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Running on Empty

3 December 2008 No Comment

By Mateen Kaul  —

Fremont – These are tough times for Rahim Aurang. After working for many years with a staff of helpers to aid thousands of newcomers to the United States settle in the Bay Area, he now sits alone in his office in Fremont.

Lack of funding means Aurang, an Afghan-American, cannot afford to draw a salary for himself, let alone a staff. The services of his non-profit agency, the Bay Area Immigrant and Refugee Services, are also severely curtailed.

Rahim Aurang sits at his desk at his office in Fremont. Photo by Mateen Kaul

Rahim Aurang sits at his desk at his office in Fremont. Photo by Mateen Kaul

But with a shrug of the shoulders, he downplays his troubles and talks animatedly about the future. He plans to open an office in Concord to work out of for a couple of days a week, to serve the Afghan community in Contra Costa County. And he is approaching international aid agencies to seek funding for a humanitarian program to assist orphans and widows in his country of origin.

He squints his eyes, raises the pitch of his voice and gesticulates as he talks about the suffering of women and children in the war-torn country, particularly of young orphans in the harsh Afghan winter. “I’ve seen myself, little children sleeping on the sidewalk, their eyes and faces swollen with the cold,” he said.
He thinks much of the money poured into Afghanistan for its reconstruction since the US-led war to oust the Taliban in 2001 has been wasted. “So much money has gone in. What have they done with it? No one knows,” he said.
He hopes to open a center for widows and orphans with money from aid agencies.
Aurang has a long association with the US. He was educated in the US in the 1960s and when he returned to Afghanistan in 1970, it was to head a hydroelectric project funded by the US. But then the Communists seized power and, suspicious of his connections with America, removed him from his job. “They probably thought I was with the CIA,” he joked.
He left Afghanistan in 1982 and took up residence in the US, where his first job was as an employment counsellor for immigrants in Oakland. He opened the Afghan Support Agency in 1989, which later became BAIRS, to reflect the fact that it served not just Afghans, but all immigrants, he said. Aurang estimates that the agency has helped some 10,000 Afghans alone settle in the Bay Area.
Last Year, Aurang moved his office from Oakland to Fremont, on the advice of Afghan friends who were convinced it would be a good idea to come to a city with one of the biggest Afghan populations in the US. It’s a move he regrets. He now gets fewer clients, and many clients of nationalities other than Afghan have been lost. His office is in a less prominent location.
The services on offer have also had to be curtailed, because of lack of funding. In Oakland, the agency ran programs to give refugees professional training, help women and warn youths of the dangers of drugs and gangs. All funding came from Alameda County. But last year, the money started drying up because of the bad economy and rising demand on city budgets. Now he only gets money from the county for services he provides to elderly refugees, accounting for $6,000-7,000 per year, “barely enough to cover rent,” he said.
He said he is lucky that his landlord, who runs an insurance company from offices next door, gives him a discount rent rate and free utilities. The phone number listed for the agency is Aurang’s personal cell phone number. He draws no salary for his work. Asked how he survives, Aurang said his wife has a good job and his kids are both graduates of UC Berkeley.
But he knows the situation is worse for others. Midway through our interview, he stops to take a call. It is from a colleague and friend in Oakland who, until recently, ran the East Bay Vietnamese Association. “He shut down in May, after 32 years in the business,” Aurang said.

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