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Edited and fact-checked by Lorie Hearn
Photos by Megan Wood
The inside of Mostafa Inezan’s two-bedroom apartment in El Cajon was a standard white-walled, brown-carpeted space — except for the hardwood dining area. It was void of knicknacks or family photos, but full of Inezan’s five young sons roughhousing one sunny afternoon. The youngest, a toddler, occasionally waddled around in his unsnapped onesie and tugged at the buttons on his mother’s dress.
The quarters provided the family a stable home after escaping war in Syria. Inezan said they fled after the third time government forces detained and tortured him — the first left Inezan blind. His then-5-year-old son saw some of the abuse. The child looked down and shook his head when asked if he remembers, but his father said he tenses up when he sees people in uniform.
San Diego’s International Rescue Committee — one of four resettlement agencies in the region — found the family’s apartment last year. The organization, an affiliate of the international nonprofit that provides safe harbor for conflict- and disaster-displaced immigrants, uses federal funds to arrange housing and basic needs for refugees during their first three months.
This is the first in an ongoing series about the struggles refugees face when they make San Diego County their home. The series is a collaboration of reporters, photographers, videographers and editors at inewsource, KPBS and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Why this topic? Since 2009, more than 23,000 refugees have settled in the county, more than any other region in California.
However, about six months after the Inezan family arrived in San Diego, they were faced with leaving their apartment because seven was too many people for the space, a management company representative told KPBS. The family had few prospects for a new home.
“I don’t know anyone, first of all,” Inezan said in Arabic through a translator. “And I am blind, I don’t see. Who would give us a house?”
Inezan’s situation is partly the consequence of bad timing. He arrived in August, during San Diego’s largest refugee influx since 2012. This wave forced the IRC to resettle a surge of limited-income families in one of the nation’s toughest rental markets.
Three other Syrian families interviewed by KPBS in a five-month investigation allege IRC staff encouraged them to falsely declare their family’s size on rental forms because larger apartments were too costly. Inezan and his family were forced to vacate because his family wasn’t accurately documented on the lease. The other families could be asked to leave their homes, too.
The plight of the families interviewed by KPBS puts in stark relief the difficulties refugees have when beginning a new life in the expensive but welcoming region of San Diego.
‘What is the agency supposed to do?’
San Diego received more refugees last fiscal year than any other region, a U.S. State Department official confirmed. County data show about an average of 250 refugee arrivals per month in fiscal year 2016, until last August when that number roughly tripled. September saw even more.
This left the IRC “very crunched for a period of a couple months,” then-Deputy Director of Programs Erica Bouris told KPBS in an interview about the surge of refugees coming to San Diego. Some families lived in motel rooms for weeks while caseworkers searched for housing, she said.
Inezan said he and his family avoided this — they arrived at the beginning of the surge and were shuttled directly to their two-bedroom apartment in August. He said when it came time to sign his lease, he told both the IRC-provided translator and an on-site complex manager that his family was seven people. Still, only six names appeared on the lease. IRC’s Murphy said he could not pinpoint how the error occurred.
An apartment is expected to be “decent, safe and sanitary” and adhere to limits on capacity, according to a copy of the agreement between resettlement agencies and the federal government. Housing guidelines suggest two people to each bedroom and up to two more in the living area. Families should also be able to handle monthly rent on their own — “to the extent possible” — after a resettlement period that can last up to 90 days.
Agencies receive $2,075 per refugee, about half of which goes to the agency’s overhead costs, and the rest goes to cover rent and expenses, such as furniture, household items, clothing, food and — in some circumstances — a motel bill. The government expects funds to be left over so refugees can have cash after the resettlement agency’s support period ends.
University of Chicago lecturer Jessica Darrow, who has done several research papers and presentations on refugee resettlement, said the standards-to-resources ratio puts caseworkers in a tight spot when searching for housing, especially with larger families who require more space.
Darrow said the way refugees claim IRC caseworkers solved this dilemma — allegedly squeezing large families into smaller but affordable homes under false pretenses — is not a “tenable solution,” but she said the bigger problem is why caseworkers would need to do so in the first place.
She referred to when the per-refugee stipend for the client and the agency was $900. Eric Schwartz was assistant secretary for the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration at the time and traveled around the country to witness firsthand what resettlement looked like.
“And that was real acknowledgement that this resource story — that you and I are talking about — is there,” Darrow said. “Since then, there have been these small incremental changes to that amount of money, but that’s it. The change in resources has not kept up with the change in cost over time of stable housing and safe housing and secure housing.”
‘We just wanted to leave’
The quiet El Cajon apartment complex Mohamad Abdullah and his family call home has a patch of lush grass in front. His six kids have their own room to play with whirring trucks and stuffed animals after school. His wife has a kitchen to prepare guests a tray of beverages in gold-rimmed etched glasses.
That wasn’t the case when he first arrived in San Diego. He said the IRC initially housed them in two double-bed motel rooms with a mini fridge and microwave. Abdullah watched for 35 days as the family’s limited funds to start a new life were spent on a place he didn’t want to live.
When the IRC found their current two-bedroom home, Abdullah said he thought the place near the Arabic markets and his children’s school was ideal for his family of eight. It wasn’t. According to federal housing guidelines, his family’s size called for at least a three-bedroom.
Abdullah said he pushed back.
“They let us in on a lie, so are we going to spend our whole lives living in a lie?” he told KPBS. “At any moment, any minute, they can kick us out because of this lie. This is a serious matter.”
The two-bedroom apartment would be cheaper, he said he was told, so he signed. He said he renewed the lease without adjusting the number of occupants because he didn’t want to alert his manager to his family’s true size. He said he still worries they’ll be asked to leave.
The story is similar for Daliya Ali, who said she spent three weeks in the same motel before the IRC found a home for her family of eight. Ali said she knew she shouldn’t have accepted the lease listing only six people because an overseas orientation warned against signing false documents, but she felt she had little choice.
“They told us, ‘Rent is high and there aren’t a lot of places to rent,’” Ali said in Arabic to a translator. “They told us, ‘If you don’t sign, you will stay in the hotel another month. But if you sign you can stay here. And the hotel is filthy. You can stay here in this apartment until we find you something else.’”
Estela De Los Rios, executive director of the fair housing nonprofit CSA San Diego County, said between this past November and December — shortly after the refugee surge — the agency heard from 10 refugee clients who claimed they were being asked to leave their apartments because their families were too large for the space. De Los Rios said the clients’ complex managers claimed they were misled by the resettlement agencies about the number of occupants in the home. She said she heard of families of up to 10 people sharing a one-bedroom apartment.
The problem was new for De Los Rios. She could not determine which resettlement agencies placed the 10 clients but said she contacted Murphy, head of the IRC in San Diego, in December to understand why it could be happening.
‘There is a lot of anti-refugee media out there’
In an interview later in March, Murphy confirmed that he met with De Los Rios to discuss housing issues but claimed she didn’t raise the specific issue of too many occupants being resettled in an apartment.
Murphy said he wasn’t sure how the oversight could have occurred, but he would look into it. Eight days later, he responded to a follow-up email.
“Yes, I did look at this file and there is no reason that there were only six names on the lease. I have no idea why it happened,” he wrote.
Murphy declined via email to discuss their cases in a follow-up meeting. He wrote that he was worried he “would/could be walking into a situation that I do not want to find myself in” and was concerned because of “anti-refugee” news coverage.
Murphy said caseworkers denied they instructed refugees to conceal their family’s size. It’s the agency’s policy to list all occupants on rental documents, he said, and suggested refugees address any “oversight” with their property managers.
Alibrahim said his son has since moved out, so his lease is now accurate, and he provided a copy to KPBS. The Abdullah and Ali families say they do not want to alert their property managers to their family’s true size for fear of being asked to leave. The families understood going public could expose their circumstances, but said they wanted their stories told in the hope that it would lead to a better living situation.
Ali said she found her family of eight an affordable three-bedroom apartment, but the complex would not allow more than seven to move in. The complex has not returned a KPBS request for comment.
“Our mission is to best support refugees as they rebuild their lives and become part of their communities. Our relationships with community partners, including housing entities, helps lay a groundwork and foundation of trust, which our clients build on as they restart their lives,” Mireille Cronin Mather, the IRC’s regional director of U.S. programs, said in a written statement. “We are concerned about these reports and are investigating the situation to establish the facts. The IRC is deeply committed to delivering the best possible resettlement experience for our clients and take our responsibilities in doing so seriously.”
A new home
The search for a new, larger apartment for the Inezans became so difficult that volunteer Jody Crimi contemplated hosting the family in her North County home. She said she and translator Lina Abi Samra had spent days searching online and by car throughout the county.