Afghan refugees have the choice to make Tampa Bay their new home. Some already have.
Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services has settled six people from Afghanistan and is preparing for four more next week.
“We don’t have an idea of how many will come,” said Sylvia Acevedo, the nonprofit’s senior director of refugee and employment services. The group settles up to 100 refugees each year.
The resettlements come as the Taliban wrest back control of Afghanistan nearly 20 years after they were ousted in a U.S.-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks. Many Afghans are fleeing for fear of reprisal attacks or a return to the Taliban’s brutal rule.
In the United States, these refugees are given the opportunity to choose where they would like to settle, Acevedo said. That’s not the case with other refugee groups with whom Jewish Family and Community Services has worked.
Another nonprofit, Radiant Hands, is also poised to help with refugees from Afghanistan. The group helps resettle and integrate refugees from Muslim and Arabic-speaking countries such as Syria and Iraq.
“We are a community organization,” said Ghadir Kassab, executive director of Radiant Hands. “We can function on a more flexible basis in the sense that whatever is available, we can offer.”
Jewish Family and Community Services works on resettlements with national partner HIAS, based in Silver Spring, Md. HIAS was founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe.
The local group finds temporary or long-term housing for new refugees and their families and provides orientations to teach them things Americans take for granted, like how to ride a bus and how the school system works.
“We immediately begin the process of finding housing and planning who is going to get the individual at the airport,” Acevedo said.
Jewish Family and Community Services looks at factors such as education level, work experience and health conditions in determining a plan for those it helps, Acevedo said. They put the plan into action as soon as refugees touch U.S. soil.
“They didn’t choose to leave, they were forced to leave,” she said. “So everything is new to them. Systems, transportation, the currency, every single thing is new.”
Nonprofit Radiant Hands has created “Self Sufficiency Programs” to help refugees develop skills, like driving and financial literacy, so they can thrive on their own.
Refugees help the Tampa Bay region thrive, too, director Hassab said. Radiant Hands has started businesses like Radiant Kitchens and Radiant Tailors to help refugees use skills they already have to support themselves and improve their communities.
“They can contribute beautifully to our community,” Kassab said. “They’re bringing in new knowledge, experience and new cultures to our country.”
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The costs of the resettlement process are paid largely through federal grants, Acevedo said. But this money only goes so far.
“The funds that we get to help individuals don’t always cover the actual cost on the ground,” Acevedo said. “The same assistance that a refugee who’s going to Kentucky will get is the same as a refugee who’s going to Tampa Bay.”
A sharp rise in housing costs across Tampa Bay has made it more difficult to find housing, Acevedo said. She gets a few weeks advance notice when refugees are coming and immediately begins finding them a place to live.
Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services will pay for housing until an individual starts work, usually within the second month of arriving. The nonprofit is finding it more difficult to find landlords willing to rent a home to someone who isn’t in the United States, can’t sign a lease and doesn’t have a social security card yet.
She’s looking for more landlords who will work with her.
“We used to have great relationships with landlords, but with competitive housing market in the Tampa Bay area, people are renting sight-unseen from out-of-state.”
Radiant Hands, which also helps find homes for refugees, has considered entering into rental agreements on its own even if it means paying for a home where no one lives yet.
Other than housing, Acevedo said, the Tampa Bay area is a great place for refugees to settle.
“We have a friendly, welcoming community, there has been an outpouring of concern and offers to volunteer,” Acevedo said. “That’s the kind of community you want to bring someone to.”
Tampa City Council member Luis Viera has proposed a non-binding resolution asking the city to help Afghan refugees. Viera envisions the city taking a prominent role in encouraging dialogue among organizations public and private entities, religious and secular to encourage “coalition building.
The resolution is up for a vote by the City Council on Thursday.
Said Viera, “I think that it’s so important, in our time, when we have these voices, to show what our best American values are.”
How to help
Groups helping resettle refugees from Afghanistan and elsewhere are looking for support including landlords willing to work with them on rental housing. Click here to reach them.