Malalai Rostami traveled across Tampa last week, from the Airbnb where she’d been living with her five younger siblings and mother to their new three-bedroom apartment near the University of South Florida.
It was the final leg of a monthslong journey that started when Rostami left the house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she’d been hiding and walked toward Hamid Karzai International Airport. What followed were crushing crowds, near dehydration and anxious lies told to get past Taliban fighters who blocked the way.
Rostami, who’d worked for the U.S. military as an air traffic controller, stepped into her new apartment for the first time last Wednesday and found it fully furnished with a refrigerator full of food. The 24-year-old said she felt a swell of gratitude to have somewhere permanent.
“I’m doing my best to start my life from zero,” she said. “I’m here in Florida now. I feel safe, I feel secure.”
More than a dozen Afghan families have arrived in Tampa Bay as refugees in recent weeks. More are expected as the 58,000 Afghans who arrived in the U.S. since America’s chaotic withdrawal leave military bases where they’re being processed.
The Tampa Bay agencies serving those refugees are running into a problem: finding housing in a region with skyrocketing rents and low inventory.
“Finding an apartment in Tampa is hard if you’re a local,” said Sabahat Khan, a real estate agent and certified property manager who volunteers as housing team leader for Radiant Hands, a local charity assisting refugees. “Can you imagine how hard it is for a refugee?”
Radiant Hands provides supplemental aid, such as furniture, groceries and rides, in addition to what is provided by the government-funded nonprofit resettlement agencies Lutheran Services Florida and Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services. Those agencies temporarily help local refugees with housing, employment services and medical and cash assistance.
Lutheran Services chief strategy officer Amelia Fox said her organization desperately needs landlords “who are willing to work with us.”
The problem, Khan said, is property managers want credit checks, references and proof that tenants earn several times the monthly rent. Refugees who just arrived in the country may not even be authorized to work yet. Some landlords have offered to take the risk for triple the normal security deposit, Khan said, but that’s a budget-breaking proposition for refugees with little savings who may be living on cash assistance from the government.
Khan has negotiated to help place four families in apartments so far. She said she knows of six others currently stuck in Tampa Airbnb rentals and hotels. The uncertain housing can complicate getting a job or registering for school or other services requiring a permanent address.
The sooner the new arrivals have an address, she said, “the sooner they become part of the social fabric.”
Khan understands landlords’ hesitation but said the refugees she’s worked with are hard-working, highly skilled people who make great tenants.
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The first thing the families she meets with want to know, Khan said, is when can they start working. She described one refugee who was a highly skilled engineer in Afghanistan saying he’d be happy to start out with a job as an auto mechanic.
“They want to move on with their lives,” Khan said, “in a positive way.”
Rostami decided to flee Afghanistan when she heard the newly empowered Taliban would no longer let women work at the airport. She’d studied and trained hard for that job and loved it. “I did my best to improve my life,” she said, “and I couldn’t do that (in Afghanistan) anymore.”
When she fled, she spent nearly 24 hours outside before she was able to slip through a gate into the Kabul airport where she’d once worked. Soldiers got her and her family on a plane to Qatar. Then came Germany, an expo center near Washington, D.C., 52 days at an Air Force base in New Mexico, and finally, Tampa.
Most arrivals to Tampa are part of the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans who worked for the U.S. Armed Forces, often as translators in dangerous combat situations. They are legal, permanent residents and can become U.S. citizens after five years. A handful of others were allowed in as “humanitarian parolees,” and have a more complicated path to permanent residency.
The outpouring of donations from Tampa Bay residents looking to help Afghans as the U.S. withdrawal dominated the news was heartening, said Radiant Hands Executive Director Ghadir Kassab. She founded the Tampa-based nonprofit after coming to the U.S. as a refugee from Syria 10 years ago. Radiant Hands trained nearly 100 new volunteers since August and had to rent three more storage units for all the household items and furniture people donated.
“But my goal now,” Kassab said, “is to keep that momentum and build on it.”
Radiant Hands’ welcome team gives newly arrived Afghans baskets that include a phone, prayer rug, loose leaf green tea and roasted sugared chickpeas. Volunteers also offer hot meals, clothes and help translating documents into the three languages Afghans speak.
Rostami officially moved into her new apartment Thursday with her brothers, ages 20, 19 and 6; sisters, 15 and 12; and mother, 46. She said she was the sole supporter of the family back in Afghanistan.
She hopes to maybe become an air traffic controller again, or possibly join the military, but she has to take things step by step. The next item on her list is simply getting a driver’s license. She picked up a study guide last week.
She even went out with friends the other day for the first time. They were American service members who had trained her in Afghanistan, the ones who recommended she move to Tampa when she applied for the visa program.
It was the first time she’d ever been to a bar. “It was nearby the airport,” she said, “and it was beautiful.”
She drank soda.
How you can help
Those interested in volunteering or donating, or those with rental properties available to refugees, can contact Sabahat Khan, housing team lead for Radiant Hands, at 813-545-5554 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Yasmin Sayed, community engagement manager for Lutheran Services Florida, at 813-293-4854 or Yasmin.Sayed@lsfnet.org.