Over the last two years, Elbakri’s organization has delivered food to families as part of its You Are Not Alone program, which seeks to fill the needs of people suffering financially from the pandemic. But, over the last six months, they have expanded to provide weekly food packages for Afghan refugees in the Bay Area by partnering with mosques and immigration groups. Every other week, registered refugee families receive four parcels, including meat, dry goods, dairy, and produce. Volunteers package it up, and others arrive later in the day to deliver the items to their destinations.
Despite all of their work and an impressive Slack-based delivery assignment system (built in part by volunteer tech employees, Elbakri says), it’s difficult to keep track of the refugees the organization serves. Afghan families might move from one hotel to another or one Airbnb to the next because most refugees still don’t have a permanent place to live. Their migration process doesn’t end when they enter the States. Once in California, it’s the rising cost of housing that they try to outrun. Pointing at the building across the street from where we’re standing, Elbakri says that a one-bedroom apartment there could cost upward of $2,800 a month.
“I need to show you that this is the reality. I don’t think anybody amongst them thinks that,” Elbakri tells me of the refugee families he helps. “California is such an expensive place to live. I don’t know what awaits them… The next step is homelessness, because I don’t know when the government’s subsidies will run out.”
After volunteers load up his truck, I join Elbakri on one of his delivery routes. While Support Life aids refugees, it also makes weekly deliveries to some of Oakland’s desperate homeless encampments. The sites are “mostly immigrants,” he tells me — first generation from South Asia or South America. He delivers water, soap, and food to dozens of unhoused people living in shacks along the road.
“Looks like a war-torn country,” Elbakri says, showing his staff several blocks’ worth of plywood shelters over a Zoom call while we’re in the truck. “Thank you, Ronald Reagan.”
Elbakri fears that this is the future Afghans will face if change doesn’t come soon.
I drive to the Muslim Community Center (MCC) in the East Bay to meet with Sister Aminah Abdullah. The MCC provides dozens of different services for Afghans — from rental assistance to food delivery.
Abdullah walks me around the facility, packed with diapers, brand-name clothing, and bags on top of bags of food. The dispersal process is rock solid, and every volunteer whips around the building packaging donated items. There’s enough food and furniture to supply dozens of immigrant families. But you can feel the exhaustion in the building. There aren’t enough volunteers to solve every problem.
That Tuesday afternoon in February, a handful of Abdullah’s volunteers are making arrangements for new Afghans who lucked out and found permanent housing in the Bay Area. They’re hauling everything one family needs into a designated spot in the hallway for delivery: mattresses, bed frames, sheets.
“We’ve become a makeshift resettlement agency,” Abdullah says. “We have immigration attorneys that we work with, and one of them was like, ‘Do not give my number out. I’m working 20 hours a day with no sleep. I haven’t seen my kids in weeks.’ It’s just madness.”
Before the pandemic, the MCC held Sunday school classes for children. Those classrooms have been completely refitted as free clothing bazaars and markets. There’s one room with boxes of diapers stacked over 15 feet high. “It’ll be like this for a long time,” Abdullah says. “Families will get jobs and then something will happen, and they’ll lose jobs and need more help. They’ll have a baby and need more help. Or, God forbid, they’ll get COVID and they’ll need help. That’s just our mission. Our mission here is to help people.”
As we talk, Abdullah’s phone buzzes incessantly with calls and texts from clients. Once, we’re interrupted by a man looking to donate money. A second time, two refugee men arrive to pick up a car the MCC secured for them so they can commute across the Bay for work.
The biggest problem isn’t the money. Every year during Ramadan, the Muslim community makes generous donations to the organization’s Zakat fund. These charitable gifts allow the MCC to help pay rent for some refugees, at least for a few months. But they can’t help refugees solve their biggest problems: building credit or cosigning a lease.
“There’s not a day [that] goes by that I’m here and a refugee family doesn’t come in and say, ‘Cosign for me.’” Abdullah says.
Rental prices have skyrocketed over the last few decades and dramatically so over the last few years. It’s not lost on the community that Silicon Valley companies, like Google, Facebook, and Airbnb are some of the main reasons why.
“Google profits over $100 billion each quarter,” Elbakri tells me as we drive through a homeless encampment in Alameda. “You don’t think this whole crisis could be solved with $100 billion? You could solve most any crisis with $100 billion.”
While Silicon Valley giants and their rising profits make easy villains, housing has been an issue in California for decades, long before big tech completely took over the region’s economy. In his 2020 book, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, Conor Dougherty argues that the lack of affordable housing is widening the country’s economic divide, especially in population-dense cities.
“As the middle class has hollowed, we’ve gotten this very unequal structure to cities, where you basically have people in service professions having to live next to really rich people, because they’re effectively waiting on them. So it’s hard to construct a housing market around everyone,” he tells me.
To Dougherty, the Bay Area would be one of the most difficult places in the world to find apartments or homes for refugees. “Over the past few years, the housing situation has gone from really bad to impossible,” he tells me.
The following Saturday, I join Elbakri once again on a different delivery route. We meet in Santa Clara, about an hour southeast of Oakland. He’s loading up yet another truck, this time for dozens of Afghan refugees living in hotels in Turlock. Elbakri got a late start — volunteers who said they’d be there hadn’t shown up. He’s tired, but his voice is still lively as he greets those who do arrive, pumping them up as they start packing.
The Turlock Comfort Inn and Suites is three stories tall, overlooking the Golden State Highway and miles of open land. Elbakri warns me of the “fiesta” that’s about to take place. As we pull the truck into the parking lot, men, women, and young children file out of the hotel’s side doors.
I’ve already started piles of food for each family’s hotel room: a package of pasta, some milk, some eggs, a chicken. But the children, many in their pajamas and one in bright pink Crocs, take over. Some are toddlers with sleep in their eyes and messy hair. Others are between 10 and 12, mostly boys, whose stoic expressions make them appear much older than they actually are. It’s obvious they’ve done this all before. Playfully, the youngest kids waddle over with bags half their size, lining them all up in a row.
After the 20 or so piles are stocked, two children roll out the hotel’s luggage cart, stacking up deliveries to bring up to the third floor, where most refugee families are staying.
A short drive away from the Comfort Inn, Elbakri takes me to the Turlock Inn, a motel stationed along a highway. Dr. Sohrab Hashemi, an oral surgeon from Kabul, lives there in a room with three other Afghan men. His certifications aren’t accepted in the US, so Hashemi is studying to get back into dentistry in the States. Sitting in the truck, he shows me photos of his work on his phone: braces, extractions, dental surgeries. For now, he’s volunteering, distributing COVID tests with a friend of Elbakri.
At the Turlock Inn, Hashemi leads me through a handful of rooms. There are mattresses on the floor in rooms suited for two people at most. Dirty plates are scattered across dressers. There are no kitchens. The best cooking equipment they have are pressure cookers. A single free-standing oven is hooked up outdoors. Food spoils because the only options to store perishable items are the mini fridges or filling their room’s bathtub with ice. Walking down the outdoor corridor of rooms, I spot an IRC business card on a windowsill.
Hashemi encourages me to meet the family across the street; a father, a pregnant mother in her third trimester, and their seven kids. As we walk over, some of the children are playing in the gravel road, taking turns riding a rusty bicycle. After I knock on the door, the mother welcomes me in, wrapping a hijab around her hair. There are two beds; children’s clothing is scattered across the floor with nowhere to store or hang it. A stuffed teddy bear wearing a Captain America costume is lying facedown in front of boxes of crackers.
“The very day the Taliban took over Afghanistan, my husband was in a bad situation,” the woman tells me through an interpreter. He helped people escape the country, guiding them through the Kabul airport. He worked with the American military, she says. “I told him that this was enough. Many Afghans are going to the US.” She continues: “His death was written on his forehead. The Taliban was assassinating Afghan soldiers. They would pursue them and shoot them on their very heads.” They left Kabul in the clothes they were wearing.
As we talk, her husband, Ahmad Naeem, enters the room. Gathering one baby in his arms and adjusting her dress, he says that he walks his children an hour to school every day and an hour back. There’s no public transportation. The family doesn’t have a car.
“I come back here, and I’m tired. But, in the future, if I’m going to find a job, what about my wife?” Naeem asks. “How does she take all the kids with her to school and come back? We would need so many strollers or for all of them to hold hands. This is a big problem.”
The Naeems have lived in this motel room for over two months since fleeing Kabul and spending a few months at a Texas military base. Just like the other Afghans I meet, they haven’t been able to secure an apartment or home. They have no credit and no jobs. Until they can find someone to cosign a lease, they’ll continue living at the Turlock Inn, living off of the generosity of other Muslims like Elbakri and his organization.
“I thought our life would get better, that we’d find a house,” the mother says. “I told IRC we needed a house. I told them that my kids are small. We need at least two rooms. One room is not enough.”
Before fleeing Kabul, the Naeems had a plan. Most importantly, they had hope. If they boarded their flight and arrived in America, their worries would be gone. But the US greeted them with open arms and hands that held broken promises.
On our drive back to Oakland, Elbakri is exhausted. Normally a talkative, cheery man, he is silent as his GPS directs us northwest. He was out past midnight the night before organizing more deliveries, he tells me. He woke up around 5AM that morning to help load the 17,000 pounds of food his organization was scheduled to deliver out to Turlock and the surrounding areas.
“You really have to constantly think about why I am doing this,” he says. “I always tell my volunteers… ‘There are days when things are not working out.’ Like this morning. I didn’t want to do this because I was so physically exhausted from last night. I needed at least two more hours of sleep.”