Afghan Refugees Look for Hope in Santa Clarita
Following arduous journeys fleeing the Taliban regime, Afghan refugees find community support in California as they struggle with past trauma.
On August 24, 2021, Ajmal Rezai came home to his family in Kabul and told them they had to escape. The day before, he had encountered the Taliban waiting for him outside his office building. Rezai managed to get past them and into the building, where he spent the night in order to avoid confrontation. As someone working for American military contractors, he knew his life was in danger and had to make a quick decision to flee.
The following morning, Rezai snuck out of the back exit of his office building at around 8 AM By the time the Taliban showed up at his house, Rezai and his family had already left for the airport.
As the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan unfolded in August 2021, people who managed to leave the country were received by nations around the world. Refugees who made it to the United States came through connecting flights in other countries, where they would stay a few days and go through vetting processes before moving to military bases.
Upon arriving, Rezai and his family were moved to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. They later landed in Santa Clarita, California.
“Those folks did not come in with refugee status but with a form of temporary relief called parole … which allowed people to apply for work authorization for temporary periods,” Talia Inlender tells Knock LA. “It’s not a path toward refugee status. It’s not a path toward long-term lawful permanent residence. And so people have been left in this sort of limbo.”
Inlender is the Deputy Director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. She spent 13 years at Public Counsel defending incarcerated immigrants.
Inlender pointed out the direct correlation between the U.S. presence in Afghanistan to the need for protection for people fleeing harm now.
“But the protection that we’re offering is sort of a half measure,” Inlender said. “It’s a year, or it’’s 18 months, or it’s two years, and we know that’s not sufficient. We know that these are people that unfortunately may never be able to return to their homeland, and we have an obligation to ensure that they can live here safely and permanently.”
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 318,500 Afghans were displaced in 2021. Over 74,000 refugees landed in the United States in the six months following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Afghan refugees were housed on military bases for several months until they received employment authorization and were placed in temporary housing across the United States.
The State Department and other federal agencies contract out to nine organizations that partner with local resettlement offices. The local resettlement agency in charge of assisting Afghan arrivals in Santa Clarita is the International Institute of Los Angeles (IILA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
After being placed in hotels across California, the state gives Afghan families 90 days to find jobs and permanent housing. According to Alex Nguyen, development director of the IILA, if the refugees are unable to find housing in the allotted 90 days, the IILA will connect them with state and county public benefits offices and make sure they have options and resources.
“The last thing we want is for anyone to end up homeless on the street because we couldn’t find housing,” Nguyen said. “So, we have a lot of different safety nets in place to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
A Harrowing Journey
Throughout Rezai’s final weeks in Afghanistan, the Taliban continued to assure civilians that they would not be persecuted if they had worked for the U.S. government.
Despite these claims, he consistently received threats from unknown phone numbers warning him about continuing to work with the American military contractors in Kabul.
According to Rezai, the anonymous text messages would say, “Hey brother, I know you’re working with the U.S. Stop working with them. We know your brother, your mother, your everything. You’re coming to your office at this time, this is your vehicle number, your plate number.”
On one occasion, when he was dropping off his co-workers at the end of the workday, a vehicle began to tailgate his car. Rezai took a turn to try to lose them, but the vehicle sped up, and the men inside started firing. Finally, when he was forced to pull over, a man in the vehicle shot a few more rounds at his car and drove off.
“All of the people inside the car were shouting,” Rezai said. “So, I just pulled my head down and three or four bullets came to the car, and luckily I survived. One bullet touched my [arm] but didn’t hurt me, just burned my clothes.”
After finally leaving home, Rezai and his family made it to Kabul International Airport. They spent three days attempting to get inside the airport to find a flight out of the country. During that time, he only managed to sleep around 30 minutes a day, often waking up to shots firing and other commotion. His family survived those three days on four cases of BP-5 biscuits and a case of water.
One attempt Rezai made to enter the airport resulted in the Taliban beating him with an AK-47 until he could barely walk and was unable to see out of one of his eyes. After several failed attempts to reach a terminal, he and his family made it out of Afghanistan because of his connection to the U.S. military. Their first flight led them to Doha, where doctors at the Qatari airbase tended to Rezai’s leg.
Community Support for New Arrivals
The Santa Clarita community welcomed the Afghan refugees, showing support through fundraising, school enrollment for the children, and transportation aid.
The Islamic Center of Santa Clarita — a mosque, community space, and charitable organization — assisted the Afghans to adjust to their new living arrangement. According to Abdo Jaber, a member of the organization’s board of directors, the refugees were “exceptionally well-motivated to find jobs [and] very anxious to remove uncertainty from their lives.”
He said that the group of refugees consisted of dentists, engineers, security guards, and other professional workers, many of whom were formerly employed at the U.S. military base in Kabul.
The Islamic Center collected funds to help the refugees in the form of zakat, a pillar of Islam that requires people to donate 2.5% of their net worth directly to people who need it.
“We’ve been involved to make sure we can help remove obstacles,” Jaber said.
According to Nguyen of IILA, federal agencies give families a little over $1000 per person to cover transportation, housing, and basic needs for the 90-day transitional period. In California, refugees are entitled to receive EBT cards and free health insurance through MediCal.
Jaber said that as of the end of March, there were a little over 100 refugees at the hotel in Santa Clarita. More than half of them were children, who attended public schools in a nearby district, while some of the adults enrolled in courses at the College of the Canyons. Along with free courses, the College of the Canyons provided refugees with bus passes and laptops. Now that the 90 days are up, most of the refugees have moved out of that hotel, either to other housing or to a different hotel.
A refugee, who asked to remain anonymous, arrived in Santa Clarita with his wife and four boys in early January. This is the second time he was forced to seek refuge in the U.S., the first being in 1979 when he migrated to New Jersey during the Soviet-Afghan war. After 24 years in the U.S., he returned to Afghanistan, where his four children were born.
After arriving in Santa Clarita, he walked nearly two hours until he stumbled across an elementary school to see if his children could register. Since the school was so far from their hotel, and the refugees lacked transportation, the school administrator contacted a closer school in the district.
Once that school learned of the refugee families, they helped admit all of the refugee children in Santa Clarita and dedicated a school bus for them.
According to Jaber, the school district was very accommodating for the new students. Within the first few weeks of enrollment, the school administrator contacted the Islamic Center requesting prayer rugs for the children and designated a separate room for students to pray.
“Any kid going to a new school district has some anxiety,” Jaber said. “The administrator is going above and beyond to make them feel welcomed.”
Starting from Scratch
Although the community helped to ensure a smooth transition for the refugees, many faced obstacles that diminished their hope for success.
Mustafa Behroz is a refugee who arrived in Santa Clarita on January 4, where he was staying at the hotel with his sister. The state placed his brother and parents at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles, and Behroz was unable to visit them due to a lack of access to transportation.
According to Behroz, even though the resettlement agency said there was no more room for people at that location, he later witnessed other parolees move in.
Behroz still has two brothers and a sister stuck in Afghanistan. Like Rezai, Behroz’s brothers previously worked with the U.S. in Afghanistan and are trying to find a way out.
Nguyen said that once in the U.S., families like Behroz’s may be separated if some of the family members are assigned a different case number.
“We are given very little background information on relationships between different cases,” Nguyen said. “We don’t necessarily know that they are in the same family, so that’s part of the reason why some cousins, some distant relatives, some adult children might get separated. We try to place folks wherever there are hotel rooms available, immediately.”
Additionally, holding the refugees at military bases is not the norm but a measure implemented to handle the recent influx of tens of thousands of refugees. The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies led to an all-time low in refugee admissions numbers in the United States, and refugee resettlement agencies were closed down around the country.
“Resources for refugee resettlement were drastically cut,” Inlender said. “So you’re already dealing with a system that was sort of weakened at the knees before.”
Nguyen said that typically immigrants in the U.S. receive work authorization upon arrival, but recently this has not been the case. “When the Biden administration increased those [refugee] numbers again last spring, and then with the crisis coming out of Afghanistan, most resettlement offices were stretched thin with the number of folks that were arriving,” Nguyen said.
Another barrier for Afghan refugees is language, with many only speaking Dari or Pashto. Behroz said, “I never studied English, just [learned through] English movies — Hollywood movies.”
Among the refugees, Rezai is distinctive as someone who speaks several languages, including English and Urdu. He served his community by acting as a translator whenever needed.
However, the lack of caseworkers who speak Dari or Pashto contributed to the low availability of assistance from the government. Due to the diminished immigration system and resource cuts, some refugees at the hotel didn’t know their caseworkers for extended periods of time and remained unaware if they would be assigned to one.
Initially, neither Rezai nor Behroz were able to get in touch with their caseworkers, which led to a great deal of uncertainty. For any refugee without a permanent home address, it is also difficult to get a driver’s license, secure a job, or open a bank account. Even when they find a job, a big challenge is finding transportation to work.
When first interviewed by Knock LA, Behroz feared that even if he found a job in Santa Clarita, he could lose it if the state moved him to another city after the 90 days are up. Fortunately, in a follow-up interview, he said he recently found jobs at Popeyes and Walmart and a place to live in Los Angeles. His entire family was able to reunite and move in together about a month ago. His siblings are also looking for jobs in the area.
After having spent several months in the U.S., Rezai said he wants to feel normal again. “There was a tension in my mind like they were going to kill me,” Rezai said. “I’m in a safe haven [now]. My life is not in danger because everything is fine now.”
Rezai is now living in Canoga Park with his family while working two jobs to support them — as a service assistant cleaning the kitchen and prepping food at El Pollo Loco, and as an immigration caseworker for IILA.
Resettling in the United States is not without its challenges, and support from the government is limited. California remains a sanctuary for the refugees who have made it here — still struggling with the trauma of the escape — as they try to rebuild their lives in an unknown land. Inlender believes that despite the immigration system’s numerous flaws, moving such a large quantity of Afghans to the US has been a feat.
“Now our job is to ensure that they can stay here safely,” Inlender said.
Note: The exact location of the refugee housing has been withheld because of safety concerns.