Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
Andisha Shah has not slept since Afghanistan’s government fell. From her home in California, where she is caring for relatives, all she can think about is whether or not her sister and nephews will make it out of Afghanistan safely. They are among tens of thousands of people hoping to evacuate the country following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last week.
“I feel so helpless I cannot do anything for her, or for my country,” she said.
Since August 14, the U.S. military has airlifted about 13,000 evacuees out of Afghanistan, including 2,000 people the United States Department of Defense said it evacuated in the last 24 hours. In the meantime, Afghans in the United States worry for their families, friends and their homeland.
Prior to the Taliban takeover that quickly followed the U.S. exit from its 20 year war in Afghanistan, the United Nations Refugee Agency reports nearly 400,000 Afghans have been displaced from their homes due to fighting this year alone. With the Taliban now effectively running the country, countries all over the world are vowing to take in refugees, with Canada pledging to resettle 20,000 people, Qatar possibly taking 8,000, Uganda offering to take 2,000, and the Biden administration authorizing $500 million in aid for Afghans who are at risk due to the current situation.
Andisha Shah (right) volunteering in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Shah.
Shah is among the 132,000 immigrants from Afghanistan living in the U.S. She and her sisters originally left Afghanistan for Russia in 2006. While Shah and most of her family resettled in St. Louis in 2014, her oldest sister went back to Afghanistan, where she is widowed and raising three children. “Now she is all alone and it is a terrible place for a woman without a man living in a country like Afghanistan,” the now 26-year-old Shah said.
With the Taliban in control of the country once again, Shah said her sister and her children are left hiding in their apartment, afraid to leave the house or to even attempt to flee the country.
“I have been talking to her every day since everything has been going on,” she said. “She is more concerned for her kids than she is for herself, because of course she is a mother.”
Before the Taliban took over, Shah said her sister felt like things were changing and she was hopeful for the future of her country and her family.
“She always mentioned that Afghanistan has changed a lot since the Taliban left in 2001,” following the U.S. start of the war in the country, Shah added. “My heart is burning, I can’t explain how it feels to see your own home burning,” she said.
Haji Razmi grew up in the southern city of Kandahar, which fell to the Taliban on Aug. 13. He said that he was shocked to see his home country’s government collapse as quickly as it did.
“The withdrawal of American forces was inevitable,” said Razmi, who has lived in Antioch, California for more than 20 years. “But the way they are withdrawing and the way the events are unfolding is kind of unexpected.”
Razmi, a writer, has been working with the organization Afghan Coalition to support the resettlement of interpreters who previously worked with the U.S. military and are now arriving in America. The Biden administration began evacuating more interpreters on special immigrant visas from Afghanistan as the Taliban began to take control of the country last month, but the program has been hampered by legal and logistical challenges.
WATCH: Evacuating Afghans who helped U.S. a ‘high priority,’ national security official says
There is currently a backlog of more than 10,000 SIV — or special immigrant visas — applications, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project, leaving many Afghans who risked their lives to support the U.S. military to fend for themselves amid the rising threat of Taliban rule. An estimated 18,000 Afghans qualified for special immigrant visas, and at least 2,000 of them have been able to arrive in the U.S. Resettlement agency officials estimate in total. The visa holders account for 80,000 people when their families are included.
“Our people, especially the young generation, are so desperate,” Razmi said. He expressed concern that the “achievements of the last 20 years” will be erased now that the U.S. has pulled out of the country, “especially for the younger generation and for women.”
Harris Mojadedi, who lives in Fremont, California, is organizing a town hall on Aug. 20 to help Afghan Americans who are trying to bring family members to the U.S.
Harris Mojadedi, a resident of Fremont who is active in local Democratic politics, has also been working with the Afghan Coalition to help those living in the area sort through bureaucratic red tape as they try to bring family members to safety. He said there’s been a lot of confusion about the visa application process for Afghans seeking to come to the U.S. – so much so that he is helping organize a town hall on Aug. 20 with Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., whose district includes part of Fremont, to field questions from community members. Fremont – home to “Little Kabul” – has one of the most robust Afghan populations in the U.S., with an estimated 100,000 members of the diaspora living there.
“There’s been a lot of fear. There’s been almost a collective trauma in our community … whether it’s my parents who came here as refugees 30 years ago, or a family that came 10 years ago,” said Mojadedi in describing what he and family members have experienced. He added that he’s been hearing from a cousin back in Afghanistan who hasn’t been able to attend her university classes since the Taliban seized the capital.
“I think many of us in the diaspora community knew that this would happen,” Mojadedi said. He pointed to how many in the community watched as the Taliban gained some form of legitimacy on the international stage over the past few years, boosted most recently by U.S.-brokered negotiations held in Doha in 2020, he said.
Mojadedi said that seeing Afghanistan fall to the Taliban was particularly hard given the fact that many younger people in the country have lived in a very different context over the last 20 years than in previous generations.
“You’ve seen women business owners and entrepreneurs,” he said. “You see an entire generation of Afghan girls, who even though they’ve lived in a war zone, by all accounts, they’ve still had hope, and gotten an education.”
Mojadedi said he believes it’s imperative that the diaspora community works to ensure that those gains are not quickly erased.
Omar Hashemyan, 28, said as a son of Afghan refugees, he feels his identity is currently at stake. He was born in Stockton, California, and traveled to Afghanistan three times on family trips, most recently in 2013. He fears it may have been his last time visiting.
Visiting the country where his parents were born and where his ethnic heritage lies was an important experience for him, he said. Hashemyan said he always knew he was Afghan, but visiting family and actually seeing his ancestral country for the first time made him proud of his identity.
He said he wishes his cousins who stayed behind are safe; they did not consider leaving following the collapse of the Afghan government in August, since they don’t have the means, Hashemyan said. For him, the desperation seen in images of Afghans chasing American aircraft in frantic efforts to flee the country was a heartbreaking sight.
“I’m hanging tight on my Afghan identity, and I’m just fearful that that culture will be erased, given that the Taliban are very much against any kind of culture that you’ve seen in Afghanistan these past 20 years,” Hashemyan said.
Yar Mohabbat in the Bamyan Valley in Afghanistan in 1976. Photo courtesy of Mohabbat.
For those who have been in the U.S. for decades, the Taliban’s takeover is reminiscent of another time. Yar Mohabbat left Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989. He moved to Germany and then to the United States where he served as the Ambassador of Afghanistan in Washington D.C. from 1993 to 1997. He later settled down in St. Louis for nearly two decades. He now travels back and forth between St. Louis and Virginia for work.
Over the years, he has followed what is happening in Afghanistan and is unsettled by what he has seen. “It’s heartbreaking,” he said.
Mohabbat went on to describe what he believes to be advancements in his home country over the last 20 years — from women’s rights to freedom of speech. However, he worries it is possible all of that progress may vanish with the collapse of the Afghan government.
“My thoughts, my prayers, my everything is with the Afghan people,” he added. He notes his concern reaches far beyond the people he knows. “I do worry about some of my relatives, but I worry about the whole country.”
In the midst of the unfolding conflict, relatives in the U.S. are springing into action to help relatives abroad, as organizations also scramble to make sure refugees have what they need when they make it to the U.S. Andisha Shah, who is still in California, has spent the last week trying to get her sisters and nephews out of Afghanistan.
But thankfully, she is not alone in that pursuit. Welcome Neighbor STL in St. Louis agreed to help her raise money for the airfare and legal fees her family needed to get to safety. The organization supports immigrants and refugees as they resettle in the St. Louis area. Its executive director, Jessica Bueler, said she spoke to Shah as soon as things started to unfold.
“I could feel the pain in her voice,” Bueler said.
After one phone call, the organization started fundraising on Facebook. In less than 24 hours, they met their goal of $7,000 to help get Shah’s family out of Afghanistan. She said the funds will be used to pay for flights and to cover legal fees. “Many people knew Shah from her time “volunteering at churches and sharing her story,” Bueler said. “St. Louis responded and it was the most heartwarming thing ever.”
In Michigan, Samaritas, a nonprofit refugee resettlement organization founded in 1934, has resettled refugees for decades. It’s already started to fundraise and search for housing and housewares for the Afghans who will soon arrive. The years of limitations on the number of refugees accepted into the U.S. during the Trump administration has introduced challenges to that process, said Cheryl A. Kohs, the marketing director of Samaritas.
WATCH: Chaos, cries for help outside Kabul airport as Taliban crack down on protesters
“Because of the pandemic and the nationwide moratorium on evictions, there has been a shortage [of housing] for many of our refugee clients for over a year now,” Kohs said. “We’re always actively searching for housing options; refugees have no credit history or rental references and most are unemployed, initially, so housing is always a challenge.”
Housing is not the only hurdle for organizations doing this work. Many organizations who spoke to the NewsHour about resettlement efforts are coping with staff shortages, COVID-19-related delays, and finding safe neighborhoods to resettle their clients in.
Samaritas, for example, tries to settle refugees in areas that are welcoming and already have a population of people who speak the language and know the culture. Partner community organizations and churches help with cultural orientation, the logistics of enrolling children in school, helping with employment services, learning the language, and getting counseling for trauma. “There are always people who are vocal about this issue, but we believe firmly in welcoming the stranger and will do so for the refugees from Afghanistan,” Kohs said.
Usama Khalil, president and CEO of Refugee Enrichment and Development Association in Sacramento, said his organization was given a grant from Sacramento County to establish mental health resources and used it for Arabic-speaking refugees who may be at risk of harming themselves due to the compounded stress of their past lived experiences. Khalil said he saw a high need for similar resources among Dari and Farsi-speaking refugees from Afghanistan and used his organization’s own general funds to increase the services. The organization screens clients and refers them to counseling or psychiatric professionals in addition to providing them with help addressing their financial or social stressors.
The organization just screened 450 individual refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan who have lived in the Sacramento region and found 70 percent scored positive for significant stress.
But Khalil’s staff is small. Just five members are paid and two of them serve as case managers for up to 2,000 refugee families who typically are in need of services, such as school registration, accessing health insurance, and dealing with their landlords or the Department of Motor Vehicles. Everyone else working with the organization is a volunteer, including Khalil, who started his organization in 2017 after a Syrian family of 10 arrived in the community as part of a wave of refugees that year. Khalil showed the family around by teaching them how to ride public transit, shop for groceries and enroll the children in school.
“They didn’t speak a word of English,” Khalil said. “When [refugees] arrive to this land, they are running away from significant traumas of war as well as losing all their wealth. They are coming here with the hope this is the end of their suffering.”
Both the Sacramento region and parts of Michigan have become havens for refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Community leaders say that’s in part due to the community that has been established there over time. Sacramento County has approximately 10,000 Afghan residents, and more live in surrounding counties, according to some estimates.
However, despite offering safe haven from war, America still presents other dangers and stressors that extend even to communities who have been here for years.
“We’re concerned about the resettlement and the treatment of Afghan refugees in America and Michigan,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of The Council on American-Islamic Relations Michigan Chapter (CAIR-MI), a nonprofit grassroots civil rights and advocacy group. “In the post-9/11 era, there’ve been xenophobic statements from politicians resulting in the mistreatment of refugees from Syria and Yemen. Based on this track record, we are concerned that there may be some anti-immigrant sentiment.”
“We had another concern about the real potential for rising anti-Muslim sentiment, especially as we approach the [anniversary of the] tragedy of 9/11,” said Walid. “Our community is certainly no stranger to the effects of irresponsible speech by politicians and media, which results in bullying of Muslim children and vandalizing of Muslim houses of worship. So we’re very concerned that what’s taking place in Afghanistan will have the potential to affect people here in negative ways.”
WATCH: Despite Taliban promises, Afghan women fear losing their freedoms and lives
CAIR-MI can help those who come here learn about their civil rights, but because Afghan Americans currently make up a very small percentage of Michigan’s population, finding translators can be a challenge Walid said. “We hope that the federal government can hire and deploy appropriate translators wherever they are resettled.”
Resettlement agencies typically aid families for 90 days and help them with logistical things like housing, furniture, food and work permits. Those types of organizations, however, are not designed to provide ongoing, longer term support. Khalil, who runs the refugee enrichment organization in Sacramento, said many refugees rely 100 percent on cash aid to pay rent and bills and provide for their families.
He said the overwhelming number of refugees, including the expected influx in the coming weeks, shows the need for providing local organizations with more help in order to make it easier for the families to become independent.
Still, some issues, like translators and housing access, are tougher to fix than others. Agencies are scrambling to search for options in anticipation of more refugees.
“We are placing people into temporary housing and really doing everything that we can to secure permanent housing but we are really operating in a very very tight housing market,” said Jessie Tientcheu, CEO of Opening Doors, one of five refugee resettlement organizations in the Sacramento region.
She added that the current crisis in Afghanistan is personal to those witnessing it from afar who have built their lives here, but now must watch and wait to find out whether their own family and friends are able to escape turmoil as they once did. She said she believes despite the challenges they face in adjusting, immigrants and refugees are able to succeed if they are given the opportunity.
“There is data that suggests that though refugees do use public benefits, as they get themselves established over their lifetime, they actually contribute more in taxes than they ever use in public benefits,” Tientcheu said. “Even from an economic perspective, there is a case to welcome these refugees and immigrants.”
Hashemyan, the son of refugees, said his parents sought out the U.S. in the late 1980s during the Soviet-Afghan conflict and were well established by the time he was born. After resettling in the United States, his parents became professionals; his father an engineer and his mother an educator.
Hashemyan said his parents met in Afghanistan. Like the Afghans today, they rushed to safety wherever they could when it became too dangerous to live there, Hashemyan said. His mother fled to Pakistan, and his father first escaped to Iran before ending up in Germany. The two reconnected in New York City, and later settled in northern California.
Seeing new Afghans escape for their lives is a moment of reflection for his mother, Hashemyan said, who cries when she remembers the “good old days” in her country.
“With the refugees now that are coming in, I feel like that will be their story 20 years from now. They will be crying about any good times that they may have had in the past 20 years,” Hashemyan said. “It is important for us to continue talking about Afghanistan. Our parents came from there, and that’s where our roots are. It’s very important for us to keep our roots watered.”
Gabrielle Hays is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of St. Louis.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of Dearborn/Detroit. @fkwang
Courtney Vinopal is a general assignment reporter at the PBS NewsHour.
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