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Why Fed Up Afghan Refugees Are Leaving US Bases And Coming To SoCal

About two dozen Afghan refugees line up for food at Fort Pickett in Virginia. A man in a shirt with horizontal blue and grey stripes has his back to the camera in the foreground. Three long two-story white barracks are in the background.
Afghan refugees line up for food at Fort Pickett in Virginia.
(Courtesy Rafi)
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Why Fed Up Afghan Refugees Are Leaving US Bases And Coming To SoCal

Rafi worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan, so he and his wife fled with their toddler when the Taliban took over last summer. They ended up at Fort Pickett, a Virginia Army National Guard base.

After a couple of months, they got tired of waiting to find out when they could leave and resettle somewhere in the U.S. So they decided to leave on their own, striking out for Orange County, where Rafi's sister lives.

Local agencies that work with refugees say this has become a familiar story: several thousand Afghans who were evacuated to U.S. military bases have left before being connected with an organization that could relocate them.

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Tension And Trauma In A Crowded Place

Rafi, his wife Romina, and their 2-year-old son were airlifted from Kabul on Aug. 26. They do not want their last name used because they still have family in Afghanistan. After a few days at a U.S. military camp in Kuwait, they were taken to Fort Pickett.

There, they lived in barracks, sharing a dorm and a bathroom with multiple families. They hung sheets around their two bunk beds to create a screen of sorts.

Along with the other refugees, they waited to be assigned to a resettlement agency, which would help them start over in the U.S. and find things like housing and jobs.

But by November, as the weather grew cold, Rafi said he grew frustrated.

“You can imagine, with a crowded place with like 10 or 15 families living on each floor and the bunks being very, very close to each other, and all of these families have children, so you’re not able to get enough sleep … you’re not able to have privacy," he said.

“Sometimes there are things getting stolen from your bunk,” he added. “You go and get lunch and come back and your shoes are gone.”

Some 35 or 40 Afghan refugees are lined up for food at Fort Pickett in Virginia. Two long white barracks, a one-floor building with a two-story building behind it, are in the background.
Refugees lined up for food at Fort Pickett.

There were hours-long lines for food, Rafi said. People were tense and traumatized. Sometimes, amid the long lines and crowding, tempers flared and fights broke out.

The biggest source of stress was that Romina was pregnant. She needed medical care.

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Every afternoon, they checked to see if their names were posted on a list of people who’d been assigned to resettlement agencies — and thus could leave.

“For two months, you go to that list every day to check if your name is on there,” Rafi said, “and you don’t see it.”

‘It Felt Like Paradise’

So they made a decision. Rafi reached out to his sister, who’d arrived in Orange County as a refugee several months earlier, shortly before Afghanistan fell. His sister bought them plane tickets to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana.

A taxi picked the family up from Fort Pickett.

“It felt [like] paradise when the taxi was taking me from the military base to Richmond International Airport,” Rafi said. “I was like, ‘I think I’ve got my freedom now.’ ”

Once in Orange County, the three of them happily camped out at his sister’s one-bedroom apartment, which already housed her own family of four. It was crowded, Rafi said, but it beat life in the barracks.

Not long after, Rafi contacted World Relief in Garden Grove, which he learned about from another refugee. The organization works with immigrants and refugees, and set to work connecting Rafi with a resettlement agency.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, of the more than 76,000 Afghans who arrived in the U.S. following the Taliban takeover, the majority have already been connected with resettlement groups. But about 11,000 were “Afghans with close ties in the U.S. who successfully departed safe havens and did not require resettlement agency support in finding housing in a new community,” according to an emailed statement, “although many may access longer-term resettlement assistance.”

Of those 11,000 who departed “save havens” on their own, most have by now made contact with resettlement agencies independently — although at least 3,000 have not, according to a DHS spokesman. An additional 9,000 remain housed at three military bases in the U.S. DHS said all who’ve left the bases were vetted and screened before and after arrival.

Orange County Is A Draw For Refugees

Some of those who’ve reached out for help have gone to local agencies like Access California Services in Anaheim, which assists the area’s large Arab American and Muslim communities. Anas Qolaghasi, who directs the nonprofit’s social immigration services, said he’s seen more cases of Afghans arriving solo in Orange County in the past couple of months.

“They just decided to come on their own, just to leave the camps,” Qolaghasi said. “It’s cold there, they just see no future — or it’s taking forever. So they just decide to come on their own if they have family members or friends who can help them and support them elsewhere. They just put themselves on a flight … and come to Orange County.”

The area is a draw for these newcomers, he said, because it’s home to networks of refugees, including from Afghanistan, who refer them to organizations that can help.

Qolaghasi said his organization immediately refers these new families to social services programs like CalWORKS for financial assistance, and connects them with resettlement agencies for case management.

Connecting the families that have arrived solo with a resettlement agency is key to helping them thrive in the U.S., said Jose Serrano, director of outreach and immigration for World Relief's Garden Grove office.

“It’s really critical for families to be assigned a case manager immediately upon arrival … because it really ensures how quickly that person's going to be integrated into the community, but also how quickly they are going to achieve success,” he said.

In addition, many Afghans who arrived on temporary humanitarian parole will need to apply for asylum, he said, so they will need immigration legal help, too.

World Relief’s Garden Grove office used to provide resettlement case management, but as with other local resettlement agencies, demand dwindled during the Trump years, when refugee admissions ground to a near halt.

As a result, several of these agencies shuttered their resettlement operations — which has contributed to the current backlog, along with the pandemic, a housing shortage, and other factors.

A New Home And A Baby Shower

Rafi and Romina are feeling optimistic about the future.

A resettlement agency in L.A. is now managing their case. Before they left Afghanistan, Rafi had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, for people who worked for the U.S. government or military, and he’s receiving help with that.

They were also referred to Grace Community Church of Seal Beach, which has a “good neighbor team” to welcome refugees and provide them with help.

Last month the family moved into an apartment in Westminster, not far from Rafi’s sister. Rafi, who has an MBA, has found an entry-level job at a bank. Most importantly, Romina is getting prenatal care — the baby is due in April. (She declined to join our interview because she’s being extra careful about COVID-19.)

One recent afternoon, Rafi sat outside their new apartment with David Gray from Grace Community Church. Volunteers from the church have helped with everything from furnishing their apartment to finding doctors to driving lessons. They’re even planning a baby shower.

“You really need a group of folks that can contribute to help, you know, kind of walk side-by-side [with refugee families],” Gray said.

Rafi, who just got his California driver’s license, knows how lucky they are: To have had a relative who could help them leave the camp; to have landed in the right place, and to have made the connections they did.

“I wouldn't think that, you know, two months after coming to California, I would have my own place, I would have a job,” he said, “so I'm thankful to everyone who has contributed to this.”

He said some people they met at the military base are still there, waiting. He hopes they can leave soon.

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