Life as a refugee in San Diego was challenging enough. Then the pandemic hit

Sadiya, 7, and her cousins Nuriya, 7, and Safiya, 5, take and pose for photographs after class
Sadiya, 7, and her cousins Nuriya, 7, and Safiya, 5, take and pose for photographs after class in November 2020.
(Aryana Noroozi / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Famo Musa remembers the beginning of the pandemic as chaos.

It wasn’t just adapting to the online versions of her UC San Diego classes, where she had recently transferred from community college, or figuring out how to support her two children, ages 10 and 7, in their virtual classrooms.

It wasn’t just juggling one job with school and then eventually two as she took on extra work to support family members who became unemployed because of the lockdown.

And it wasn’t just fighting for a decent internet connection for work meetings and for class while her children, her aunt’s three children and her sister’s nine children used the Wi-Fi for school.

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Famo Musa talks to her father before her classes
Famo Musa talks to her father before her classes. In 2004, when the family immigrated to the U.S., her father was one of the only members of the family to speak English.
(Aryana Noroozi / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Somali community leaned on Musa, 31, as older members struggled through language barriers to access accurate information, communicate with the unemployment office and apply for rental relief grants and other aid.

“I still can’t believe we survived it,” Musa said, recalling the first months of the pandemic. “It was really hard.”

For refugees, former refugees and their families, the interaction between the pandemic and challenges that their communities were already facing has exacerbated the stresses of the last year.

“COVID is just highlighting and making apparent the issues that we already knew existed,” said Homayra Yusufi, deputy director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, or PANA.

Ombeni Shabani gets an early start on his online science assignment.
Ombeni Shabani gets an early start on his online science assignment.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Issues like access to affordable housing and language barriers magnified the impact that the pandemic had on education and employment for refugee families.

Unemployment was much higher in the county’s refugee communities than the general population during the pandemic, according to a survey of 544 refugees in San Diego conducted by PANA and published in March 2021. That’s because many refugees in the region have historically worked in industries like hospitality and tourism — jobs that disappeared overnight with the lockdown last March.

Young people in particular across San Diego’s refugee communities, especially youth organizers like Musa, found themselves supporting entire networks of people in navigating life’s abrupt shifts with the rise of COVID-19.

The root of the problem, Yusufi said, is the lack of investment in long-term support for refugee communities. Refugees receive aid when they first arrive, she said, but it is short-lived and doesn’t generally allow them time to enhance their skills for better-paying or more stable work.

Yusufi said that state and local officials should consider how policies affect refugee families and invest in their long-term success as San Diego residents. That includes supporting refugees’ growth into sustainable careers, not just supporting them until they get their first jobs, she said.

“These are folks who have fled war, who have been persecuted, who are living with severe trauma, a lot of which comes from U.S. imperialism that created the situation in which they basically needed to flee for their lives,” Yusufi said.

“These are the folks that the United States selected as the folks they want to resettle here. I want folks to understand that when they come here, it’s not roses. They’re struggling, they’re struggling a lot. We need to do more.”

Consolata Shabani, 38, attends a Zoom ESL class from her living room
Consolata Shabani, 38, attends a Zoom ESL class from her living room in October 2020. Shabani says it’s more difficult to understand the class on Zoom and feels more comfortable asking questions in person.
(Aryana Noroozi / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

A crowded house

Finding stable employment or learning in online classrooms are issues on the minds of many San Diegans, regardless of where they were born or how they came to Southern California.

What has compounded those difficulties for refugee families are issues that their communities have faced for years in San Diego.

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Chief among them are high rents that lead to overcrowded housing.

Yusufi calls overcrowding “hidden homelessness” — 65% of the refugees surveyed by PANA live in overcrowded housing, meaning more than one person per room.

Nearly one-third live in severe overcrowding, meaning more than 1.5 people per room.

“The house is always full.”

Famo Musa

Overcrowding means that while Consolata Shabani, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is trying to focus on her virtual class to learn English in her small apartment, her eight children are next to her in the living room or clustered on three beds squeezed into a bedroom doing their own online schoolwork.

“Talking, talking too much,” Shabani is how she describes the scene when everyone in the house is logged in at once, breaking from her Swahili translator to speak in English.

As she spoke, several of her children could be heard talking and singing from the bedroom. Her brother, the translator, got up to tell them to focus on their work.

She recalled the dream she had when she came to the United States, that her children would have better educational opportunities.

“The dream comes a little bit slowly,” she said.

One-third of the refugees interviewed by PANA said their children don’t have a quiet place to study. And 44 % didn’t have access to headphones for their children, adding to the noise in small spaces.

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Musa and her two children live with her aunt, who has three children at home. Often, Musa takes the five kids to her mother’s home up the street. Her mother baby-sits for her sister, who has nine children.

Musa’s mother is not fluent in English and struggles with technology, so Musa takes charge of getting all of the children logged into their virtual classrooms before starting her own online work meetings.

“The house is always full,” Musa said.

Having all of the children in one place makes it easier for Musa to monitor them all, but the proximity to one another also creates opportunity for distraction.

“I have to keep checking on them,” Musa said. “Otherwise their attention span is really short.”

Gain a job, lose a home

High rents also mean that refugees need jobs that pay well enough to afford the cost of living in San Diego.

Though some are able to regain the professional lives they had to leave behind when they fled their homelands — working as accountants, doctors or scientists — others struggle to have the time and the English skills to get certified in their old occupations in their new country.

Still others arrive with disrupted educations because of the conditions they fled and are illiterate in their own languages. That makes learning English even more difficult.

Many end up in low-paying jobs in San Diego’s normally booming hospitality and tourism sectors, driving taxis or for Uber and Lyft or working as child-care providers.

All of these industries saw a dramatic drop in demand when the pandemic began, and many refugees haven’t worked since March 2020.

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PANA found that 80% of the refugees surveyed had experienced significant job loss during the pandemic.

At the time of the survey, toward the end of last year, 22% were still unemployed and actively looking for work. The unemployment rate for the general population during that same time frame was 6.6%.

Others had just given up looking altogether, even though they still wanted jobs.

Every family interviewed by the Union-Tribune had experienced a job loss at some point during the Last year.

Mwibeleca Amuri, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, lost his job as a dishwasher at a Marriott hotel in March 2020. He was able to find another one in November, this time as a cashier at a 7 Eleven.

Shabani lost her job making flower bouquets and hasn’t worked since. Neither has Kawther Al Shammari, a refugee from Iraq, who worked as a hair stylist.

The PANA survey found that refugees who are still working are mostly in jobs that cannot be done virtually and are at higher risk of catching COVID-19. At the same time, 84% of those surveyed were earning very low wages — the median income for those working full time was about $18,000 a year, Yusufi said.

Faroug Ali, originally from Sudan, was laid off from a job at the Hyatt hotel in Carlsbad during the pandemic. He managed to find another one at the NASSCO shipyard, and his wife began working there with him to help with the bills.

When it was time to re-certify their income level in late October, they discovered they were now making too much to stay in their low-income housing. They were given two months to leave.

During that time, Ali ended up catching COVID-19 on the job and spreading it to his family. He was unable to work for a month. He received only two days of sick pay because the job was so new.

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Still, he wasn’t given any extra time to find a new place, and the family ended up in Clairemont with a rent more than twice what Ali used to pay.

After a difficult year, he’s praying and hoping that this year will be better.

Musa, Osman, 10, and Sadiya, 7, walk to a San Diego Unified School District campus down the street
Famo Musa, right, Osman, 10, left, and Sadiya, 7, walk to a school down the street from their home for free lunch distribution. “Even if we have food at the house, the kids still want to go. It’s something for them to do outside,” Musa said.
(Aryana Noroozi / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘I’m being pushed away’

Musa’s mother and aunt are both child-care providers. Their incomes dropped in March when the lockdown began.

Musa said the fear of eviction has been very real. But because the two women had Musa to help them, they were able to apply for and receive rental relief when they lost work.

Others in the community, including Shabani Esolomwa, a Congolese father of four, haven’t been able to navigate government relief applications that don’t provide support in the languages they are most comfortable speaking.

Esolomwa, who has been in the United States for five years, lost his job as a security guard after apartment complexes canceled their contracts with his employer. He thinks it was because people in those buildings hadn’t been able to pay rent.

He has tried to make ends meet as a handyman, but work is sporadic. He owes several months in rent, at least $4,800. He’s been told that if he doesn’t pay by June, he will be evicted. He doesn’t know how to get help through rent-relief programs.

“I feel like I’m being pushed away,” Esolomwa said through a Swahili interpreter. “Whatever support is being given hasn’t come to people like me.”

He was thankful for the federal stimulus checks — without them, he would be even more behind.

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Because of his limited English, he also feels unable to help his children with their online classes.

Esolomwa doesn’t think his children are doing well in school. They struggle on their own through intermittent Wi-Fi in the family’s small apartment. Sometimes one of the children sits outside on the landing for a quieter place to attend class.

“We don’t have a choice, the life that we are living in,” Esolomwa said.

Hasha Tabu’s son, Joseph Ekyoci, is a youth mentor in the Congolese community. He helped her, as he helped many other families, navigate the challenges of losing work as a child-care provider during the pandemic.

There are some tasks, such as discussing pay discrepancies with the company that contracts with her, that she could’ve handled on her own before the pandemic. Now she needs help because she’s not able to go talk to someone in person.

“That makes things worse because you don’t know how you can seek support when you can’t speak to anyone,” Tabu said with her son translating from Swahili.

Mental health stigma

As is the case for many during the pandemic, refugee communities are experiencing increased depression and anxiety.

What’s striking for organizers like Yusufi is that refugees are admitting to it. Conversations about mental health challenges are stigmatized in many of the cultures that San Diego refugees come from. Still, in PANA’s survey, 53% reported feeling depression and anxiety.

“That was a very big red flag for us,” Yusufi said, adding that this was still probably an undercount because of the stigma.

Al Shammari, a single mother from Iraq who lost her job at a hair salon, recalled the heaviness of the last year.

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“I was constantly living in fear and feeling like death was near,” Al Shammari said through an interpreter. “It was difficult to navigate the entire year.”

She has tried to keep her children focused on school while working to complete her studies in child care at Cuyamaca College.

Anxiety often kept her up at night as she worried about providing for her children. But she didn’t feel safe enough to take a new job with the mounting COVID-19 cases.

She and her friends in the Iraqi and Syrian communities have tried to stay in touch by phone. She heard from friends who own restaurants and whose businesses are crumbling. And, she heard from friends who were now dealing with increased violence in their homes because of tensions from being stuck together in small spaces for so long.

PANA found that 12% of refugee women and 4% of refugee men reported an increase in household violence during the pandemic.

Despite the struggles, Al Shammari also noted some positives from the past year. She has spent more time baking with her daughter.

And, she thinks her experiences as a refugee, the conditions that caused her family to flee first Iraq and then Syria, in some ways prepared her for the pandemic.

What she lived through as a refugee was worse, she said, than what she’s been through this last year.

“It didn’t get to the level of being in the situation as a refugee,” Al Shammari said. “It didn’t get to that point.”

Martha Mulumbilwa and Annet Keji look over a social media post
Martha Mulumbilwa and Annet Keji study in their learning pod program at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)
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$600 grants and a learning pod

Toward the end of last summer, Musa began to notice more organizations supporting families in her community.

“I didn’t feel so alone,” Musa recalled. “It wasn’t just me out there helping people. I didn’t feel like I had the whole world on my shoulders as much.”

PANA raised money to give one-time $600 grants to refugee households. Yusufi said the organization was able to help about 600 families.

“It was better than nothing, but almost everyone was calling again and again,” Yusufi said. “It just wasn’t enough.”

San Diego College of Continuing Education, which has many refugee students and had already begun to roll out a support program for its immigrant students, began hosting twice-weekly virtual forums in English and Spanish to share resources and information.

Student volunteers pick the forum topics, and students stay connected through WhatsApp group chats created by the school.

And at St. Luke’s North Park, where many refugee families are members, church staff created a “learning pod” where students could get support for their online classes.

Church staff pick up the children in the morning and drive them to the church. Inside, roughly 20 children are masked and physically distanced.

They are offered breakfast and lunch, and a group of staff and volunteers stand at the ready for when children have questions or technical issues.

Though these initiatives have not reached everyone who needs help in San Diego’s refugee communities, for the ones that they touch, the experience has been life-changing.

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Nadein, Ali’s 15-year-old daughter, has been attending the learning pod since November. She said her grades improved with the additional support and motivation.

“It helps me focus,” she said. “At home I could kind of do whatever I want. Nobody is watching me. My camera is off.”

Martha Mulumbilwa and Annet Keji look at a cellphone while sitting on a long wooden bench
Martha Mulumbilwa and Annet Keji look over a social media post before the start of their learning pod program at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)