More than 1,600 Afghan refugees expected to arrive in Michigan by next month

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Hundreds of the Afghan refugees who have resettled in Michigan are living in hotels as finding affordable housing and other support has become a challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Detroit-based resettlement agency told The Detroit News.

Michigan is slated to aid 1,603 Afghan refugees, many of whom have been trickling in since October, but are all expected to arrive by Feb. 15. Michigan's allocation increased from 1,300 the refugees announced in September.

Refugees will be placed in the care of nonprofit resettlement agencies – 36% in Southeast Michigan, 21% in Grand Rapids, 18% in Ann Arbor, 16% in Lansing and 9% in Kalamazoo. 

In West Michigan, the Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services said it's planning to help resettle 250 Afghan allies and refugees and St. Vincent's Catholic Charities Refugee Services, based in Lansing, will be receiving 300 Afghans.

Afghan refugees are processed inside Hangar 5 at Ramstein U.S. Air Base in Germany on Sept. 8, 2021. Michigan is slated to aid 1,603 Afghan refugees, many of whom have been trickling in since October, but are all expected to arrive by Feb. 15.

Detroit-based Samaritas says 420 of its 550 expected refugees have arrived as of Friday and the majority of those based in Metro Detroit are living in hotels, said Kelli Dobner, Samaritas chief advancement officer. 

"We have increased since our original commitment and we've been asked to do so because the need is so great," Dobner told The News Friday. "The rate of arrivals has increased dramatically in the last few weeks. We're averaging about 35 individuals per week."

Samaritas has worked out partnerships with hotels for refugees to be placed in immediately following their arrival and the goal is to have them in permanent affordable housing within 30 to 45 days, Dobner said.

She says on the west side of the state, housing has been more available in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids where 30% of refugees are living in a hotel, compared to about 80% of refugees in Southeast Michigan. 

"We are working very diligently with county and city partners to identify affordable housing opportunities for refugee families as quickly as we can," she said. "There's just such a low affordable housing inventory and now with this extra strain on that inventory, it's proving to be a little bit slower than we wanted with people still working around the clock to identify housing options."

Of the refugees resettled in Michigan, 40% are children, but the rest span from individuals to families of 11, Dobner said. 

Samaritas has been resettling families for over 70 years and on average, 75% of families resettles are considered self-sufficient within 180 days of care. 

But it "only happens with a village," Dobner said, adding they don't have the adequate staffing, funding or donations needed to provide care.

"When people arrive here, we're learning a great deal about their needs, their medical needs, in particular, and having those funds available to be able to connect them with resources is huge," she said. "We just had a dental clinic come into the Detroit hotel Friday, and we saw 50 patients, and their needs are tremendous from extractions to antibiotics."

Refugees are given $1,225 by the federal government and Samaritas is given about $1,000 per refugee for the resettlement. Rental and utility assistance is not guaranteed in Detroit and Wayne County, but Dobner said most families should qualify. 

"The city of Detroit welcomes all refugees and we are glad to be working with Samaritas, which is leading the effort, to place Afghan refugees in the city," said Dan Austin, an executive with Van Dyke Horn Public Relations speaking on behalf of the city. The city is working on efforts to find housing, job placements and arranging English as second language classes, he said.

Within the first 90 days, Samaritas' social services network hopes to work with each individual 25 to 30 times setting up services including job placement and healthcare. It has also launched the Afghan Refugee Network, comprised of community, corporate, and civic leaders to help with a staffing crisis and find employment opportunities.

Samaritas is looking to beef up its staff to help serve.

"On top of our normal resettlement team, we have a lot of refugees still living in hotels, situations so having a staff for that on-site hotel coordination is critical. So we've had to get not only creative in how we hire, but the positions that we need filled," Dobner said.

Under President Donald Trump's administration, refugee resettlement was curtailed significantly. In 2018, Michigan resettled its fewest refugees in four decades and what used to be hundreds of placements had dropped to single digits, especially with the travel ban.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, meets with Afghan refugees in Albania during a congressional delegation in early November.

With more than a 60% decline in resettlements, it led refugee resettlement agencies to close offices.

With the exception of the Afghan refugee crisis in the fall, Samaritas accepted a total of 168 refugees in 2021. Going forward, Dobner expects the numbers to increase in 2022 and 2023.

"With the travel bans, we had arrivals at historic lows at 15,000 a year across the whole country. This last year with a Biden administration, that increased to 65,000 outside of Afghanistan, and next year, it's supposed to go up to 125,000," Dobner said. "We've had to increase our staff in a market that doesn't really lend itself."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is leading Afghan resettlement efforts, in conjunction with the State Department and Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Census Bureau data from 2019 indicate that about 668 people born in Afghanistan live in Michigan. That's about one-half of 1% of the total Afghan-born population living in the United States.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_