Local refugee organizations resettle a historic number of Afghan refugees
New Haven’s refugee resettlement agency, IRIS, has resettled 475 Afghan refugees since October — the most in the agency’s history.
Courtesy of IRIS
When Faiz Mandozay went to visit his family in Afghanistan in June of last year, he expected to only stay a few months before returning to his family in New Haven. He had already booked his round-trip tickets to come back on Aug. 18.
Three days before his expected departure, the Taliban took over the capital city of Kabul.
“Everything was going according to plan,” Mandozay told the News. “I had no idea, nobody knew until I saw the Taliban on my own in Kabul. Everything happened very quickly. Nobody could imagine it.”
Mandozay, who is originally from Afghanistan, resettled in Connecticut in 2019 thanks to the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, which is given to individuals who had worked with the U.S. mission in Afghanistan for at least three years. Despite being a U.S. green card holder, Mandozay was stuck in Afghanistan for around four months after the country’s government was toppled. He was eventually evacuated by the State Department in November of last year.
During his extended months in Afghanistan, Mandozay described a state of despair. He said people were “scared, nervous, crying.” Coupled with the emotional shock was also a financial shock. Mandozay, who had exhausted most of his money in anticipation of returning to New Haven, said that goods in Afghanistan became much more expensive due to soaring inflation.
His family was especially worried for him and his elder brother who had worked for the U.S. troops in Afghanistan for almost 20 years. Within a couple days of taking over the country, Mandozay said the Taliban had knocked on their door and asked his younger brother where the rest of his brothers were.
“I can’t say they were looking for me or for my elder brother but at least they showed up,” Mandozay said.
As Mandozay lay hidden in the home, his brother told the Taliban that the rest of his brothers had already left for the U.S. After the Taliban left, the search prompted Mandozay’s family to switch homes.
Currently, Mandozay said that his youngest brother, sister-in-law and mother are still in Afghanistan. In the last 45 days, the Taliban once again showed up at their home and searched the place before leaving.
“It was a very hard four or five months being in Afghanistan,” Mandozay said. “I hope I can remove it from my memory sooner or later. It was a bad time of my life.”
After returning to Connecticut, Mandozay decided to take up a job at the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, as a community co-sponsor case manager to help newly evacuated Afghans become self-sufficient.
Mandozay, along with others at IRIS and other refugee resettlement agencies, is working to help the hundreds of Afghans that have come to New Haven and are going through the resettlement process. Technically, the arrived Afghans are not refugees, but are classified as humanitarian parolees, a process created for those who need to be moved immediately rather than going through the U.S. Refugee Admission Program. Ann O’Brien, the director of community engagement and co-sponsorship at IRIS, told the News that the agency has received around 475 humanitarian parolees from Afghanistan since October.
“It is the largest year for IRIS,” O’Brien said. “It is the most refugees we resettled in the history of the agency.”
O’Brien added that it was also the fastest resettlement pace for the organization in its history. With most of the refugees arriving in New Haven within a few months of the Taliban takeover, IRIS had around two to three months to resettle the number of refugees that it usually takes a full year to resettle. O’Brien said that this was the same situation for every resettlement agency across the nation.
According to O’Brien, one of the main challenges for resettlement is securing affordable housing for refugees. She noted that limited affordable housing options and rising rents since the start of the pandemic have made the issue especially difficult.
In a press conference last September, Gov. Ned Lamont said the state is hoping to use some of its federal rent relief money to house refugees. Still, O’Brien said that when the influx of refugees first arrived, IRIS incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in hotel bills as they tried to find places for families to stay temporarily.
“We’re spending more resources per family than we have ever spent,” O’Brien said.
Still, O’Brien said that IRIS has been able to find affordable housing for the families. This is in part due to the organization’s community co-sponsor model where it also works with volunteer community or faith-based groups who help with the resettlement tasks. The groups raise money for families, find affordable housing, collect furniture and obtain household items, along with fulfilling other tasks.
An important component of IRIS’s mission is to also ensure that newly arrived individuals are self-sufficient. O’Brien said that many new families have been able to find employment, in part due to the current labor shortage across the nation and in the state.
Yet, O’Brien added that it remains to be seen whether the wages will be high enough to afford the high rents in the post-pandemic housing market.
“We don’t know what year two is going to look like,” O’Brien said. “Because we have not been here before.”
One of the organizations that works with refugees in New Haven is Havenly. The nonprofit works to empower immigrant and refugee women through job training and education.
“The situation of so many refugees is that they come here with very little to no resources,” Camila Guiza-Chavez, one of the co-executive directors at Havenly, said. “It’s like having to be thrown into the job market and having very little time to learn English. In order to get a good-paying job, it is pretty much impossible.”
Havenly has a community cafe and kitchen on Temple Street through which it can run its six-month paid fellowship program. The program provides fellows with work experience at the cafe along with ESL classes and job readiness training. Havenly’s volunteer intern team is largely composed of Yale undergraduate students who help with a range of tasks.
Some of the people that Havenly worked with in the past have come from IRIS. While Havenly has not worked with any of the newly arrived Afghans so far, Guiza-Chavez said that she expects the organization to work more closely with them in the future. She added that two Afghans are already applying for Havenly’s next cohort of fellows that will start their training in June.
O’Brien said that the IRIS is still expected to receive around 200 or 300 more refugees from around the world this year, with possibly 50-100 more Afghan refugees.
Mandozay is still in constant contact with his brother and mother back in Afghanistan, and he is not alone in that regard. O’Brien said that while the U.S. government tried to evacuate the Afghans who had worked for its mission, it was often not able to also evacuate the family members of those individuals. She said that her clients continue to hear about family and friends that are still being terrorized by the Taliban.
“People are still there,” Mandozay said. “People are still nervous. People are looking for food. We should be sorry for the people in Afghanistan. That is all I can say for now.”
According to the CT Mirror, as of March, more than 700 Afghans have arrived in the state.