Refugees, evacuees find homes and support in the Ohio Valley
On a warm April afternoon, Ruhullah Rezai, his wife Mahriya and son Farhan shop for clothes with a Kentucky Refugee Ministries case worker. The family moved into their first home in Lexington last month after a long journey from Afghanistan. The resettlement agency gives each of their clients a $200 clothing stipend.
“We just came from Kabul,” Rezai said. “I was just working with the Americans and the U.S. Army and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”
After leaving Afghanistan, Rezai and his family traveled to Qatar and then to Washington, D.C.
Following the collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban, Afghan nationals came to the U.S. as humanitarian parolees — a different status than people who enter under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
Initially when Afghans received humanitarian parole status, it didn’t include access to federal benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid. But Mary Cobb, director of Kentucky Refugee Ministries office in Lexington, said resettlement agencies were relieved when Congress authorized benefits. But the status isn’t permanent.
“That status is a temporary two-year emergency status, it doesn't have a path to citizenship or a way to stay, even a green card, the way that refugee status does,” she said. “Refugee status also comes with an immediate work authorization.”
Refugee resettlement agencies in Kentucky and Ohio have helped Afghan parolees, and the region has a long history of resettling people from around the world. From 2020 through 2021, 4,577 refugees resettled in Kentucky, almost half from Democratic Republic of Congo, followed by Cuba and Myanmar. During the same period, Ohio welcomed 1,111 refugees. West Virginia has resettled five evacuees from Afghanistan, advocates say the state’s refugee program doesn’t have enough funding and support.
Resettlement nonprofits assist clients with basic needs like enrolling children in school, helping people find jobs and securing housing before they arrive in the country. But Cobb says inflation and the limited supply of affordable housing have been major challenges for resettlement agencies.
“The housing crunch is definitely real for us,” she said. “We are paying more towards the rents than we used to, just like everyone is. Not every landlord wants to work with us.”
There are many challenges when trying to find housing for refugees, Cobb said. Agencies try to find locations near public transportation and have to convince landlords to rent to people who don’t have any rental or credit history in the U.S.
“We are vouching for everyone before they arrive. And trying to make sure landlords know, like, we're good for the rent for a while,” Cobb said. “They have work permits, we’ll help them find jobs. And there are a lot of great landlords who say, ‘OK, I'll do it. I'll try it.’”
In Cincinnati, Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio Chief Operations Officer Patrick Renolds-Berry said resettlement agencies typically receive two weeks' notice about arrivals, but sometimes it’s as little as 48 hours.
“To be able to find that in a two week period sometimes, well, it's super hard, but sometimes it's impossible,” Reynolds-Berry said. “We're having to lean on short-term housing options like Airbnbs or hotels to get people temporarily housed before they get into more long-term housing.”
He said finding housing for larger families can be especially difficult.
“We have a family recently who arrived with ten individuals in the family,” Reynolds-Berry said. “So finding larger apartments or houses to rent for larger families is tough.”
Last October President Joe Biden announced 125,000 refugees would be allowed into the U.S. this fiscal year, a massive jump from the 15,000 person target set at the end of the Trump administration. Although many resettlement agencies haven’t yet seen that increase, they have already assisted more than 70,000 Afghans — a number separate from the refugee program.
John Koehlinger, executive director of Kentucky Refugee Ministries in Louisville, said agencies worked to resettle Afghans over a period of four to five months.
“So that was a tall order. That was very challenging to resettle that number in a short time,” he said.
Afghan humanitarian parolees have to apply for asylum within the first year of being in the U.S. and Koehlinger said the asylum system is severely backlogged.
“KRM’s immigration attorneys — were assisting our 460 Afghan clients statewide to apply for asylum — which is a very time intensive application,” he said. “They have to travel to Chicago for their asylum interview.”
To be granted asylum, clients have to gather statements and evidence to show they were individually persecuted in their home countries.
Over the last year, news has focused on the war in Ukraine and the collapse of Afghanistan. But people have fled other conflicts without similar media attention. Cobb, with Kentucky Refugee Ministries in Lexington, said that’s a problem.
“The attention is definitely uneven,” she said. “And we really feel saddened and hurt and upset by that, that clients who have fled from Rwanda or Congo, or Syria or lots of other places, don't have that quite that level of public sympathy that we're seeing for the kind of recent news cycle situations.”
Estimates of the average time a refugee experiences displacement range between 10 and 26 years. Cobb hopes the current news cycle will create empathy for people fleeing any conflict.
“Because there's high public sympathy for Afghanistan and Ukraine, and people say, ‘Oh, that's what that means. They have to leave. Like, of course they have to leave. They're gonna die if they stay there,’” she said. “And if you can say that's what it means for all refugees…maybe it becomes more real.”
When refugees arrive, Cobb said they are focused on immediate responsibilities like finding a job, enrolling kids in school and learning English. Trauma can often take a back seat. Cobb said many refugees have experienced torture.
“We're actually in the process right now of hiring a full-time therapist on staff here to see clients, so we don't have to do telehealth or find pro bono therapists, we can really provide a fuller service for them,” Cobb said. “It's quite a complicated thing to even talk or think about.”
In Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville, resettlement nonprofits say community support for refugees is strong.
The government’s refugee system often partners with religious organizations that help set up apartments and collect donations for people arriving.
Dominique Olbert works with the Community Response Coalition of Kentucky, an immigration support group based in Lexington, and is also a member of Temple Adath Israel’s social action committee.
She helped the group secure a grant allowing the temple to buy food for Afghan families who arrived through Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Ohavay Zion Synagogue was also involved in the effort.
“We wanted to ensure that people who arrived had enough food and not just that they had enough food, but that they had halal food and foods that they like that would remind them of home,” Olbert said. “We didn't want them just to have the very basics, we wanted them to know that people in the community wanted them to be happy and to have foods that are culturally appropriate.”
Rabbi David Wirschafter with Temple Adath Israel said the synagogue has helped refugees since its founding in 1904.
“I would imagine that if we were to study the congregation's records, it would go back to the early 20th century in helping Russian and Polish Jews fleeing pogroms and czarist oppression,” he said. “And it then continues during during World War II and the Shoah — the Holocaust.”
Wirschafter said the Torah commands people to “speak out and stand up for the stranger.”
“We have a moral obligation, having endured oppression, to make sure that others don't have to,” he said.
The congregation volunteered to set up an apartment for an Afghan family and donated to help buy clothes, shoes, food and appliances. Olbert said being a community sponsor for refugees is important.
“We've had so much volunteer enthusiasm,” Olbert said. “This is an issue that really resonates in the Jewish community, people feel very personally what it's like to be a refugee.”