Home World News Bed Bugs, Late Rent and No Food: Group Resettling Afghans Faces Scrutiny
Bed Bugs, Late Rent and No Food: Group Resettling Afghans Faces Scrutiny
By Jessica DahlemDec 12, 2022, 05:56 am
A year after the fall of Kabul, some Afghan refugees resettled by a Washington-area organization say they are still struggling to get basic services – and sources say the State Department is looking into it.
Mohammad’s journey from Afghanistan to a home in the U.S. played out in three stages.
The first occurred following the fall of Kabul a year ago, after which the husband and father who worked with the U.S. government for 14 years spent a month shuttling his family from safe house to safe house, trying to outrun the Taliban.
The second took place in Qatar, where his family spent four weeks on a military base, living in a shipping container turned into transitional housing. And the third leg involved two months on a military base in New Jersey, where his family was vaccinated, processed and housed under a tent with hundreds of other Afghan evacuees, their only privacy provided by a thin partition dividing households.
The Daunting Transition From Afghanistan to America ]
In February, Mohammad and his family reached their final destination in Manassas, Virginia, where they now live in a two-story, three-bedroom apartment with a proper roof and sturdy walls. It couldn’t have come soon enough: His wife is struggling with a dangerous medical condition. Still, nobody in his family has found work. Food is scarce, and he’s not sure how he’ll pay his bills. In fact, Mohammad says he feels more insecure now than at any time since his government fell. From the moment his family was assigned to Northern Virginia, he says his refugee resettlement caseworker – the person assigned to help him with his basic needs – has been unresponsive to his pleas for assistance.
“To be honest, I’m disappointed,” says Mohammad, whose real name can’t be used due to security concerns.
Mohammad is referring to his treatment by Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, a refugee resettlement agency charged with using federal funds to provide housing and other basic services to help refugees get on their feet. The agency says it has resettled more than 4,500 Afghan refugees so far – the most, it says, of any organization on the East Coast.
In Mohammad’s mind, it’s doing an inadequate job of it. And plenty of others agree, according to a U.S. News investigation. More than two dozen interviews with Afghan clients of the agency, current and former employees and volunteers who work closely with the organization uncovered stories about multiple failures to perform services.
Some employees, sources say, have provided inadequate food, housing and other services to refugees and played favorites among clients. They also say some staff have failed to securely store sensitive documents, falsified case notes, skimmed funds from petty cash and paid questionable bonuses to employees.
Mohammad poses for a photo at his home in Manassas, Virginia.(AVI GUPTA FOR USN&WR)
“You just scratch your head going, ‘Is anybody watching this office? Is anybody auditing them?’” says Ted Vinatieri, a pastor at Pillar Church in Stafford, Virginia, and one of several volunteers who expressed apprehension about the treatment of Afghan refugees by Lutheran Social Services.
Concerns about the agency have already made their way to the federal government, where the Department of State monitors refugee resettlement during the first few months after their arrival. Individuals close to Lutheran Social Services have reached out to the State Department, which is now investigating claims about client mistreatment.
One of those individuals reached out to the FBI with concerns, and the law enforcement agency has contacted at least one former and one current employee to discuss their experiences. The FBI would not confirm whether there is an official investigation.
Lutheran Social Services declined to comment on many of the allegations against it. However, it said it was aware of the complaints and that it had worked with third-party organizations, including an accounting firm and a law firm, to investigate them.
Lutheran Social Services declined to share the law firm’s report with U.S. News, but it shared its 2021 third-party financial audit, which showed no evidence of financial malfeasance or fraud. It says the same firm looked beyond 2021 to the present and found the same but Lutheran Social Services declined to share that report as well. The group’s parent organization, which is responsible for monitoring Lutheran Social Services, also investigated complaints and found no evidence of financial malfeasance or fraud.
“We are committed to serving our community with excellence,” the group said in a statement, adding, “we welcome and respond to all concerns brought to our attention.”
There is no doubt resettlement agencies have faced a herculean challenge. More than 74,000 Afghans have come to the United States following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul a year ago, according to the State Department. Of those, about 9,000 – or 12% – settled in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Many asked to be resettled in the Washington area because of a desire to be near the government agencies they’d worked closely with in Afghanistan and because of its sizable Afghan community. Virginia had the most resettled Afghan refugees of any state per capita between 2001 and September 2021.
The U.S. government contracts nine nonprofit agencies to assist with resettling refugees from all over the world. Those agencies rely on a network of local affiliates, like Lutheran Social Services, across the country that provide basic services to refugees and sometimes offer additional assistance such as medical screening programs or support for unaccompanied migrant children. In the last 12 months alone, those agencies have received nearly $1.5 billion in federal funds.
The State Department says it awarded more than $40 million to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Lutheran Social Services’ parent organization, in August 2021 to resettle Afghan refugees. Since then, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service says it has helped about 12,000 Afghan refugees find a home in the U.S.
Under their cooperative agreements with the State Department, resettlement agencies like Lutheran Social Services have a list of services they’re obligated to provide to Afghan refugees within three months, using a fixed per capita grant of $2,275. Upon arrival, refugees are supposed to have safe housing, for example, as well as culturally appropriate food, seasonal clothes and pocket money for emergency expenses. The State Department’s agreement with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service requires staff members to perform two home-visits to refugees within 30 days of arrival – either virtually or in-person – to the extent possible, and to help them apply for cash assistance, Social Security cards, English-language programs and an array of other services and benefits within 90 days.
Within five days, according to their agreement, employees are required to conduct intake interviews with refugees and explain their rights and responsibilities. Within 90 days, they’re required to provide “orientation” information about a range of topics, including housing, immigration status, employment and U.S. law.
In the immediate weeks following the evacuation of Kabul, refugee resettlement organizations struggled to meet those obligations – and, many argued, understandably so.
Former President Donald Trump drastically lowered the country’s refugee admissions cap during his time in office, essentially incapacitating the U.S. refugee program. Presidents typically set the country’s refugee cap between 70,000 to 90,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Yet the Trump administration reduced the fiscal 2017 cap set by the Obama administration from 110,000 to 50,000, and then continued to lower it until in fiscal 2021 it reached 15,000 – the lowest since the 1980 Refugee Act that governs admissions took effect.
Because resettlement groups receive money based on the numbers of refugees they resettle, their budgets were devastated. Hundreds of affiliate offices had to close, and many employees – some with decades of experience – lost their jobs. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service alone had to close a third of its 48 offices and lay off more than 120 employees. Lutheran Social Services says its resources and staff were “decimated.”
After the evacuation of Kabul in August 2021, resettlement organizations found themselves pushed to the limit. Usually, they would have weeks or months to plan for refugee arrivals. Now they had days and far too few staff members to deal with the sheer numbers – the largest influx of refugees since roughly 125,000 Vietnamese arrived at the end of the Vietnam War. Lutheran Social Services says it went from serving 500 people a year through its refugee program during the Trump administration to 500 people a month in August 2021. And it kept its doors open to Afghans, even after local peers began to limit their numbers.
The sudden uptick in refugees caused problems not only for Lutheran Social Services but for resettlement organizations throughout the country: Airport pickups didn’t run as smoothly as they once did. Refugees were placed in cramped hotel rooms while staff looked for more permanent housing. Some arrived at homes without furniture. Services that were once commonplace fell by the wayside.
“When Kabul fell, like when Saigon fell in 1975, we weren’t prepared,” says Eskinder Negash, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, one of the nine resettlement organizations that contracts with the U.S. government. “I’m just being very candid. We are not a disaster response team.”
On top of that, there was a global pandemic to contend with. Refugee resettlement groups were working remotely. Employees fell ill and couldn’t work. When entire offices were overwhelmed with coronavirus outbreaks, refugee flights had to be redirected to other locations. Afghans were also arriving in the midst of a housing crisis, with rents climbing to some of the highest prices in decades.
“I’ve done this work for over four decades,” Negash says. “This was probably the most challenging environment to resettle anybody, let alone over 70,000 Afghans.”
Initially, some groups had to tap into privately raised funds to meet the needs. But soon federal dollars rolled in, allowing organizations to hire staff and provide services. Yet now, a year after the evacuation, clients and others say Lutheran Social Services is still struggling to provide vital assistance to Afghan refugees.
In late June, Amir, a Lutheran Social Services client and former member of the Afghan special forces, is sitting behind his coffee table in his sparsely furnished apartment in Hyattsville, Maryland. As his toddler darts in and out the room, he holds up his phone and shows his text message exchanges with his caseworker.
“Hello brother,” he starts out each text, before asking for help with things like rent, a bus card and English-language classes. The caseworker doesn’t always respond, but when he does, it’s with phrases like, “in a meeting” or “will call you back.” The problem, according to Amir, is that he never does.
It’s been over four months since Amir – a soft spoken 29-year-old – and his wife, son and sister left a military base in Virginia and moved to Maryland. Yet his wife, who has a medical condition and has been struggling with headaches and sleeplessness, still doesn’t have the Medicaid insurance she should be eligible for.
Amir displays his Afghan special forces beret, as his toddler looks on, in Hyattsville, Maryland. (AVI GUPTA FOR USN&WR)
The issue has been eating away at Amir, who has been asking his caseworker for help to no avail. He’s taken his wife to the front desk of the hospital two times, he says, but administrators wouldn’t accept her without Medicaid. At one point, Amir’s caseworker told him to just call 911, and he almost did – before a friend cautioned against it due to cost.
“I asked [the caseworker] many times, please make an appointment for my wife, she has a health problem and we don’t know what’s going on,” Amir says. “When we call him every time he tells me, ‘I’m very busy. I’ll call you back.’ We wait one, two, three days, we call him back and he says, ‘I’m on vacation,’ ‘I’m in the vehicle.’”
“Four months and we cannot get insurance,” he continues. “My wife’s health is very important. … This is very difficult.”
Amir, whose name has been changed, rattles off a list of other complaints: Despite multiple invitations for a meal or tea, his caseworker never entered his home, where he would have seen his dilapidated stove and broken dining chairs or heard the mice in the walls. At one point, the caseworker stopped by with documents but asked that Amir come to his car to sign them since he was running late. Paperwork was never explained. After his caseworker told him his unit couldn’t receive internet, he turned to a volunteer who nevertheless found him Wi-Fi so he could take English classes. Amir’s family has food stamps – but not because his caseworker set them up – because Amir went to a county office in person to get them himself.