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Thousands of Afghan refugees are still living in hotels while they wait for housing

These Afghan women and children were among dozens of families staying in hotels near the Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Maryland.
Joel Rose/NPR
These Afghan women and children were among dozens of families staying in hotels near the Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Maryland.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, Aziz grabbed his backpack and rushed to the airport with his wife and two young children.

Seven months later, he's still living out of a backpack.

Aziz and his family had been staying in a hotel near the Baltimore/Washington International airport in Maryland for more than two months.

"This hotel that we are living [in] is good," Aziz said in an interview. "But we are restless. We are feeling like a passenger, living in the hotel."

In Kabul, Aziz worked as a doctor and an advisor to the Minister of Public Health. He asked us not to use his last name because he's afraid of retaliation against his family back in Afghanistan.

Aziz's family is among countless Afghans who are still living in hotel rooms and other temporary housing across the U.S., some for months, as they wait for permanent housing.

All of the Afghan refugees who were evacuated in the Kabul airlift last summer have now left the military bases where they lived for months — more than 76,000 Afghans in all, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

But for many, their journey still isn't over.

"They're happy they are in a safe country, but there still are a number of challenges they are going through," said Shakera Rahimi, a staff member at the Luminus Network for New Americans, a non-profit organization in Maryland that's helping support Afghan families while they wait for permanent housing.

Rahimi has helped to connect these families with medical care, and to register their kids for school. On a recent afternoon, volunteers from a local mosque dropped off backpacks full of school supplies.

Volunteers from a local mosque delivered donated backpacks full of school supplies for recently-arrived Afghan children.
/ Joel Rose/NPR
Joel Rose/NPR
Volunteers from a local mosque delivered donated backpacks full of school supplies for recently-arrived Afghan children.

But for a while, these families weren't getting much help. In December, before Rahimi was working here, one of the Afghan women staying in the hotel gave birth. Rahimi says she and her husband had to find their own way to the hospital and back.

"It was not easy for him to call the ambulance and take the wife there," Rahimi said. "And from the way back he was, he didn't know how to come back."

It's not clear exactly how many Afghan refugees are still living in hotels. The federal agencies in charge told us they don't have that information.

Based on conversations with state officials and resettlement agencies, the number of Afghans still living in hotels and other temporary housing is significant — likely more than 4,000 nationwide as of early March.

The biggest obstacle, resettlement agencies say, is a severe shortage of affordable housing.

"When you have seventeen hundred refugees coming into the state at one time just from Afghanistan alone, that puts an immediate strain on that already low, affordable housing inventory," said Kelli Dobner, the Chief Advancement Officer at Samaritas, a non-profit in Michigan that's working to resettle Afghan refugees there.

Dobner says her organization is working with about 500 Afghan refugees, and about half are still in hotels. She estimates it will take several months to find permanent housing for the rest.

"Time is running out and there's no solution," said Sonik Sadozai, a volunteer with Afghan Refugee Relief in Orange County, California. She came to the U.S. from Afghanistan herself, more than more than 40 years ago.

Now Sadozai is trying to find permanent housing for more than 100 newly-arrived families. But she says rents in Southern California are high — and landlords are reluctant to rent to tenants with no credit history.

"We're giving the social services. But where can they live?" Sadozai said in an interview. "You cannot be on the street with their kids."

These Afghan families are getting help through refugee resettlement agencies to cover their hotel rooms. But that money is only supposed to last for three months. For some of these families, Sadozai says, that deadline is coming up fast. And she doesn't know where they'll go when it's time to check out.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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