Property owners step up to house Afghan families

Finding a home for a recently arrived refugee is tough. Most have no rental or credit history and few have yet to find a job. To find them housing takes a landlord who is willing to adjust their application process for refugees. So, when ReWA was asked in February to find permanent housing for fifty Afghan families within 3 months, it was a challenge.

Washington state was one of the top five destinations for the 79,000 Afghan refugees arriving in the U.S. as part of Operation Allies Welcome. Driven by Gov. Inslee’s commitment that Washington be a welcoming state, by early 2022, some 3,000 Afghans had arrived in the state. The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) sprang into action, securing temporary hotel space in Tukwila and across the south Sound.

DSHS then contracted with several community-based organizations, including ReWA, to find housing for this unprecedented influx of refugees.

ReWA senior program director, Crisann Brooks, said it’s been difficult to find property owners willing to accept tenants without rental or credit history. “Some landlords experienced financial hardship due to the eviction moratorium, so they are leery of loosening rental requirements for new tenants.”

To overcome these barriers, ReWA reached out to partners, old and new.

Existing partners—and new ones

ReWA’s executive director, Mahnaz Eshetu recalls, “Not long after the evacuations started from Afghanistan, I reached out to our partner, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), to see if we could work together to provide housing.” Within a few days she said LIHI had pledged 22 units to ReWA in their newly-opened George Fleming apartments, located in Seattle’s Othello neighborhood.

By April, ReWA had partnered with other apartment complexes in south Seattle and the South King County region who agreed to loosen rental requirements and accept a “pledge letter”, guaranteeing six months of rental payments. Among these partners was Willow Crossing, an affordable housing corporation with properties in Seattle, Alaska and Montana.

Alexa Humann is the property manager of Willow Crossing in Othello. She said they serve many low-income tenants and others in need of housing. “We work with people in transition. That is what our housing is for.”

Brooks said, “Willow Crossing was absolutely fantastic. They took pledge letters, accepted abbreviated applications, and worked to house many families. They were very welcoming and easy to work with—they are the best.”

Humann said Willow Crossing is grateful to be able to assist people who are in need of housing. “We are used to working with clients who are still learning English, so we rely on Google Translate to communicate with tenants.”

entrance to willow crossing apartment building shows planters and modern grey facade
Willow Crossing is affordable housing corporation that worked with ReWA to house refugees.

By May 31, ReWA housed 50 Afghan families in three different affordable housing complexes: George Fleming, Willow Crossing and Creston Point. Brooks said, “Now that they have been resettled, we can focus on providing other services: English classes, job search, early learning pre-school, citizenship classes and immigration legal services, as well as providing access to domestic violence support, counseling, and after-school programs for youth.”

At a gathering of ReWA staff who helped find resettle families and find the housing, Brooks pointed out that accomplishing this task was no small feat—it took long hours and many people to support these families, who have already sacrificed so much as U.S. allies.

ReWA housing case managers gather to celebrate finding homes for 50 Afghan families.
ReWA housing case managers gather to celebrate finding homes for 50 Afghan families.

Brooks added, “There were so many partners that worked diligently to make this happen. It takes all of us pulling together in partnership to resettle our newcomers and to help each family or individual feel welcome, safe and secure. It is an honor to be a part of this wonderfully successful collaboration.”

New Life Skills curriculum

“Life Skills” help refugees navigate a new culture

For most Americans, paying their utility bill online is pretty routine.

But what if you are a refugee who doesn’t speak English, doesn’t have a bank account, and has never used a computer?

Daily life can be overwhelming. 

To help manage these tasks, ReWA developed the Life Skills curriculum , which covers everything from what is culturally appropriate “small talk” with your neighbor, to making a doctor’s appointment, to paying bills online. The purpose of the curriculum is to help newcomers to the U.S. learn the complex systems many people who grew up here take for granted.

ReWA staff collaborated to create a curriculum for refugees in the Puget Sound, but it is applicable across the country.

An idea long overdue

This project brought together the collective experience of ReWA English teachers and case managers—many of whom moved to the U.S. from other countries. ReWA’s ESL Coordinator, Yuliya Matyushkina, described how ReWA developed the curriculum.

“We gathered together several case managers—many of whom came to the U.S. as refugees themselves—and English teachers and together we brainstormed a list of topics. Then we divided into teams to write and edit and we ended up with nine lesson modules.”  

The nine modules are: Communication in U.S. Culture, Digital Literacy, Education, Financial Literacy, Food and Nutrition, Health, Housing, Transportation, and Workplace Communication. The lessons are offered in two levels: Beginner and Low Intermediate, so can be used in a classroom that has students of different levels.

The nine modules are: Communication in U.S. Culture, Digital Literacy, Education, Financial Literacy, Food and Nutrition, Health, Housing, Transportation, and Workplace Communication.

Many of ReWA’s case managers came to the U.S. as immigrants and refugees. Now they use their wealth of knowledge to help others.

In the classroom

One ReWA ESL teacher, Inga Link, said, “It’s easy to use—and a lot of classroom conversations grow out of the lessons. Just the other day, I taught from the financial literacy module.” She said students brought in the mail they received from their bank so they could learn the difference between bank statements and bank notices. “Other students asked about identify theft and how they can keep themselves safe.”   

ReWA is offering limited in-person classroom where students learn from the new Life Skills curriculum.

ReWA program manager, Gizachew Manahle, said the curriculum was funded by the Washington State Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance. Manahle himself emigrated from Ethiopia years before and is glad ReWA can offer this resource to their clients, as well as the wider community.

“I wish I had this curriculum when I came here. The systems in the US are very complex, even for the people born here. With this life skills curriculum new arrivals can learn to respond to everyday challenges. And with greater cultural and economic integration, they develop a greater sense of community”.

With the influx of 3,000 Afghan refugees, ReWA is translating the curriculum into Dari and Pashto languages.

With the influx of 3,000 Afghan refugees, ReWA is translating the curriculum into Dari and Pashto languages.

Manahle said, “So far, we have shared the curriculum with dozens of other organizations and colleges across the state, and we hope it will be used nation-wide.”

The Life Skills Curriculum is available online for free download.

Making a “Brave Commitment” to fully fund organizations serving youth

ReWA youth explore Seattle Center.

Three years ago, several nonprofit organizations serving youth and families in King County faced a funding crisis.

Much has been written about COVID-19’s impact on the non-profit sector. But even before the pandemic, 64,000 youth in King County lived in poverty. They were more likely to experience higher rates of poor health outcomes, violence, and incarceration. Several agencies serving youth closed and others merged to share costs.

These organizations were crucial to King County’s plan to ensure the next generation can thrive. They provided after-school programs, mental and physical health services, and violence prevention programs.

When faced with this funding crisis, leadership at these organizations realized they had to come together and find a sector-wide solution.

If nothing changes, society at large will pay the price when the next generation of youth is poorer, sicker, and in jail.

Eventually this group became known as Brave Commitments. Read a summary of our Call to Action here.

Youth explore careers on a visit to Ballard Machine Works.

They identified chronic under-funding of government contracts as the key reason organizations were on shaky ground. Staff struggled to survive on poverty wages, and leadership suffered high rates of burnout. Plus, there was—and still remains— little government funding to invest in infrastructure, training, or innovation. If nothing changes, society at large will pay the price when our youth are poorer, sicker, and in jail.  

At our October meeting, Brave Commitments decided to focus our efforts on a three-pronged strategy:

First, to advocate directly with funders to only issue contracts that pay the full cost of services. Most people don’t realize that contracts with the state, counties, and cities often only cover 80% of the cost of providing services. The non-profit organizations working under these contracts are expected to fundraise to cover the difference—which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. As one of my colleagues at Brave Commitments remarked, “When Sound Transit is awarded a contract, no one asks them to fundraise 20% of the cost to build a public transit system. Why are human services agencies expected to do so?”

I call on government funders to consider appropriately funding contracts as an equity issue.

Second, following the lead of colleagues in New Your City, we are exploring creating an RFP (Request for Proposal) rating tool that will analyze funding opportunities as they are announced. This tool will be used to assess whether a proposed government contract is adequately funded, and if the outcomes and requirements are reasonable. Having this analysis completed prior to the application due date will help organizations—especially smaller ones—make a good decision about whether to apply, saving staff time and avoiding contracts that are not set up for success. It will also open a dialogue between organizations and government funders about the specific issues and challenges associated with a particular proposal. I call on government funders to consider appropriately funding contracts as an equity issue.

In short, I want justice for my staff.

Third, Brave Commitments is creating a vision of a system centered on the youth and families we serve, grounded in equity. Most of the agencies sitting at the Brave Commitments table are White-led organizations. We all agreed that the leaders of these agencies must commit to undergoing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training with two goals at the forefront: 1) to dismantle their own biases about “who is qualified to lead and why”, and 2) to identify aspiring leaders of color.

Elementary students at Woodland Park Zoo.

I hope this process will bring in more BIPOC (Black Indigenous Persons of Color) voices to Brave Commitments, adding a depth and diversity of experience. Our vision of a healthy, non-profit sector must start with us doing the work in our own organizations.

Now is the time to create a youth and family services system read for a post-pandemic world.

A few years ago, philanthropist Peter Buffet called attention to the so-called Charitable Industrial Complex, describing philanthropy as a form of “conscience laundering” because it seemed to tolerate vast inequalities in society. He said, “The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.”

As I write this, there are efforts within King County and City of Seattle to address pay equity among subcontractors. Whether this is picked up by the new Mayor remains to be seen.

I call on all city, county, and state agencies to fully fund non-profit organizations providing services to families and youth. Now is the time to recreate a youth and family services system ready for a post-pandemic world. This means investing in our staff and creating a robust infrastructure—founded on principles of equity—that we can be proud of for generations to come.

Raising 6 kids and learning English

Right before the start of the pandemic, a Somali couple, Sara and Abdi, and their six children moved to Seattle.

ESL volunteer and teacher with students smiling at camera in their classroom

When Sara first arrived, she was able to read and write and speak a little English but had almost no computer literacy. Her husband could not read or write in Somali or English. It was clear that Sara wanted to study English, but her life was very full taking care of their six children, ages one to fourteen.

Her priority was her role as a mother and homemaker and it was difficult for her to fit ESL classes into her life.

Her priority was her role as a mother and homemaker and it was difficult for her to fit ESL classes into her life.

Sara and her husband had started coming to class at ReWA shortly before the pandemic started. When English classes went online, Abdi came to pick up homework packets so they could keep studying at home.

Sara was too busy caring for her six children for remote ESL class, but her husband, Abdi, was eager to participate via video chat. He began practicing English with a ReWA volunteer, Linda, once a week and sometimes Sara would join in briefly. 

In May of 2020, Abdi told me that his three kids in Elementary school had not received homework or computers from their school. I talked with one of his older daughters, found out the name of the 5th grade daughter’s teacher and contacted her. I explained that the parents do not use computers or email and asked if I could help by picking up materials or a computer on loan and bringing it to the family. I also shared the family’s address (with permission from Abdi) so they could receive homework. Not long after that, the kids got homework in the mail!

When Seattle Public Schools started official online classes in the Fall, they suddenly had five of their children at home all day, all doing classes on their school-provided laptops. Their apartment was small so they were often all in the same room.

Abdi’s work hours increased, so he stopped his weekly conversation practice sessions with Linda, the ReWA ESL volunteer.

Early in the pandemics, ReWA teachers mailed packets and connected with students by cell phone apps.

While he was at work during the day, Sara was home, trying to keep the younger children busy and assisting the older ones as they struggled with online classes and technology issues.

I kept in touch with her via WhatsApp and video chat. We did some lessons this way and her kids came in and out. Sometimes the connection was bad and we’d get cut off. She said she wanted to do Zoom classes, but needed a laptop.

At the end of February, she got one of ReWA’s laptops on loan. After a short tutorial from ReWA staff, Sara was able to use Zoom on her “new” computer. She quickly learned basic computer literacy skills, as well as Zoom class skills such as how to mute and unmute her audio.

Our first Zoom class at 1pm was chaotic. Sara was trying to answer questions from her children, take care of her youngest, cook and use Zoom all with constant interruptions. I asked her if a later 3pm class would be easier and she said “Yes!”

Not long after that, I started a new class that meets twice a week, from 3- 4pm. Sara’s kids were mostly done with online school for the day, so she made plans for them to be outside.

ReWA received 75 laptops from King County last year to share with adult learners.

It did not happen overnight, but I noticed the day when she was able to get through a full class without interruptions or distractions. She was completely engaged and focused. When there was a pause in the class, she suggested “Exercise!”, which is what students called our daily in-person class activity of following directions. I set aside my planned lesson and we did “exercise” on Zoom. I gave directions, like “Please stand up/sit down”  “Please show me your pencil”  “Please put your hand on your head”, watching the students on my screen and modeling the action if they didn’t understand. There was a lot of laughter!

From that point on, Sara was often the first student to show up for class and was ready to learn. She had paper and pencil ready and held her paper up to the screen so I could see her in-class writing. After class, she took a photo of her paper and sent it to me via WhatsApp.

Even throughout Ramadan, when some students are too tired from fasting to study, Sara continued to show up with enthusiasm and became one of my most consistent, dedicated students. She welcomed new students to our class, always texted if she was going to be late or miss a class and improved her English Speaking and Listening skills.

Sara worked hard to learn the computer skills necessary for Zoom ESL classes. She found a way to care for her children though a pandemic, with quarantine and online school and also prioritize her own education and language acquisition.  She became a leader for other ESL students and she learned how to be a student in a remote classroom. She worked hard to improve her English. When Sara first arrived, her ESL skill level was 1-B, almost a complete beginner. 

Now, after a few months of Zoom classes, she is almost ready to move up to Level 2!

*note: student names have been changed

Supporting Afghan refugees

Dear friends,

As we watched the dreadful news out of Afghanistan, I am having many conversations with our community members, some of whom came to the U.S. as refugees after previous conflicts.

Indeed, ReWA was founded by Southeast Asian women who suffered in isolation after coming the US, and vowed that future refugees to the Puget Sound would have a place to learn English, find jobs, and be empowered to rebuild their lives.

We at ReWA sympathize with the Afghan refugees and asylees who for a generation worked as partners with the U.S. to improve their country, but now find themselves in a vulnerable position. 

We stand together with our resettlement agency partners: International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, World Relief, the Archdiocese of Olympia, and Jewish Family Services, and others. They are working to provide immediate housing and short-term assistance to new arrivals.

ReWA’s Afghani-speaking staff are ready to provide long term assistance in housing, employment, counseling and more.

Many of you ask how to help.

  1. Give: I encourage you to make financial contributions to ReWA and any of the resettlement agencies above.
  2. Share your Home: Sign up with the Afghan Health Initiative to host a family for 3-7 days while resettlement agencies find them long-term housing. https://forms.gle/Txk16iqo9o871SNS7
  3. Learn more: Learn more from IRC about the rapidly-changing situation in Afghanistan and ways to support our Afghan friends & colleagues there: bit.ly/3grAYrR
  4. Volunteer: ReWA has several remote volunteering opportunities in our online classrooms, or you can sign up with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to help new arrivals get to appointments, set up apartments and other tasks.

Thank you for your support.

Mahnaz Eshetu

Support Refugee Education