Abdul Ahmadi’s phone has been buzzing nonstop these past few weeks.
In the 5½ years he’s worked at Lutheran Community Services, first as a driver and now as lead case manager, he estimates more than 500 clients have his cellphone number, not to mention his friends in the Seattle Afghan community.
Following the emergency evacuation in Afghanistan in August, he has been deluged with constant texts from those asking for social services contacts, housing suggestions for new arrivals and people seeking help for their family as the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
Since August, nearly 300 evacuees from the country have arrived in Washington, according to Washington State’s Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, often with less than 24 hours notice to resettlement agencies.
On a recent September day, Ahmadi met with one of his clients to give them the keys to their new apartment in Kent. The family of four arrived in August and had been staying with their cousin’s family.
The apartment complex is on the side of a busy road, but it’s an ideal location, says Ahmadi. A bus for the local school stops right in front of the complex, and they are within walking distance to a grocery store and a family center where English classes are taught.
For the family, it has another plus — it’s perfectly equidistant between the father’s two cousins who moved to Washington from Afghanistan a few years earlier.
The family is not being identified to protect their family in Afghanistan.
Surge in casework load, volunteer efforts
Most of the recent Afghan arrivals were brought to America after the Taliban took over Afghanistan. The dramatic images from the evacuation sent volunteer interest skyrocketing and have led case managers to work long hours.
In a briefing to the governor’s office in September, director of World Relief Seattle Chitra Hanstad said nearly 270 people showed up to a recent host home orientation organized by the group. While not everyone was able to become a host, Hanstad said it was an incredible attendance for the organization, which typically utilizes 40 host homes on rotation.
More people are expected to arrive to the U.S., with an estimated 1,670 people to come to Washington in the coming months, according to Washington State Refugee Coordinator Sarah Peterson.
That’s just a slice of the 50,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan in August and does not include others who fled elsewhere and may be eligible to apply for refugee status in the U.S. from another country at a later time, she said.
The number of refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders who have come to Washington have fluctuated over the years. The Special Immigrant Visa was created by Congress to provide protection to people, often from Afghanistan or Iraq, who are targeted due to their affiliation with the U.S. The visa also applies to the applicant’s spouse and any children under 21.
The state received around 4,000 refugees in 2016 and 2017 from all nations, but saw significant decline between 2017 and the pandemic. Between Oct. 1, 2020, and Aug. 31, 2021, about 900 refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders came to Washington, with Afghans who arrived in August accounting for nearly a third of that figure.
Local resettlement agencies also anticipated needing to scale up under the Biden administration, which has said it will increase the refugee admissions cap to 125,000, a significant increase from the 15,000 limit placed by the Trump administration.
Most of the new arrivals that came to Washington in August arrived under the Special Immigrant Visa program — as Afghans who were employed “on behalf of the U.S. government” for at least two years were eligible to apply for resettlement in the U.S. with family members — or were in the process of applying for one.
But the 1,670 people who will arrive in the next three to six months, Peterson said, will be people who were evacuated with a “humanitarian parole” status.
The future immigration status of the people who were evacuated to the U.S. under this process is in limbo, and Congress is still figuring out whether they will be able to apply for permanent residency in the future the way refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders are able to, Peterson said.
While all humanitarian parolees get the same $1,225 per person and assistance as people designated as Special Immigrant Visa holders or refugees when they arrive, humanitarian parolees are not eligible for long-term refugee assistance programs like Medicaid and specific cash assistance, though the House of Representatives has passed a bill to address the issue.
Arrival is just the start to resettling
When Ahmadi meets a new client, he gives them the same advice: Learn English and try to get a job.
Ahmadi moved to Washington in 2015 after working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Kabul, Afghanistan, for 10 years. He now serves as the lead case manager at Lutheran Community Services Northwest, a refugee resettlement agency. He works with case manager Ghulam Rabbany, a former student of his in Kabul.
Among the first things Ahmadi did when he arrived was ace both his motorcycle and passenger vehicle driving tests. He owns two motorcycles and says, as far as he knows, he is the only Afghan in the Seattle area who can drive one.
He’s now familiar with the city and says he even likes its weather.
“If I don’t see rain for one or two weeks I say I wish it rained,” he said.
The transition to the U.S. was harder for Ahmadi’s wife and his five children, now between the ages of 10 and 18, he said. Their English and knowledge of American culture weren’t as good as Ahmadi’s, which is a common situation for many families of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government.
Most new arrivals from Afghanistan want to live in Federal Way, Kent or Auburn near the Afghan community, Ahmadi said, which can be a challenge with sky-high rents increasing every year. While some stay with family members or in hotels, finding affordable permanent housing is difficult and this particular family’s move-in date has been delayed multiple times.
Most apartments, Ahmadi said, do not want to accept refugees or new arrivals because they don’t have a credit history and might not be able to commit to a yearlong lease due to budget constraints.
Two other employees at Lutheran Community Services joined Ahmadi to help the family move into their new Kent home, bringing with them a van filled with a couch, chairs, a child’s mattress and a crib. Piece by piece the volunteers carried the furniture into the apartment.
The last things to be brought in are the starter kits, boxes full of sponges, toilet paper, mixing bowls and other household sundries.
Moving is just the beginning of the family’s adjustment to the United States. Lutheran Community Services holds extensive cultural orientations where new arrivals learn how to do everything from crossing the street safely and paying rent on time to finding a job and developing good credit.
“The good thing about Seattle is that there are a lot of jobs,” he said.
Jobs for new arrivals were difficult to find for a period during the pandemic, Ahmadi said, but the market is starting to recover now. Some people work in Amazon warehouses and others become Uber drivers or security guards.