Staff photographer Erika Schultz describes photographing the Pacific NW magazine story on immigrants and refugees struggling with stable housing in King County.

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Earlier this year, Pacific NW magazine writer Tyrone Beason and I started reporting on the increase of refugee and immigrant families struggling with housing stability in King County.

With Seattle’s rising rents and low apartment vacancy rates, just settling down can be difficult for our region’s most vulnerable recent arrivals.

Recent harrowing stories of refugees and migrants fleeing Africa and the Middle East have penetrated the consciousness of viewers around the world. Dan Samuelson, executive director of World Relief Seattle, says there are 50 million displaced people in the world, including 17 million refugees. Both numbers are historical highs. 

Kin Adan Hassan walks walks behind Buena Casa apartments in Kent, where she and her children lived until being placed into a more affordable home this summer with help from Somali Youth & Family Club. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Kin Adan Hassan walks walks behind Buena Casa apartments in Kent, where she and her children lived until being placed into a more affordable home this summer with help from Somali Youth & Family Club. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Stories of refugees and immigrants facing adversity are not only oceans away, but just around the corner in our neighborhoods. We worked with directors and caseworkers from Mary’s Place, Somali Youth & Family Club, Muslim Housing Services and the International Rescue Committee in Seattle to help understand the situation around housing stability in King County and meet families who might be interested in sharing their stories.

Baba, a 45-year-old father from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, holds his 4-month-old twins Elizabeth and Ezechiel at Mary’s Place overnight shelter in Seattle. Baba fled political persecution in the Congo in hopes of finding a safe and secure place to raise his children. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Baba, a 45-year-old father from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, holds his 4-month-old twins Elizabeth and Ezechiel at Mary’s Place overnight shelter in Seattle. Baba fled political persecution in the Congo in hopes of finding a safe and secure place to raise his children. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

During a summer afternoon in SeaTac, we met a steady stream of families struggling with housing at Somali Youth & Family Club’s office.

Families worried their resettlement funds would soon run out and they didn’t have enough money to pay rent. Single mothers talked about their struggles to navigate through complex paperwork with limited English skills.

One family was a “second migration” arrival, having resettled first in another American city, but moved with the hopes of a better chance in Seattle. Some families slept in cars, on friends’ porches, or doubled up with members of their community.

Somali refugee Kin Adan Hassan talks on the phone as her youngest son, Ibrahim Shire, lays on the bed at their former apartment in Kent. Hassan and about a half-a-dozen friends at Buena Casa worried about paying their electric bills, rent and other basic items this summer. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Somali refugee Kin Adan Hassan talks on the phone as her youngest son, Ibrahim Shire, lays on the bed at their former apartment in Kent. Hassan and about a half-a-dozen friends at Buena Casa worried about paying their electric bills, rent and other basic items this summer. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

It was inspiring to meet individuals like Somali widow Kin Adan Hassan. She invited us to her apartment at the Buena Casa complex in Kent not only to share her story, but also to introduce us to more than a half-dozen families struggling to pay their rent and utilities or pay for basic household items.

Kos Mohamed, 40, a single mother of three, worries her assistance from Muslim Housing Services might run out eventually. The nonprofit agency, designed to give temporary assistance, helped her as she underwent major heart surgery and recovery. She is unable to work and is concerned about her family’s future. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Kos Mohamed, 40, a single mother of three, worries her assistance from Muslim Housing Services might run out eventually. The nonprofit agency, designed to give temporary assistance, helped her as she underwent major heart surgery and recovery. She is unable to work and is concerned about her family’s future. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Hassan’s friend Kos Mohamed, a single mother of three, worried her assistance from Muslim Housing Services might run out eventually. The nonprofit agency helped her for months as she underwent major heart surgery and recovery. This summer, she still was unable to work, and scared for her family’s future.

Mursal Jama travels through Kent’s Buena Casa apartments with his daughter Ilhan Hashi, 5, and friend Abubakar Ahmed. Jama, who lost his legs in a missile attack in Somalia, is attending ESL classes and aspires to work in computers, though a more pressing concern has been keeping up with the rent. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Mursal Jama travels through Kent’s Buena Casa apartments with his daughter Ilhan Hashi, 5, and friend Abubakar Ahmed. Jama, who lost his legs in a missile attack in Somalia, is attending ESL classes and aspires to work in computers, though a more pressing concern has been keeping up with the rent. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

A couple buildings down, Mursal Jama and his wife, Kali Gorse, live with their 5-year-old daughter. The couple met after Jama lost his legs in a missile attack in Somalia.

“I love him more than those people who have legs,” Gorse says. Somali Youth & Family Club helped their family with rent this summer. Jama, who is attending ESL classes, aspires to work with computers.

Ibrahim Shire, 7, rests on his mother Kin Adan Hassan at their apartment at Buena Casa during Ramadan. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Ibrahim Shire, 7, rests on his mother Kin Adan Hassan at their apartment at Buena Casa during Ramadan. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

It was moving to see tenants advocate for each other, share food and information, and also watch each other’s children.

While many expressed concern about losing their homes once their government resettlement aid and other financial assistance ended, they also felt relief to be out of war-torn countries and refugee camps, and grateful for a fresh start.

Ali Majeed, a former Baghdad fuel delivery driver, survived seven years of imprisonment and torture and six bullets from an ambush, then lost a child to illness at a refugee camp. Now living in Kent, he’s distraught from multiple traumas and unable to help his family due to his back injuries. He worries about bills, his health and his family’s future. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Ali Majeed, a former Baghdad fuel delivery driver, survived seven years of imprisonment and torture and six bullets from an ambush, then lost a child to illness at a refugee camp. Now living in Kent, he’s distraught from multiple traumas and unable to help his family due to his back injuries. He worries about bills, his health and his family’s future. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Ali Majeed Sudan, another Buena Casa resident and former Baghdad fuel delivery driver, speaks proudly that his three sons are attending American schools. We met Sudan through members of the Iraqi community, who also lean on one another for help. Sudan, unable to work after being tortured in prison and a roadside attack, focuses his hopes and dreams toward the next generation. 

“I believe the core reason why the United states is involved in refugee resettlement is because it is the right thing to do,” Samuelson says. “It is driven by humanitarian concern for our fellow human beings.”

Six months after resettling in South King County, a family of refugees from Iraq works to reconcile difficult memories of the past with distant hope for a better future. (Erika Schultz & Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)

Ayan Rashid, 12, comforts her sister Muna Rashid, 2, inside their apartment in Kent. The Somali Bantu family lived in an Eritrean refugee camp for years. Even with a working father, the family struggles with navigating appointments and paying bills. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Ayan Rashid, 12, comforts her sister Muna Rashid, 2, inside their apartment in Kent. The Somali Bantu family lived in an Eritrean refugee camp for years. Even with a working father, the family struggles with navigating appointments and paying bills. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Hamdi Abdulle, executive director at Somali Youth & Family Club, says refugee homelessness is an important issues for Seattle and King County.

Abdulle says that given the obstacles faced by her clients, including limited English and jobs skills, and housing and transportation issues, as well as the organization’s limited funding, “The work that we do is miraculous … We are an underserved organization that serves an underserved community.

Tamrat Gobena, a former bank branch manager in Ethiopia, holds his sons while staying at the Howard Johnson in Kent. Social service agencies helped pay for the hotel room for Gobena, his sons and wife, who was working at a warehouse in Renton. The family moved into a two-bedroom apartment. Muslim Housing Services is helping with their temporary housing. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Tamrat Gobena, a former bank branch manager in Ethiopia, holds his sons while staying at the Howard Johnson in Kent. Social service agencies helped pay for the hotel room for Gobena, his sons and wife, who was working at a warehouse in Renton. The family moved into a two-bedroom apartment. Muslim Housing Services is helping with their temporary housing. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

To help ease the emotional burden, Abdulle says, club staff try to create as welcoming an atmosphere as possible. “We approach our clients as if they are family,” she says.

Her organization, like others, is looking for innovative, long-term solutions to keep families from slipping through the social-service safety net.  “We are realizing that quick fixes are not solving the problem,” Abdulle says.

Emebet Amdetsion serves her five children dinner on the floor of their sparsely furnished town house while her husband Wondimu Habtemariam attends ESL classes. The family, diversity visa immigrants from Ethiopia, previously lived in a homeless shelter. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Emebet Amdetsion serves her five children dinner on the floor of their sparsely furnished town house while her husband Wondimu Habtemariam attends ESL classes. The family, diversity visa immigrants from Ethiopia, previously lived in a homeless shelter. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Organizations like Somali Youth & Family Club, Muslim Housing Services and the IRC are currently working with Building Changes, a Seattle-based, anti-homelessess organization to find solutions.

Kin Adan Hassan adjusts the blinds in her apartment at Buena Casa in Kent. Earlier this year, the single mother from Somalia struggled to provide for her children. She said buying basic items like shampoo and soap were difficult, let alone rent. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Kin Adan Hassan adjusts the blinds in her apartment at Buena Casa in Kent. Earlier this year, the single mother from Somalia struggled to provide for her children. She said buying basic items like shampoo and soap were difficult, let alone rent. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“The housing market in Seattle in general doesn’t have enough capacity to meet demand,” says Samuelson. “If you are the amongst the most marginalized, the most vulnerable, the most under-resourced, then you have the least ability to get housing in a market that is so tight already.”

Ibrahim Shire plays with other children at Buena Casa apartments. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Ibrahim Shire plays with other children at Buena Casa apartments. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)