116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — It took Zia Ud Din Zakhail about 15 days to get a work permit, six weeks to get a job and five months to find permanent housing. But the most important thing to him — seeing his wife and daughter again — will take at least four years to do, if it happens at all.
Zakhail is perhaps the best-case scenario for resettling in Iowa. He has quickly gotten a fulfilling job, driver's license, car and way to send money home. But knowing he won’t see his baby daughter until she’s at least kindergarten-aged makes a difficult task even harder.
Most Afghan arrivals in Cedar Rapids have their feet on the ground, a stable job, permanent housing and a way to send money home. But for those who fled Afghanistan last fall on the last cargo planes out of Kabul, the immediate needs only scratch the surface of what it means to be settled.
See where they live, where they work, their biggest hopes and biggest fears since the dust has started to settle.
As the new residents of Cedar Rapids started pouring in at about double the rate expected — 250 versus initial estimates of 125 — housing was a primary concern for resettlement agencies like the Catherine McAuley Center.
Rules limiting agencies to housing refugees and humanitarian parolees within a 50- to 100-mile radius of their office were lifted as officials expressed concern about an already challenged housing stock. But with no established Afghan population in the Corridor and few resources outside the larger cities, very few Afghans have moved into housing outside of Cedar Rapids.
Housing placement varies by layers of need for each family, but many have been placed in neighborhoods close to each other.
“With some Afghans, because there is existing community and they lived in temporary housing together for so long, they developed a sense of community and want to live close to each other,” said Sara Zejnic, director of refugee and immigrant services for the Catherine McAuley Center. Housing needs “become a much bigger puzzle to put together, then you add the layer of housing stock and availability.”
Zejnic estimated it took about three months, on average, to move Afghan arrivals here into permanent housing. Out of 250 arrivals, about 200 have moved into permanent housing. Of the 50 still living in hotels, housing arrangements have been secured for 20.
Learning the language
With fluency in English, Dari, Pashto and Urdu, Zakhail didn’t have trouble finding a job. In December, he started working as a case manager for the Catherine McAuley Center — one of five collectively hired by various Cedar Rapids organizations that work closely with the new Afghan population.
Given his English skills, the speed of his success has been faster than most. The focus of several educational service specialists at Catherine McAuley has been emerging literacy for those who never learned how to read or write before moving here.
Zejnic estimated that roughly 75 percent of Afghan arrivals are illiterate. Zakhail, their interpreter, estimated that about 95 percent of Afghan arrivals are illiterate in their native language.
A lack of English skills is one of the biggest barriers to those settling with no frame of reference on how to secure transportation, get groceries and fulfill basic daily needs.
Before, most refugees and humanitarian parolees were expected to be self-sufficient within about six months after arriving — at which point services and aid are weaned off. Since Afghans started to arrive, that has been extended to eight months — something Zakhail said was needed for those settling into Iowa, where there was no established Afghan community to help offer support.
“With the number of people and how quickly they came in … it has taken longer for people to reach that point of self-sufficiency,” Zejnic said.
Despite the refugees having a lack of English skills, the labor-starved businesses in Eastern Iowa have quickly found a way to put the vast majority of Afghan arrivals to work.
Many have gone to work in manufacturing settings. Whirlpool Corporation in Middle Amana is one of the biggest employers of the new population. But others have found small employers welcome them with open arms.
“They were able to easily pick up the trade. They had the ability to take some information, see how to do it … and apply it,” said Jamel Ajram, who owns Ajram Upholstery and Fabric in Cedar Rapids with his father, a Lebanese immigrant. “That was important because with our line of work, it’s a dying art.”
The shop has hired five Afghans in Cedar Rapids — a welcome relief with hiring challenges that predated their arrival.
Employers big and small have had to make cultural adjustments to accommodate the new source of labor, but Ajram’s shop was better equipped for many of those. As Muslims, they understood the need for most Afghans to stop to pray several times per day.
“When you get people who are not in the same faith, they may not have the same understanding to fulfill that spiritual need,” Ajram said. “It’s more monetary minded — time is money.”
But with few other options for labor and low unemployment rates in Iowa, many companies have found ease adapting to the accommodations.
“For the most part, it’s working out,” said Carlos Vega, operations manager for the IowaWORKS office in Cedar Rapids.
Language barriers have been somewhat worked around with more group training and education to efficiently use the few Pashto and Dari interpreters in the area. The bigger challenge has been in culturally-based communication styles.
After agreeing to show up for one job, some would hear about another job that sounded better and go to that one without notifying the first job. Sometimes, workers don’t call in when they’re sick or can’t show up for their shift.
Having the resources of resettlement agencies and case workers has helped resolve communication issues.
For Afghans, career planning is done in two phases. Most are in the first phase: an immediate job to get money in their pocket and to their families at home.
The second is determining what they want to do for a living, not what they need to do. Often, their definition of success looks different from conventional expectations for Americans — they’re working to widen the paths for their families to travel here, rather than climb career ladders.
“The more they recognize the opportunities, the more their goals change,” Vega said. “They’re eager to learn, because they know they need to.”
Many have backgrounds in professional driving in Afghanistan. Thanks to quick adaptations at the Iowa Department of Transportation, Afghans with less English proficiency are more easily able to get their driver's license.
Fear for the future
Though the needs of daily life are still a concern for many, their fears for their legal future and their ability to bring their families to the United States dwarf the trivialities of finding comfort in a foreign country.
After fleeing the Taliban and resettling in Cedar Rapids, Zakhail has watched his wife and daughter, now 1, relocate two times to stay out of their grip. Soon, they will move again to another neighboring country.
“The situation is getting worse, day by day,” he said. “If the Afghan Adjustment Act is not passed, what will be our future?”
Here, even English skills can’t spare him from the fickle throes of Congress, where the fate of his permanent status in the United States and his ability to bring his family sits in the hands of the Afghan Adjustment Act.
Because most Afghans were admitted to the country as parolees in a humanitarian crisis, they must soon apply for asylum or special visas to stay. Without a permanent status, their status in the United States is temporary.
Constant back and forth speculation has been agonizing to the thousands whose lives depend on the act of Congress.
“It’s obvious that if that’s not approved, they can’t bring their families,” Zakhail said.
Resettlement agency performance
The rapid influx of Afghans — 914 in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services — has tested the state’s refugee resettlement agencies in new ways.
“This wasn’t a regular settlement. It was (called) a humanitarian crisis for a reason,” said Stephanie Moris, director of the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa.
After rebuilding staffing decimated by the Trump administration, the Catherine McAuley Center was able to hold its own as it worked to connect families with a variety of community resources to ensure self-sufficiency as quickly as possible, Zejnic said. Now, they’re at their highest staffing levels since 2016.
“We cannot do the work that we do in a vacuum. It takes truly a community effort to resettle individuals and families,” she said. “We act as the hub of the wheel and make connections.”
Their challenge was learning how to support the establishment of a new community as they learned about them.
While Afghan settlement hasn’t been without its hiccups, she said the extremities of challenges reported in Des Moines by the Des Moines Register were not an accurate picture for Eastern Iowa.
“There’s aspects of truth to it, but I think it has been sensationalized,” Zejnic said. “Sometimes, the work we do happens in systems that move slowly. … As someone born and raised in the U.S. and who knows how to navigate systems, it’s easy to look at a process and say this isn’t happening fast enough or well enough.”
As the world’s eyes shifts to the next humanitarian crisis from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the process for potential Ukrainian arrivals will be much different from what it was for Afghans.
Uniting for Ukraine, the new U.S. program for Ukrainian refugees launched April 25, is a path for 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn country. But it will be sponsorship-based.
Under the program, U.S. citizens and groups will be required to attest to their financial ability to sponsor refugees, and Ukrainians applying to the program must already be paired with a sponsor.
If approved, Ukrainians will be allowed to enter as humanitarian parolees for up to two years.
“Many Ukrainian refugees aren’t seeking permanent resettlement, so unlike the traditional refugee program, this new process gives Ukrainian refugees flexibility to return to their home country as soon as possible,” a flyer for the program from the Iowa Department of Human Services said.
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