Fleeing Afghanistan was a difficult decision for Said Urahman. He had to leave his homeland, friends and family behind.
Months later, the 31-year-old father of three children — including a newborn — is living in Detroit with his family, working for the city and helping others like him find jobs by removing barriers, he said.
Urahman, who worked as a translator for the U.S. government in Afghanistan for more than a decade, is one of hundreds of Afghans who came to Michigan after the Taliban took over the country in 2021, forcing tens of thousands to flee.
“It was very complicated at the beginning because you’re new to the city, you don’t have a family, no friends, nobody like that,” he said.
Some families struggle to find housing, he said. They need legal services, jobs and transportation. For Urahman, Detroit represents a “new chapter” in his life. He described the city as a “wonderful place” for immigrants.
Urahman spoke during the Wednesday launch of a new program for refugees arriving in Detroit that can help them tap into support services — from housing and legal services to transportation and employment assistance — as they resettle in a new home.
Partnership will connect refugees to resources
The Detroit Refugee Network — a coalition of corporate, nonprofit and civic leaders — is co-chaired by Detroit’s first lady, Dr. Sonia Hassan, and Kelli Dobner, chief advancement officer for Detroit-based resettlement agency Samaritas.
“This is an important and unprecedented partnership, because we are committed to combining and sharing resources to those who are seeking refuge within our borders, so they not only feel safe and welcome but have the tools they need to thrive,” Dobner said during a Thursday news conference at an apartment complex in Detroit.
The coalition is expected to serve clients from three resettlement agencies: Samaritas, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan.
From September to February, Michigan has welcomed 1,734 Afghan refugees. The state is expecting some additional Afghan arrivals although it’s unclear how many at this time, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity’s Office of Global Michigan.
The federal government hasn’t released specific plans for Ukrainians coming to the U.S., department spokesperson Ebony Stith said in an email.
But the coalition says it’s ready for them.
“We also know that refugees from Ukraine are expected to come into our care in the coming weeks and months and the Detroit Refugee Network will play a key role in combining support services and resources to ensure their safety and resettlement,” Dobner said. “These individuals and their families need support, especially in their first year.”
More than 75% of families become “self-sufficient” within 180 days, she said.
Since late last year, the trio of agencies have brought 650 Afghan refugees to southeast Michigan, with more than 250 looking to resettle in Detroit. So far, 210 refugees have moved into Detroit homes already, but they need more support, especially when they first arrive.
The Detroit Refugee Network is seeking to raise $1.13 million in donations to help refugees in Detroit. The coalition has received nearly $50,000 from partner CARE USA, an international humanitarian organization.
Detroit-based Samaritas is the Detroit Refugee Network fiduciary, but funding will be available for clients across the three agencies. Donations can be made at www.samaritas.org/Detroit-Refugee-Network.
Those born outside of the United States make up 6% of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. In general, immigrant communities in the city have been growing and contributing to increased homeownership and business growth.
Most refugees lived outside Detroit in communities such as Warren, Sterling Heights, Southfield, Troy, Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, according to a 2017 study from the economic development organization Global Detroit.
Researchers found that, between 2007 and 2016, less than 5% of the refugees who resettled in southeast Michigan were in Detroit although those numbers are going up.
In 2016, Michigan was the fourth-largest state for refugee resettlement, the report found.
‘They have to feel safe’
Hassan described her own parents’ journey to the U.S. from Egypt many years ago, leaving “everything and everyone” to start a new life.
“Growing up I witnessed how my parents’ drive, passion and determination led to the American dream after starting from nothing,” she said.
Those coming to America need homes, food, transportation, legal help, education, careers and financial stability, she said.
“When these families arrive in the U.S., they have to feel safe,” Hassan said.
Employees from the Rocket Community Fund, working with Samaritas, will help identify housing, manage landlord relationships and help with moving and job placement.
“It is critical to build housing stability quickly and sustainably. It’s the foundation for success in every other component of our lives,” said Laura Grannemann, vice president of the Rocket Community Fund, the philanthropic arm of Rocket Companies.
Since Afghan families began arriving in Michigan, agencies across the state have been working to help them resettle while providing support services along the way. Because of the fast pace of arrivals and the shortage of available units, one of the biggest challenges organizations face is finding adequate permanent housing.
Families are also struggling with transportation and need medical care and mental health support to address the trauma of what they experienced, agency leaders have said.
Ahdia Hussaini, 27, left Afghanistan in August and is now in Detroit with her husband, toddler and a couple other family members.
She stayed in a hotel for several months, until she settled into her new home in April. She described that time as challenging because it was uncomfortable living in a space with other guests, especially since children wanted to leave their rooms and play.
“We are here but we leave everything in Afghanistan, our job, our house, our family, our friends,” she said.
Hussaini worked as a midwife in Afghanistan and hopes to continue her education in America. She said she is optimistic about the opportunities ahead — for herself, her husband and her daughter. Still, she worries about the girls back in Afghanistan who cannot go to school or work.
“I hope that one day comes that Afghanistan has … complete peace,” she said.
The Free Press reported earlier this month that Samaritas was under investigation by the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services over allegations of abuse. A story by ProPublica reported that a shelter run by the nonprofit was ill-equipped to handle the arrival of some Afghan children. A Samaritas official told the Free Press earlier this month that he could neither confirm nor comment on an any investigation but did say staff are required to report any allegations of abuse.
Free Press staff writer Niraj Warikoo contributed to this report.