In the Last Few Months, Cleveland Has Become Home to Nearly 700 Afghan Refugees in an Unprecedented Immigration Wave

Share on Nextdoor
click to enlarge Ramzia, one of the Afghan refugees who resettled in Cleveland - Courtesy USCRI
Courtesy USCRI
Ramzia, one of the Afghan refugees who resettled in Cleveland

Throughout August 2021, chaotic scenes from the Kabul International Airport commandeered television screens and social media feeds stateside. The United States was pulling out of Afghanistan after 20 years of sustained conflict, and the Taliban had assumed control of the landlocked Central Asian nation. Afghans who had worked for the United States or British military forces, or who were contracted by U.S. companies during the war, were facing violent reprisals from their new Islamist rulers.

The Kabul airport, three miles from the city center, was the only viable escape route. Thousands fled there and tried, by any means necessary, to board evacuation planes. Some clung to the sides of aircrafts or hung from landing gear as the planes ascended and plummeted to violent deaths on the tarmac.

Ramzia, a 21-year-old Afghan woman who has been resettled in Cleveland, was at the Kabul airport during those harrowing days and saw the bodies up close. She managed to board a plane, after four unsuccessful attempts, and was flown to a U.S. military base in Madrid, a “lily pad” where evacuees wait to learn their permanent destinations. She arrived in Cleveland in late November with $1,250 from the U.S. Government and the clothes on her back to begin her life anew.

The week Ramzia arrived, and for several weeks before, the Cleveland Field Office of the United States Committee on Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) was settling close to 80 individuals per week. USCRI is one of three main local resettlement agencies. Its workload in recent months, according to Darren Hamm, Director of the Cleveland office, has been unprecedented.

“To put the numbers into context,” Hamm told Scene in late January, “we resettled fewer than 100 immigrants all of last year. We resettled more folks in the span of two months, all from Afghanistan, than we did in the previous two years combined.”

Cleveland is now among the U.S. cities with the most Afghan evacuees, and USCRI has roughly quadrupled its staff to accommodate the flood of new arrivals and the array of services that resettlement entails: from housing and employment – the two biggies – to enrollment in benefits programs, medical screenings, school and youth outreach, and a cascade of social and geographical orientations complicated by language and cultural barriers.

Like most of the nearly 700 Afghan refugees who have arrived in Cleveland since September, Ramzia speaks both Dari and Pashto. And while she understands some English and is fast improving with the aid of YouTube tutorials, she spoke with Scene through a translator last month at the USCRI office on Clark and W. 25h Street, an office that the agency has now outgrown. Ramzia was dropped off by a USCRI staffer who had taken her to the BMV to get her learner’s permits that morning, and the interview was conducted amid the bustle of employees and volunteers making last-minute arrangements for the arrival of three new families at Hopkins later in the day.

Ramzia said she fled Afghanistan because she had no other choice.

“There was no future for me there,” she said. “The Taliban were not allowing women to study or work. The schools for girls in many of the provinces have been closed. Women have lost their jobs, and security is now a major issue. I came to the United States because I wanted to live in a free environment, to be able to do things for myself and for my community.”

Ramzia was born in a province far in the northeastern part of the country, near the borders of both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. She grew up, however, in the capital city and was pursuing a degree in political science at the local university when the Taliban took over.

“My dream was to become a politician,” she said. “I saw the leaders in my country not acting properly, and I wanted to make change, to work for my people.”

Ramzia still harbors those dreams and says that one of her goals for the next few months, in addition to improving her English skills, is to research how she might enroll in higher education programs in Cleveland. (The translator added that he would not be surprised if Ramzia became a member of the state general assembly or even the U.S. Congress one day.)

For now, with the aid of USCRI, Ramzia has secured a job in food service at University Hospitals and is living in an apartment in Coventry Village in Cleveland Heights after weeks of housing instability at multiple local hotels.

“I now truly have everything I need,” she said. “I have a safe place to live. I have food to eat. And I have a plan to start studying. I am so happy to be in Cleveland. Everyone here is so kind.”

***

Ayat Amin was running for City Council in Ward 3 last summer when the Afghan evacuation and subsequent refugee wave crashed on Cleveland’s shores. She lives in Ohio City, not far from the USCRI office, and began lending a hand there during her spare time. At first, she was primarily doing office work, but she wanted to do more, and asked if there were other ways she could contribute.

USCRI had been spread thin by the new arrivals. And while they focused on the time-consuming tasks related to furnishing apartments and liaising with employers, they asked Amin if she could help teach new arrivals how to ride the bus.

Practically none of the new Afghan refugees in Cleveland have access to a vehicle, and getting around town for work, grocery runs, appointments and social calls is one of the most oft-cited challenges by the resettlement agencies and volunteers. The RTA system can be intimidating for those who’ve never used it before. Even things that may seem obvious, like which side of the street to stand on based on the direction you’re traveling, or how to insert a fare card into the fare reader, aren’t necessarily intuitive.

“I instantly thought of Clevelanders for Public Transit,” Amin told Scene last month. “I thought, I’m a part of a group of people who are really excited about advocating for public transit, and I felt I could put together a team of volunteers who were interested in helping out.”

Amin was right. Nearly 20 CPT volunteers answered the call. Amin and another CPT member, Joe Schwarten, have worked to craft a training program and coordinate weekly rides with volunteers and new arrivals who indicate interest in RTA to USCRI.

“What we’ve learned is that these trainings are most effective asynchronously,” Amin said. “USCRI will give us a name and a phone number of a new arrival, along with their level of English, and then we’ll take it from there.”

CPT volunteers meet with trainees at their home or another agreed-upon location and then literally ride the bus with them to a destination of their choice. Amin told Scene that commonly, trainees want to familiarize themselves with their route to a new job, or to a Halal grocery store.

“On one ride, I met a family at their home near MetroHealth,” she said. “We took the 51 to the West Side Market. They loved the space but were disappointed when they found out that none of the meat was Halal. We then transferred to the 22 and rode it out to a Halal butcher at Lorain and W. 116th, and their excitement returned.”

USCRI provides monthly bus passes to new arrivals and fare cards to the trainers from CPT. Amin said that while some express hesitation initially or say that they’d prefer to drive, others have participated in the training even when they already have access to a car.

“Those have been some of the most interesting cases,” Amin said. “They might not be all that interested in the beginning, but when they see that the RTA is an affordable and accessible way to get around the city, they recognize that it’s a good skill to have.”

Amin said that the refugees have been extremely grateful for the trainings, but that the CPT trainers themselves have been equally grateful for the opportunity to share experiences with people discovering Cleveland for the first time. One CPT trainer took a young man to a soccer match in North Olmsted. Another took a family to the downtown Cleveland Public Library to help them get library cards.

“In my most recent training, I was given a bread called bolani that had been home cooked by the wife of the gentleman I trained,” Amin said. “It was the most delicious bread I’ve ever had. And that’s coming from an Arabic woman who’s had some very good bread. It’s nice to have that cultural appreciation in addition to the training.”

***

Unlike in years past, when the majority of new immigrants would be settled on Cleveland’s west side, the scale of the influx and the relative strength of the local housing market has meant that resettlement agencies are getting “creative” in pursuing housing options for refugees. Darren Hamm, USCRI’s Cleveland director, said that many of the new Afghan families have been placed in housing in Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, Parma, and other inner-ring and southern suburbs. USCRI covers the rent for the first 4-6 months and, due to their own budget constraints, have to be conscious of rental rates alongside a slew of other considerations.

“We’re up against a 90% occupancy rate in the rental market right now,” Hamm said. “It’s an extreme challenge because we have to be so considerate of affordability. A decade ago, post-foreclosure crisis, there were a ton of housing options but limited jobs. Now the reverse is true.”

Hamm said that given the scarcity, some refugees are forced to stay in hotels or AirBnBs temporarily while USCRI locates more permanent options. AirBnB gave USCRI’s national office hundreds of thousands of dollars in vouchers that the local office has made use of. At one point in the fall, Hamm estimated that 20 families were housed in local AirBnBs.

One encouraging development, Hamm said, has been building owners stepping up to accept multiple families at once. In some suburbs, Hamm said, USCRI has been able to place 10 to 12 families in a single building.

“That’s important because the last thing you want is for these families to feel isolated or vulnerable,” he said.

That’s part of why there had been such a residential anchor on the west side, especially clustered around Lorain and W. 117th, (“Little Arabia,” as it’s informally known), an area with easy access to bus routes, Halal grocery stores, and built-in community infrastructure.

“But expanding our geography means that we can augment the existing communities while building them up in other places over time,” he said.

Building up new communities is made much easier when current residents actively welcome their new neighbors. Across the region, hundreds of dedicated volunteers and those moved by the plight of the recently arrived have donated thousands of dollars, hours of time and professional services, bikes, home appliances, clothing and other supplies.

Bobbi Reichtell is a longtime community development professional in Cleveland, the former head of Campus District Inc. She lives in Detroit-Shoreway and has spearheaded efforts among a group of her neighbors to support a 34-year-old Afghan evacuee named Atiq.

Reichtell and her husband, Mark McDermott, now provide regular financial support to Atiq and have mobilized neighbors to help finance the safe passage of Atiq’s wife, who is still in Afghanistan and under constant threat, given Atiq’s work with the U.S. and British militaries.

During a January interview at her home, Reichtell expressed anger and dismay at the U.S. government, which relied on Afghan civilians during the war, but has left many of them to horrible fates after the August evacuations.

“It’s just unconscionable,” she said. “And what this whole experience has brought home to me, especially in the context of the pandemic, is just how good we have it here. Whenever something annoys me, I put the brakes on and think to myself, ‘You could be living in a shelter in a country where you don’t know the language, unable to provide for your kids. You could have nothing.’ It’s been a constant Zen slap.”

In coordination with Refugee Response, Reichtell and a small neighborhood steering committee have helped create a “Neighborhood Support List” so that communities across Northeast Ohio can come together to provide essentials for new arrivals.

The list includes urgently needed items, (coffee makers, crock pots, microwaves), a checklist of ways to support refugee families (trips to the thrift store and assistance shopping; trips to the bank; instruction on how to use household appliances, how to use the U.S. postal service, how to drive). It also includes the overarching goal of this community support: to build a network of neighbors who can answer questions and provide everyday support – and above all, friendship – to new arrivals, while freeing up the resettlement agencies to focus on legal and technical matters.

Reichtell has been volunteering at USCRI as well, and staffers there are in awe of her immense contributions and advocacy. By the end of January, with the support of AMIS Ohio (Americans Making Immigrants Safe) neighbors in Detroit-Shoreway had raised more than $13,000 to help get Atiq’s wife to the U.S.

Whether Atiq’s wife will even be able to get here is another question. The process has been complicated by a thicket of legal hurdles for Afghans stuck in Afghanistan and unable to evacuate. The 65,0000 Afghans who were evacuated by the U.S. in August were granted entry under a designation known as “humanitarian parole.” Thousands more have applied for the designation but are now more or less stranded due to a massive backlog and the absence of a U.S. embassy in Kabul. Many of these applicants are now starving to death under sanctions imposed by President Joe Biden.

USCRI and other advocates have called on congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, a piece of legislation which would allow humanitarian parolees to apply for permanent residency after one year, prevent the deportation of evacuees and relieve the backlogs on the asylum and special immigrant visa programs.

“This is an easy solution,” Darren Hamm told Scene. “And there’s precedent. Similar legislation was passed after both the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. Congress needs to support this group of people, who largely worked on our behalf, to give them some stability after the abject removal from their homeland.”

But until that law is passed. USCRI and the other local resettlement agencies will continue to accept Afghan families as they are evacuated to the United States and continue to do everything they can to make the transition as smooth as possible. Hamm said the wave is expected to be complete by the end of February.

“There’s been a lot of pressure, a lot of weight, over the past few months,” Hamm said, “but by the time we’re done, I’d like to think we’ll be experts.”

At the USCRI office, staffers are preparing to head to Hopkins to go pick up a family of seven. Ramzia said she is convinced that the new arrivals will love it in Cleveland, in spite of the snow. She has quickly become a fierce defender of the Land. She said she has an uncle and a cousin in Virginia and that when she first arrived in Cleveland, she worked to get relocated there. But when she traveled to Virginia for a weekend last month, she was instantly homesick for Cleveland and couldn’t wait to return.

Why is that, Scene wanted to know? What about her experience thus far had been so memorable or positive?

Ramzia said there was actually a specific moment when she considered Cleveland her new home. It was when her father died, shortly after she arrived. She has a large family back in Afghanistan but traveled to the United States on her own. And apart from the language challenges, she said being away from family was by far the hardest part of her experience. When her father died, staff members at USCRI and others in her building came to her apartment to be with her and make sure she was okay.

“That was my best memory,” she said, in English. “It was a tragedy, but my new friends shared in the tragedy.”

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Newsletters

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.