Hundreds of Afghan refugees still need housing in Ottawa

About 300 refugees from Afghanistan are living in hotel rooms in Ottawa as they try to secure permanent housing to begin their new lives in Canada, but that search has proven difficult.

About 300 refugees from Afghanistan are living in hotel rooms in Ottawa waiting for housing

Zahira Sarwar is a volunteer with a local Ottawa group that has been collecting donations for refugees. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

About 300 refugees from Afghanistan are living in hotel rooms in Ottawa as they try to secure permanent housing to begin their new lives in Canada, but that search has proven difficult.

The Catholic Centre for Immigrants (CCI) said housing has always been a struggle to find, but things are even more challenging with this recent surge of refugees for a variety of reasons.

Executive Director Carl Nicholson said because of the panicked way in which many of the newcomers escaped Afghanistan, they arrived in Canada with incomplete immigration paperwork.

Without completed documentation Nicholson said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) isn't in a position to provide monthly living expenses.

"You don't have a cheque from IRCC then I can't get a landlord to rent you a place," Nicholson said.

"The landlord wants to see a steady flow of income, and if I can't guarantee him that then he says, 'well you're nice but come back when you've got it,'" he added.

Since Aug. 23, about 370 refugees from Afghanistan have arrived in Ottawa, with 91 arriving about a week ago, according to the CCI.

The Afghan Canadian Support Network has been collecting donations from people in Ottawa and delivering them to refugee families in need. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Canada to settle 40,000 Afghan refugees

While some have managed to secure housing, hundreds more continue to live in small hotel rooms across Ottawa.

The logistics of having that many locations is also proving difficult, according to Nicholson, because each hotel has to be equipped with an administration centre that requires staff.

He said ideally they would all be in the same building, but that isn't an option.

"As things start to open up a little bit more, hotels have regular guests and none of them are really anxious for us to take over a hotel, because they don't want to lose their regular guests," Nicholson said.

In addition to finding housing, incomplete documentation also slows down everything else including school registration, health insurance, and getting a social insurance number.

Canada has pledged to settle 40,000 Afghan refugees following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan but Nicholson said he doesn't know how many will come to Ottawa.

He said those coming later, however, will likely have completed documents because they will be coming from countries neighbouring Afghanistan, and the Canadian government will have had more time to vet them.

Sarah Harvey, the wife of New Zealand High Commissioner, is pictured on the left. She offered up her empty basement to store donations before they could be moved to a more permanent storage facility. She is pictured with volunteer Allaha Balouch, middle, and Arian Ahmadi, spouse of the Afghanistan ambassador to Canada. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Local Afghan community steps up

"That's a great step and it's a good first step, however, there is only so much the government can do and I think that's where citizens like us can step in and help," said Zahira Sarwar, a volunteer with the recently formed Afghan Canadian Support Network (ACSN).

The group includes young Afghan volunteers looking to do what they can to help refugees who have already arrived. They have been raising awareness on social media and collecting community donations for any refugee families in need.

"To be honest, the response was very, very overwhelming in a good way. We didn't even anticipate to get this many donations," Shahryar Simab said.

Simab is also a volunteer who immigrated from Afghanistan when he was just three years old. He said he and many others in the group feel a strong connection and desire to help.

"When I was talking to the kids, when I was interacting with the kids, I saw myself in them 20 some years ago. That was something that really hit home for me," he said.

Javed Sultani is a realtor in Ottawa that has supported the ACSN by helping refugee families find housing. His family is originally from Afghanistan, as well, and he said he wanted to help in any way he could. 

Sultani said many landlords want to see a letter of employment, which the families cannot provide.

Javed Sultani is a realtor in Ottawa who is helping some of the newly arrived refugee families from Afghanistan find housing. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

"We offer the landlords, first and last, two or three months deposit, to offset the job letter," he said. 

Sultani said there are many large families, which makes things tricky because they need a certain number of bedrooms, but don't necessarily have the budget to match.