For Afghan Refugees, a Choice Between Community and Opportunity

In resettling thousands of displaced Afghans, the Biden administration must weigh their need for support against the needs of the U.S. labor market.

Fremont, Calif., is home to a large Afghan enclave known as Little Kabul. On weekends, many Afghan families gather for picnics and walks.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

For Afghan Refugees, a Choice Between Community and Opportunity

In resettling thousands of displaced Afghans, the Biden administration must weigh their need for support against the needs of the U.S. labor market.

Fremont, Calif., is home to a large Afghan enclave known as Little Kabul. On weekends, many Afghan families gather for picnics and walks.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

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FREMONT, Ca. — Harris Mojadedi’s parents fled Afghanistan’s communist revolution four decades ago and arrived as refugees in this San Francisco suburb in 1986, lured by the unlikely presence of a Farsi-speaking doctor and a single Afghan grocery store.

Over the decades, as more refugees settled in Fremont, the eclectic neighborhood became known as Little Kabul, a welcoming place where Mr. Mojadedi’s father, a former judge, and his wife could both secure blue-collar jobs, find an affordable place to live and raise their children surrounded by mosques, halal restaurants and thousands of other Afghans.

“When I went to school, I saw other Afghan kids. I knew about my culture, and I felt a sense of, like, that my community was part of Fremont,” Mr. Mojadedi recalled recently over a game of teka and chapli kebabs during lunch with other young Afghans from the area.

But now, as the United States begins to absorb a new wave of refugees who were frantically evacuated from Kabul in the final, chaotic days of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, it is far from clear that a place like Fremont would be an ideal destination for them. Housing in the Bay Area city is out of reach, with one-bedroom apartments going for more than $2,500 a month. Jobs can be tougher to get than in many other parts of the country. The cost of living is driven up by nearby Silicon Valley. Even longtime residents of Little Kabul are leaving for cheaper areas.

The alternative is to send the refugees to places like Fargo, N.D., or Tulsa, Okla., where jobs are plentiful, housing is cheap and mayors are eager for new workers.

But those communities lack the kind of cultural support that Mr. Mojadedi experienced. The displaced Afghans would most likely find language barriers, few social services and perhaps hostility toward foreigners. Already, there are signs of a backlash against refugees in some of the states where economic statistics suggest they are needed most.


Homaira Hosseini is a lawyer and Afghan refugee who grew up in Little Kabul.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times


Harris Mojadedi’s parents fled Afghanistan after its communist revolution four decades ago and settled in Little Kabul.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times


Housing is out of reach for many in Fremont, with small apartments going for more than $2,500 a month. Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

“Are we setting them up to fail there?” Homaira Hosseini, a lawyer and Afghan refugee who grew up in Little Kabul, asked during the lunch. “They don’t have support. Or are we setting them up to fail in places where there aren’t any jobs for them, but there is support?”

That is the difficult question facing President Biden’s administration and the nation’s nonprofit resettlement organizations as they work to find places to live for the newly displaced Afghans. As of Nov. 19, more than 22,500 have been settled, including 3,500 in one week in October, and 42,500 more remain in temporary housing on eight military bases around the country, waiting for their new homes.

Initial agreements between the State Department and the resettlement agencies involved sending 5,255 to California, 4,481 to Texas, 1,800 to Oklahoma, 1,679 to Washington, 1,610 to Arizona, and hundreds more to almost every state. North Dakota will get at least 49 refugees. Mississippi and Alabama will get at least 10.

Where the refugees go from there is up to the resettlement agencies in each state. Sometimes, refugees will ask to live in communities where they already have family or friends. But officials said that many of the displaced Afghans who arrived this summer had no connection to the United States.


Many of the Afghan refugees who arrived in the U.S. this summer had no friends or family in the country.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

“These folks are coming at a time when the job market is very good,” said Jack Markell, the former Democratic governor of Delaware who is overseeing the resettlement effort. “But they’re also coming here at a time when the housing market is very tight.”

Afghanistan Under Taliban Rule

With the departure of the U.S. military on Aug. 30, Afghanistan quickly fell back under control of the Taliban. Across the country, there is widespread anxiety about the future.

Vanishing Rights: The Taliban’s decision to restrict women’s freedom may be a political choice as much as it is a matter of ideology. Far From Home: Some Afghans who were abroad when the country collapsed are desperate to return, but have no clear route home.Can Afghan Art Survive? The Taliban have not banned art outright. But many artists have fled, fearing for their work and their lives.A Growing Threat: A local affiliate of the Islamic State group is upending security and putting the Taliban government in a precarious position.

“Our job is to provide a safe and dignified welcome and to set people up for long-term success,” he said. “And that means doing everything we can to get them to the places where it’s affordable, where we connect them with jobs.”

For Mr. Biden, failure to integrate the refugees successfully could play into the hands of conservatives who oppose immigration — even for those who helped the Americans during the war — and claim the Afghans will rob Americans of jobs and bring the threat of crime into communities. After initially welcoming the refugees, the Republican governor of North Dakota has taken a harder line, echoing concerns of his party about vetting them.

Haomyyn Karimi, a former refugee who has been a baker at an Afghan market in Little Kabul for thirty years, choked up at the thought of another generation of Afghan refugees struggling to build a new life in the face of financial difficulty and discrimination.

“They had lives in Afghanistan,” Mr. Karimi said through an interpreter during a brief interview at the Maiwand Market in downtown Fremont. “Their money was in banks in Afghanistan that are no longer available to them. So they’re literally starting with nothing.”


Haomyyn Karimi, center, has been a baker at an Afghan market in Little Kabul for thirty years.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

‘They need to find workers.’

The refugees are arriving at a moment of severe economic need — labor shortages across the country mean that communities are desperate for workers. In Fargo, where the unemployment rate is 2.8 percent, many restaurants have to close early because they can’t find enough workers.

“Everybody’s looking for people,” said Daniel Hannaher, the director of the Fargo resettlement office for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which expects to receive several dozen refugees soon. “And, you know, it’s getting to the point now where everybody’s mad about the restaurants.”

The same is true in Tulsa, where the unemployment rate is 3.5 percent and dropping. G.T. Bynum, the city’s Republican mayor, told Public Radio Tulsa that he’s eager for the new refugees to see that Tulsa “is a city where we help each other out, whether you’ve lived here your whole life or you just got off the plane from Afghanistan.”

Financial help for the Afghan refugees flows through the resettlement agencies in the form of a one-time payment of up to $1,225 per person for food assistance, rent, furniture and a very small amount of spending money. An additional $1,050 per person is sent to resettlement agencies to provide English classes and other services.

Because refugees are authorized to work in the United States, much of the help is directed toward helping them find a job, Mr. Markell said. Refugees are also eligible to receive Medicaid benefits and food stamps.

Historically, refugees have quickly gotten to work in the U.S., without taking jobs from Americans.

About one in five new refugees to the United States finds employment in the first year of arrival in the country, a high rate among wealthy nations, according to a paper published by a trio of researchers at University College London last year in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Employment rates for refugees to America jump sharply in the years that follow.


Sayed Mahboob, right, an elementary school teacher in Sacramento, Calif., often helps more recent Afghan transplants with paperwork as they settle in the U.S.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times


Ariana Sweets Inc. is a family-owned business in the Fremont area specializing in Afghan and Middle Eastern food.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times


Workers have been slow to return to jobs or industries they left in the pandemic, leaving many restaurants and retail stores desperate to hire.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Critics of high levels of refugee acceptance, including top officials in the White House under former President Donald J. Trump, contend that refugees compete with American workers — particularly for low-wage jobs — and dramatically reduce how much those existing workers earn.

The vast majority of empirical economic research finds that isn’t true. An exhaustive report published by the office of the chief economist at the State Department examined settlement patterns of past refugees to the United States, comparing the economic outcomes of areas where they did and did not settle. It found “robust causal evidence that there is no adverse long-term impact of refugees on the U.S. labor market.”

If anything, economists say, the current labor market makes it even less likely that refugees would steal jobs or suppress wages for people already here. U.S. employers reported more than 10 million job openings nationwide in August, down slightly from a record 11 million in July. Workers have been slow to return to jobs or industries they left in the pandemic, leaving many restaurants and retail stores desperate to hire.

Few, if any, previous waves of refugees have entered the country with such high labor demand across the country, or with the lure of worker-parched areas that could offer relatively high starting salaries for even inexperienced staff.

And places like Fargo and Tulsa offer cheaper housing, too. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Fargo is $730 a month, less than a third of what it is in Fremont. The average rent in Tulsa is $760.


A donation center at the Matt Jimenez Community Center in Hayward, Calif.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

‘Support is critical’

But some have concerns about sending the Afghans to places where there are few familiar faces and prejudice is more common.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there. On Aug. 26, deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists remain a threat.

How will this affect future U.S. policy in the region? Washington and the Taliban may spend years pulled between cooperation and conflict. Some of the key issues at hand include: how to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K, and whether the U.S. should release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the country.

In Michigan, which is slated to get at least 1,280 refugees, stickers with the racist message “Afghan Refugee Hunting Permits” were posted in Ann Arbor by the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group.

In Oklahoma, John Bennett, the chairman of the state Republican Party, posted a Facebook video in which he rants about the dangers of Shariah, the Islamic legal code, accusing the refugees — without evidence — of being terrorists.

“Oklahomans, I encourage you to call and email the governor, call and email your legislators, and tell them: Do not allow Afghan refugees into Oklahoma,” Mr. Bennett said in the video.

“We’re going to see Islamophobia. We’re going to see xenophobia,” said Spojmie Nasiri, an immigration lawyer of Afghan descent who lives near Fremont. “We’re already seeing it.”


Spojmie Nasiri, an immigration lawyer who lives near Fremont, said she has been seeing hostility toward Afghan refugees.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

But Mr. Markell said most communities — including conservative, Republican-leaning ones — have been very welcoming. He credits the country’s veterans, who have overwhelmingly embraced the Afghans.

“When they are as vocal as they have been, it helps a lot with elected officials of both parties,” Mr. Markell said.

Advocates say that despite having a higher cost of living and fewer available jobs, established Afghan enclaves like Fremont can provide a much-needed support network.

The International Rescue Committee, which operates a resettlement office in Oakland, Calif., near Fremont, said it had established committees on housing, health, case management and legal issues even before the mass evacuation from Kabul this summer. The Oakland office is expecting at least 600 to 700 Afghan refugees to be resettled in the area.

Those who go to Fremont will find a raft of existing services thanks to the presence of an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Afghans in the city: adult schools to teach them English; mental health services aimed at people from Afghanistan; and informal help from area mosques.

Some local banks in Fremont are partnering with the city to provide financial coaching.


Farid Noori, left, moved into an apartment in Fremont with his sons shortly after fleeing Afghanistan.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times


Afternoon prayer at Masjid Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, a mosque in Hayward, Calif., near Fremont.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times


Husna Massoud visits her great-aunt’s grave in the Muslim section of a cemetery in Hayward.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times


Hena Massoud and Husna Massoud help organize donations for recently displaced Afghans in Hayward.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

“That support is critical,” said Jordane Tofighi, the director of the Oakland office. “Some of the local mosques are doing food distribution. Some of the grocery stores have food pickup hours.”

Fremont also boasts social service agencies, including the Afghan Coalition, which have been catering to the community’s Afghan residents for several decades. Mizgon Darby, who works for the organization, has been pressing the resettlement agencies, local governments and the state to provide more financial resources for the latest wave of refugees.

“The question is, in these different areas that they are being settled into, who is the designated agency that is helping them in those cases?” Ms. Darby said during an interview in her Fremont office recently. “Who’s going to navigate for them or help them navigate?”

Mr. Karimi, the baker at the Fremont market, said he’s hopeful that the latest wave of refugees will find the support they need to thrive in their new country. He said people like himself owe it to the new arrivals to support them with jobs, money and encouragement.

“If they want my blood,” he said, pledging his help for the new arrivals as tears streamed down his face, “I will give them my blood.”

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