SALT LAKE CITY – Afghan refugee Mahmood Amiri arrived in the United States more than a month ago, but his children are still waiting for their first day at school. They have yet to go to a mosque to meet other Muslim families. And Amiri is itching to get a job, but nobody knows how long that will take in a crashing economy.
Starting a new life in America is never easy for refugees, but doing it during a pandemic has created more struggles, especially after the federal government cut off funding to help them resettle and suspended new arrivals indefinitely.
Coronavirus restrictions have affected refugee families in the same ways as anyone else — job losses, child care challenges — but many are navigating the turmoil in a language they don't fully understand and without extended family or close friends to help.
The Amiris arrived in Salt Lake City on March 24, about a week after states began shutting down schools and businesses to try to stop COVID-19 from spreading. After waiting three years for a visa, they ignored warnings from an airplane employee in Kabul that traveling to the U.S. during the pandemic would be dangerous.
Amiri, his wife and their four children were the only ones on their final flight from Seattle to Salt Lake City. For them, it was worth the risk. While waiting for a special visa for Afghans and Iraqis who help the U.S. government, Amiri had feared that the Taliban would find out he worked for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and kidnap his family.
“I knew the situation was very bad, but I had to decide for the (good) of my family,” Amiri, 39, said of the pandemic. “If my visa expired, they would not extend it.”
Refugee aid organizations have pivoted from training families for work and school to teaching them how to apply for unemployment benefits and do schoolwork online. They’re dipping into emergency funds to pay for rent and food for families after losing federal dollars.
“We’re instructing clients on how to navigate a food bank rather than navigating a career path,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Her organization, one of nine agencies that help refugees resettle in the U.S., has given emergency aid to more than 215 families facing job losses.
Refugee families like the Amiris who arrived early this year or late last year are in particularly difficult situations because many don’t have the work history to quality for unemployment benefits or relief checks from the U.S. government, O’Mara Vignarajah said.
Ana Lucia Ibarguen and her three children arrived as refugees to Claxton, Georgia, in July after fleeing gang violence in Colombia. She and her 20-year-old son began studying English and working at a clothing distribution center before the pandemic abruptly left them without jobs or a school to study the language.
They applied for unemployment benefits but have yet to receive any money. Her son got $1,200 from the coronavirus relief bill, which helped pay rent in May. But Ibarguen, 39, doesn’t know how they’ll pay their bills in June if they can't get work.
“It’s very hard. Everything changed from one moment to the next,” Ibarguen said in Spanish. “This makes me more depressed and sad.”
Some refugees who haven’t been laid off have jobs that put them at risk of infection, including as ride-hailing drivers, in restaurants and at meatpacking plants like the JBS USA factory in Greeley, Colorado, which has had an outbreak of at least 280 confirmed cases and seven deaths.
In the Denver suburb of Aurora, Dr. P.J. Parmar sees many of those workers outside his practice, where he dons head-to-toe protective gear to care for dozens of refugees worried about the coronavirus.
Parmar, a family physician who solely serves refugees, says 45% of his patients have tested positive for the virus. One has died, and two others are seriously ill.
That high rate is understandable considering that refugees often live in crowded apartments with other families, making social distancing impossible, Parmar said. They also pack vans to carpool to Denver International Airport, where many refugees work, or some 65 miles (105 kilometers) to the meatpacking plant in Greeley.
“Inside that van, when one coughs, they all cough,” Parmar said.
The Amiris said they feel safe and their rent and food is being paid for by Catholic Community Services of Utah. But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy to be confined to their two-bedroom apartment near a highway in a Salt Lake City suburb.
They don’t have a TV or car, and while the parents try to entertain their children — ages 15, 13, 6 and 3 — with games or walks around the complex, they are restless and want to explore their new city.
Utah’s public schools were already closed when the family arrived, and the kids keep asking when they can meet their teachers and classmates, Amiri said. The children know very little English and struggle without help from teachers in person.
Amiri’s cousin, who lives nearby, and Catholic Community Services are helping him look for a job.
Most refugees find work in three to six months, but the uncertainty of the pandemic makes it harder, said Aden Batar, migration and refugee services director at the Catholic charity.
“The unknown, that’s what we’re worried about, not knowing how long this pandemic is going to go on,” Batar said. “This time is going to be tough because there are so many Americans out of jobs.”
Associated Press writer James Anderson contributed to this report from Denver.