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Hillsborough County's refugee community continues to grow

food in trays being served
Nancy Guan
Several faith organizations hosted a dinner celebration for recently-arrived refugees in the Tampa Bay Region.

Hillsborough County saw about 14,576 refugee arrivals last fiscal year, making it second to Miami-Dade in numbers of refugees arriving in the state.

Sanaullah Rahmani came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2021. At the age of 12, he had evacuated Afghanistan after the Abbey Gate explosion in Kabul, leaving the rest of his family behind.

More than two years later, he was finally able to reunite with his parents and siblings in Florida, their new home.

Rahmani and his family are among more than 30,000 refugees that arrived in Hillsborough County in the last five years.

The county is second to Miami-Dade, which accounts for more than half of the state's refugee arrivals each year.

Most arrivals, about 78%, come from Cuba, followed by Haiti (16%) and Ukraine (4%).

The refugee community in the Tampa Bay Region has grown more rapidly in recent years due to changes in federal policy. The Biden Administration lifted a cap on refugee admissions to 125,000, which will continue in 2024.

As a result, area resettlement agencies, which help refugees, have seen an influx.

"There is a definite increase," said Vivian Farid, who works with Coptic Orthodox Charities and spoke at an interfaith event for recently-arrived refugees.

About a fourth of the refugees arriving in Florida are children younger than the age of 19. Like Rahmani, they fled their country because of war or violence and a fear of persecution.

Rahmani said it's hard for him to recount the day of the Abbey Gate attack. More than 170 Afghan civilians were killed, along with 13 U.S. servicemembers.

It was months before Rahmani finally settled in the Tampa area. Refugees are vetted and have to go through the immigration process. He's currently seeking asylum.

boy speaks with woman at event
Nancy Guan
Sanaullah Rahmani, 14, stands with his father (right). They talk with one of the organizers of the interfaith dinner for recently-arrived refugees.

The rest of Rahmani's family arrived just six weeks ago. Through a translator Omid, Rahmani's father, said he and his wife hugged his son and cried.

"It was hard without him," he said.

Lutheran Services Florida is one of the largest resettlement organizations in the state. They fall under Global Refuge, one of the 10 resettlement agencies that contracts with the federal government.

A spokesperson for LSF said they resettled more than 1,000 Afghan refugees in 2021, the year of the attack.

The group is expecting to see an increase in refugees overall. The state serves refugees from more than 50 countries.

Resettlement groups help refugees adjust to life in the U.S. in various ways, including helping them find homes, jobs and enroll children in school.

Farid with Coptic Orthodox Charities said it's an accelerated process.

"We take the refugee family from the airport, and we have 90 days to bring them up on their feet," said Farid.

The biggest challenges will continue to persist, she added, such as finding affordable housing for refugees, who don't yet have a credit history. Additionally, the group teaches individuals and families about how things work financially and civically.

"We have people who are still beginning in their lives and they still have little children," said Farid, "to single individuals who are struggling and not knowing what the future is going to bring."

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.