Dozens of Traumatized Afghan Kids Struggle Inside a Shelter That’s Ill-Equipped to Care for Them
“This story was originally published by ProPublica.”
Some children who were evacuated from Afghanistan and are being cared for at a Chicago shelter for immigrant minors have hurt themselves, harmed other children or threatened staff. Others have tried to escape or talked about wanting to die. Some have required psychiatric hospitalization.
These events at the shelter were described by three employees and other people familiar with the conditions there, as well as being detailed in police records and internal documents obtained by ProPublica.
Employees at the shelter, which is operated by the nonprofit Heartland Alliance, say they are overwhelmed and ill-equipped to care for the roughly 40 Afghan children and teens placed there by the U.S. government, many of them traumatized by war in their homeland and their hasty evacuation.
The employees said they have never experienced this level of disorganization or stress, even though some of them worked through the chaos inside Heartland shelters following the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy of separating children from their parents.
Language and cultural barriers have exacerbated the problem. Workers said no employees speak Pashto or Dari, the children’s main languages, and access to phone-based interpretation lines is limited, making it difficult to deescalate tense encounters.
“We don’t know if [the children are] saying they’re going to self-harm until we finally get a translator on the line,” said one worker at the shelter in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood on the city’s South Side. “They could be telling us something. … We try to guess. We try to communicate with cues, sign language, making motions like if you’re hungry or they need this or that.”
Altogether, Heartland officials said they were caring for 79 Afghan children across four Chicago shelters on Wednesday. But the shelter in Bronzeville, the largest in Heartland’s portfolio, is where workers are reporting problems.
As of Wednesday, 41 of the 55 children and teens at that shelter were from Afghanistan, records show. Of those, 25 had been at the facility for at least 50 days, while 15 had been there for at least 60 days. ProPublica reported in 2018 on how prolonged stays in Heartland’s shelters led to despair, confusion and suicidal ideation among children.
No organization in the country is sheltering more Afghan children than Heartland at the moment. A total of 186 Afghan youth were in the government’s care as of Friday. (Federal officials did not respond to requests for updated figures this week.)
The children are among the tens of thousands of Afghans brought to the U.S. after America’s widely criticized military pullout from the country following two decades of war. In the chaos, many children were separated from parents or adult relatives at Taliban checkpoints and airports, or later at U.S. military bases in other countries. Many wound up on planes alone, according to workers and advocates who have spoken to the children.
And unlike many of the Central American children who typically pass through the shelter system with a plan and a destination in mind — and the knowledge from relatives’ experiences to prepare them — these young Afghans had no idea what to expect when they arrived. Some have no relatives or family friends here to take them in. Many didn’t even want to come here and are worried about their families back home, the workers and advocates said.
“These Afghan youth are experiencing very high trauma burdens and mental health issues from living in a war-torn country, exacerbated by their chaotic and untraditional arrival alone in a foreign land,” Heartland said in a statement. “Something as simple as a phone call home is highly emotional …. What if my parents don’t answer? Are they dead? Missing? Will I ever see them again? What if the Taliban finds me here?”
Heartland officials said that, from the start, sheltering the children has been a challenge.
“Details of arrivals, governmental guidelines, and other information has been limited or changing, literally by the hour,” they said in the statement. “National, federal, state, local, and nonprofit organizations are trying to operate within a seriously under-resourced and broken infrastructure dismantled by the previous federal administration.”
Workers at the Bronzeville shelter said they understand that factors beyond Heartland’s control are largely to blame for the problems. But they say they are disappointed in the response so far from both Heartland and the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for the shelter system.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees ORR, said the “vast majority” of the more than 900 Afghan children who have come to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors have been placed with sponsors. The spokesperson said the agency is working to ensure children “are placed with care providers that are able to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services or unified directly with a vetted sponsor.”
Heartland officials said they provide “24/7 safe and welcoming residential care that includes food, clothing, shelter, schooling, and basic medical care — until we are able to safely unite them with family or a sponsor here in the U.S.” Several of the children who were at the Bronzeville shelter over the past two months have already been placed with relatives or other sponsors, workers said.
Heartland, a large nonprofit known for a range of anti-poverty and humanitarian work in Illinois and around the world, “was selected to receive youth coming from Afghanistan given our long experience in caring for unaccompanied children from outside of the Northern Triangle” in Central America, organization officials said in the statement.
The Bronzeville facility is a former nursing home licensed to house up to 250 children on its four floors. Over the years, at least a dozen current and former workers have told ProPublica they felt conflicted working there because of the conditions; they wanted to help immigrant children but have come to view the shelter as a detention center.
What has been happening at the Heartland shelter in recent weeks is a contrast to operations at an emergency facility for Afghan children in Michigan. An immigration attorney who has spent time at that shelter, where about 50 Afghan minors are being cared for, said she had not seen or heard of problems on the same scale as those Heartland workers have described. That campus-like site, complete with residential cottages spread across green space, is operated by the nonprofit social service agency Starr Commonwealth.
Almost from the start, there has been one interpreter in every cottage who spoke Pashto, Dari or both, said Jennifer Vanegas, a supervising attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center’s program for immigrant children.
“So much can get in the way [of phone-based interpretation]: a bad connection, a dropped call,” she said. “It’s very impersonal. It’s much better when you can have another person in the room to interpret, look at kids and connect.”
Vanegas said she and her colleagues worry most about those children who have been there for longer than a few weeks, as the site “was not set up to be a long-term facility” and isn’t equipped to provide them the culturally and linguistically appropriate psychosocial mental services they need. So far, the lengths of stay have ranged from 10 days to about 50, she said.
In addition to Starr Commonwealth and Heartland, another network of shelters for immigrant children in Illinois has taken in a smaller number of Afghan children. Sister Catherine Ryan, the executive director of Maryville Academy, said last week that ORR had placed about a dozen Afghan children at the organization’s shelters in and around Chicago. About half of those children, she said, have been sent to live with relatives or in other placements.
The Afghan children started arriving at the Heartland shelter in Bronzeville around Aug. 23, according to records and interviews with workers. Most are boys in their teens, but workers said the youngest they received was 2. Records indicate that once the Afghan youth started arriving, the facility stopped receiving children and teens from other countries, though it’s not clear why.
It’s unusual for the shelter to receive so many children at once who don’t speak a language spoken by staff members, according to workers and people familiar with the situation. Many of the workers speak Spanish.
To communicate with the Afghan youth, workers rely on cell phones to call interpreters, but they said there aren’t enough phones. Heartland said last week it distributed 61 devices to translate information into multiple languages, including Dari and Pashto, across its four shelters, and that it will distribute 39 more this week.
Workers said they sometimes ask children who speak some English to serve as interpreters. But that can be problematic when discussing sensitive topics. Workers said they have asked for English-Dari and English-Pashto dictionaries.
In an email sent to shelter staff last week, David Sinski, executive director of Heartland Human Care and Services, the branch of Heartland that runs the shelters, wrote that the organization was working with ORR to get translators on site and to have an Afghan employee from another part of the organization connect virtually with children and staff.
In spite of Heartland’s efforts, the shelter has been the scene of a series of troubling incidents, described in police records, internal documents and interviews. In emails sent to management and staff last week, one shelter worker wrote that the young Afghans were “displaying behaviour that I have not seen in my almost 5 years at [Heartland].” Another wrote that police and ambulance workers had been on-site “a record amount over the last few days and weeks alone.”
A Chicago police service log shows dozens of calls for service to the Bronzeville address in the past five weeks, including 15 coded for emergency medical services, three for suicide attempts or threats, five for batteries or assaults, and two for mental health disturbances.
An incident report dated Oct. 1 describes a boy who was hospitalized after “cutting his arms with an unknown object.” A week later, police wrote another report on a boy who was hospitalized after cutting his forearm with a bottle cap and throwing items. The boy was upset about not being allowed to make a video call “and instead was given a regular phone call,” officers wrote. Neither incident was life-threatening. The reports don’t explicitly mention whether the children are from Afghanistan, though two shelter workers said they were.
Call logs for other emergency dispatch services were not available before publication.
Meanwhile, an internal report describes a 14-year-old boy threatening workers with a pair of scissors. Two emails describe instances of boys verbally accosting female staff. Other reports detail workers having to restrain a boy who tried to break a window and, in another incident, hit another boy.
Heartland officials acknowledged the challenges of meeting the children’s psychiatric needs. They said staff had met with city and state officials to “address significant systemic barriers to accessing psychiatric assessments for children in need of in-patient care” and will begin individual and group therapy for some of the children.
The organization said it has been building connections with the local Afghan community and offers Friday prayers and weekly visits to a mosque and is “integrating many cultural comforts like foods and activities that the youth are requesting.”
Heartland acknowledged that the work is “heartbreaking for these kids and very difficult for our staff.” Officials said they “facilitate weekly staff discussions to address current stressors” and are seeking resources to help combat caregiver fatigue.
“We don’t blame our staff for being frustrated or angry,” the statement said. “The broken system is letting everyone down.”