In 2012, Robin Gurung left Eastern Nepal for Oakland, where he joined a community of several thousand Bhutanese refugees living in the city.
Gurung spent the first two decades of his life in a Bhutanese refugee camp. Born in 1988, he was just three years old when his family was displaced from their native country alongside 100,000 other members of the Lhotshampa minority.
In Oakland, Gurung was encouraged by the city’s diversity. “You do feel like you’re not alone,” he said.
But from the time of arrival, he and other members of the Bhutanese refugee community struggled to make ends meet. Gurung himself saw the monthly rent for a three-bedroom East Oakland apartment he shared with his extended family increase from $900 to $2,000 in just four years.
In 2016, he helped start Asian Refugees United (ARU), a non-profit organization that empowers local Bhutanese and Vietnamese refugees through healing, leadership development, and civic engagement.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, many of Oakland’s Bhutanese refugees worked in service industry jobs and lost their income as a result of pandemic lockdowns. They struggled even more than usual to pay the high prices of Oakland rent.
In response, ARU offered refugees what funds it could muster in rental assistance. The aid was helpful, but ultimately unable to match many people’s needs. Eventually, some of the local Bhutanese refugee community’s members migrated to more affordable parts of the country. Today, there are fewer than 200 individuals left in Oakland.
In 2020, Gurung and his family chose to move to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania because of its sizeable and growing Bhutanese population and much lower cost of living.
“The pressure for my family was mainly economic,” he said. “Otherwise, we would still choose to be there [in Oakland].”
Oakland has a long history of refugee resettlement. Beginning in the 1970s, it became a hub for Southeast Asian refugees who left their home countries due to the U.S. war in Vietnam. In the 1980s, it was a destination for thousands of Afghans fleeing the Soviet Union’s invasion of their country. More recently, Oakland has received refugees from Burma, Eritrea, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Uganda, among other countries.
At present, as the world confronts multiple simultaneous refugee crises—stemming from violence in Central America, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and other disasters—Oakland remains a destination for those who resettle in the United States. It is home to over a dozen refugee assistance and aid organizations, as well as two government-designated refugee resettlement agencies: Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) East Bay and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) of Oakland.
Yet, as Gurung’s story shows, refugees struggle to get their feet on the ground in the face of Oakland’s high prices.
So, what continues to draw them to the East Bay?
Existing community, promising jobs, great weather, and more still draw refugees to Oakland
According to Mona Afary, the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI), refugees’ reasons for settling in Oakland are complicated, but the existence of established communities from a person’s home country offers resources and support that, even in expensive cities, are crucial for making a new life in a strange place.
“Number one is that they have community members or a tie already established,” Afary said.
Sometimes, those ties are family members. When Gurung arrived in 2012, he had several relatives already living in Oakland. “We followed them,” he said.
Pre-existing Afghan, Eritrean, Guatemalan, and other communities, who have lived in the East Bay for decades, are a draw for newcomer refugees from those countries and regions who would prefer to live near those with whom they share a culture and language.
Today, most of the refugees being served by the IRC and JFCS are from Afghanistan, with the JFCS having resettled 659 Afghan refugees since the Taliban takeover of the country in August of last year. Here, they are able to find connections in the San Francisco Bay Area Afghan community, which numbers over 60,000.
“I think the reason why a lot of individuals and families are still attracted to the Bay Area is because there’s a very large community,” said Jordane Tofighi, Director of Oakland’s IRC, in reference to the many new arrivals from Afghanistan.
When she arrived in California as a refugee from Iran in 2004, Leva Zand’s family was very dependent on local family.
“We had some cousins living in Sacramento, so they helped us a lot, even co-signing for us to find an apartment,” she explained. “Our process was a little bit easier because we had some ties here in the US.”
Now, Zand is the executive director of ARTogether, an Oakland-based non-profit she founded in 2017 that helps refugee artists and provides community through art programming.
Julie Hiatt, an attorney with the Fruitvale-based legal services nonprofit Centro Legal de la Raza, said that refugees are treated differently by the government depending on each person’s unique situation. Legally, a refugee is someone who has been granted permanent resident or green card status prior to entering the United States. Similarly, Special Immigrant Visa holders, most of whom are Afghans, arrive with permanent resident status as a result of having helped the U.S. government abroad. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, request protection after entering the United States. After one year with asylee status, they are eligible to apply for permanent residence. Finally, undocumented immigrants, who are often also fleeing violence and seeking refuge in the U.S., have no legal status. Colloquially, however, all groups are commonly referred to as refugees.
Most of Hiatt’s asylum-seeking clients enter the U.S. in one of two ways. Some cross at an official port of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, whereas others cross the border illegally and are apprehended by border officials. In both situations, the asylum seekers express a fear of returning to their home country, and are then usually released but ordered to appear before an immigration judge later on who will decide whether or not they can stay.
“Being ‘released’ is a way for the U.S. government to say, ‘We believe you are deportable, but we recognize you have a right to ask for asylum, so we’re going to let you be in the United States until we make a decision about whether or not to deport you’,” explained Hiatt.
Unlike refugees, asylum seekers are required to settle in a location where they have a local sponsor. For them, the presence of a pre-existing community doesn’t represent a choice, but rather a necessity. This is one of the reasons Oakland remains a big draw for many refugees.
But a local sponsor is sometimes nothing more than a name on paper. “It could be an actual relative, or it could be a friend of a friend of a friend,” said Goli Hashemi, the director of the Community Wellness and Refugee and Immigrant Occupational Therapy Program for ARTogether, who has also served on the organization’s board for over two years. “They put it in the application, and the person might not even get in touch with them.”
On top of community, refugees are also drawn to Oakland by the prospect of jobs, diversity, and progressive politics—the same factors that propel domestic migration to California.
“Oakland is great in terms of diversity and community,” said Gurung when asked what kept him in Oakland for eight years.
“The Bay Area is one of the least racist places when it comes to refugee populations,” said Fouzia Azizi, the director of refugee services at Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay, one of the two federally-designated refugee resettlement agencies servicing Oakland. “We have very few hate crime incidents.”
California’s progressive politics also tangibly benefit refugees. Unlike other states, California approves public benefits swiftly for individuals with and without immigrant status.
In California, every person who seeks asylum is eligible for public benefits. “Cash, CalFresh, MediCal—exactly the same way regular refugees are eligible,” explained Azizi.
Newcomers are also incentivized by the prospect of earning higher wages than they would in other states. The minimum wage in California is $14, whereas in Texas, another common refugee resettlement destination, it is $7.25.
What is more, Oakland employers are looking to add diversity to their workforces. “We have a lot of employers that are wanting to diversify their teams,” said Tofighi. “There is continuous room for growth, because it’s an ongoing area of need, but there is a push from employers to focus on diversity and equitable opportunities for people in different sectors here in the Bay Area.”
Another draw? The weather.
“Refugees hear from family members that California has great weather,” explained Azizi. Gurung said that climate was “the best part of living in the Bay Area.”
Housing is one of the biggest challenges refugees face
When refugees arrive in Oakland, many are surprised by the challenges that they face to build stable lives. Chief among those challenges is Oakland’s lack of affordable housing.
Most refugees depend on the two local resettlement agencies for temporary housing when they first arrive in Oakland. Because neither the city nor federal agencies provide designated transitional housing for newcomers, refugees are typically placed in a hotel room or Airbnb rental.
The IRC and JCFS receive assistance from both Airbnb and budget hotel chains in the form of booking credits. But because agencies are often only given 24-48 hours’ notice prior to receiving a new arrival, they have to scramble to find available rooms in a limited and expensive market. Moreover, the credits to book Airbnbs are finite. During refugee crises—like the one that followed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the fall of 2021—they quickly run out.
“Even though the partnership is great, it wasn’t able to meet the demands of all our clients. There were just too many,” said Tofighi.
Newcomers struggle to get a solid footing while living in temporary housing, especially since limited rental availability means that they are constantly shuffled around from place to place.
“There are families that I know were moved every week or two weeks from one Airbnb to another for like two months,” said Hashemi. “They didn’t even unpack.”
Airbnbs are preferable to hotel rooms, however, because they have full kitchens, provide more space, and are often tucked away in quieter neighborhoods.
“A family of 9? They give them two rooms,” said Hashemi about a typical hotel stay. “It is so hard. They have this tiny kitchenette with a tiny fridge with a tiny microwave that barely fits a dinner plate,” she said.
When it comes to helping clients find longer-term housing, the IRC relies on relationships with landlords who are willing to rent to newcomers and refugees who lack a rental history and other normally required paperwork. “The key for us is having landlords that understand the limitations and barriers that our refugees face when they first arrive,” said Tofighi.
Most newcomers don’t have credit history, employment records, co-signers, references, or even driver’s licenses.
“Getting landlords to understand that can be challenging,” Tofighi said. “Landlords, rightfully so, want that security of knowing that somebody in six months’ time will be able to pay their rent.”
To overcome this hesitation, the IRC has formed partnerships with certain landlords who are willing to rent to newcomers, many of whom are from refugee or immigrant backgrounds themselves. “We don’t have nearly enough of these partnerships, so we’re always looking for more,” said Tofighi, “but it’s a step in the right direction.”
The instability of early transitional refugee housing compounds with other challenges that many refugees face, like acquiring legal work authorization and securing a job. The fact that many newcomers to Oakland are forced to frequently move early on in the resettlement process can jeopardize a refugee’s case status with government agencies like the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service.
While individuals who enter the U.S. as legal refugees are granted automatic work authorization, others awaiting permanent status often face months of processing delays before receiving work permits, officially known Employment Authorization Documents, or EADs.
“I have clients who arrived in October who are still awaiting their EAD,” said Azizi.
Not only are work permits delayed due to administrative backlog, explained Azizi, they are sometimes also sent to the wrong address, and it’s not uncommon for recipients’ names to be misspelled.
“If a household is a family of eight, and missing its EAD… you can imagine the challenge that the family is facing to take care of all their expenses while they are unable to opt into secure employment,” Azizi said.
Refugees are increasingly looking to more affordable cities
As Oakland’s cost of living has risen, refugees have started moving away to other cities much earlier.
“There is also a huge trend of people arriving here and immediately moving to Sacramento, Stockton, or Modesto, where it is cheaper. There is a huge migration of the Afghan community that I know of from the Bay Area to Sacramento,” said ARTherapy’s Zand.
“The cost of affordable housing for them is very high in Oakland, so even though they might find temporary housing in Oakland, they end up moving to Concord, or the Antioch, Fremont, or Pleasanton areas,” said Hashemi.
During the Afghan crisis in 2021, affordable housing was even more limited than usual, leading to an uptick in Afghan out-migration to the Central Valley, said the IRC’s Tofighi.
Sometimes, the choice of new location is outside of a family’s control. Hashemi said that one family she spoke with recently told her they were moving to Chico simply because that’s where their affordable housing application was approved.
Jodi de la Peña, the interim executive director of Burma Refugee Families and Newcomers, explained that while her organization was started by and for Burmese refugees, it now primarily focuses on Afghan refugees. Most of the organization’s workers who were originally from Burma left Oakland around 2018 in response to high housing costs.
The housing market makes it difficult for non-profit workers who work with refugees to remain in Oakland, as well.
“That is the other challenge,” said Zand. At ARTogether, Zand earns about half the salary that she previously did in the private sector. “I can do this job because I have a partner in tech. I’m very open about that,” she said.
Trump-era funding cuts combined with low salaries mean that most local resettlement agencies are understaffed. “We could hire probably three more people and still not have enough,” said la Peña.
Refugee out-migration is part of a broader trend in which Oakland’s high cost of living disproportionately pushes out immigrants, people of color, and other minorities. “That has really been an issue, and is lowering the diversity of the community who are coming here,” said Zand.
Of course, departure isn’t an option for everyone, especially those who find community in Oakland. “Community is here. Life is here,” said CERI’s Afary.
“No matter what kind of pushback there might be, and the challenges faced with housing, I think people are still going to come [to Oakland],” said Tofighi. “That’s where they can regroup. That’s where they can be together.”