WASHINGTON (AP) — Taliban forces had taken the Afghan capital. Crowds of panicked people thronged the airport. And a young man who had worked as a contractor for the US military faced a terrible choice.
Hasibullah Hasrat, after navigating chaotic streets and Taliban checkpoints to get inside the airport, could either return to pick up his wife and two young children or board an evacuation flight and retrieve them later. Not flying probably meant that none of them would get out of Afghanistan.
Hasrat’s decision haunts him. He is in the United States, one of more than 78,000 Afghans admitted to the country after the withdrawal of American troops in August that ended the longest American war. But his family could not join him. They are still in Afghanistan, where an economic crisis has caused widespread starvation and Taliban repression is intensifying.
“My wife is alone there,” he said, his voice cracking as he described the nightly phone calls home. “My son is crying, asking where I am, when am I coming. And I don’t know what to say.
It is a reminder that the journey of many Afghans who came to the United States during the historic evacuation remains a work in progress, filled with uncertainty and anxiety about the future.
Afghan refugees, some of whom faced possible retaliation for working with their government or US forces during the war with the Taliban, have said in interviews they are grateful to the US for saving them , as well as their family members.
But they often struggle to settle in a new country, struggling to pay their bills as help from the government and resettlement agencies begins to dry up, stuck in temporary accommodation and trying to figure out how seek asylum because most Afghans have been subject to a two-year emergency status known as humanitarian parole.
“We don’t know what can happen,” said Gulsom Esmaelzade, whose family has been shuttling between hotel rooms in the San Diego area since January, after spending three months at a military base in New Jersey. “We have nothing at home in Afghanistan and here we have no future either.”
It was expensive. Esmaelzade said her mother had to be rushed to the emergency room three times when her blood pressure reached dangerous levels. The young woman attributes it to the stress in their lives.
Then there are more mundane challenges that are nonetheless daunting to many Afghans. They include learning English, navigating government bureaucracies and public transportation, and finding a job.
There is also isolation for those, like Hasrat, who came alone. “I don’t know anyone here,” he said in the apartment outside Washington he shares with two other evacuees. “I have no friends, no family, no relatives. I just live with my roommates and my roommates are from other parts of Afghanistan.
Some have managed to establish themselves. “But there are a lot more who are not doing well than who are doing well,” said Megan Flores, executive director of the Immigrant & Refugee Outreach Center in McLean, Virginia.
The experience of Afghan evacuees is no different from what refugees have experienced historically when coming to the United States. In some ways, it’s a preview for the 100,000 Ukrainians who President Joe Biden says will be welcome, also in many cases with two years of humanitarian parole.
Afghans on humanitarian parole must apply for a way to stay in the country, for example through asylum. It is a time-consuming process that usually requires finding an immigration lawyer, at the cost of thousands of dollars that is not readily available to most refugees unless they find someone to do it pro bono.
The Department of Homeland Security says about half of the 78,000 people will likely qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program. It grants permanent residency to individuals, as well as their immediate family, who have worked for the US government. Hasrat has not been able to obtain an SIV, at least not yet, despite its work as a subcontractor setting up transmission lines for the US military.
Congress could resolve the situation by passing the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow evacuees to apply for permanent residency after one year in the country, similar to aid given in the past to Iraqis, Cubans and Vietnamese. Biden recently gave the effort a boost when he endorsed the idea of adding it to an upcoming Ukraine aid bill, a move hailed by a coalition that includes veterans. , religious organizations and resettlement agencies.
“They are facing a ticking time bomb of what happens if they don’t get SIV or asylum status,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, chairman of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. . “Are they deported to Afghanistan and in danger?”
Meanwhile, Afghans are trying to rebuild their lives as public attention shifts to Ukraine and other issues. At a recent job fair in Alexandria, Virginia, there were hundreds of evacuees, including Arafat Safi, a former senior Afghan Foreign Ministry official who came to the United States with his wife, his four children and his mother.
He hopes to land a job in project management or international development, using a background that includes a master’s degree from the UK So far he’s landed a job as a Pashto-English interpreter and delivers parcels for Amazon next door while his wife, Madina, works in the bakery department of a supermarket.
Safi said he still hopes to find a better job and is looking forward to obtaining permanent residency. But he never complained during a lengthy interview at the family’s apartment in Alexandria. An intricate and vibrant Afghan rug – the only possession the family brought from home – takes pride of place in the living room.
“I’m very lucky to be here, to be welcomed by American society. I met a lot of friends here who watch me almost every day,” said Safi, 35. “And it’s amazing. But there’s a little part of me that misses Afghanistan and misses my people.
Hasrat said he had little time to think about anything other than his family back home and the danger they face from the Taliban. A 29-year-old former competitive boxer, he commutes by bike to his job as an administrative assistant in a doctor’s office. After taxes and the money he sends home, he barely has enough to pay his bills. Her roommates, who are still learning English, have even less and struggle to pay the rent.
Most nights, Hasrat waits until it’s late enough to video chat with his family. On a recent call, he tried to join in his children’s birthday celebrations, but was sad to realize his daughter didn’t even know him.
“I tell them, ‘yes, I’m happy’, because if I told them about my situation here, they would be sad,” he said. “But if no one is there to take care of your wife, how can you be happy?”
Watson reported from San Diego.
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