As the Observer went to press, more than ten million Ukrainians had been driven from their homes, and more than three million had fled the country. Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County is waiting to see how many of them could end up here.
JFS handles refugee resettlement in the county, and “every day we wake up and wonder what news shall unfold,” says social worker Mira Sussman.
The Ukrainian exodus comes on the heels of “far and away the largest group of arrivals in JFS history,” Sussman points out: 292 Afghans who fled the Taliban conquest, including eighty-four families.
Kabul fell in August, and by October, JFS development officer Devon Meier says, “We were welcoming forty people a week.” So great was the influx that JFS had to add eighteen people to its small staff (funding from a federal program for Afghan refugees helped).
Despite the pandemic and the tightest housing market in recent history, JFS found places for almost everyone. Longtime ally McKinley Properties was “short of inventory, but when they had it [apartments], they came through,” says Meier. And EMU jumped in to offer campus housing to a dozen families. About a quarter of the newcomers now live in Ann Arbor, the rest in the greater Ypsilanti area.
The Afghans fled in haste “without suitcases and passports and photos and mementos,” says Sussman. “The trauma is significant,” Meier emphasizes. Along with food, transportation, English language instruction, and translators, JFS offers employment and psychological counseling.
Many of the new arrivals quickly found jobs in cleaning or manufacturing, but Afghan families tend to be large, and half the arrivals are under seventeen. “We’ve had some new babies born here,” says Sussman.
Finding enough housing “remains our number one challenge in helping resettle our clients,” Meier emails. “The majority of landlords are looking for co-signers, but we have not been able to secure individual commitments towards that end.” The agency can’t co-sign leases itself, so “we are actively working on creating a program” to find people willing to guarantee leases.
“Unfortunately, the issue of affordable housing is not a unique problem to JFS or even Washtenaw County,” Meier writes. “We are seeing a nationwide crisis. As we anticipate more refugee arrivals, we want to be proactive and call attention to this crucial issue.”