraidon Hakimi
Feraidon Hakimi, wearing Afghan clothes, stands outside Fort Pickett military base in Blackstone, Va. in October 2021. Hakimi spent four months on the base before moving to Maryland.

In the past six months, Feraidon Hakimi has had three different homes.

After fleeing from his native Afghanistan last August, the 22-year-old arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport and was moved to the Fort Pickett military base in Blackstone, Va. Four months later, he moved into a house in Maryland. But his journey in the U.S. is still just beginning.

"Here, I am alone. I have no one to support me financially," Hakimi said.

The last groups of Afghan refugees who were living on U.S. military bases departed this month, but refugee agencies say the refugees still face immense challenges in the next step of resettlement.

On Feb. 19, the Department of Homeland Security announced that all Afghans who were temporarily housed on U.S. military bases have been "resettled" to communities across the country. The last base that was housing Afghans, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, will remain partially open to welcome incoming Afghan refugees as part of the DHS's Operation Allies Welcome.

DHS says approximately 84,600 Afghan nationals, American citizens and lawful permanent residents have arrived in the U.S. as part of Operation Allies Welcome, which was established after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021. More than 76,000 Afghan nationals have now gone to communities across the country, DHS says.

"It's a important milestone ... but I want to stress the mission isn't over yet. The hard work in many ways is the upcoming weeks and months ahead," Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told NPR. The nonprofit has helped settle refugees and migrants arriving in the U.S. for more than 80 years.

Affordable housing is still a top concern for resettling refugees

Vignarajah says challenges remain ahead for both refugees leaving military bases and the resettlement agencies like hers that are working to help them. For example, finding affordable housing is still a major difficulty, especially in regions that Afghans prefer to live in like California and Northern Virginia.

"It's a complicated process of trying to find appropriate, affordable housing," Vignarajah says, when "reasonably priced accommodations are scarce to begin with." A lack of housing supply is driving up rents across the country.

Laura Thompson Osuri, executive director of the nonprofit Homes Not Borders, said support from the government to help refugees find more permanent housing has been lacking. Homes Not Borders helps refugees and asylum-seekers in the Washington, D.C., area with furniture and supplies in their homes, as well helping them find jobs.

"The U.S. wanted them off the bases because it was too expensive to be on the bases, but now they're all in hotels, a lot are still in hotels, a lot are not in permanent housing," Osuri said. "Putting them in hotels is even more expensive and more scattered about."

NPR reached out to DHS about the costs of resettlement efforts and was referred to the State Department. The State Department did not immediately respond to comment.

Osuri adds that the lack of affordable housing in the Washington area has made it nearly "impossible" for refugee families to find permanent housing in the area.

"It's a nightmare," she said. "It's so frustrating to see."

Job-hunting is also a major stress

For Hakimi in Maryland, housing hasn't been his biggest concern, he says. After leaving the military base in Virginia in December, Hakimi spent two days in a hotel and was then moved to more permanent housing in Maryland.

"The process of housing was very good for me," Hakimi said. But now, his greatest challenge is trying to get a job.

"My family are not here, so here I start from the zero," he said. "I am not complaining. This is just my situation."

In Afghanistan, Hakimi studied journalism and public relations. Now that he's in the U.S., his friends are advising him to change his career path, because he'd need to be more proficient in English to get a job in PR and have more experience. He's also trying to figure out if he should go back to school in the U.S., and how he'd pay for that degree.

Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, the resettlement agency helping Hakimi, will provide a housing stipend for him for three months. He's counting the days he has left before he has to start paying rent and supporting himself.

"I don't know what I should do, to be honest," he said. "I don't have anyone to support me."

The Russian invasion of Ukraine leaves organizations bracing for more refugees

While organizations like the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service are still providing aid to Afghan refugees, they're already bracing for another wave of potential refugees from Ukraine.

"The refugee resettlement system is precisely how we protect vulnerable populations, whether they are from Afghanistan or Ukraine," Vignarajah said in a statement on Thursday.

"The U.S. and its allies must prepare to respond to the very real possibility of a mass exodus of Ukrainian refugees. Protecting the displaced cannot merely be an afterthought," she said.

U.S. officials have predicted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine could produce between 1 million and 5 million refugees.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.