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Finding Homes for the Newest Arrivals

Mitra Soltanolketabi, who is trained as a midwife and is attending nursing school, shares housing with other immigrants  --  one from Cameroon and the other from Ethiopia.
Mitra Soltanolketabi, who is trained as a midwife and is attending nursing school, shares housing with other immigrants -- one from Cameroon and the other from Ethiopia. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007

Mitra Soltanolketabi's options were running out. She had sought refuge from what she considered an untenable situation, and now her 28-day stay at a Fairfax County women's shelter -- the longest allowed -- was nearly over.

Then, on her last day, she got a call from the man she calls "Mr. Matt Thompson." And everything changed.

That was in October. On a recent evening, Soltanolketabi sat with Thompson, the housing coordinator at the Falls Church nonprofit Center for Multicultural Human Services (CMHS), in her new home: a three-bedroom Tyson's Corner apartment with beige carpet, pastel prints on the walls and three comfy sofas in the living room. The best part: It's free.

"It's nice and more. Believe me!" said Soltanolketabi, 40, a hospital technician and nursing student.

The apartment is not hers indefinitely. It is one of five properties leased by the center, which offers them as temporary lodging. There are four apartments and one house. Those who live in them are people in situations similar to Soltanolketabi's. They are low-income single women or families who need short-term housing while they save money and gain skills to live on their own.

"It's not a permanent solution," Thompson said. "We're clear that this is to help them work toward self-sufficiency."

Most clients are immigrants; Soltanolketabi is from Iran.

Many are trying to escape domestic violence. Others are refugees or people seeking asylum who fled persecution and sometimes torture.

In a place such as Fairfax County, where affordable housing is scarce, they might end up homeless without help, Thompson said. The median sale price of a single-family house in Fairfax has grown 129 percent since 2000, to $479,200. The average rent in a new apartment complex is $1,461 a month, according to a recent county survey.

But the agency's transitional housing program provides more than a haven. Among other services, the agency offers English classes and transportation. Case managers help clients fill out job, school and housing applications; refer them to medical and legal services; and direct them to local food and clothing banks. Perhaps most important, organizers said, the center offers mental health counseling in more than 30 languages -- crucial for those who have suffered the trauma of war or violence.

In return, clients must hand over 30 percent of their monthly earnings, which the agency returns as a cushion once clients are ready to move out, which most do after six months. Although participants are not required to be employed, Thompson said, they must be "actively seeking a job."

That was not a problem for Soltanolketabi. A midwife in Iran, she arrived in the United States in 2002. She began taking English, which helped her land her $14-an-hour job at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital. She later enrolled in nursing school, for which the hospital pays.

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