When the flames of last week’s unforgiving wildfires began to lick across southern Boulder County at breakneck speed, Chris Liggett immediately put out a call to his team leaders at Boulder Task Force.
The informal volunteer group had for months been helping Afghan refugees resettle in Boulder County. But as the inferno began to churn through the communities of Superior and Louisville, it became clear that the already formidable challenge of finding rent-free homes for vulnerable refugees — in an area already experiencing a housing shortage — was suddenly going to be a much heavier lift.
Boulder Task Force is a network of teams, each focused on finding shelter and offering essential support for an individual Afghan family seeking to build a stable new life in the United States. There are currently 10 families who have been resettled in Boulder County, with five more scheduled to arrive by the end of the month.
Liggett, an active-duty Army officer, helped kick off the effort here last fall by resettling an Afghan national named Mat, whose full name is being withheld to protect his identity. He served as Liggett’s translator during his deployment in Afghanistan in 2014, before arriving in Lafayette with his family of eight last October.
But after the harrowing experience of escaping from eastern Afghanistan during one of the largest military air evacuations in history, Mat and his family on Thursday found themselves facing the prospect of yet another life-altering trauma as the Marshall Fire burned through Boulder County.
“He was really scared, and the kids were scared, because fire is something they understand. They have a lot of experience with that in Afghanistan, but they don’t have a competent fire department, or a fire department at all,” Liggett said. “So when a house catches on fire, it’s a fend-for-yourself type situation. I think a lot of [Afghan refugees] sort of assumed that would happen here.”
But it didn’t happen here. Mat and his family watched with alarm as the flames moved closer to their new home in Lafayette. Liggett said a neighbor was ready with a plan to evacuate the family if an official order was issued, but it didn’t come to that. Some other resettled Afghans had to preemptively evacuate their new homes, but none of the properties were destroyed or damaged. No one had to fend for themselves.
Still, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history marked a new shift in the priorities and strategies driving the efforts of Liggett and his fellow volunteers. Now they are recalibrating their mission to continue bringing Afghan families like Mat’s to Boulder County in a strange and sudden new reality.
A refugee crisis meets a housing crisis — and a climate crisis
The spirit of care was palpable when Boulder Task Force held their first public meeting after the fires on Sunday. For the 26 volunteers on the Zoom call, some of whom were dealing with their own displacement, Afghan families and their needs were top of mind.
The conversation quickly turned to housing. “I think [the fires] will create some competitiveness. One thousand families are going to have to figure it out,” said Gene Binder, founding pastor at Cornerstone Church. His congregation helped resettle Burmese refugees in Boulder in the 1990s, and they have been a major player in the multi-faith coalition doing the same for Afghans today.
Binder tuned into the Zoom call from the Boulder Marriott, where his own family had been staying after evacuating their home in Louisville.
“We talked to some [displaced Boulder County] families today, particularly those who have kids in school, and they want to find temporary long-term housing while their homes get rebuilt, so their kids can stay in the same school district,” Binder said. “So I think it’s going to have an impact — just think of 1,000 people in the rental market, all of a sudden.”
Boulder was low on the list of resettlement cities when the Afghan refugee crisis first began to take shape, due in part to the lack of affordable housing. And it’s not just a problem here — resettlement efforts across the country are running headfirst into the national housing crisis in cities like Phoenix, St. Louis and Los Angeles, where high-dollar properties and a scarcity of rentals are posing a stiff challenge for agencies and volunteers.
The problem is being aggravated in Boulder County by an extra ingredient: the climate crisis. Warming temperatures and drought helped contribute to the wildfires that engulfed the area on Dec. 30, exacerbating the already daunting task of relocating families who came here with nothing.
The road ahead: from ‘cultural island’ to ‘cultural mainland‘
On a phone call with Liggett after Sunday’s meeting, he stressed that while the market for housing is no doubt competitive, this isn’t a story about Afghan families versus displaced fire victims.
For starters, Liggett says the needs of the two groups at this juncture are very different. “A lot of [displaced people] have family they’re staying with, or they have friends, or they have enough money to go get a rental. Insurance is going to help them pay for things,” he said. “This isn’t all of them, for sure — some are in a much different situation than that. But many have a sort of built-in support system.”
Most Afghan refugees, on the other hand, arrived here with nothing. The vast majority are in the country on what the government calls “humanitarian parole,” meaning they can apply for asylum but can’t access most government-funded benefits and services. They don’t have money, credit or social security numbers. Many don’t speak English.
“What our families need is a homeowner who doesn’t rely on rent for income. And they need a homeowner who also wants to be a sponsor. They don’t just need an apartment for rent,” Liggett said. “A typical apartment rental in Boulder — we’re not able to do that anyway. That’s not something we can even go for. We need homeowners who are in the resettlement mindset and want to be supportive of that cause.”
Until Liggett and his team of local volunteers find more homeowners who match that description, the challenge for Task Force Boulder will be to help Afghan refugees who are already here. But five more families are slated to arrive later in January, and the question of whether or not they’ll be able to come to Boulder County is very much up in the air.
The reason that matters is because these families need a community of peers to thrive in their new home. Without a critical mass of Afghans, the fear is the area will remain a “cultural island,” as it was initially designated by Lutheran Family Services, the Denver-based agency contracted by the U.S. State Department to manage refugee resettlement in Colorado.
The idea is to transform Boulder County into a cultural mainland, but that won’t be easy after the destruction of the Marshall Fire. “The goal behind what we do is not just to provide a service — we want to build bridges of relationships between us and them,” Binder told the Boulder Reporting Lab in a phone call before the fires. “We want them to feel like they’re part of our community now. Not like they’re just people who have come from another country and don’t have an identity here.”
The challenge of forming that critical mass, and building those bridges, is made more complicated by the housing pinch resulting from the wildfires. While Binder, Liggett and the rest of the Task Force Boulder team say they’re up for the challenge, they make no bones about the difficult road ahead.
“We weren’t so stressed about housing before, because it hasn’t been a huge issue. If we had a team and we had a family lined up, we could generally find something,” Liggett said. “But now we’re unsure what that’s going to look like.”