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KPBS Midday Edition

After Settling In San Diego, Struggle Doesn't End For Some Syrian Refugees

Katie Schoolov
Bayanne Mihtar hands out brushes and other basic hygienic items to refugee families staying at a motel in El Cajon.
After Settling In San Diego, Struggle Doesn’t End For Some Syrian Refugees
Many refugee families are worried about making ends meet after they’ve resettled in San Diego.
After Settling In San Diego, Struggle Doesn't End For Some Syrian Refugees
After Settling In San Diego, Struggle Doesn't End For Some Syrian Refugees GUEST: Bayanne Mihtar, president, Syrian Community Network San Diego

KPBS Midday Edition I am to. Refugees fleeing their home countries with a lot of uncertainty along the way and now even more so after the president is hoping to halt the resettlement program in the West. For those who arrived here before the proposed restrictions anxiety is still running high. KPBS reporters explains how many refugee families are struggling to make ends meet even after they have resettled in San Diego. This is your -- six-year-old walks into a room with two sets of bunk beds. She touches the top edge. She shares that's what siblings. Another sibling to the larger bed with her parents neck store. The two-bedroom apartment is a step up from where the family of eight was living just a few weeks ago. Back then they shared two incident El Cajon motel. The situation was not ideal for his kids. With the kids if one was by himself he would be indifferent but with children it was very bad in the hotel. Was not suitable for children. He was among nearly 800 Syrian refugees who arrived at the county last year. The trickle down at first but at the end of the year than 400 arrived within a two-month period this left resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee scrambling to find affordable housing hundreds of people on limited funds. The committee says the agency has good relationships with landlords in the County to help with this and many refugees move in with relatives already living here but the economy makes it more difficult to find new has a. We work a bright variety of properties across multiple neighborhoods in San Diego it is definitely true that as the economy has come out of the recession unemployment rates are down and vacancy rates are down and all of those kinds of things certainly contribute to a more competitive rental market. Because of this some refugees stay in temporary housing -- longer than usual. Some said they were in the hotel for almost 2 months. They arrived with no credit and no salary and are allotted a one-time stipend of $925 per person from the resettlement agency. This must cuddle -- cover all of their startup extensive from clothing to furniture to rent and security deposits. The agency looks for homes near schools and public transit because few can afford a car. You want to get them out of the hotel as soon as possible but you want to make sure that they are in a home that will work for their family as they settle in. This families one-time allotment was covering their nightly motel rooms. Now a few weeks into the families new place he has worried that the leftover funds and welfare assistance will not cover his family's needs. Incomes -- in comes the target was handed out clothing and toys. She turned accidental nonprofit founder. She wants us -- launched the Syrian community network after being introduced to a family. I could tell they had nothing and when I opened up my trunk to show them if there was anything that they needed they only took a few items and gave me numbers of other families that needed more help. Since then she has helped support 170 area families with ASIC need. She says the biggest need is rental assistance. I know the agencies are doing their best to try to get them out but some of these are very large and rent prices in San Diego are extremely high so the amount of money that they have it is really difficult to find apartment and it is needed to sustain the living here. She cut -- to help cover the rent for 115 families. More are asking each day. Even six-year-old daughter knows there's something to worry about I have a daughter that is six years old she says dad what happens if you can't pay for the house will they take us out? Will be have to sleep like the people who sleep outside in the garden sex and swear to God that is what the little one asks me. It brought tears to his eyes. He said he hopes to find a job soon and that he has not learned English and because of an old injury that might need surgery that has become another herself. Joining me is van so you heard in the report. Welcome. Thank you. Before we heard this report a lot of people thought that once they get to the United States a lot of the troubles are over. It seems like new troubles have just gone. Why is it so hard for the refugee agencies to find places -- for refugee families to live.'s When they arrive. Have couple weeks notice of which family is arriving and because of the high demand with the influx of refugees arriving into San Diego it has been very difficult to find housing that the family can actually maintain payment on after the first few month of the support they received the rent cost is extremely high and San Diego. To all refugees need to find a place to live when they arrive in San Diego? To some stay with family X Most do not have family said. Pretty much everyone we have met has had to find a place to live. Why did you decide to get so involved in helping refugee families. I got sucked into it by meeting the first family. They were so's weight and so humble and myself being Syrian American immigrant I know how difficult it is. I did not leave a country that was war-torn it was very peaceful when we left Syria as a child so I can't imagine to at that layer of difficulty and arrive into a new place that you have to learn the culture and have PTSD possibly from everything that you have endured come. You came to the United States not as a refugee but as an immigrant as a child. Yes and I remember the difficulties of a whole new culture and a new environment to adjust to so as a child it is much easier to acclimate than when you are adults and for the little kids it will take them a couple of months I believe and they will define in Seattle's that when he attention of ESL classes and getting committed faster. Even though the families are struggling why do they say it is so much better than where they came from. Obviously it is way better because there are no bombs that you have to be afraid of you can sleep in peace that other children are safe a lot of these kits have not have school years living in camps so they know it is a better future for them here even if the struggle is high when they first arrive with employment and finding housing. They know that they are safe here. That is interesting because it is true of the families they have been living in camps for years before they arrive in the United States. What have they told you about life there? It's difficult because any savings they had from before they had to use it during that time. They were not able to get jobs their kids were struggling going to school they were not getting the equal treatment the they would get here in the United States and they are very grateful for being here. The man and the family had this report was focused on is the father of the family he is expected to learn English, get a job that supports his family can't can start paying back the cost of travel to the US all started in a matter of months. Too many Syrian refugee families manage to do that? This is where we left him. The Syrian community and Heart4Refugees we know it's impossible. The families are arriving from villages not even from big cities. They are from the outskirts of Lake cities were I doubt they have ever left their home before and to arrive in the United States it is unthinkable what they must be thinking how different it is here. It is impossible for them to learn the language. They have zero English to help them. They are highly skilled they are not educated the ones arriving into the United dates. They are very skilled so hopefully they will be able to be given a chance to find an lineman to help support their family but we found that it would be impossible for them to actually accomplish all of these things in the first three months of that why we began the rent assistance program to help them get on their feet. Many of these families also have special needs children that are arriving and they need that extra time to get them diagnosed and take them to doctors appointment so the need that time to take care of their family but where they are able to find employment and learn the language. I wonder if you have considered this.'s in San Diego is such a high cost of living area and we are in a housing crisis should resettlement agencies be reconsidering San Diego as a desirable resettlement San Diego has been the most welcoming in the nation for the Syrian refugees and a that for a fact that I have not had asked variance in the resettlement process prior to this but when I go visit El Cajon or city Heights I can understand why. The cities were built from previous refugee populations of the Chaldeans or Somalian so I know they have services provided and that for refugees so I'm assuming this is why San Diego is welcoming city for refugees. I've been speaking with the Syrian community network in San Diego. Thank you. Thank you.

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.

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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.

After Settling In San Diego, Struggle Doesn't End For Some Syrian Refugees

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.

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Katie Schoolov
While their four brothers and sisters are at school, the youngest Falah siblings, Rahaf (left) and Doha snack on cookies as their mother and father speak with their Syrian Community Network caseworker (not shown), Jan. 27, 2017.

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.

Katie Schoolov
Sisters Doha (front) and Rahaf play in their parents' bedroom, Jan. 27, 2017.

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."

Katie Schoolov
The inside of a room at an El Cajon motel shows refugees' cluttered collection of boxes, suitcases and donated items.

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.

A U.S. Department of State infographic provides a step-by-step explanation of the screening process for refugees.

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.

Katie Schoolov
A motel employee expresses to Bayanne Mihtar his frustration over the limited ability to communicate with the Arabic-speaking refugees.
Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

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.