Recent Afghan refugees get creative to find homes in tight housing markets Thousands of recent Afghan refugees are still living on military bases as resettlement agencies struggle to find affordable housing. Some, like Zahra Yagana, are finding help in unexpected places.

Newly arrived Afghans get creative and find their own way to homes

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Months after the airlift out of Kabul, thousands of Afghan evacuees have resettled in communities across the U.S., but tens of thousands more are still waiting on military bases as refugee resettlement agencies struggle to find enough affordable housing. NPR's Joel Rose has the story of one family who found their own way off the base.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The camps at military bases are supposed to be temporary, the last stop for newly arrived Afghans before they move on to permanent homes. But for many, the weeks are stretching into months, and it's taking a toll.

ZAHRA YAGANA: (Through interpreter) There were too many people in the camp, and it was difficult to get accustomed to the new conditions. This whole environment had gotten me worried a bit.

ROSE: Zahra Yagana spent close to two months at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin with her son and daughter. She says it was a relief to be out of Afghanistan, but life on the base was hard. They slept in a two-story barracks with seven other families, people coming and going at all hours. Yagana says she asked the resettlement workers at the base how long her family would be there.

YAGANA: (Through interpreter) They told us you would eventually leave the camp, but it was an uncertain situation.

ROSE: Roughly 42,000 newly arrived Afghans are still in this kind of limbo, living at Fort McCoy and six other military bases around the country. Refugee resettlement agencies that were decimated under the Trump administration are scrambling to keep up with the sudden influx, and they're grappling with a nationwide shortage of affordable housing.

EROL KEKIC: That still remains the biggest and the most pressing issue.

ROSE: Erol Kekic is with Church World Service, one of the nine national organizations that work to resettle refugees. He says this is a problem everywhere but especially in places that already have large Afghan populations, including northern Virginia and Sacramento.

KEKIC: When you get 80 people a day for several weeks in a row, any and all leads that you may potentially have on housing kind of get exhausted pretty quickly.

ROSE: Kekic says resettlement agencies are increasingly looking to other communities that haven't received as many Afghans before and for new landlords who've never rented to refugees. But Kekic says that can be a tough sell.

KEKIC: They have no credit history in the United States, which, obviously, for many landlords, is a major issue.

ROSE: Back at Fort McCoy, Zahra Yagana wasn't thinking about the affordable housing shortage. She was just trying to get her family off the base any way she could. It wasn't just the lack of sleep that made Yagana uncomfortable. At least two Afghan men staying at Fort McCoy have been charged with crimes, including assault and engaging in a sexual act with a child.

YAGANA: (Through interpreter) It was one of my biggest concerns. I didn't want us to be in an environment in which we were exposed to bad news every day.

ROSE: Yagana isn't easily shocked by violence. She was married at 13 to an abusive husband whose drug addiction took up much of the family's income. Yagana divorced him and took her children with her to Kabul, where she started a new life as a writer and human rights advocate. Yagana is 39 now. Compared to her past, she says whatever happens to her now is no big deal. But Yagana was worried about her kids at Fort McCoy, especially her son.

YAGANA: (Through interpreter) My son was such a sociable person before and had become really quiet. I think the mental side effects of living in the camp are still with him. It was important to me to start working on my life and future plans, and this was something that I couldn't do in the camp.

ROSE: So Yagana went to work. She started reaching out to all of her contacts in the U.S., looking for help, and she found it from a group of people she had never met.

HOSSEIN MAHRAMMI: She contacted me. OK, we're really tired. We want to get out.

ROSE: This is Hossein Mahrammi. He knows firsthand how hard it can be to resettle in a new country. Mahrammi and his family left Afghanistan in 2017 on a special immigrant visa and settled down in Maryland, right outside of Washington. Mahrammi had never heard of Yagana, but a friend who knew about her work in Afghanistan put them in touch.

MAHRAMMI: And then I said, let me think and let me find out - is it possible or not?

ROSE: Mahrammi wanted to help, but he wasn't sure if he could afford it. Like a lot of Afghans who fled when the Taliban took over in August, Yagana doesn't have any money. She is eligible for housing assistance and other benefits through a refugee resettlement agency. But it could take months for those benefits to kick in, and Yagana would need thousands of dollars to cover her rent and security deposit. So Mahrammi called his friends, and a lot of them offered to help financially.

MAHRAMMI: I said, OK, yes, you can come. So I arrange everything. Like, for example, I bought them a ticket for train, another ticket for airplane.

ROSE: Mahrammi had one other big thing he could offer Yagana - he manages the small apartment building where his family has lived since arriving in the U.S., so he knew that there was an empty apartment in the building. And he was on very good terms with the landlord.

MAHRAMMI: He knows me. I gain his trust. And he said, OK, as long as you endorse her, I have no problem.

ROSE: That is how Zahra Yagana rented an apartment in Silver Spring, Md. It doesn't take long for her to give the tour. There's only one bedroom plus a living room and kitchen. But Yagana says it's a huge relief after two months in the barracks at Fort McCoy with little kids crying around the clock.

YAGANA: Every time is cry, cry, night cry, morning cry.

ROSE: So it was hard to sleep there?

YAGANA: Yes.

ROSE: Yeah.

YAGANA: Now is so, so, so better.

ROSE: When we spoke last week, Yagana and her family didn't have much furniture yet. A donation of new plates and cookware arrived in the middle of our interview.

YAGANA: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF COOKWARE CLANGING)

ROSE: There was a couch and coffee table in the living room but no chairs. We sat on the floor as Zahra's daughter Parisa served us tea.

PARISA: My tea is ready. It's green tea.

ROSE: Parisa is 21. She hopes to continue her studies in the U.S.

PARISA: In Afghanistan, I study in a university, and my major is dentist. I'm a junior. But when Talibans are coming in Kabul, I can't continue that.

ROSE: Zahra Yagana isn't sure yet what she will do next. In Kabul, she founded a nonprofit organization that helped provide scholarships and health care to children affected by suicide bombings. But that made her a target for the Taliban. Now this woman who is used to helping others has to ask for help herself.

YAGANA: (Through interpreter) This is not odd for me. I've done this before in Afghanistan. There were people whom I have never met because they lived in other provinces, but I helped them. And I felt I've known them personally, although we had never met in person

ROSE: At the same time, Yagana says, it seems strange to ask for help in the U.S., a country where she knew hardly anyone. She wasn't sure it would work.

YAGANA: (Through interpreter) There was this trust. I sometimes would tell people a bit about myself, hoping that they would help me out. I believe that there are good people out there.

ROSE: Good people who came through for Zahra Yagana. There are still tens of thousands of other Afghans on military bases across the country who are hoping for the same.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.

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