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One year on, Afghan refugees find shelter but little security in US

Afghan refugees arrive at Skopje International Airport in Skopje, North Macedonia, on August 30, 2021, after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Getty Images

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a three-part series on Afghan refugees marking one year since the U.S. withdrew its military from Afghanistan, ending its longest war. The series – Here, There, Everywhere – tells the story of life after the evacuation through the eyes of Afghan refugees in the U.S., vulnerable Afghans who have been unable to escape the country, and those refugees scattered across the globe.

Khalis Noori had one thing in common with the U.S. government: He never thought Kabul would fall so quickly.

After years of living in the United Kingdom, he had returned to Afghanistan in April of 2021, prepared to take a job as an international aid adviser with the country’s Ministry of Finance.

It was an important time to come home, he said, with the fledgling democracy in need of its best and brightest as the U.S. was set to end its 20-year partnership by withdrawing military forces that had been on the ground since 2001.

But the rapid fall of the country altered that trajectory, changing his life forever.

“There were opportunities for me to grow and build a career for myself because I studied for over 10 years just to return back to Afghanistan and do something and be a part of that,” he told The Hill.

“It was a young democracy. It needed a lot of attention and work not only from the stakeholders, but also from the Afghans themselves. … But that opportunity was lost and it was taken away within a day.”

In early August, Noori was preparing for his new job, undergoing a final round of security checks and verifications.

Khalis Noori made it to the United States this year after evacuating from Afghanistan in 2021. Greg Nash

By mid-August he had burned all his documents, including his diplomas, heading to the airport sandwiched between two relatives with beards and turbans, holding his breath as they moved through Taliban checkpoints on the way to the airport, terrified to look any direction but straight ahead, lest anyone make eye contact and ask him any questions.

Khalis is just one of roughly 85,000 Afghans who made it to the U.S. this year after they fled the country as the Taliban barreled across Afghanistan, capturing city after city until Kabul fell on Aug. 15.

Since the last evacuation flight took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 30, Afghan evacuees have been undertaking the arduous work of rebuilding their lives.

Many spent months in military bases abroad only to then spend months in military bases on U.S. soil – meaning a year after the U.S. left Afghanistan, some evacuees are still in the early stages of getting settled into new jobs, homes, schools and lives.

Many are still dealing with the heartache of leaving home while fearing for those left behind.

Some who spoke to The Hill asked to be identified by pseudonyms or their first names to protect family still in Afghanistan.

Hoja flew out of Afghanistan on Aug. 27, but he didn’t get to the U.S. until early October. Even then, he stayed at a military base in Virginia until December.

“It gave me some time to think about life. I was 36 years old and I was thinking I had it all figured out. I had a very good job. I had a nice house, I had cars, assets,” he said.

In Afghanistan, he was working as a law enforcement official on a national security project funded by the U.S. It was fulfilling work that also kept his bank account flush.

He had a summer home on 12 acres of land with a garden, a farm, and later a small poultry operation.

“It was peaceful by our little standards. I had invested a lot. I wouldn’t give it up for nothing,” he said.

As soon as his life became threatened, “all those amenities, all those luxuries” felt meaningless.

“That’s what happened to me, honestly speaking. I ran away. I left everything behind. That’s what I did.”

“And then in September, when I was in Germany – in Ramstein [Air Base] – I was just waiting on some volunteer organizations to get a pair of shoes. That was when I recognized how fragile life really is – that it takes only one shock for you to start all over again,” Hoja said.

Other evacuees were focused on getting to larger cities closer to family. But Hoja knew getting housing would be a major challenge, so he told the resettlement agencies he had no preference of where to go.

“They said you’re going to Maine. I said, ‘Thank you very much,'” he said.

It’s a good fit for him. He just wanted a safe place to raise his five children. After a month of the family of seven sharing one hotel room, they got permanent housing, and on the last day of May he started a job. Their life in the U.S., he says, has just come together in the last month or so.

His goals now are modest. He just wants to work and support his family. His dreams are for his children.

“I think I partially reached my personal goals in an absolutely difficult environment,” he said. “But I think that my kids – my goal is to support them so that they reach their full potential … that they should be able to be what they want to be.”

Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International airport in Virginia. Associated Press-Ebrahim Noroozi Ebrahim Noroozi AP

But the disconnect between the lives refugees had and the lives they’ll likely have going forward has been difficult for some.

Noori hears about those concerns nearly every day. He’s now the head of an all-Afghan run office for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) in Virginia, established in the days after the evacuation to deal with the massive influx of refugees.

To him, it’s clear that many Afghan evacuees have never been able to fully get out of survival mode.

“They are struggling with everything. The first thing that is in their mind is the rent, month-to-month rent. Who is going to pay that? How are we going to afford that? Then it’s the utilities,” he said.

Some evacuees have struggled to make sense of a different America than the one they were expecting. For all its wealth and its reputation as a nation of immigrants, they are finding that the U.S. offers few social services to new arrivals and often on a limited budget, expecting them to sprint to self-sufficiency.

Aid like food stamps will continue, but many of the services offered by resettlement agencies last only a few months. Federal funding to help new arrivals ends after just three months, and some grant funding keeps services like job placement going for a few more. But few of the services offered by resettlement agencies go beyond evacuees’ first year in the country.

Several evacuees told The Hill they were shocked when they arrived to learn how fleeting the assistance would be, and that there is no special aid just for Afghans.

Some 40 percent of Afghan evacuees are considered vocational workers who came to the U.S. with little English, a factor compounding the difficulty of their job searches, according to a survey organized by LIRS, which has resettled a significant number of evacuees.

And for the 20 or so percent who are considered highly skilled workers, the adjustment can be difficult.

Many are distraught to learn credentials they spent years studying to earn – in medicine, in engineering – aren’t valid here, and that going back to school to replicate them would mean assuming thousands in debt.

Mohibullah was a high-ranking government official in Afghanistan who worked on a variety of national security policies. Now he’s determined to get a PhD.

Noori has established a weekly support group for Afghan refugees that are struggling with mental health. Greg Nash

The majority of Afghans brought to the U.S. during the evacuation were not those with Special Immigrant Visa status afforded to those who worked closely with the military, though some are in the pipeline.

The majority were brought in under humanitarian parole, which allows border officials to temporarily waive immigration requirements, giving parolees up to two years to adjust their status.

Hoja, the former law enforcement official, said he’s in a difficult predicament. His family left without their ID cards. His marriage certificate was left behind in the rush. His passport will expire shortly. If he can’t stay in the U.S., he has nowhere else to go.

Attorneys are helping him apply for asylum, but the system to weigh such cases is already buckling under a four-year backlog.

“That’s not going to be helpful for 70,000 individuals. That’s not the solution,” said Noori of LIRS.

Immigration and veteran advocacy groups have been pushing for the Afghan Adjustment Act as soon as the evacuation was underway, fighting for a bill that would give every Afghan who left in the U.S. evacuation a pathway to citizenship, essentially curing their immigration headaches. The U.S. has passed similar bills in the wake of other large scale evacuations, like those at the end of the Vietnam War.

But it wasn’t formally introduced in Congress until earlier this month and, even with a bipartisan group of sponsors, it’s not clear when or if it will come to the floor for a vote.

“I think most people don’t realize the majority of these families don’t have any certainty about whether they can stay in the U.S. Because of their tenuous legal status, there is just so much stress and anxiety about whether they can set down roots here. There are exceedingly few legal options, and none of them are particularly promising or efficient,” Vignarajah said.

“It’s just important that Congress fulfill this promise, because otherwise it sends a terrible message to our new Afghan neighbors, essentially saying, ‘Don’t get comfortable here because this isn’t your home.'”

It’s worrying for Hoja, who would stand to benefit greatly from such legislation.

Afghan evacuees have never been able to fully get out of survival mode and are now worrying about rent and utility payments. Associated Press-Ebrahim Noroozi Ebrahim Noroozi AP

“The future is very ambiguous, and we don’t know what will become of us,” he said.

Noori said he’s been ignoring that reality for himself as well, too busy focused on the day-to-day challenges his own office must confront by the time it closes.

The all-Afghan run office is set to begin shutting down in September and will permanently close by the end of the year. The end of aid for evacuees means the end of the office to help them, and for Noori, the end of a job.

Noori said he’s hardly spent a second thinking about what will come next for him, to the chagrin of his wife, who is used to seeing an ambitious streak in her 33-year-old husband, who scored scholarship after scholarship to fund his studies in the U.K.

“I make myself really busy and occupied with everything that is happening here just to not think about what’s going to happen and what has happened,” he said.

“I have not thought about it to be honest. I am not that same person that I used to be. Everything was structured, planned. And after this? I do not believe in planning, somehow. I do not have that mindset.”

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This story was originally published August 29, 2022 6:00 AM.

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