By Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register
After his family arrived in Des Moines on Feb. 15, Rahmatgul Safi said he came to believe that it was normal for refugees to starve.
The first home for the family of 14 — with a baby on the way — was an Airbnb north of Grand Avenue in Des Moines. When they got there, Safi said, their Lutheran Services in Iowa case manager brought them a hot meal.
After that, he said, the family went three days without food. A few of his children knocked on their neighbors’ doors, begging for food and milk.
“The kids were crying. They wanted food,” Safi, 40, said through an interpreter.
A volunteer from another agency, Des Moines Refugee Support, stepped in to bring groceries to the Safi family, now in an Urbandale Airbnb. But when those were gone, the family went another three days without food.
And for weeks, he, his wife and the 12 children didn’t have any hygiene products, including soap and shampoo.
“We are suffering here,” Safi said. “I’m feeling like I am a prisoner.”
Like many Afghans resettled in Des Moines who have spoken to the Des Moines Register, Safi said his case manager hasn’t been responsive, even in emergencies.
He has a back injury from an explosion when he was in the Afghan special forces, helping American troops and intelligence officers.
After arriving in Iowa, he said, he began experiencing pain, and his legs and feet were turning purple and black. He said he told his case manager he thought he was dying, but his case manager would not take him to the hospital.
The same volunteer who brought the family groceries ultimately took him to the hospital, where he said he was told he should have come sooner and that he needed surgery.
After the operation, he said, his case manager did not pick up his prescriptions for him.
The family is on food stamps, but hasn’t received enough cash assistance to support 14 people, Safi said. He turned down a work program because his back injury leaves him unable to do manual labor.
None of the eight Safi children who are school-age is in school. When a Register reporter visited their home, some were teaching themselves English on a whiteboard.
Nick Wuertz, director of immigrant and refugee community services at LSI, acknowledged that the agency has at times had difficulty communicating with refugees and in reconciling their expectations with what the agency can actually provide.
He said LSI provides weekly grocery shuttles — including an initial grocery run upon arrival — and orientations to help the Afghans acclimate. He also said every family gets pocket money until their food stamps start.
“We have not let families go without food,” he said.
Safi said his experience as a refugee has left him feeling deeply insulted, given the time and effort he dedicated to helping U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban burned down his house, he said, and his family is suffering in exile.
“We’ve been very stupid standing with America. We trusted everyone,” Safi said.
Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.