Refugees who make it to the United States face new challenges: a new language, a new White House administration and, in Seattle, a tough rental market.
A man in Seatac is trying to soften the landing for others like him who’ve been resettled from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Floribert Mubalama, 36, has made helping his fellow Congolese refugees integrate his mission, especially connecting them to basic, affordable housing, which is one of the biggest barriers to starting a new life in Seattle.
Congolese were the largest group of refugees to arrive to the U.S. last year, according to the Refugee Processing Center. The nearly 300 Congolese people who arrived in the Seattle area in the past five years have found themselves dropped in the middle of a regional housing crisis.
Mubalama still keeps the green book he received during his refugee orientation in his living room. He flipped to a page that lays out the timeline for resettlement in the U.S..
“The period expected and according to this book is two to five years,” he read. That’s ostensibly how long it will take for refugees to integrate fully into their new lives, with stable employment and housing.
But that’s not reality.
Yet another difficult process for refugees
Refugees arriving in the U.S. receive funding from resettlement agencies that covers their rent for 90 days. After that, they are left on their own to meet their housing costs. But Mubalama said it’s not enough time for the Congolese refugees in his community to become self-sufficient.
Mubalama came to the U.S. in 2014 after living in a refugee camp in Malawi for eight years. He met his wife there, got married and started his family.
At first, he was placed with his pregnant wife, two children and his brother in a single-bedroom apartment in Tukwila, about 10 miles south of downtown Seattle. With help from a social worker, Mubalama and his wife managed to break their year-long lease and moved to the three-bedroom apartment in nearby SeaTac where they now live.
This process, he said, is not easy for Congolese refugees.
“Landlords are very hesitant to rent to refugees,” Mubalama said. “They don’t know where you are coming from.”
Other challenges like language, lack of credit history and past trauma all make it difficult for refugees to find and maintain stable homes.
So, Mubalama started the Congolese Integration Network, an organization that connects refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo to resources and people that can help them resettle. It’s an unpaid passion project for him.
“I don’t take it as work,” Mubalama said. “It’s paying back. All the time I was living in the refugee camp, I lived out of people’s compassion.”
Many Congolese refugees in Seattle call him.
“They want us to help them,” he said. “They have to go to an appointment. They need a ride. They have to go to their first job.”
‘My fear is that I don’t have enough strength’
Just a 10 minutes’ drive from Mubalama’s home is a large apartment complex where many Congolese refugees have found a place to live: the Buena Casa Apartments in Kent.
Mubalama said these apartments have typically been a place that new refugees can afford, a cheaper option than many other Seattle-area apartments.
However, on June 1 rent will go up by $25 to $200 depending on the unit size. It’s an increase that many who are already struggling to make monthly rent payments will not be able to handle.
Gurmeet Singh is the co-owner of the Buena Casa Apartments. He said that raising rent is the only way he can meet higher property tax bills, which increased to $390,000 this year. Rent in the apartment complex will now be $850 for one bedroom and $1,300 for two.
“My parents immigrated to the United States in 1981, so I understand the difficulties they are going through,” Singh said. “If our costs hadn’t increased, we wouldn’t have done this.”
Yulina Bilombele is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She’s 80 years old. She does not speak English. She is too frail to work and she does not have the money to pay rent.
A letter on her dining room table reads, “Defendant failed to pay the rent and has further failed to vacate and surrender the premises.”
Bilombele couldn’t find a stable home when she came to the U.S. two years ago. She stayed with Mubalama for a few days and then found herself in a homeless shelter. Eventually, she moved in with a family at the Buena Casa Apartments but they left earlier this month.
Now alone in the small unit, Bilombele must pay the full rent or face homelessness again.
“My fear is that I don’t have enough strength because of my age,” Bilombele said through Mubalama. “The money they are asking for, I don’t have have it.”
Mubalama said the struggle to find and maintain basic shelter in the U.S. discourages new refugees who had high hopes for their new life in America.
“When we are resettled, the first thing we expect is a home to stay,” he said. “That is the thing we didn’t get. Our first biggest expectation was not met. It was home.”
This time, there may not be a place for Bilombele at the Mubalama home. The family is already accommodating two other homeless refugees, and does not have space for more.