After Settling In San Diego, Struggle Doesn’t End For Some Syrian Refugees
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Photo by Katie Schoolov / KPBS
After Settling In San Diego, Struggle Doesn't End For Some Syrian Refugees
Bayanne Mihtar, president, Syrian Community Network San Diego
In the back of her family's El Cajon apartment, four-year-old Doha plays in her parents' bedroom. She cuddles an oversized stuffed giraffe to her chest, hugging it against the cartoon kitten on her T-shirt. The room is just large enough to fit her mother and father's queen size bed with space on one side for linens, suitcases and a dresser.
That evening, it'll also fit young Doha.
The preschool-aged tot shares the bed with her parents, while the rest of her siblings sleep in the only other bedroom next door. There are two bunks — four twin beds — for five kids.
Doha's father, Jalal Falah, said the two-bedroom apartment is a step up from where the family of eight was living a few weeks ago. Back then, they shared two rooms at an El Cajon motel. Through a translator, Falah said the situation wasn't ideal for his children.
"With the kids — if one was by himself one would be indifferent — but with children it was very bad, very bad in the hotel. It wasn’t suitable for children," Falah said.
Falah was among nearly 800 Syrian refugees who arrived in the county last year. They trickled in at first partly because of lengthy background checks, but at the end of the year, more than 400 arrived within a two-month period. This left resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee scrambling to find affordable housing for newly arriving refugees on limited funds at the same time.
Erica Bouris, the committee's deputy director of programs, said the agency has good relationships with landlords in the county and many refugees move in with relatives already living here, but the economy is making it more difficult to rapidly find affordable housing.
“We work with a wide variety of properties across multiple neighborhoods but it is definitely true that as the economy comes out of recession, unemployment rates are down, vacancy rates are down, all of those kinds of things certainly contribute to a competitive rental market," Bouris said.
Some refugees lived in temporary housing longer than usual, including the Falah family, who came from Homs, Syria after their home was destroyed in the country’s civil war. They spent a few years in Jordan as they waded through the refugee screening process.
Like most people newly resettled in the country, the Falah family arrived in the U.S. with very few belongings, and they had no credit nor salary — two key steps to getting an apartment, Bouris said. The resettlement agency received a one-time stipend of $925 per person for the family's expenses but that has to cover all of their basic needs, from clothing, furniture, and household items to a security deposit and rent. Bouris said the small stipend plus locating homes near public transit because few refugees can afford a car, further limits options for housing.
“It’s a balance," she said. "Obviously you want to get that family out of the hotel as quickly as possible, but you want to make sure that they’re going to be in a home that’s going to work for their family as they settle in."
While the family waited almost two months for an affordable place -- frustrating both for the refugees and the motel's employees -- Falah said nearly a third of the family’s total one-time allotment of $7,400 was paying their nightly room rate. Once the resettlement agency found them a permanent home, thousands more went toward the security deposit plus first and last month's rent for their two-bedroom apartment.
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After these expenses and basic necessities, Falah said he received $1,000 from the agency in leftover funds. (The IRC wouldn't detail the expenses, citing privacy concerns.)
Falah said he receives $1,300 in monthly cash assistance, the exact amount of his rent. He also receives food stamps, but he's worried it won't be enough to cover his family's basic needs each month while he searches for work. The feeling is new for him, he said. As a salesman back in Syria, he said he never had trouble with money.
That's where Bayanne Mihtar comes in. She's an interior designer-turned-accidental-nonprofit founder. An immigrant herself, Mihtar launched the Syrian Community Network in San Diego — also known as Heart4Refugees — just a few months ago after a friend introduced her to a newly arrived family.
“I could tell they had nothing, and when I opened up my trunk to show them ... what I brought of necessities, they only took a few items and gave me numbers of more families who needed more help," Mihtar said.
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Since then, she has delivered clothes, toys, microwaves and even furniture to dozens of Syrian families in City Heights and El Cajon, including the Falahs. But, she said, the biggest need is rental assistance.
“I know that the resettlement agencies are doing their best to try to get them out," Mihtar said, "but some of these families are really large and the rent prices in San Diego are extremely high.
Mihtar said her organization has made contact with 170 newly arrived Syrian families in the county, mostly in City Heights and El Cajon, and now helps cover the rent for 115 of them. More are asking each day, including the Falah family. Falah said even his 6-year-old daughter Rahaf knows there’s something to worry about.
"I have a daughter — 6 years old — she says, 'Baba, what happens if you can’t pay for the house? Will they take us out? Would we have to sleep outside like the people who sleep outside in the garden?'" he said. Recalling the interaction brought tears to his eyes.
Falah hopes to find a job soon, but he hasn’t yet learned English. An injury — possibly in need of surgery — is another hurdle to employment. Still, he said where they are now is better than where they’ve been before.
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