Houston Afghans temporarily housed in motels after months on military bases

At an unassuming extended-stay motel in Fort Bend County, dozens of Afghans — many of them children — are once again in limbo, some waiting for weeks before being moved to their new homes in Houston.

Although they expressed gratitude for the help they have received since being evacuated from Afghanistan last year, they said they struggled with isolation, uncertainty and a lack of communication. They are eager to work but remain inactive. Some have already been waiting for several months to be resettled on US military bases, where they were taken for treatment after leaving Afghanistan.

These Afghans are among hundreds who have been moved to temporary housing after arriving in Houston, as refugee resettlement agencies have come under fire for coping with an influx of new arrivals.

Rising tensions among Afghan evacuees, who rely heavily on resettlement agencies in their first few weeks, even led to a 9-1-1 call that Sugar Land police say was linked to the fact that they lacked food.

Through a Pashtun interpreter, Abdul Wajid Hekmat said his family has run out of money, which prevents him from buying his own water and groceries.

“Our children are not eating well,” Hekmat said. They cannot buy and cook their own food or get baby food for their one-year-old. They depend on meal delivery from the Afghan Village restaurant, which they collect from the hotel reception with pots and pans to take to their room.

Hekmat shares a small motel room with his wife and four children, ages 1, 4, 8 and 9.

He said that after working so hard for the Americans in Afghanistan, which included providing security for special forces, he was looking forward to finally being able to build a new home for his family.

“We are so tired of waiting and waiting all the time,” Hekmat said. “Once we find a house, we can go find a job, we can send our children to school.”

County. The boy’s father spent years providing security for US special forces before he and his family were evacuated last year.”/>

The 8-year-old son of Abdul Wajid Hekmat chases a shot in the parking lot of the extended-stay motel where the family of six has been living for two weeks, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Fort Bend County. The boy’s father spent years providing security for US special forces before he and his family were evacuated last year.


Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer
The 9-year-old son of Abdul Wajid Hekmat kicks into the parking lot of the extended-stay motel where the family of six has been living for two weeks, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Fort Bend County.

The 9-year-old son of Abdul Wajid Hekmat kicks into the parking lot of the extended-stay motel where the family of six has been living for two weeks, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Fort Bend County.


Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer
Abdul Wajid Hekmat's 9-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter play in the parking lot of the extended stay motel where the family of six have been living for two weeks, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Fort Bend County.

Abdul Wajid Hekmat’s 9-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter play in the parking lot of the extended stay motel where the family of six have been living for two weeks, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Fort Bend County.


Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer
The 9-year-old son of Abdul Wajid Hekmat kicks into the parking lot of the extended-stay motel where the family of six has been living for two weeks, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Fort Bend County.

The 9-year-old son of Abdul Wajid Hekmat kicks into the parking lot of the extended-stay motel where the family of six has been living for two weeks, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Fort Bend County.


Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer

Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer

Hekmat’s family, along with the other Afghans at the motel, have been assigned case managers by the refugee resettlement agency, The Alliance.

Houston’s five refugee agencies have faced the Herculean task of resettling 4,286 Afghans in the area since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and subsequent evacuation, according to the refugee coordinator for the State, Jeff Demers.

That’s a huge influx of a historically low number of resettled refugees in 2020. In Texas, only 902 refugees, from all countries, were resettled in the state, according to the Refugee Processing Center.

“It’s very difficult,” said the agency’s director of refugee resettlement, Haala Binyam. “Over the past few years, the maximum resettlement per month was around 60 people, compared to now, over the past five months, only the Alliance has resettled around 1,000 people.”

She said case managers and other staff often worked weeknights, weekends and holidays to cope with their many workloads – and they hired additional staff to deal with the ‘influx.

“Our staff literally works around the clock to serve Afghan families. And we are accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” she said.

Not only was the resettlement process a strain on resources, but it also presented unique challenges.

Before that, she does not recall having to place refugees in hotels before finding them apartments.

Agencies typically have several weeks’ notice to set up apartments in advance, so families can move into a home immediately once they arrive in Houston. With Afghans, agencies sometimes only receive a few hours’ notice to pick up a family or individual from the airport.

Currently, 273 of the agency’s Afghan clients are still temporarily living in hotels in the area, according to Binyam, while more than 800 Afghans have been moved to permanent accommodation.

The Alliance is just one of approximately 300 refugee affiliates across the country that have worked with the US State Department to resettle 76,000 evacuated Afghans.

A meal provided by The Afghan Village Restaurant is shared among families in the common area of ​​an extended stay motel, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Fort Bend County.

A meal provided by The Afghan Village Restaurant is shared among families in the common area of ​​an extended stay motel, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Fort Bend County.

Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer

Although many Afghans emphasize their gratitude for the opportunity to flee to safety, many have worked for years in support of the US military, making themselves targets for the Taliban. To repay their service, many were promised special visas that would have allowed them to immigrate to the United States under less chaotic circumstances. Many of these visa applicants faced long, life-threatening delays and were ultimately forced to flee before being approved.

At the Fort Bend motel, Mohammad Anwar showed off his security badge for 14 years working for special forces in Afghanistan, where he protected military personnel from Taliban attacks. He said he applied for a special visa to leave Afghanistan two years ago.

He has been at the Fort Bend Hotel for 10 days with his wife and eight children. He said he had no cash, despite the promise of a six-month salary from the security company in Afghanistan. He is anxious to find himself without money, without work or housing so many months after being evacuated.

Omer Yousafzai, owner of the Afghan Village restaurant in Houston and which provided hot meals to new Afghan arrivals, said he understood their frustrations.

These families are eager to become self-sufficient and start working. Many also have family at home requesting financial assistance from family in the United States.

“All of these things added up,” Yousafzai said. But he said he also recognizes that refugee resettlement agencies, like the Alliance, are doing their best under difficult circumstances.

“Everyone goes above and beyond,” he said.

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