A Safe Haven: What Immigrant and Refugee Families Need to Know

By Khadija Diallo, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness


Image 1 Times Ayan and Muna
Ayan Rashid, 14, and her sister Muna Rashid, 4, inside their apartment in Kent. According to the 2015 Seattle Times article “Unsettled: Immigrants Search for their ‘Forever’ Homes in Seattle,” this family lived in a refugee camp for years. Photo Credit: Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times


Just imagine: you are 25 years old, a mother of three from Somalia and you have lived in Washington for two years. You don’t speak English; you have no relatives in any surrounding area or knowledge of resources available to you. To top it all off, you’re no longer able to pay your rent bill, so you and your children end up homeless. What next?

What if you were a single father of two who became homeless, yet found shelter at Mary’s Place, but are an undocumented immigrant. What rights do you have? Can you be arrested at the shelter?

With a new administration underway and impending immigration sweeps nationwide, it’s important for immigrants and refugees to know their rights. It’s also important for families experiencing housing instability to know what resources are available to them.

That’s why I decided to look into what it’s like for immigrant and refugee families experiencing homelessness. I looked into the situation in our region, visited Muslim Housing Services, and attended a presentation by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project at the March meeting of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. Here’s what I learned.

Immigrant and Refugee Families in King County

In just the first 10 weeks of 2017, there were 121 families experiencing homelessness who indicated to King County’s Coordinated Entry for All that they are interested in immigrant and refugee services. (Stephanie Roe of King County provided this data to us; thank you, Stephanie.) That’s 27 percent of the 440 families who were assessed for Coordinated Entry during that time.

I was surprised that the number was so high. I was also surprised to learn that as of late 2015, about one-third of public housing and Section 8 rentals funded through the King County Housing Authority were rented by immigrant and refugee families. For more information, read this article in the Seattle Times.



Image 2 CEA Poster
King County provides information about Coordinated Entry for All in multiple languages, like this poster in Somali. Poster by our project designed by Mandy Rusch, adapted from an earlier design by Amy Phung.


The housing needs of immigrant and refugee families are so great that King County offers its informational materials about Coordinated Entry for All – what they call “a clear path to housing” – in multiple languages. In fact, our project helped King County serve these families by designing both their flier and the translated versions. Above is the Somali version.

Muslim Housing Services – A Pathway to Permanent Housing

The scenario of the young mother at the beginning of my post is a typical situation of a client at Muslim Housing Services, a nonprofit based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley that serves homeless families in our region.

Immigrant and refugee families experiencing homelessness face harsher realities than United States-born families. The lack of fluency in English can be a major obstacle. Here’s where Muslim Housing Services can really help, because they have staff who speak seven common immigrant and refugee languages: Amharic, Hindi, Oromo, Somali, Swahili, Tigrinya, and Urdu.

I had the privilege of visiting Muslim Housing Services and learning more about its services.


Image 3 Rizwan
Mr. Rizwan Rizwi during our interview last month.   Photo Credit: Khadija Diallo

The executive director of Muslim Housing Services is Mr. Rizwan Rizwi. His staff also includes six case managers who focus primarily on providing housing opportunities to homeless immigrant families.

I interviewed Mr. Rizwi on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in his office. He is a very knowledgeable and friendly man. I also appreciated how he took the time to personally introduce me to the entire staff and give me a tour of Muslim Housing Services.


Image 4 Chairs
On any given day, an immigrant or refugee family looking for housing could wait to be assisted here.  Photo Credit: Khadija Diallo

In the past year, Muslim Housing Services served 1,244 people representing 337 families, mainly from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The goal of the organization, said Mr. Rizwi, is to stabilize families — to “get families housed, kids in school, [and] exit [our] program.”

Image 5 Board
Muslim Housing Services showcases on their board opportunities for childcare, employment and other valuable information about immigrants and refugees in Seattle. Photo Credit: Khadija Diallo

The program puts families in contact with affordable housing opportunities through rental assistance with private landlords, Mr. Rizwi explained.

In addition to housing, Muslim Housing Services offers “peripheral services,” as Mr. Rizwi calls them, which include furniture, diapers, and employment services; the nonprofit even helps families apply for jobs and make sure they’re stable. Muslim Housing Services also offers workshops with case managers that range from resettlement tips for families new to the United States, to when to call 911 in case of an emergency.

I was amazed at all the services that this nonprofit provides. As an immigrant and Muslim myself, I wondered why I had not heard of this organization before. I also wondered how other families were able to find Muslim Housing Services and learned from Rizwi that it was mostly through referrals from other housing services organizations.

My family has been fortunate to find permanent housing in Seattle, but it’s good to know for future reference. When my parents first immigrated to the United States and were looking for housing, they struggled to find a place, because my mother and sister didn’t speak English and couldn’t communicate well with landlords. They worked hard and managed to find an apartment close to Capitol Hill. Had my family known about Muslim Housing Services, maybe the search would have been easier.

But back to Muslim Housing Services. For Mr. Rizwi and his case managers, the work is tough, but it’s rewarding. As he puts it, there is a huge demand for the work they do. “Most businesses try to get clients; we have too many. [There’s a] constant waiting list of families waiting to get help.”


Image 6 Office
This is a typical office at Muslim Housing Services. On any given day, a client would be paired up with one the case managers and get valuable help finding housing opportunities. Photo Credit: Khadija Diallo

Other Providers Serving Immigrant and Refugee Families

There are numerous organizations that specialize in serving local immigrant and refugee families. Stephanie Roe of King County Department of Community and Human Services, who provided the above data about families, also gave us this list of providers, in addition to MHS:

  • El Centro de la Raza — includes the Frances Martinez Community Service Center and its diverse and bilingual Human and Emergency Services which addresses homelessness
  • InterIm CDA — provides “housing services and real-estate development, building low-income housing projects and mixed-use projects”
  • Neighborhood House — partners with families to “build community and achieve their goals for health, education and self-sufficiency.” They offer aging and disability services, community health services and housing stability
  • Somali Youth and Family Club — committed to “working with all partners to provide access to essential services towards the attainment of sustainable quality of life”
  • ReWA (Refugee Women’s Alliance) — case managers provide housing assistance including employment assistance; also connect them with donated furniture and other household essentials, like Muslim Housing Services does

Other organizations serving immigrant and refugee families include:

  • International Rescue Committee — promotes self-reliance and integration to refugees, asylees and other immigrants
  • Solid Ground — offers referrals to support housing stability
  • YWCA — includes programs that build stable homes and promote economic advancement


Know Your Rights: Advice from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project


Statue of Liberty_From SKCCH
Statue of Liberty after the proposed immigration ban — Photo from SKCCH’s Facebook page, promoting their workshop.


Keeping immigrant and refugee families safe is a top priority for providers serving this population, which I learned at a workshop conducted by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), “Immigration 101 for Homelessness Providers.” The workshop was hosted at the monthly meeting of Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness.

NWIRP is a nonprofit that “defends and advances the rights of immigrants through direct legal services, systemic advocacy and community education.” Their representatives gave us this advice:

  1. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should not go into homeless shelters without a warrant.
  2. Likely changes to immigration enforcement include:
    • an increased focus on anyone who interacts with the criminal justice system
    • workplace raids
    • increased use of immigration detention
    • expansion of deportation powers outside of the court.
  3. All people, regardless of immigration status, have basic constitutional rights (all have a right to remain silent); no immigrant has an obligation to hand over any foreign documents to ICE unless a warrant or valid reason has been provided.
  4. It is legal to ask ICE officers for their name, badge number and department.
  5. It is illegal for ICE to enter a shelter without a search warrant. ICE needs to show a search warrant signed by a judge to enter without your permission. It’s better to have them slip it under the door, or place it against the window; make sure the information is accurate and looks legitimate.
  6. Do not share any of your clients’ information with ICE; this includes confirming or denying whether someone is a client or resident in your shelter.
  7. Here is a handy fact sheet by the NWIRP, from a tweet by the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.


Immigrants and refugees who are homeless face a host of obstacles in the United States. Fortunately, there are organizations like Muslim Housing Services that help them find their footing. When I first moved to Seattle as an immigrant, a few years after my mother and sister, I was lucky that they already had stable housing for us; and a year later, we moved from rental to permanent housing. And luckily, we were all able to successfully apply for American citizenship.

But I can certainly imagine how frightening a time it is for people who are undocumented and experiencing homelessness.

Learning about the plight of immigrants and refugees in Seattle and King County makes me want to work harder to provide more resources for these families who I believe are underserved. At least there are several organizations that immigrants and refugees experiencing homelessness can turn to in the community. Experiencing homelessness alone itself is tough; adding other factors including a language barrier and lack of access to resources sounds like a hopeless situation. It’s reassuring to learn there are organizations like Muslim Housing Services and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project trying to help.

What You Can Do:


UPDATE, June 19, 2017 — Building Changes has released a new report, Preventing Homelessness for Refugee Families: A Unique Population Calls for Unique Solutions. Read about how BC worked with Muslim Housing Services, International Rescue Committee and Somali Youth & Family Club to serve 134 families.


One thought on “A Safe Haven: What Immigrant and Refugee Families Need to Know

  1. Pingback: Published Written Pieces | Khadija Diallo

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