ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In the kitchen of his temporary home in St. Petersburg, brewing a cup of strong green tea transports Wali Ahmadzai a world away.
“I miss my home people. I miss my family,” he said, as he poured the fragrant drink from a saucepan into a ceramic mug. “I miss my sister.”
Ahmadzai, 38, is from Afghanistan, a country he was lucky to escape last August as the Taliban took over last summer.
Ahmadzai believes he was in grave danger because of how he earned his living during the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
“I used to work with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan as an interpreter more than like five or six years,” Ahmadzai said proudly.
Now, refugees in Tampa Bay like Ahmadzai and his family are adjusting to a new home and a new life.
“I think this is a golden chance for us, and so far it’s very nice,” he said glowingly.
Even though they’re grateful, the challenges they’re currently navigating are proving greater than expected.
Months have passed, and he and his family are still waiting for a permanent home and, as a result, a permanent address.
Until then, he said his kids can’t enroll in school.
“Oh, my God. I love them,” he said of his four children. “I love them more than myself because they’re young now. They should get everything I did not get.”
He and his family are just a few of hundreds of Afghan refugees now in Tampa Bay, where nonprofits like Radiant Hands are working non-stop to help.
Director Ghadir Kassab, herself a refugee from Syria, said Radiant Hands provides food boxes and furniture to families, helps them navigate various bureaucracies, and attempts to teach them skills that will allow them to seek employment and, ultimately, be self-sustaining.
“They come with zero,” Kassab said. “With nothing.”
Kassab admits, however, it’s tough to help right now.
She said groups that help refugees in the region, like Radiant Hands, need more resources and especially more housing, which is a tough endeavor in an area where housing is already in short supply. Finding options that are affordable to refugees, who are in the beginning stages of assimilating into American life, is even tougher.
“Housing in Tampa, first of all, is getting super expensive. Secondly, you cannot find housing easily for this large group of families,” she said. “These families are not only low income, they come with this very low federal money coming in. At the same time, they don’t have any credit history.”
Kassab said the federal funding provided to each Afghan refugee is extremely limited and must be carefully balanced between food, clothing, and housing.
Lutheran Services Florida, one of the regional refugee resettlement agencies, has struggled with the same shortage of permanent housing.
Lourdes Mesias, the Executive Director for Refugee and Immigration Services for Lutheran Services Florida, said it’s the biggest challenge they face daily.
“It’s a nationwide crisis…and especially here in Tampa Bay,” she said.
Compounding the difficulty, she said many landlords require credit and work histories, so placing a refugee can require navigating additional hoops.
According to Mesias, while resettlement agencies could potentially bypass the permanent address requirement to place children of refugees in local schools, it could cause additional trauma if children are then transferred to new schools once permanent homes are found.
“So, what we as a resettlement agency are trying is to avoid, you know, putting trauma on top of trauma, and then wait a little bit until we get the permanent housing, so they can go to the school that would be, you know, closer to them instead of, you know, having the kids navigating through all of that,” Mesias said.
Until then, refugees like Ahmadzai are still in limbo.
As he waits for permanent housing from his resettlement agency — Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services — Ahmadzai, his wife, and children spend most of their time at their temporary St. Pete home. Skilled in construction work, Ahmadzai hasn’t yet been able to land a job despite multiple phone interviews. As he waits for a driver’s license, most of his experiences in his new country have been limited to quick trips to Publix and Walmart.
“It’s really hard to adjust yourself in a new community, a new people, a new country,” he said.
Luckily, Ahmadzai said the community has been welcoming.
“America — it’s such a nice and beautiful place,” he said. "The people that I have seen, they are very friendly, and they help me a lot.”
Additionally, he has a dear friend in Tampa Bay: Ryan Cobin, the U.S. Army combat medic he served and who helped bring him to Florida in the first place.
“This is me with body armor. This is Dr. Cobin,” Ahmadzai said, as he flipped through old pictures from his service in Afghanistan. “He’s everything to me.”
It was a friendship built in his last home that’s still going strong in his new one. Ahmadzai’s hope is that other Americans will fill that same role for other refugees.
“I kindly request to the people — to the Florida people — please help them,” he said. “If you see them, help them.”
According to Kassab, with Radiant Services, those assisting refugees would appreciate it if landlords could help them find affordable homes. They also need donations of food, money, clothing, furniture. More volunteers are needed too.