Thousands of Afghan refugees fled to America in search of a new home. Too many are still waiting.
Whenever Bibi dared to drive a car, the neighborhood boys in Kabul would point at her and jeer. While it was legal for her to drive at the time—before the Taliban came back into power—women driving were still shunned culturally in Afghanistan.
Bibi and her family hosted me for dinner this summer at their home in Tucson. Her mother, Fatima, served kabuli pulao, a delicious rice dish, along with mantu, which is like dumplings. She also prepared perfectly seasoned chicken drumsticks. The family shared with me how they fled Afghanistan, where they lived in a much bigger home, and how they nevertheless prefer their life here in the United States, where they are in the process of seeking asylum.
“For women, life is different,” said Bibi, who is 19. “Because here in the U.S.A., I work. In Afghanistan, I cannot work. In the U.S.A. I can have a driver’s license, but in Afghanistan I cannot drive.”
Bibi and her family, given their pending asylum case and their connections in Afghanistan, asked that their real names not be used. After all, they might not get asylum, Bibi said.
“We are afraid of the Taliban,” she said. “In the U.S.A. we are safe, but in Afghanistan we have our own house. If the Taliban see us [in the media], maybe they will take our house, or burn it down.”
Bibi began learning English while still in Afghanistan. Her father worked for the government. Her head was not covered as she spoke to me. Neither was her mother’s. Her father, Noor, who sat next to her, sees things differently than many Afghan men, she said. In Afghanistan, she said she could not dress or act the way she does in the United States.
“We are afraid of the Taliban,” she said. “In the U.S.A. we are safe, but in Afghanistan we have our own house.
“If the girls go to school, or if they drive, they bring shame to their parents,” she said.
The family is among the more than 75,000 Afghans currently in the United States who are hoping to resettle here. The government has granted most of them humanitarian parole, a temporary permission to be here, but they are hoping to become permanent residents. Some Afghans in the United States, including some who worked with the U.S. military, have special immigrant visas. Those are also temporary. In the months to come, Bibi’s family and others like them will need help negotiating the complex U.S. immigration system to find a path toward permanent legal residency. Many faith-based organizations are among those working to provide assistance. Returning to Afghanistan is simply not an option.
A Delicate Alliance
The withdrawal of the U.S. military from Afghanistan in September of last year marked the end of a two-decade presence in the country. Military personnel arrived in the country in October 2001, the month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The U.S. government believed the Taliban were abetting Al Qaeda, the group led by Osama bin Laden that was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The modern Afghan state was established in 1880, though its official independence came in 1919, when the country signed the Treaty of Rawalpindi. In 1979, the Soviet Union sent 80,000 troops to invade Afghanistan. Over the next 10 years, the Soviets attempted to install two regimes that were resisted, in part, by the U.S.-sponsored mujahideen. In 1992, a civil war began between warring factions of ethinic tribes of Pashtun, Tajik and Uzbeck. The Taliban gained control of Afghanistan in 1996.
Growing up in Afghanistan, Noor remembers a cycle of years of peace followed by years of violence. The U.S. involvement in the country, he said, led to the longest period of peace he can remember.
Growing up in Afghanistan, Noor remembers a cycle of years of peace followed by years of violence.
Chaos ensued across the country as the U.S. military pulled out. A terrorist group known as ISIS-K attacked the Kabul airport, killing dozens of people. News coverage depicted Afghans clinging to the outsides of large military planes as they prepared for takeoff. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country as the Taliban took over more quickly than anticipated.
Bibi’s family, like many others in Afghanistan, saw the turmoil coming. They spent four days outside the airport, waiting for a flight out, without food or water. They did not have anywhere to lay their heads when they slept, Bibi said. They flew to Qatar, where they spent 15 days in a refugee camp. Then they spent more than a month in Germany before arriving in the United States.
Like many who have humanitarian parole, the family is applying for asylum in the United States. Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona is helping them with that, as well as with cultural orientation courses, food stamps, cash assistance, rental assistance and paying their electric bill.
“It’s a lot of work and you need good legal representation to move that type of case forward,” Rachel Pollock, director of resettlement services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said of applying for asylum.
The U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services is one of nine national resettlement agencies. Their network of about 60 organizations has resettled more than 13,000 Afghans in the United States. William Canny, executive director of the office, said multiple agencies and denominations pulled together and collaborated to welcome Afghans in a way he had not seen since the United States welcomed Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam War.
As they fled to the Kabul airport, many Afghans destroyed documents that would have caused their lives to be in danger if they had been obtained by the Taliban. In many cases, those papers documented participation as human rights activists, journalists, lawyers or women attending the university. But because of their loss, many Afghan immigrants now lack the proof of their activities that is critical for evaluating their asylum cases.
Still, Ms. Pollack noted, the U.S. government recently cleared certain hurdles for Afghans with special immigrant visas.
“But there’s still a lot of uncertainty for people. It’s a big, bureaucratic system that can be very confusing for newcomers,” she said. “And if you’re fearing for your life, literally, applying for asylum is a very opaque process that can be really stressful after these folks have gone through what they’ve gone through. It’s a difficult time for them.”
A Broken System
It could be a lot easier if Congress passed the Afghan Adjustment Act, according to Christopher Ross, vice president of Migration and Refugee Resettlement Services for Catholic Charities USA. The Senate and House introduced the measure on Aug. 9, which would provide a legal pathway to permanent residency or citizenship for Afghans with special visas.
“This is why people are so frustrated with our immigration system.”
“This is why people are so frustrated with our immigration system,” Mr. Ross said of the delays and red tape faced by asylum seekers. “Our government brought people over here because they were fleeing persecution. They assisted our military. They were brought here and are new community members.”
The Afghan Adjustment Act, or something like it, would expedite the process greatly, he said. And given the number of applicants currently awaiting approval, legislation that streamlines the process would greatly lessen the burden on service agencies like Catholic Charities.
Such a measure is not without precedent. In 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act paved the way for Cuban refugees to become lawful permanent residents. Similarly, in 1998, Congress passed the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act, which provided a path to legal residency for certain Haitian nationals who were paroled into the United States.
Afghan parolees “are regarded as operation allies, they were in the trenches with the U.S. and various military and state department and intelligence capacities,” said Don Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York. “To treat them as something less than full refugees, to deny them a path to permanent residence and full refugee benefits, it would be an extraordinary injustice.”
According to Mr. Kerwin, the United States was not meant to utilize humanitarian parole as often as it has done since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. That act established a formal process for bringing refugees into the United States and has led to the entrance of more than three million refugees into the country over the last 40 years.
From 1980 until 2016, the year before Donald J. Trump took office as president, the United States resettled more refugees each year than all other countries combined. The Trump administration, Mr. Kerwin said, severely cut back the U.S. refugee program. A third of government resettlement offices—100 out of around 300—closed during Mr. Trump’s presidency.
But enough time has passed that Mr. Kerwin believes we should expect more from the Biden administration by now. While Mr. Biden set the refugee cap at 125,000 for 2022, as of June, only 15,000 refugees had been accepted into the United States. For comparison, 110,000 refugees were resettled during the entire year of 2016.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, 85 percent of Afghan refugees are in Pakistan and Iran, where more than two million Afghans have been displaced. The agency estimates that women and children make up more than 80 percent of those forcibly displaced within Afghanistan.
Women and children make up more than 80 percent of those forcibly displaced within Afghanistan.
“Certainly people who are coming into the U.S. from various countries around the world, including across our southern border, face huge challenges in making their claim for asylum and being successful. Afghans have the same problem,” said Joan Rosenhauer, executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. “We can’t forget how many people never made it out of Afghanistan and how much they’re suffering and struggling now.”
Some local communities have forged ahead to help meet families’ immediate needs in the absence of larger government programs. That includes the efforts of the Rev. Rock Fremont, pastor of Shepherd of the Hills United Church of Christ in Phoenix, Ariz. His church teamed up with a Lutheran church, a Community of Christ congregation and a Mormon ward to care for an Afghan family of 10 through Lutheran Social Services.
“Through this ministry of accompaniment, there is also formation or initiation into a deeper witness, to asking larger questions,” Pastor Rock said. “Not only teaching someone to fish, but then, beginning to ask deeper questions like who owns the water.”
Volunteers with larger vehicles help transport the family’s children to and from school. The family also has a newborn baby, so the volunteers are always on the lookout for formula. Some will visit the mother of the family to help her learn English.
While the faith communities can help the practical needs of resettlement, Pastor Rock said spiritual matters are left completely up to the family.
“A lot of these families don’t want to connect with the mosque because they’re familiar with religious tension back home,” he said. “Just like a lot of Americans, they have been deeply wounded by religious institutions…. So they don’t want to connect, at least not right now.”
Even on the small screen, I could see a bomb and bullets had reduced his wooden furniture to splinters.
The father of the family has a job now and has bought a minivan. But his $450 weekly salary is not enough to cover the family’s expenses, including the $2,800 monthly rent for their home. The skyrocketing price of housing has complicated resettlement efforts nationwide.
The faith communities Pastor Rock is working with would like the family to stay in their current home, at least through the end of the school year. It is a pleasant neighborhood, and the children have made friends there.
“What that means is that our congregations are going to have to pick up the payments on the lease,” Pastor Rock said.
Both Noor and Bibi also have found jobs. Bibi works as a stocker, and Noor works at a bakery. That in itself has been quite an adjustment. “I used to work simply with a pen,” Noor said of his job with the Afghan government, which he held for 38 years. Bibi spent her days as a university student.
The jobs they have in the United States are relatively common among the refugee population. Refugees tend to get hired for positions that do not require language skills, like cleaning rooms at a hotel or working at a car wash.
Noor showed me pictures of his old office on his phone. In some of those pictures, he sat at his desk holding his pen. In others, he was speaking with his direct reports. Then he showed me pictures of his office after it was destroyed by the Taliban in 2018. Even on the small screen, I could see a bomb and bullets had reduced his wooden furniture to splinters. The insides of cushions spilled onto the shattered glass that covered the floor.
At the time, Noor was part of a group that discovered the Taliban were bringing weapons into the country from Pakistan. That is why, he explained, they shot up his office.
Although the Taliban is not an immediate threat in the daily lives of Afghan refugees in the United States, they still may face challenges to their safety and well-being. Mary Kaech, executive director of Phoenix Refugee Connections, said refugees are often placed in low income housing that is not always safe. “I’ve heard stories, just recently, of women getting their head coverings torn off and one guy got shot in the foot,” she said. “Money is stolen and people get robbed.”
"He wants to change the world, and he has a really beautiful heart—a servant’s heart.”
In her work, she has heard of families driving in circles around the Kabul airport last year for two days straight, waiting for the gates to open. One man she met recently told how he had to decide whether to bring his nephew with him on the plane. The man could not get hold of his brother before he left, but he and his nephew had to take advantage of the small window of opportunity they had to leave and be safe.
“So now they’re here and his dad is back in Afghanistan,” Ms. Kaech said. “There’s very little chance that he’ll see his son soon. It’ll be a very, very long time.”
Over the last 19 years, she has helped Christian communities who want to be more welcoming to refugees. She and her husband are also foster parents for unaccompanied refugee children. Their foster son, who is 18, is about to move into a dorm at a university.
“I’m trying to prepare myself for this,” Ms. Kaech said. “He’s ready, and I’m excited for him. But I’m going to miss him... He wants to change the world, and he has a really beautiful heart—a servant’s heart.”
Her foster son, Ali, who asked that his real name not be used, fled Afghanistan when he was 12. In his hometown, Ali and his father ran a grocery shop that sold to local residents. Since it was next to a military base, they also sold to American and Afghan soldiers. The Taliban did not like that.
“They threw a rock wrapped in paper [with a message] to warn us one time. And then they came in person to warn us, ‘You should not continue selling stuff to them because you are helping them,’” Ali recalls them saying. “But that brought a lot of business for us, so my father continued selling to them…. It was our only source of income.”
His father went out of town one day, and he never returned. Ali and his family searched for him for months but never found him. One day, when Ali was headed to the family’s shop, he got a call warning him not to come. The Taliban were there looking for him. He told his mother, who sent him immediately to stay with family members in another city. His mother then sold everything they had to pay for Ali to leave the country.
“In a situation like that, you already know what’s going to happen,” Ali said. “With little kids, [the Taliban] will take you and put a vest [with explosive] on you. And they will say, ‘This is what you have to do to save your family.’ They will force you to do what they want you to do. They put a key around your neck and tell you it’s the key to heaven. [They say,] ‘If you go and explode yourself near to one of the bases, you will go to heaven.’”
Ali said the Taliban would assume a person like his father, who ignored their warnings, was an American spy or ally. “People who do that, they torture them to death. That’s what they do,” Ali said. “I’ve never heard from my father since that time. I was hoping I would hear from him sometime, after the Taliban came back into power. It’s been six, seven years now that I’ve been missing him. I don’t think he’s alive anymore.”
"It’s been six, seven years now that I’ve been missing him. I don’t think he’s alive anymore.”
Ali made his way to Indonesia, where he lived in shelters and orphanages for a few years until a United Nations program brought him to the United States. Catholic Charities placed him in several foster homes before he eventually met Ms. Kaech and her husband. With them he finally felt at home again.
His mother is back in Afghanistan with his three younger siblings. “They’re in imminent danger,” Ms. Kaech said. “And of course, his sister is not able to go to school anymore.” Ali sends $500 a month back to his family in Afghanistan.
“They don’t want women to go outside,” Ali said of the restrictions enforced by the Taliban. He worries for his sister especially.
“They want [women] to stay home and do chores and stuff. They don’t hold any rights,” he said. “During the war, there were [Taliban soldiers] who went to houses and would take your daughters as their rewards, for fighting to restore Taliban control.” Ms. Kaech said they had applied for humanitarian parole for her son’s family to come from Afghanistan, but she had little hope that it would be approved.
It is a far different landscape for Ukrainians under a program established by the Biden administration in April, she said. “You can sign up to sponsor a Ukrainian family and bring them here for humanitarian parole. And it’s easy. And if my son’s mom….” Ms. Kaech’s emotions forced her to pause. “If my son’s mom had a Ukrainian passport, she’d be here next month. He hasn’t seen his mom in years. She hasn’t seen the hair on his face.”
Ms. Kaech does not take issue with the policy toward Ukrainians, but finds it unjust that the United States has different policies for different countries. “People are fleeing the same threat,” she said. “They’re fleeing death and the hands of people who have power over them.”
Ali wants to become a U.S. citizen and eventually bring his family to the United States. “I want to see my brothers and sister grow up,” he said. “I want to see my mother smile at me again and to be in the same house. That’s what I want for my family. I want my brothers to go to college. I want my sister to get a good education…. I’ll just make a new tree, a new branch of my family here. And that’s how we will grow.”
A New Home
The week I visited Noor, Bibi and Fatima, we were joined by Chris Rightmer, a case worker with Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona. Bibi calls Mr. Rightmer her “Father No. 2.”
“My first dream is to support my family,”
She was preparing to test for a high school equivalency diploma at the time, and the family had an asylum interview later that week 100 miles north, in Phoenix. Mr. Rightmer gave Bibi tips on how to find G.E.D. sample tests online. He also chided her for not making the hotel reservations for herself, which the family needed for the asylum interview. Their case worker made the reservation for the family instead.
“He should have taught you how to do it,” Mr. Rightmer said. “What do I tell you in the cultural orientation class? I don’t give you fish. I teach you to fish. Did you learn how to make a hotel reservation and how to do transportation?” She said she did learn. The case worker taught her, she said, but Mr. Rightmer did not seem convinced.
Throughout the evening, our conversation covered a variety of topics, including the numerous languages spoken in Afghanistan. The family speaks Dari, for example, but Pashto and Urdu are also quite common. The nation is made up of numerous ethnic groups, with Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek being the most populous.
Bibi was born after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and after the U.S. military began to arrive in Afghanistan. When Mr. Rightmer explained that the United States came to Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden, Bibi seemed surprised.
She had been talking about how, when the American military returns to Afghanistan, the country would be at peace again. “We would be safe,” Noor added. Mr. Rightmer explained it was unlikely the U.S. military would return.
Later in the evening, the conversation shifted to their future life in the United States. Once he is more proficient in English, Noor would like a job where he can use more of the skills he used working for the government in Afghanistan. Bibi also thinks a lot about the future.
“My first dream is to support my family,” Bibi said.
“That’s not a dream,” Mr. Rightmer interjected. “That’s an obligation.”
“In Afghanistan, it’s a dream. Really, it’s a dream,” Bibi responded. “I want to be a doctor in the future. I want to live in California, have my own house, my own car and live with my parents.”
But what about returning to Afghanistan?
“Nobody wants to go to Afghanistan again because we would just be hiding from the Taliban,” she said. “They will kill us. They know my father. Really, we don’t want to. We know the Taliban will kill us.”