It’s been over 60 days since the Safai family of 12 arrived in Georgia, and they’re still exactly where they started - living in an extended stay hotel, waiting for a home, waiting to learn English, waiting to start their lives.
What’s changed is the weather - it’s colder now. Local volunteers have donated jackets to the family, but the family members showed me their open toed sandals, saying they had no warm shoes. And other issues have arisen: Ikram, the eldest son, showed me his phone, which appeared to be out of credit. And Shir, the father, plugged in the kettle in the hotel room kitchenette, pressing down the black button to turn it on but nothing happened - “10 days broken” he said.
They aren’t the only ones who’ve been waiting for a home for weeks. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, 750 Afghans have arrived in Georgia, and 950 more people are expected to arrive by mid February, when military bases or “safe havens” around the country are expected to close. The International Rescue Committee- Atlanta is one of four main resettlement agencies in the state. Around 70 percent of the Afghan families they’ve supported over the last few months, are now in permanent housing. But finding homes for larger families like the Safai’s, remains a challenge.
“The reality is that the housing development in this country is not really situated for families of 11, or 12, or 10,” said Justin Howell, Executive Director of the IRC- Atlanta. So resettlement agencies look for adjacent apartment units to offer large families. But that comes with its own issues. “A lot of them don't want to be in two different apartments.”
Apart from the general shortage of affordable housing, what makes securing housing for large families like the Safai’s even more daunting, are rushed timelines and the sheer volume of people arriving, “Normally with the refugee resettlement program, we get a minimum six to eight weeks advance notice of a family arriving,” says Howell. Now, he says, they get just 48 hours notice, if that. In 2019 the agency resettled about 550 people over the entire year. In the last 12 weeks alone, they’ve resettled 600.
And they’re also contending with an ongoing crisis - the pandemic and the recent Omicron surge. “It's all the extra things that have to go into it...if we had two or three families coming in, maybe we would take a 15 passenger van and bring them both from the airport…Now we have to send two separate vans.”
To respond to the needs, the IRC-Atlanta has hired more than 30 people over the last three months and plans to hire almost 40 more in the coming months. But onboarding and training people takes time.
Meanwhile, the Safai family has had trouble reaching their IRC case worker, who they say is very busy. “He has a lot of families,” said Ikram.
Howell says case workers can have anywhere from one to fifty clients at any given time. But there’s more than just one case worker supporting each family - there's a network of people. “There's also a casework supervisor, there's a resettlement manager…that clients have access to or should have access to those people as well through phone or email.” Still, that doesn’t guarantee they’ll get through to them right away, since the large number of cases at the moment has pushed timelines back.
“Can I promise every client that their caseworker is standing by on call and can answer the phone or can even call every day? No, but if things are being escalated, especially shared as concerns, especially health concerns, those things we would prioritize to help them address.”
As the days go by, the Safai family children are keeping themselves occupied in their hotel room by watching TV and reading the Quran. Their father is growing nervous about them being out of school for so long. There’s one thing both he and Ikram repeat multiple times when I speak to them - they’re eager to learn English. “We don't have anything for learn English…if we have computer, we can learn English,” says Ikram.