How an Afghan refugee’s experience can inform our support for Ukrainian refugees

Refugee Crises are no longer extraordinary. After Kabul’s fall to the Taliban last August, close to 100,000 Afghans sought refuge in the United States. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed 100,000s to flee to our shores, and millions more to seek Ukrainian refuge in neighboring European countries. Yet, each time, we treat the crisis reaching American shores as if it’s one of a kind. As the news headlines fade, we move on without learning from what has happened — and the next refugee population may suffer because of it.

I don’t want that to happen for the Ukrainians, just as I didn’t want it to happen for the Afghans. It’s personal for me. In January 2020, while deployed to Afghanistan, my interpreter, Sahil, saved my life. So, when the Taliban threatened his life, I helped Sahil and his family to come to the United States. Upon arrival, Sahil asked, “Where will I live? What will I do for work?” We struggled to find answers.

Sahil was not alone — those questions have plagued all arriving Afghans, amid a five-fold increase in refugee admissions compared to 2020. This arises overwhelmed the nine resettlement agencies (RAs) who are sponsored to find refugees housing and employment.

As we welcome Ukrainians, it’s important for all of us — public and private sector organizations, as well as individuals — to do better by them. Let’s consider Sahil’s two questions.

Where will I live? By the spring of 2022, an estimated 4,000 Afghan refugees remained in temporary housing, such as hotel rooms. Temporary housing is, on average, 160 percent more expensive than permanent housing and it delays school enrollment and employment — as well as access to Medicaid, income support and food stamps, all of which require having a permanent residence. The national shortage of affordable rental housing will require long-term policy reforms. But today, there are several short-term solutions that RAs, government agencies, and individuals can adopt.

First, RAs could partner with financial institutions to co-sign rental leases, bypassing leasing barriers and opening more housing to refugees. Costs will likely be modest because refugee default rates for other types of loans are low, ranging from 5 to 15 percent. Estimates are that the total co-signing cost could be less than $380 per person. Along the same lines, loan programs to support a larger rent down payment could ease landlord concerns and unlock access to additional housing, while also helping refugees build credit history, an important milestone in their integration.

Secondly, individuals and community groups can volunteer to provide housing, as we have for Sahil’s family. Because of this, Sahil has been able to save his “welcome” funds and apply the money to a future home down payment. Not everyone needs to open their homes to help. The State Department Sponsor Circle Program allows small groups to directly support resettling families in their community. For example, a 10-person community group could pool funding to co-sign a one-year lease for around $135 per month, about the cost of an average household cable bill.

What will I do for work? Constrained by language barriers, a lack of US work experience, and pressure to make ends meet, refugees often settle for entry-level jobs in warehousing, retail and food service. These tend to have limited occupational mobility and unpredictable roles, which can leave refugees stuck in a cycle of poverty. Given that there are 11.4 million job openings, employers are not only ready for refugees but also happy to hire them. More than 70 percent of employers report lower turnover rates among their refugee employees. Let’s look at how to help.

First, RAs could steer refugees toward the expanding number of registered apprenticeships that offer “earn while you learn” paths. Research shows that workers can earn $240,000 more over the course of their lifetimes by participating in these programs. RAs can also partner with government agencies, employers, industry and trade associations to create similar pathways for refugees to enroll in.

Second, the rise in remote work means that refugees with the right skills can work outside their place of residence. Furthermore, RAs can seek out nonprofits and companies that offer fully-funded online training programs with high job placement rates in sectors from technology to the trades. Sahil successfully joined one such program and has been hired as an information technology specialist. He could delay entering the labor market to train because of my family’s generosity, but government refugee cash assistance programs could help others seek upskilling. Their higher-paying careers will generate more tax revenue, thus offsetting the cost of such assistance.

Lastly, employers can lower barriers without dropping standards. While many refugees bring rich professional experience, automated job application systems often screen them out for their lack of US education and experience. Bigger firms could flag refugee applications and local hiring managers could work with local RAs to find qualified candidates.

Let’s learn from what Sahil has gone through to help others like him. The refugee crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine will not be the last our nation’s shores see. Neither our institutional memory nor our response capability needs to be as short as a 24-hour news cycle.

Matt Watters is on the board of directors of No One Left Behind, a nonprofit focused on helping Special Immigrant Visa applicants. He is an associate partner at McKinsey and Company, where he led a pro bono study with the International Rescue Committee, the largest resettlement agency in the US, to scale Afghan refugee services in 2022. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2020 as a US Special Forces sergeant. The views expressed here are his own.

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