Afghan refugee nonprofits navigate Austin affordability, COVID concerns


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The need for affordable housing has been a central point of conversation in Austin in recent years, spurred by continued rent inflation and limited housing availability. As some long-time residents have been forced to relocate from Austin due to rising prices, a subsect of newcomers are struggling to gain access amid limited housing units and transportation access: Afghan refugees.

That’s where several local organizations and Good Samaritans have stepped in.

Amid the Afghan crisis and this past summer’s surge in Afghan refugee resettlements globally, Austin has already welcomed hundreds of refugees. By the end of fiscal year 2021-22, Refugee Services of Texas estimates 1,020 refugees will call Austin home.

But beyond the move itself, calling a place “home” comes down to more than just having a temporary residence, said Anjum Malik, executive director of the Austin-based nonprofit Global Impact Initiative. Many refugees who relocate have short-term housing options, but need to find more stable services after their initial few months in the U.S., she said.

“Most Americans are facing a challenge to affordable housing. Now, imagine you’re a refugee,” she said. “You’re arriving in the U.S. with no community ties.”

As part of GII’s services, Malik and volunteers assist with seeking out employment opportunities for refugees, education enrollment for their children and securing everyday essentials such as WiFi, SIM cards and transportation. The nonprofit also hosts educational webinars and mentorship programs to assist those coming to the U.S. improve their English and job-training skills for employment.

Aijaz Hassan, president of the North Austin Muslim Community Center, said these same challenges impair refugees the NAMCC serves. But a primary issue impacting Afghan refugees resettling around the globe is not just the affordability component, but community.

“When they get here, they feel all of a sudden there is no home for them,” he said. “So what we have been also doing is to feel them welcomed in this country — to feel them so that they are not alone.”

Hassan said NAMCC has gathered teams of volunteers who speak various languages and partnered them with refugees whose native tongues align, to help streamline that communication channel. NAMCC has extended its ESL program to accommodate the uptick in Central Texas Afghan refugees, and coordinating with volunteers to transport class attendees to and from their current dwellings to the program.

As with virtually all aspects of life, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed its own unique threats on Afghan refugees — namely, safe access to groceries and other home resources.

NAMCC leaders launched a drive-thru grocery service at the onset of COVID-19, with weekly in-person or delivery services provided. Twice a week, volunteers pass out diapers, formula and other baby essentials for mothers with infants or young children.

Since late August, resident Annie Hardy has worked alongside her colleagues on Afghan resettlement efforts. Community, she said, has a twofold meaning when it comes to refugee resettlements.

The first pertains to the resources provided for Afghan refugees, as well as inviting them to meet, collaborate and develop relationships with other Afghans in the community. The second, and a critical, component is how the greater Austin community accepts those now calling the region home, she said.

“You have these pockets of Austinites where they’re like, ‘oh, there’s a lot of Afghans that moved into my neighborhood. I want to give them clothes, I want to go ahead and visit them, I want to welcome them,'” she said. “So you have these really large, organized efforts like GII and NAMCC, and then you have these pockets of guerrilla welcoming teams all over the city, that recognize that there’s something that’s in need.”

Suma Aithal, who works with Hardy, has been assisting one family living in a two-bedroom apartment navigate apartment leases and other financial costs. For the family of five — the couple, their two children and a cousin — Aithal said collaborating with local organizations has assisted in explaining their refugee status to landlords and helping extend leases.

“The kids are so excited every time I go there and take something for them,” she said. “It’s just really heartwarming to see that and I think when you know the family, it really gets personal.”

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