Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles Airport in Virginia

6 months after arriving in U.S., Afghan evacuees still worry about the families they left behind

They fled in the dark of night, and for two days sped by motorcycle and foot to Kabul. Latifa and her family couldn’t trust anyone. Her husband had worked for the U.S. military, and they’d gotten word they would soon become Taliban targets. With their two children and her sister, Latifa and her husband moved quickly through the mountains. 

Once they arrived in Afghanistan’s capital, the chaos at the airport was overwhelming. Members of the Taliban fired guns into the crowd and into the air. Linking hands, the family was carried by the weight of the crowd. She remembers a barbed wire fence ripping her skin and clothing.  

Suddenly, the gate opened and the crowd surged forward. By the time she opened her eyes, Latifa, then five months pregnant, was inside the airport grounds. Her husband, kids, and sister were locked out on the other side. 

READ MORE: How you can help Afghan refugees arriving in the U.S.

She waited for four hours, watching five American rescue flights take off for safety, hoping to reunite with her family. Finally, a security official gave her a choice:  get killed by the Taliban or get on the plane. The latter meant leaving her family, including her young sons, behind.

“I can’t be happy because I’m still worried about my family. I’m worried that I still can’t work to make money for my family in Afghanistan,” said Latifa, who is being identified only by her first name to protect her family’s identity. She’s settled in Baton Rouge with her newborn daughter. Her family missed the birth of its newest child, and she was haunted by “what would happen if something happened to me during labor or delivery.” She doesn’t know when she will be reunited with her loved ones. “There is still a lot of uncertainty.”

Afghan family hides from the Taliban after Afghanistan fell.

Latifa’s family in Afghanistan is fearful and hiding in the mountains from the Taliban. Since August when they were left behind, her husband, two sons and sister have been traveling and are fearful of retribution and are living in fear. Photo courtesy of the family

About six months after that evacuation, about 84,600 Afghan nationals have arrived in the United States. Of those, more than 76,000 are Afghan nationals, and the remainder are U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. While those who have resettled gained physical security in a new country, many like Latifa face not only settling into a new life but also the added stress of loved ones stuck overseas.

For as many who arrived safely, there were still tens of thousands who were left behind, according to a new report from the Association of Wartime Allies, a nonprofit association of people such as interpreters who provide support to the U.S. government and military in their home countries. Some 78,000 people who worked for the U.S. government and have applications for special immigrant visas (SIV) pending are still stuck there, many of them facing increasingly dire circumstances in a country now run by the Taliban, according to the report. Close to 30 percent have been imprisoned by the Taliban at some point since the withdrawal, and 20 percent reported not having enough for a meal more than 10 times in the past month. Some have gone extended periods of time without reliable communication as they stay on the run in less populated areas. 

Latifa brought with her the documents she’d need to complete the process for her husband but is still seeking a lawyer who can help.

“With each passing day, I become more hopeless,” Latifa said in Farsi through an interpreter. “I just hope that one day I will see them again. It is very difficult for a mother to stay away from her children and family. I cried a lot since the day I came.”

Afghan family home bombed by Taliban

Photo shows the shelled-out home of Latifa in Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban takeover. Her family fled the home after being warned they’d be targets. Photo courtesy of the family

“It is very sad. It is hard for me that my children have no place to live and I am here feeling helpless. I felt bad about leaving my kids and family behind. Without my family here, there is no relief to be in the U.S. I still worry.”

The U.S. is working with nonprofit resettlement agencies to resettle the Afghans who have already arrived in 200 communities across the country. ​​​​After arriving on military bases, most evacuees were resettled in Texas, California, Virginia, New York, Washington, North Carolina, and Arizona, larger states that have resettlement agencies with greater capacity. Other states, like West Virginia, South Dakota, and Wyoming, are expected to resettle fewer than a dozen evacuees or none at all, according to the Associated Press. 

Covid Vaccine to Afghan Evacuee.

Wisconsin National Guard member administers a COVID vaccination to an Afghan evacuee during Operation Allies Welcome at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Sept. 3, 2021. Photo by Spc. Eric Cerami / 55th Signal Company, U.S. Army

Resettling Afghan evacuees has come with complications due to affordable housing shortages and medical issues, including COVID and a measles outbreak. In addition, the new arrivals face a tough road ahead because they are not eligible for federal assistance like food stamps, cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for low-income families, Medicaid, or other traditional refugee services until Congress takes action to treat them as refugees arriving in the U.S. 

So far more than 500 Afghan people have resettled in St. Louis. In August, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page vowed to resettle at least 1,000 evacuees.

While Louisiana plans to take in fewer Afghan evacuees than most other states, the number has already doubled in the last few months, according to the Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge, the organization spearheading the resettlement effort. Officials now expect more than 100 will eventually resettle in Baton Rouge and New Orleans; one-third have already arrived. 

Afghan Families Depart Philadelphia International Airport for Camp Atterbury as part of Operation Allies Welcome

Afghan families load onto a C-130H assigned to the 182nd Airlift Wing, Illinois Air National Guard, at the Philadelphia International Airport, Pennsylvania, September 11, 2021. These families were flown to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, as part of Operation Allies Welcome. Photo by Airman First Class Thomas Cox / U.S. Air National Guard

In early January, there were three resettlement cases a week in Baton Rouge, including some families and individuals who started arriving in mid-October,  Lisa Lee, the director of the city’s refugee and immigration services, told the NewsHour. Some arrive in the middle of the night with barely any notice. Some kiss the ground once they arrive on U.S. soil.

By February, Lee says the flow of resettlements in Baton Rouge was stopped temporarily due to a shortage of affordable housing. It is only one of the challenges creating bottlenecks as organizations also scramble to build capacity. 

While the staff welcomes the new residents, it’s been a strain with only a staff of six. According to Lee and other immigration advocates, years of budget cuts to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement have left some government-funded resettlement agencies like hers struggling to find resources and staffing to support Afghan evacuees. Volunteers have stepped up.

Volunteers train to help Afghan evacuees.

Volunteers with the Catholic Charities Baton Rouge conduct a volunteer training session in October. The non-profit is one of the organizations spearheading resettlement in Louisiana. Photo by Catherine Weidert / Catholic Charities

“We’ve had a really great response from the community. When the news broke, we started receiving lots of calls. Some 200 people offered to help by donating things or volunteering. Folks were offering help in any number of ways. We’ve received the most positive response for this population than any other than we’ve ever had. People are aware of what’s going on and they want to help,” Lee said.

For evacuees seeking to reunite their families in the United States, the situation gets more complicated. Along with the challenge of staying in regular contact with their loved ones, who are sometimes moving locations frequently to stay safe, evacuees said there are limited options available to them from the federal government, and the avenues they do have can be tricky to navigate. 

Andisha Shah has been fighting for months to bring her sister and nephews to the United States after the U.S. pulled out of the country officially. Days after evacuations began, her family was still stuck in the country, afraid to leave their home.

Her sister and nephews are no longer in Afghanistan, but they still are separated from the rest of their family in Pakistan. 

Seven thousand miles and several time zones away, “I have no idea how to help them,” she said. 

While it may have been months since the U.S. left her home country, Shah said for many, the journey to safety has only begun.

READ MORE: ‘I feel so helpless.’ Afghans in the U.S. worry for friends and family back home

“We shouldn’t forget that there are others who are on the other side of the world where they need us right now,” she said. “They’re just human beings and we should stand together for humanity.”

Though she believes her family is safer in Pakistan, the country still comes with its own challenges, the latest being extremely high rent prices. 

“The price for the one-bedroom apartment or a one-bedroom flat or studio would be about $700 to $800. For immigrants like Afghans who have nothing, no resource for work or service for income, that’s very, very difficult to manage to pay their bills,” Shah said.

For the past few months, Shah’s family and friends in the United States have raised money to help cover the costs and seek the necessary legal help to eventually bring family members over. That is far from a long-term solution, Shah said.

thumbnail_Andi-and-1-sister

Andisha Shah (right) volunteering in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Shah.

Most recently, Shah said her family applied for humanitarian parole, which “allows an individual who may be inadmissible or otherwise ineligible for admission into the United States to be in the United States for a temporary period for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

It is a lengthy – and costly – process that requires an I-131 document, which has a $575 filing fee if it is used for the humanitarian parole process specifically, though according to the department, people can apply for a fee waiver. However, according to the instructions on how to file an I-131 document “the filing fee and biometric services fee are not refundable, regardless of any action USCIS takes on this application.”

Shah said she knows of at least seven other family members on her husband’s side who applied for it and were rejected, each one paying the $575 fee. “It is a lot of money for our family here because just two people are working and supporting them and paying all the money,” she said.

In an email, a spokesperson from USCIS said the department typically gets about 2,000 requests for humanitarian parole each year. Since July 1, they have received more than 41,000 from Afghans nationals alone, causing the department to increase “the number of officers working on parole cases by approximately five-fold,” according to USCIS. As of Jan. 12, it has approved 145 requests and denied 560, according to the spokesperson.

As of now, Shah said she has no idea whether her sister and nephews will get approved. But she is hopeful. “We’re just waiting for answers, we haven’t heard anything back,” she said.

Uncertain future for families left behind 

Since the Taliban seized power in mid-August and the last U.S.-led coalition troops pulled out, Afghanistan has grown more unstable, and a desperate situation has emerged. It’s been painful for Afghans already settled in the U.S. to watch, said Hayatullah Hayat, who resettled in Baton Rouge 13 years ago. 

“People used to go freely on the street. They could go to a coffee shop and talk. They felt the freedom. They were happy for their future. Now, they are living back to where it was 200 years ago,” Hayat said. “There is no future. No TV. No work for women. They lost everything. They lost all their rights. There is no judge. No courts. There is no government. Anyone who has a gun on their shoulder, he got the power and do whatever they want to do.”

Baton Rouge Resident and his family help Afghan evacuees.

Hayatullah Hayat works as a volunteer and interpreter in Baton Rouge to help newly resettled Afghan evacuees. Hayat, sitting with his family worries about his home country. They resettled in Baton Rouge 13 years ago. Photo courtesy of Hayat family.

Hayat is now a U.S. citizen and works as an interpreter for Afghan evacuees in Baton Rouge. When his home country fell, he was stunned. The scenes of violence in Afghanistan trigger painful memories.

Now he, too, feels helpless and fears economic collapse as much as the brute force of the Taliban, especially for his parents, four brothers, and their families. All remain in a broken country. 

“My mom and dad are stuck in their house. All the time I worry about them … Every night, I lost my sleep thinking of them and find out how I’m going to help them. They have no job. They have nothing to do. They are scared to walk freely on the street or go somewhere. I fear not only for my family but for all the population. There is no job. There is no future,” Hayat said. “The only option for them is to get a passport to move out of the country … It is extremely dangerous for them. … I told them I will find some way to help you.”

Despite his determination, Hayat said, it will not be easy. He said each day Afghanistan unravels, it becomes more apparent that the country’s woes are far from over. Relatives tell him they feel abandoned by the international community. 

“When I watched the news, I was shocked. My wife and I cried and couldn’t eat. When we saw our people at the airport. They were suffering and hurt. There is no help. It was too much pain to watch,” Hayat said. “To be honest, I lost my hope for the future of the people of Afghanistan.”

The 51-year-old is married with three children and knows the hardships that await the evacuees fleeing. It is why he is already helping them in this difficult journey to find a new home while holding onto hope. 

 “The change was not easy for me. I explained that when I first came here, it was tough for me. I explained it’s going to be okay. I say —  just look at me and how I did it.” He tries to reassure them “it will be the same for them.” 

Rebuilding a new life comes with challenges

The abrupt separation from family and country is only compounded by new languages and customs, finding work, schools, and transportation. So far, the Afghan evacuees have found a welcoming community in Louisiana. Some attribute it to the state’s large military and veteran population, which has overwhelmingly embraced Afghans for helping U.S. soldiers. 

Hands Producing Hope founder Rebecca Gardner’s non-profit is one of many community organizations helping with outreach and support for the new wave of evacuees. Several displaced Afghan women are now working at the Hope Shop, a retail store that sells handmade artisan goods. Some of the items include hand-made jewelry, hair clips, room sprays, soap, blankets, and embroidery made by Afghan women. The store has a workplace in the back providing community, mentorship, and badly needed income. 

Afghan evacuee helps produce room spray to sell.

Latifa helps to produce room sprays for Hands Producing Hope to sell in its shop. The non-profit is one of many community organizations helping with outreach and support for the new wave of Afghan refugees. Photo by Hands Producing Hope

“The circumstances leading to these women having to resettle here are just horrific and catastrophic. I’m thankful they’re in our city,” Gardner said. “It’s all an unknown for them. To have extra friends who are on their team and fighting for them is really important.”

At the start of the year, the International Institute, St. Louis’ immigrant service, and information hub held a news conference calling on the community to help it in its quest to ensure those who continue to resettle here get what they need to rebuild their lives. 

Afghan evacuee embroiders a shirt to sell.

Latifa is embroidering and wearing one of the shirts which she sells in the Hope Shop to make money to support her family in Afghanistan. The Hands Producing Hope runs a retail store that sells handmade artisan goods from newly resettled families. Photo by Soel Studio.

“Immigrants who come here are valuable members of our communities, they are employees, they are our colleagues, they are entrepreneurs, they are taxpayers and they are consumers,” International Institute President and CEO Arrey Obenson said.

Both the Archdiocese of St. Louis and Arch Grants joined Obenson to announce their combined goal to provide more resources to those already resettled in the area and those who hope to in the future. That includes everything from launching a new chamber of commerce and an Afghan newspaper to opening a community center and a new soccer field. They are also hoping to address housing needs as well.

“We are working to now build an elaborate community support program that will accelerate the integration and self-sufficiency for afghans who have just arrived,” Obenson said.

The Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge said the transition can take time. It takes hundreds of new connections, big and small, from finding a mosque to mastering English or finding culturally appropriate halal meat, prepared as prescribed by Muslim law. Many evacuees are fully connected within 12 to 18 months but getting a job is the biggest obstacle, especially with the language barrier and a lack of transportation. 

IMG_1049-2

Latifa holds her newborn child after giving birth in Baton Rouge without her family by her side. Her sister, two sons, and husband remain in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the family

“Transportation is a huge barrier. We have public transportation in Baton Rouge, but it is limited. So, we have to be very cautious about being able to find jobs that are on the bus route for clients,” Lee said. 

After stops in Qatar and a lengthy stay at a military base in New Jersey, Latifa arrived in Baton Rouge in November, three months after her escape from Afghanistan. She has since reached her husband and family through brief phone conversations. They are alive, but constantly on the run. The home they left was bombed and destroyed.

She’s now living with three other Afghan refugee women she befriended at the base. She is also working at the Hope Shop making room sprays and even trying to sell her own embroidery. Still, there is an aloneness that won’t go away.  

“There is no way out of Afghanistan. I feel sad about it,” she said.

Support PBS NewsHour: