When Virginia Bonanjah, a farmworker and activist from Cameroon, came to the United States seeking political asylum in 2002, she was homeless, helpless and depressed.
"I cried all the time," said Bonanjah, 45, who left her husband and five of her six children in the African country. "I had no source of income, no insurance. I didn't have anything."
With the help of the Center for Multicultural Human Services, a nonprofit organization in the city of Falls Church, she succeeded in gaining asylum. The center also provided her with psychological counseling and found temporary housing for Bonanjah and her 7-year-old son, Bill Clinton Iteinjoh.
The center, which has served hundreds of asylum-seekers, provides the same sort of assistance to immigrants in similar situations, said Ricarda Dowling, the organization's development director.
Late last month, the group announced that, with a $550,000 grant and the help of the city, it soon will have four new transitional homes for its clients in Northern Virginia. Those residences are in addition to a three-bedroom apartment in Tysons Corner that the organization has rented for the past three years.
Dowling said more free and affordable housing is needed in the area for homeless people, especially immigrant families who come from war-torn countries.
"Imagine a family with a bunch of kids from Afghanistan or Bosnia or wherever trying to survive on their own right away," Dowling said.
Many have no money and face a language barrier when trying to obtain services, which can be difficult even for native residents, she said. It is especially hard for asylum-seekers like Bonanjah, who flee to the United States however they can to escape persecution at home. After they arrive, they apply for asylum, which, once it is granted, gives them legal status and allows them to find work.
Their problems are compounded by the area's high cost of living, Dowling said. The median price for townhouses and single-family houses in Fairfax County, Falls Church and Fairfax City last year was $415,000, according to a Washington Post analysis in March. The waiting list for the county's homeless shelters for families averages about 60 families at any given time, county statistics show.
Data on homeless immigrants are difficult to find. According to a census on homelessness conducted every year by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, at least 5 percent of homeless people in the Washington area speak a language other than English as their primary language. That number jumps to 20 percent in the Arlington and Fairfax county areas.
The $550,000 grant, from the Freddie Mac Foundation, will temporarily pay rent and services on four of the residences. The fifth, a four-bedroom house in Falls Church, was offered by the city for $1 a year.
The center won the low-cost lease through a competitive application process initiated by city leaders, who wanted to provide more affordable housing in the largely affluent city. The center is renovating the home, a whitewashed brick structure on North Washington Street that is expected to be finished by September.
All five residences will house individuals and families who seem motivated and likely to become nearly self-sufficient after six months, Dowling said.
Bonanjah, who soon will be moving into the Tysons Corner apartment, said she is well on her way to self-sufficiency. She got a job at an Alexandria nursing home caring for people who are old and sick, which she often did in Cameroon as an advocate for women, farmers, the poor and the elderly.
She declined to discuss the reasons for her departure from the country.
She and her husband -- like many Cameroonians, she said -- named their son Bill Clinton after the then-president's 1998 visit to sub-Saharan Africa.
"We were so impressed with him," she said. "At that time I never knew I would one day come to the United States."