Volunteers file complaint over Afghan refugee resettlement issues

Part of an ongoing series.

Bakhti Momand said he tried to contact his Catholic Charities refugee resettler after he received a call from his son at work and learned that his wife, Hafisa, had apparently suffered a heart attack.

The social worker “needs to know that every time I call, there’s a problem,” Momand, an Afghan refugee from central Iowa, said through an interpreter. “But she didn’t pick up.”

When Momand couldn’t reach the social worker, he said, his son sought help at the extended-stay hotel in West Des Moines where the family lives with six or seven other Afghan families. The boy found another refugee, Feroz Rasheedzai, who spoke English and was able to call 911.

In the months since more than 700 Afghan families arrived on the Des Moines metro after the end of America’s longest war, medical emergencies, inadequate food aid and other crises have been an ongoing challenge for both the nonprofits that receive federal money to manage resettlement and the volunteers trying to help newcomers.

In a rare move this week, Des Moines Refugee Support, which has worked with hundreds of newly arrived Afghan families, filed complaints against two of Des Moines’ three resettlement agencies, alleging they are not meeting families’ needs. .

In nonprofit abuse complaints filed with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, Sadina Traljesic, a board member of Des Moines Refugee Support, alleges that Catholic charities and Lutheran services in the Iowa also declined to release information that would help volunteers assist families with necessities such as medical services and rental and food assistance, and with help finding employment.

Additionally, Traljesic said she would file a complaint with the US Department of Health and Human Services, which has an inspector general’s office charged with protecting the integrity of the department’s programs and their beneficiaries.

She told the Des Moines Register that there were children who needed surgery or medical help who could not be transported by social workers, families who had lost housing opportunities because social workers had not checked the apartments in time and families had not received enough food or still had no food aid.

“Even when we sent urgent messages that their customers had no food, they did not respond to us, their customers, and did not resolve these issues. We had to organize food drives in order to make sure their customers don’t go hungry,” she said.

“We had several incidents where food stamps and Medicaid were cut off because case managers failed to complete or submit documentation,” she said. “When we offered help with paperwork, they refused our help. When we scheduled medical appointments, they failed to provide transportation.”

Hafisa Momand, an Afghan refugee, feeds her child at the Extended Stay America hotel in West Des Moines.

Neither Catholic Charities nor Lutheran Services in Iowa responded to emails this week seeking comment.

Traljesic said the agencies refused to share information even though the families had signed waivers waiving confidentiality limitations.

“To date, we have not received any requested information. We asked to meet with the agencies and those requests were denied,” she said in her complaint. “They declined to explain why they wouldn’t honor signed releases.”

Lynn Hicks, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said the assistant attorney general who oversees nonprofit complaints was out of the office this week, so no decision has been made on the complaint.

“As it stands, the plaintiff has not provided enough information to show how the nonprofits violated Iowa’s nonprofit corporations law, but we will consider any other information the organization can provide,” he wrote in an email.

Any complaints made to a federal inspector general’s office, such as that of the Department of Health and Human Services, would be investigated. If found credible, the office will investigate, initiate an audit, or refer the complaint to another agency.

Right to privacy or duty to assist?

Social workers have an ethical duty to ensure refugees receive food, medical care and shelter, as well as to understand the trauma of being uprooted, according to the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics .

According to the National Organization for Social Services, social workers who work with refugee families are also bound by ethical standards to protect clients’ right to privacy and confidentiality “except where such confidentiality would cause serious harm to the client or others, when agency guidelines otherwise state, or under other stated conditions (e.g., local, state, or federal law).”

The clash between Des Moines Refugee Support, whose mission is to fill gaps in assistance to refugees, and local resettlement agencies continues.

In April, scores of Afghans living in extended-stay hotels described to two Des Moines Register reporters how they had struggled for months, lacking affordable housing and sufficient assistance until volunteers stepped in. Some were hungry; others had serious medical problems that had not been treated; others complained of being overlooked or ignored by their social workers.


Some who aided the US military and intelligence during the war said the lack of assistance was hurtful and troubling.

Resettlement agency leaders acknowledged to the Register that their staff had been overwhelmed by the hundreds of families arriving in the Des Moines area. The influx follows deep cuts to their budgets during the Trump administration’s slowdown in refugee resettlement.

They said they needed to focus their resources on trying to meet the most pressing needs of newcomers.

“The ability to respond to everybody in a timely manner – we just don’t have that ability,” said Kerri True-Funk, USCRI’s field office director in Des Moines. Traljesic said USCRI is the only Des Moines Metro relocation agency that has been responsive to requests for information.

Progress underway, but some refugees say they are still ignored

Visits over the past week to a free spring event attended by more than 600 new refugee and immigrant families and to the extended-stay hotels where many Afghans have lived have shown that while most are making progress in their new life, their needs persist.

More than 45 families lined up at 5:30 a.m. Saturday to pack cars with bags full of clothes, furniture, lights, car seats and children’s books at Debra Heights Wesleyan Church in Des Moines . By mid-afternoon, the crowd outside the church on Lower Beaver Avenue was so large that several sheriff’s deputies had arrived to help direct traffic.

By the end of the event, two 26-foot moving trucks full of donated items from across the subway had been emptied.

Families comb through donations at a free spring store organized for refugees and immigrants by Des Moines Refugee Support.

“I’m grateful that so many people were able to come and pick up their necessities,” said Alex Rogers, who has volunteered with Des Moines Refugee Support since his early days as a Drake University football player. . “From a global perspective, it’s really cool to see people having that kind of impact.”

As resettlement agencies have focused their attention on finding jobs and apartments for refugees in the tough metro housing market, some families have been hard pressed to place.

Rasheedzai said his family and two other people, who currently live in the Extended Stay America in West Des Moines, want accommodation close to each other because he is the only English-speaker among the adults.

He said that until recently, all the accommodations his social worker could find were too far from public transport and schools, infested with bugs, had broken air conditioning or were too expensive.

“We’re new. We need to find a place to stay for a while to stand up,” he said.

In one case, families found apartments they liked, but were rented by others because their social workers didn’t act quickly enough to help secure them, he said.

Recently, families have finally located apartments on their own and are awaiting news on their rental enquiries.

Abdul Hamid, whose family arrived in Des Moines nearly a month ago, said Monday his family still has no food aid, pocket money or medical card from Catholic Charities.

In Afghanistan, he said, his wife was a doctor working in an obstetrics clinic and was attacked by a Taliban member, who hit her with an AK-47 at a checkpoint.

Now he is being told that his only job prospects at the moment may be working in a manufacturing plant.

“If we had known, we might not have left,” Hamid said through an interpreter.

Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and hold them accountable to government officials, the justice system, businesses, and nonprofits. Join her at lrood@registermedia.comat 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.

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