Matt Zeller’s voice rises when he recounts the moment his Afghan interpreter saved his life.
Outgunned and outmanned in an intense firefight, Zeller said, he didn’t notice two insurgents approaching him from behind – until they were shot and killed by Janis Shinwari.
Interpreters, though not officially combatants, carried weapons and fought alongside U.S. forces in the Afghan war, said Zeller, a former Army intelligence officer. “There are countless (soldiers) who would say, ‘That’s my brother, my guardian angel. When you share a foxhole and are being shot at, that’s a bond that can never be broken.
“By the end of my tour, our translators wore our uniforms, because we learned early on in firefights that the Taliban would actually target them for the bulk of their fire.”
Since returning from his tour of duty, the Army captain has dedicated his life to getting Afghan translators safely out of the country and making sure they receive enough assistance to launch new lives in the United States. He is one of several prominent critics of the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa program, under which Afghan interpreters and others who worked for the United States during the war in Afghanistan are permitted to immigrate.
In the first years of the program, only a trickle of visas were issued. Zeller, based in Virginia, drew national attention with his lobbying effort to get Shinwari out of the country in the face of Taliban death threats. Once Shinwari arrived, Zeller said, he became aware of the challenges facing Afghan SIV holders in the U.S. He said he’s furious over the way many of translators who’ve arrived in the U.S. since 2009 have been treated.
He co-founded a nonprofit called No One Left Behind in October 2012 to help former translators. He said it now has chapters in Washington D.C., Chicago, Omaha, Boston, Denver, San Diego and San Francisco, and that Sacramento desperately needs one.
“We’re trying to do it this summer,” he said. “California has the largest population of Afghan translators, many of whom end up going to Sacramento because the Bay Area is ridiculously expensive. But compared to other cities in the U.S., Sacramento’s cost of living is astronomically expensive. If you really want to find a place where you will not be struggling to climb out of poverty, you might want to consider going to more affordable cities.”
The number of translators and their families arriving has accelerated nationwide in recent years. About 1,100 Afghans with Special Immigrant Visas arrived in fiscal 2013, nearly 8,000 in 2014, another 7,200 in 2015 and 9,000 more so far this fiscal year, according to the State Department.
Zeller said the U.S. resettlement system proved unprepared to handle this increased flow of Afghan refugees.
An extreme example of that lack of readiness is the story of what happened to Ajmal Faqiri, who translated for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “We actually found him homeless after he arrived in San Francisco airport on Dec. 13, 2013,” Zeller said. “He picked up his four bags, with his wife, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter and found an airport policeman and asked, ‘What do I do now? The guy pointed north and said the homeless shelters are that way. So they walked up Highway 101.
“We found them homeless, wandering the streets of San Francisco after an Afghan guy noticed them and helped them contact my interpreter through Facebook.”
Zeller said he believes the SIV holders deserve the same benefits as U.S. veterans. “They have earned their citizenship more than most Americans ever will in their lives,” he said. “The only difference between me and Janis, my translator, is that I won the birth lottery. I did one tour of duty, was injured and can go to the VA for health care. Then there’s my brother Janis, who spent eight years in combat on the front lines, saving the lives of five Americans, and he doesn’t get to go to the VA and get help for the six times he was blown up.”
The issues highlighted by Zeller, though he lives in Virginia, are the same ones facing Afghan refugees in Sacramento, one of the nation’s biggest destinations for special visa holders. While there are no reports of people wandering around homeless, housing is the single most pressing complaint raised by the new arrivals.
At a recent meeting of the Sacramento Refugee Forum, a coalition of agencies working on resettlement, frustration over the situation was palpable. State Refugee Coordinator Sysvanh Kabkeo told the group that “it’s beyond my imagination” how to find enough affordable, decent housing for the influx of refugees.
Sacramento’s refugee housing crisis has become so acute that the U.S. State Department is now discouraging Afghan SIV holders from coming here.
“If you’re a refugee and you want to resettle in Northern California or Northern Virginia, for example, you may not be able to afford the rent from your first paycheck in areas where housing costs are very expensive,” said Larry Bartlett, director of the department’s refugee admissions office. “We try to dissuade refugees from selecting expensive cities unless they have a relative or friend there that makes their adjustment easier.”
A little ‘welcome money’
Four refugee agencies – International Rescue Committee, World Relief, Opening Doors and the Sacramento Food Bank – have resettled nearly all of the Afghan special visa holders here.
The State Department gives each resettlement agency $2,025 per person – $900 to spend on case management and $1,125 to cover rent, furniture, dishware, food and pocket money. But this $1,125 – dubbed “welcome money” by the refugee agencies – doesn’t go far. The agencies can reassign $200 of it to the needs of other refugees, meaning it doesn’t have to go to the family for which it was paid by the government.
Much of the remaining $925 per person is often spent on rent, used furnishings or housewares – without the knowledge or consent of the refugees themselves. One new arrival, former translator Yalda Kabiri, said she received just $45 in spending money when she arrived in 2013.
Many told The Sacramento Bee they would rather have all the cash to pay for phones, used cars, gas and their own furnishings. Before they are given the last of their pocket money, they are required to attend cultural orientation classes.
The State Department expects the resettlement agencies it contracts with to help support new refugees for 30 days – 90 days if they need an extension. Newly arrived families can also qualify for cash assistance and food stamps for up to four years. Those who come without children are eligible for food stamps and just eight months of cash assistance at $331 a month.
Some common themes have emerged among special visa holders in Sacramento. Upon arrival, they are settled in one of a number of apartment complexes in Sacramento County. These units are often infested with roaches and bedbugs, and located in neighborhoods with relatively high crime rates. But the rent has been prepaid for several months, making it hard to move.
The furniture provided is often used and worn, and in their view not worth the money the refugee assistance agencies often spend on it. The men are dismayed to learn that their Afghan credentials and letters of recommendation mean nothing here. Many have taken jobs at $10 an hour repairing iPhones for an Apple contractor in Elk Grove.
It’s a narrative that infuriates Zeller. As a combat veteran, he noted, he can receive preferential treatment for jobs at Walmart and many other employers. But newly arrived special visa holders can’t get a job until they get a Social Security card, a process that can take four months. Then, they’re often disqualified by a series of red flags: Their Social Security numbers are brand new, they have no established credit history and nobody has ever heard of the universities they attended.
Zeller said he knows Afghan families elsewhere in the country who have been put in condemned homes or rat- and bug-infested apartments, and when they want to move landlords won’t refund their money.
“There’s no investigatory body, no oversight,” he said. “There’s never been a congressional hearing, no inspector general looking into the Office of Refugee Resettlement to see how the money’s being spent and if resettlement agencies are actually doing their job.”
The refugees have to start paying rent as soon as they arrive, but Zeller complained that the resettlement agencies often don’t explain what leases entail or what it actually means to make a rent payment on the first of every month.
“I’ve lost count of the number of translators who have come to me with eviction notices,” he said.
When an Afghan refugee does wind up in court, he said, it can be terrifying, since the judicial system in Afghanistan is corrupt. Sometimes, they don’t go, and their legal problems snowball.
“You can imagine the profound frustration they experience when they realize how very little support they get to assist them in their integration,” he said. “I know five who have gone home to Afghanistan to die.”
Representatives of refugee resettlement agencies say they are doing the best they can with limited resources. They say they need to prepay rent, because otherwise refugees could wind up homeless. Rents also have risen steeply in the past two years.
“I used to be able rent a one-bedroom apartment two years ago for $545; now it’s closer to $700,” said Kirt Lewis, director of the Sacramento field office of World Relief. “We look for the safest, most sanitary, most affordable housing we can find.”
Since the State Department gives each resettlement agency just 90 days to provide refugees with housing, schools, medical care, cultural orientation, food stamps, cash assistance, Social Security cards, language classes and job placement services, it’s not surprising that they often fall behind, said Deborah Ortiz, the former state senator who now leads Opening Doors, a resettlement agency in Sacramento.
“The needs of arriving refugees don’t just happen between 9 and 5 p.m.,” Ortiz said. “Our staff are running around driving people everywhere.”
That the newcomers’ array of needs are met “is pretty amazing” she added, since much of the work is done by volunteers, or by former refugees who make $12 an hour.
The Afghan SIV holders, many of them strict Muslims, pose a unique set of problems, said Ortiz, whose caseload now is almost 90 percent Afghans. “You’re not going to get your last (welcome money) check until you go to cultural orientation class, but we find ourselves trying to accommodate separate orientations for men and women, and the husband may say, ‘My wife can’t drive in a taxi with a man’ to the orientation or her medical appointment, which means we get further and further behind doing our cultural orientation for women.”
As hundreds of new refugees arrive here every month, “We have a lot of systemic problems,” Ortiz said. “We have a massive housing problem with refugees, and huge mental health issues.”
Completing required health screenings within 30 days is a challenge, she said. The county’s Refugee Health Clinic can barely keep up and “scrambles to get the right interpreter for scheduled appointments,” Ortiz said. “But there are no-shows because clients either can’t get a ride or simply miss appointments, and the average time to complete health screenings is more than 50 days.”
Along with culture shock, many Afghan refugees come with unrealistic expectations about cash and housing, especially since they got no cultural orientation before they arrived. Many enjoyed a higher quality of life in Afghanistan despite the threat of death, Ortiz said, “but for the most part, people are really grateful to be here.”
Kabkeo said Sacramento County and its cities could do more to help the Afghan refugees.
Members of Sacramento County’s mental health community support team attending the recent refugee forum meeting said they don’t have a single counselor on their suicide prevention hotline who speaks Dari or Pashtun, the main Afghan languages, even though as many as half of the Afghans arriving suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The refugee forum here has not been as proactive as some others in the state, despite the burgeoning population. Some refugee forums in California are trying to improve services by forming nonprofits that hire membership coordinators, said state Refugee Programs County Operations Manager Jacqueline Hom. The East Bay Refugee Forum, for example, charges dues to its members and uses them to fund a person who goes to local churches and has been able to raise thousands of dollars and deliver boxes of coats and backpacks to refugees, Hom said.
On the federal level, the Obama administration launched the White House Task Force on New Americans in November 2014 to better integrate refugees arriving in the United States. Forty-seven communities have signed on to participate, a process that asks them to develop policies and programs to assist newcomers, according to the task force website. They include San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Kabkeo said.
“But I don’t see Sacramento or any city in the greater Sacramento area.”
Zeller’s nonprofit is trying to help ease the transition for former translators, who make up a significant portion of the special visa holders arriving in the U.S. Completely funded through private donations, it offers to pay three months’ rent, plus provide furnishings and an inexpensive car. It costs his organization about $15,000 to resettle a family, Zeller said.
In addition, Zeller said, “We actually will work with them to find a job, and not just a job mopping floors at 7-Eleven or flipping burgers, but an actual job that sets them up with benefits, that is livable, that is a career. And we, whenever possible, try to get them into college as quickly as possible, because we recognize that education is the only way forward for them in this country.
“They’re not just going to come here and be a doctor or a lawyer, even if they were that in their country. Their certifications don’t transfer here, so they have to go back and get re-educated.”
McClatchy Newspapers’ Jessica Koscielniak contributed to this story.