By Monith Ilavarasan
Finding homeUploaded: Apr 6, 2022
In the 1980s Zarina Kiziloglu immigrated to the Bay Area as a refugee of the Soviet-Afghan war. Her family came over with a few suitcases having sold all their property and most of their belongings in Afghanistan before coming over.
Today, Zarina lives in Pleasanton with her family and is a member of the Muslim Community Center. Having had first hand experience of what it’s like to be a refugee, Zarina has been actively involved in refugee resettlement efforts throughout the Bay Area. I spoke recently with Zarina Kiziloglu to understand the experiences of refugees as they enter the Bay Area.
California, and in particular the Bay Area, is a landing spot for many folks fleeing their mother country. When a family leaves their home country and enters a new one, life doesn’t slow down. Refugees face a series of never ending challenges once they land in the US.
The very first is finding stable housing. When a family arrives they get a $900 check from the U.S. government and $537 a month for one year. If no U.S. family is willing to host them in their home, they have to find cheap housing in the Bay Area, a herculean task.
Families who come here end up crowding in small apartments, oftentimes with poor living conditions. Families can only afford to stay in these places through monetary support from charities run by nonprofits and faith institutions.
Once settled into a home, the family must immediately find work so that they can pay the next month’s rent. Finding a job in a country you just landed in where your grasp of the language is minimal is the second key task. The majority of available jobs are service jobs which pay minimum wage. Lack of access to a car and the Bay Area’s underfunded public transit systems make commuting to high opportunity areas much more difficult.
Registering children for school is another roadblock. Many children of refugees do not know English, and are sometimes academically behind their peers due to inconsistent access to education in their home country. These children need English as a second language classes, personalized attention, and often mental health support. The housing they are able to afford are often in school districts that have been underfunded and are lacking in resources.
School districts in more affluent communities such as Pleasanton, Dublin, and San Ramon have the resources to provide these supports. Due to the cost of living in these communities, refugees have a much lower chance of finding housing and accessing these higher funded more robust public school resources.
There are organizations throughout the Tri-Valley that have risen to support these families during their time of need. The MCC has an amazing food distribution program that has expanded to serve hundreds of people throughout Alameda County. Other faith institutions of all creeds regularly connect refugees to host families and raise funds to support families through difficult times.
The current Ukrainian refugee crisis is not the first and history has taught us it will not be the last. At this instant the Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in over three million people fleeing their home country. Just a few months before, the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan pushed thousands of people to leave an unstable situation.
Although the Syrian civil war has largely fallen out of the public eye and the Yemeni war was never really in the public eye, both conflicts continue to rage and have resulted in the continued displacement of millions of people.
Faith institutions throughout the Tri-Valley do provide much needed immediate support, but we can go further. Our cities can follow the lead of places like Oakland and Fremont by opening navigation centers and partnering with nonprofits to ensure that future refugees have a home here. Together we can help someone find a home and strengthen our community in the process.
A few resource links:
MCC Food Pantry in Pleasanton: https://mcceastbay.org/pantry/
International Rescue Committee (Oakland): https://www.rescue.org/united-states/oakland-ca
Nonprofit started by Zarina focused on women & youth in Afghanistan: https://www.eastwayafghanistan.org/