The Refugee Dream Center and Creating Community in the face of the Housing Crisis

by Maru Attwood
July 18, 2023

Part II: The Refugee Dream Center and Creating Community in the Face of the Housing Crisis 

“Housing, paying the rent, it’s one of the main problems for refugees,” says Noorulaq Sadeq. Sadeq is a refugee and caseworker from Afghanistan who came to Rhode Island after the US military withdrew from his home country in 2021. He is warm, enthusiastic and knowledgeable — using his first-hand experience to support other refugees as a caseworker at the Refugee Dream Center, an organization that provides essential services to refugees in Providence. 

When Sadeq arrived in Rhode Island, he was surprised by the high cost of housing. The state has a severe shortage of affordable housing for low-income residents. Every year, reports on the housing crisis illustrate the issue’s magnitude. According to the Rhode Island Foundation’s April 2023 report, more than 150 thousand households and 45% of all renters in the state are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than a third of their income towards housing. 

Though experiences differ widely, many refugee households have very low incomes, especially soon after they arrive in the US. Rents can be prohibitively high — an extra burden on top of finding secure employment and working with new systems while navigating language barriers. 

In the face of these issues, organizations in Rhode Island that support refugees are indispensable. I spoke to the staff of the Refugee Dream Center for this story, the second article in a two-part series on how Rhode Island’s affordable housing crisis impacts refugees in Rhode Island. You can read part one, focused on the refugee resettlement work of Dorcas International, here

For Refugees, by Refugees 

The Refugee Dream Center (RDC), housed at the side of a brick church on Broad Street in Providence, draws visitors in. The first room is filled with plants, a massive world map, and community members, teachers, and case workers chatting in Swahili, Somali, and Dari. 

Founded by Teddi Jallow and her husband, Dr. Omar Bah, who both arrived in Rhode Island as refugees from the Gambia, the Refugee Dream Center works with refugees already in Rhode Island. The RDC supports its community by advocating for refugee rights, running a youth mentoring program, teaching English classes, and connecting refugees to jobs, health services, and supportive communities. The center has become a source of community, even family, for refugees, no matter how long they have been in Rhode Island. Jallow says they work to make any refugee who walks through their door “feel at home, feel welcome, feel like you can see somebody who can help you out, somebody who will relate at least to what you are going through.”

The staff is integral to the RDC's work. As current or former refugees, they can provide assistance and connection based on their own experiences and challenges. Fluent in many languages that incoming refugees speak most comfortably, staff members are able to offer directed support, Jallow sharing, "We all speak at least three to five languages."

Sadeq, who speaks Dari, Farsi, Pashto, Uzbek, and English, has been a caseworker for over a year. “When I found [the Refugee Dream Center], I felt it was the best opportunity…I can use my abilities to help other Afghani refugees.”

From Kabul to Providence 

On every visit to the Refugee Dream Center, I was greeted by a staff member and a large sign that read “Refugee Dream Center Welcomes You.” I was surprised one afternoon in April when the door was locked. I rang the bell twice, checked the appointment on my phone’s calendar, and messaged Sadeq. He called me back immediately to apologize. We had accidentally scheduled to talk on Eid. The center was closed. Disappointed, I started to head home. Then Sadeq suggested I interview him and his friends as they celebrated Eid with a volleyball game in Roger Williams Park.

Sitting at a park table on a bright spring afternoon, I spoke to Sadeq and his friend and housemate, Adel Bakhshullah, as they shared walnuts and wafters with me. A larger group of their friends, mostly other Afghan men in their thirties, gave occasional input on the conversation. They were in a celebratory mood with the end of Ramadan, eager for their volleyball game to begin but still patiently answering my questions.

Sadeq and Bakhshullah trained in the US military and worked together as pilots in Afghan Air Force. When the US withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, they contacted friends in the American army who helped them to leave the country. Within days they were evacuated to Azerbaijan and then to Slovakia, where they stayed for two and a half months. "My family was left behind in Afghanistan…But for me, there was no option. I didn't have any choice. I decided to come to the United States as a refugee,” says Sadeq.

Today, Sadeq and Bakhshullah share a first-floor apartment in Providence. To make it affordable, they split the rent five ways with three other housemates. Their landlord has approached them about increasing rents, but they would be unable to afford the higher costs. They’re not only covering their own expenses. “We have to maintain ourselves here and support our families back in Afghanistan," says Bakhshullah.

Employment and Housing 

Sadeq and Bakhshullah can’t get the accreditation to work as pilots in the US, so they have found work elsewhere. Bakhshullah works building sailboats, while Sadeq is a caseworker at the Refugee Dream Center. Finding secure employment is the surest path to secure housing, explains Sadeq. “After getting a job, financially, they can support themselves with housing…as a case manager, my top responsibility is to find jobs.” Bakhshullah proudly describes how he has helped dozens of fellow refugees find jobs since starting as a caseworker. 

Finding work as a refugee can be challenging, especially as qualifications from elsewhere are often not recognized in the US. Ghulamsaki Robobi is an experienced electrician who worked on American military bases surrounding Kabul. “I am a technician and specialist in my job and my talent, electrical work.” When the US military withdrew from Afghanistan, he says, “I escaped by the American soldiers…but my family lives in Kabul.” He hopes that they will be able to join him in the US. In the meantime, covering his rent without work is immensely challenging. 

I spoke to Robobi after an English lesson at the Refugee Dream Center, where he was animated and quick to make associations between new vocabulary words. He grew up speaking Dari and learned to speak some English by talking to American soldiers. Robobi takes English lessons with the Refugee Dream Center to improve his reading and writing in the hopes that it will make finding employment easier.

Dorcas International paid for seven months of Robobi’s rent, and the Refugee Dream Center covered one more. The Refugee Dream Center is a small organization without funding to pay for many months of rent. But still, for refugees facing housing insecurity, “we'll try our best to find some solution for them,” says Sadeq. “In cases of emergency, the Refugee Dream Center pays for just one, maximum of two months of rent,” he continues.

Bakhshullah, Sadeq, and the others at the Eid celebration say that despite adversity, they don’t want to complain. They draw strength from the teachings of Islam and the community of Afghan refugees in Rhode Island. “When you’re coming here, you're trying your best to help each other. You're supporting each other. It’s coming from your belief, your feeling that you have a responsibility to take care of each other,” says Sadeq. They are interconnected in helping each other find their independence.“We have to help each other, support each other to stand on their own feet,” says Bakhshullah. 

How to Support the Refugee Dream Center 

There are many ways to support the Refugee Dream Center and become part of the community working to improve the lives of refugees in Rhode Island in the face of the housing crisis. To learn more about the RDC’s work or to get involved with the center, visit their website here


Maru Attwood’ 24 is a History concentrator from South Africa. She writes as part of the Swearer Center’s Storytellers Series. On campus, she organizes for climate and housing justice with Sunrise and HOPE