WASHINGTON – Taliban forces have seized the capital of Afghanistan. Crowds of drowning people crowded the airport. And the young man, who worked as a subcontractor to the U.S. military, was faced with a terrible choice.
Hasibullah Hasrat, after traversing the chaotic streets and Taliban checkpoints to get to the airport, could either return for his wife and two young children, or take an evacuation flight and get them later. The non-departure probably meant that none of them would leave 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, which ended the longest war in America. But the family was unable to join him. They are still in Afghanistan, where the economic crisis has led to widespread famine and where Taliban repression is growing.
“My wife is alone there,” he said, his voice breaking as he described the nightly phone calls home. “My son is crying, asking where I am when I come. And I don’t know what to say. “
It is a reminder that the journey for many Afghans who arrived in the United States as part of a historic evacuation remains a very long job filled with uncertainty and anxiety about the future.
Afghan refugees, some of whom have faced possible repression for working with their government or U.S. forces during the war with the Taliban, said in an interview that they are grateful to the U.S. for rescuing them and family members.
But they are often struggling to establish themselves in new land, straining to pay bills as government and resettlement assistance begins to run out, stuck in temporary housing and trying to figure out how to apply for asylum because most Afghans are trapped under a two-year state of emergency known as humanitarian parole.
“We’re not sure what can happen,” said Gulsam Esmaelzadeh, whose family has been moving between hotel rooms in the San Diego area since January after three months at a military base in New Jersey. “We have nothing at home in Afghanistan, and we have no future here either.”
It took its toll. Esmaelzadeh said her mother had to be taken to the emergency room three times when her blood pressure rose to dangerous levels. A younger woman attributes this to the stress of her life.
In addition, there are more common problems that, however, constitute for many Afghans. These include learning English, managing government bureaucracies and public transport, and finding a job.
There is also isolation for those like Hasrat who came alone. “I don’t know anyone here,” he said in an apartment near Washington that 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 managed to gain a foothold. “But there are far more who are failing than well,” said Megan Flores, executive director of the Information Center for Immigrants and Refugees in McLean, Virginia.
The experience of evacuated Afghans is no different from that historically encountered by refugees coming to the United States. In a sense, this is a preview for up to 100,000 Ukrainians, who, according to President Joe Biden, will be welcomed, also in many cases for two years of parole.
Afghans on parole must apply to stay in the country, for example through an asylum. It is a time consuming process that usually requires finding an immigration lawyer who costs thousands of dollars inaccessible to most refugees if they cannot find someone who will do so for free.
The Department of Homeland Security says about half of the 78,000 are likely to end up applying for a special immigration visa, or SIV, program. It provides permanent residence to people along with their next of kin who have worked for the US government. Hasrat has not been able to get an SIV, at least not yet, despite the fact that he worked as a subcontractor to set up power lines for the U.S. Army.
Congress could resolve the situation by passing the Transformation Act in Afghanistan, which will allow evacuees to apply for permanent residence after a year in the country, similar to the assistance provided in the past to people from Iraq, Cuba and Vietnam. Biden recently spurred efforts by supporting the idea of adding them to an upcoming bill to help Ukraine, which was welcomed by a coalition that includes veterans, religious organizations and resettlement agencies.
“They face a time bomb if they don’t get SIV or asylum status,” said Krish O’Mara Vinaraj, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “Are they being deported back to Afghanistan and in danger?”
Meanwhile, Afghans are trying to build a new life as public attention shifts to Ukraine and other matters. Hundreds of evacuees were at a recent job fair in Alexandria, Virginia, including Arafat Sophie, a former high-ranking Afghan Foreign Ministry official who came to the U.S. with his wife, four children and mother.
He hopes to get a job in project management or international development to use an education that includes a master’s degree in the UK. So far, he has gotten a job as a Pashto-English translator and delivers packages to Amazon on the side while his wife, Madina, works in the bakery part of the supermarket.
Sophie said she still hopes to find a better job and wants to get permanent residency. But he never complained in a big interview at the family’s apartment in Alexandria. The folding and bright Afghan rug – the only thing the family brought from home – occupies a prominent place in the living room.
“I am very lucky to be here, to be welcomed by American society. I met a lot of friends here who check on me almost every day, ”said 35-year-old Sophie. “And it’s weird. But there is a small part of me that misses Afghanistan and misses its people. “
Hasrat said he had little time to think about anything other than his family at home and the dangers they face from the Taliban. The 29-year-old former boxer who competed, he rides a bike to work as an administrative assistant in a medical office. After the taxes and money he sends home, he barely has enough to pay the bills. His roommates, who are still learning English, have even less and have difficulty paying rent.
Most nights Hasrat waits until it is late enough to talk to his family. During one of his recent calls, he tried to join in celebrating his children’s birthdays, but sadly realized that his daughter didn’t even know him.
“I tell them, ‘Yes, I’m happy,’ because if I tell them about my situation, they’ll be sad,” he said. “But if there is no one to take care of your wife, how can you be happy?”
Watson reported from San Diego.
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