By Victor Corral Martinez & Caleb Lunetta
Signal Staff Writers
Among the approximately 130 Afghan refugees who began arriving in the Santa Clarita Valley two weeks ago are a collection of Pashto and Farsi speaking students, children, mechanics, chemists and even a dentist. Now, according to those helping them locally, it is time for they and their families to find work and a life in the United States.
After months of bouncing around from military base to military base — from Qatar to Venice to Virginia or other states on the East Coast — the fully vetted refugees will now have approximately three months in temporary housing funded by the State Department to find work, homes and schooling.
“After they’re fully vetted, they’re asked, ‘Where do you want to go?’” said Abdo Jaber, who sits on the board for The Islamic Center of Santa Clarita Valley, referring to the larger group of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who evacuated to the United States after fleeing from Kabul as it fell to the Taliban last year. “They choose states they want to stay in and a lot go to Michigan or go to the East Coast, and a lot come to California.”
Jaber said the U.S. State Department had been put in charge of finding them temporary housing in their new home communities, and upon arrival last week, they immediately began working to apply for all the provisions and permanent paperwork they would need to establish their families in Southern California.
And as the group grew from roughly 50 people (14 families) to 130 or so, the Islamic Center of the SCV, along with its various local partners, including the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, College of the Canyons and other local community groups, started to provided much-needed support.
“When they first arrived to the hotel… they didn’t have any sustenance, and so that’s when we stepped in to provide food, clothing and support for them on a short gap basis for the first few days,” said Jaber.
Although many of the refugees have had extensive experience working with Americans and on American bases in Afghanistan over the last two decades, Jaber said one of the difficulties the group now faces is the language barrier.
“These guys have been working, at least the men in the families, have been working with the U.S. military bases for the last 20 years in Afghanistan, so they learned quite a bit of English, and they’re trained in a lot of professional tasks,” said Jaber. “But, again, the language barrier is difficult to navigate.”
Translators have thus far been able to help the refugees — roughly 70 children and 60 adults — in filling out the necessary paperwork, enrolling them in some language classes at COC and getting their kids enrolled and transported to local schools.
And while they’ve now taken care of the short-term challenges, they need to look to the long term.
“Once they get a steady paycheck, finding an apartment is easy, and once they have an apartment, they can open a checking account, they can get a driver’s license,” said Jaber. “They can’t get a driver’s license without a house, and you can’t get to work if you don’t have a driver’s license or a car.”
“Everything is entangled with each other,” Jaber added.
“There’s three steps — one is their short-term support with food and clothing; the second is the long term in getting them jobs and housing and that’s why we’re getting the help from COC and other organizations; and the third is integrating them and be welcomed by the Muslim community so they have friends and relatives that speak the same language and have the same culture.”
For that third step, on Saturday, the Islamic Center of Santa Clarita Valley hosted an education and jobs workshop for the recent Afghan refugees resettled in the area, helping to provide resources to families needing guidance with school and college enrollment.
The workshop included representatives from COC, Islamic Cultural Society, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Los Angeles County Office of Education and the SCV Sheriff’s Station.
Jia-Yi Cheng-Levine, the COC dean of international affairs and global engagement, led the discussion and presented resources available for the refugees who seek job skill training and postsecondary education.
“We want you to help your people know the basics to help them apply,” Cheng-Levine said. “If you need anything on campus, you come to look for us. We will help you connect to resources that you need in order to help the community.”
Besides finding classes for college, many of the adults expressed concern over the placement and education of their children. Carolina Sheinfeld, an immigration relations coordinator for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said children would attend William S. Hart, Castaic, Saugus and Sulphur Springs school districts.
She explained additional resources are available to students in school; those can be in the forms of nutritional meals, mental counseling and tutor services.
“The last two weeks I’ve been talking to the school districts to understand what are your needs today, since I’m here, and because they cannot be here today,” Sheinfeld said.
Additionally, she told the parents their involvement in school is essential to their children’s success. She said talking to the schools and teachers is not only for discipline.
“We want you to participate in wanting to talk to the teachers,” Sheinfeld said. “We want you to ask the hard questions.”
For many of the refugees, their concern is finding permanent housing. One refugee spoke, in a Persian dialect, that his biggest fear is after finding a job and enrolling family in school, they might be forced to resettle somewhere distant and uproot their families.
Ahmad Farhad, who is on the board of directors of ICSCV, translated for the refugees and spoke about their concerns. Additionally, he translated resources like Headstart programs for children under 5 years old.
“They’re trying to lay down roots here, send their kids to school, enroll in COC and for them just the fact that they’re not sure what’s going to happen in terms of housing,” Farhad said. “That is, I think the biggest hurdle right now, and I think that is something that we are working on.”
Sami Haq spoke on behalf of the Islamic Cultural Society at COC. He reiterated that although the refugees are recent migrants, in America, all are equal. He said all refugees are welcome in the community and will work to help them navigate the process of being college students.
“The more you cooperate with us, the more we can help each other standing strong, independent and Inshallah,” Haq said, “within the next few years, you guys will be at our level and maybe become doctors, engineers, or whatever career you guys want to pursue.”
Many families were in a bubble, showing up at military bases, housed in a hotel, with a few families arriving every day. So, the ICSCV reached out to help with the transition explaining the different legal aspects in California in comparison to rules from Afghanistan, according to ICSCV officials.
“I went there to talk to them about law enforcement in the United States, what our role is, and in Santa Clarita as well,” Capt. Justin Diez of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station told The Signal on Monday. “Basically, I just explained to them what we do with suspects of crime, how we identify and arrest suspects of crime, and then also how we help victims of crime and get them resources as well.”
“I told them if you see police cars driving around, don’t worry,” said Diez. “You’re going to see a lot of police cars with lights and sirens.”
On Thursday and Friday of last week, the group was greeted at their hotel in the morning by deputies who were there to keep the peace and act as a precautionary measure for the refugees and their safety.
One of the challenges for the ICSCV and other collaborating organizations is helping with the job process for the refugees currently housed locally in hotels.
Sameyia Hosseini, who volunteered for the event, was motivated to help the recent refugees. She said her volunteer team helps with arranging medical care, school and donations to supply the refugees with the basic necessities. Additionally, she said the refugees are already feeling at home with the hospitality they’ve received.
“They’re very happy, feel safe, and they feel home,” Hosseini said. “When they arrived here, they didn’t know anyone, felt lonely but once they found us … they were very happy.”
Jaber said those interested in speaking with the refugees about possible work experiences — a number have already interviewed at security companies or at a pharmaceutical company outside of the SCV — can contact the Islamic Center of Santa Clarita Valley at [email protected]