The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For refugees, pandemic adds to the hardship of a new life

Sayed Ahmed Popal spends time in his Maryland backyard with two of his children. Popal and his family received asylum after he was targeted in Afghanistan for his work with the U.S. government. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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It took five years for Sayed Ahmed Popal to get to the United States. After working with the U.S. government in Kabul, he had received frequent threats to his life from the Taliban — so when the United States finally granted him asylum, Popal felt he could breathe again.

But when he arrived in Maryland with his wife and three children in June 2019, making a living proved difficult. He had applied to more than 500 jobs. Despite being the former director of Afghanistan’s national housing program, he was offered none.

Finally, after months of applications, Popal thought he was about to get job offers from two humanitarian organizations. Then the coronavirus shutdowns — and resulting hiring freezes — spread across the globe. Popal was left searching again.

“This pandemic ruined everything,” he said.

To support his family, he’s been cobbling together various jobs stretching over 12-hour days, making $8 to $15 an hour. While he hasn’t been infected with the novel coronavirus, he said he knows many people who have.

Popal is one of more than an estimated 10,000 displaced people in the D.C. region who uprooted their lives to escape terror and persecution in their home countries, only to encounter a new struggle, tinged by the virus, in the United States.

Many work essential jobs and live in crowded apartments that make social distancing nearly impossible. And because many recently settled refugees have not yet filed for taxes, some could not receive stimulus checks, making their economic struggles more difficult. Language barriers add another layer of complexity.

“Imagine what it would be like if you finally found a place to call home that is safe after many, many years waiting for some kind of permanent offer,” said Melanie Nezer, a senior vice president at HIAS, a global nonprofit that supports refugees. “They finally get that, and they are finally starting to get their lives together — and then this hits. Refugees feel this first and hardest.”

According to a report by HIAS on the effect of the pandemic on refugees, 60 percent of refugees across the globe are struggling with finding shelter, and many face housing insecurity and eviction due to the pandemic. And more than 70 percent of refugees can no longer meet their basic food needs during the shutdown — a number that is usually 15 percent.

Case workers who would normally help refugees navigate a bewildering new world have largely halted their in-person work during the pandemic. And while some case workers and aid agencies are trying to find creative solutions, it’s harder to build trust over the phone — especially with people who have lived in fear, said Michaela Hynie, a psychology professor at York University’s Center for Refugee Studies in Toronto.

“How do you explain to somebody how to use the transportation system, for example, or a toilet, when you can’t show them?” Hynie said. “Everything is more complicated if you can’t actually show it to people.”

Yadhu Dhital, a Bhutanese refugee who came to the United States in 2009 after living in a refugee camp in Nepal until he was 17, relied on his case worker to learn how to go grocery shopping, register for school, get vaccines and properly use a refrigerator.

“Coming to this country is already difficult. Once you get here, everyone is having problems,” said Dhital, who lives in the District. “Now, when people face these challenges, case workers can’t come to them because of social distancing. The hope you had is crushing.”

Once here, many refugees can’t afford more than small apartments, making social distancing at home virtually impossible.

Dhital’s family lives in a crowded apartment complex in Pittsburgh with other refugees, one of whom is a housekeeper at a hospital. The housekeeper couldn’t afford to buy his own personal protective equipment, and the hospital didn’t provide him with any, so he contracted the virus and infected many of Dhital’s family members, Dhital said.

Language barriers can make matters worse, keeping some refugees from accessing local information about the pandemic.

The crisis has left some yearning for the familiarity of their home countries.

“The kids keep saying, ‘Back home, we didn’t have any of these issues. Why can’t we go back to Afghanistan to our family?’ ” said one Afghan man who came here on a Special Immigrant Visa after he was targeted for his work with the U.S. government. “I have to tell them no. Every time they left for school back home, I was worried if they would return.”

The father of three, who settled with his family in Alexandria in September, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for the safety of his family members still in Afghanistan. The pandemic threw him, too, into turmoil.

Before the economic shutdowns, he was offered a job in California, but he refused to uproot his family again. He couldn’t accept a job in Maryland because he couldn’t afford transportation to get there.

After the four months of assistance that SIV recipients get from the government ended early this year, he took out loans to pay for rent, trusting he would eventually get another job offer.

“And then this happened,” he said of the pandemic. “I am suffering a lot. I left behind everything.”

But the resilience of those fleeing persecution, who have already done so much to survive, also uniquely equips them to manage through the pandemic, both experts and refugees said.

Dhital, along with another refugees from Bhutan, created Project CovidCare, which has distributed over 40,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to thousands of people in need across 12 states.

“We are not just people who are facing challenges,” Dhital said. “We also have some strength, and when we have enough support, we can use that to help other people.”

Popal is sending any money he can save — a few hundred dollars every couple of months — to his family back in Afghanistan. While he waits for the economy to reopen, he applied to study at the University of Maryland, hoping that a master’s degree from an American university will help him get a job.

And after knocking on hundreds of doors in his apartment building asking for work, the Afghan refugee in Alexandria is now taking information technology classes in the hopes of one day becoming an IT worker when offices reopen. His wife is sewing masks to sell to help support their family.

He said, pandemic or not, he’s determined to make his family’s new life work.

“We cannot split our heart between Afghanistan and America,” he said. “We are American now. We are tough people. We can survive here.”

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