Nine Months After Fall Of Kabul, Afghans Who Fled To California Say Their Journey Is Far From Over
One recent afternoon, Ahmad sat in the World Relief immigration services office above a Garden Grove mini-mall, going over his paperwork with a staff member. He was applying for asylum and for Temporary Protected Status, which became available to Afghans in May.
Ahmad arrived in Orange County last January after a few months at Fort Pickett in Virginia, one of several military bases used to house Afghan refugees airlifted to the United States.
He was brought to the U.S. last year under extraordinary circumstances.
“I was an Afghan air force officer,” Ahmad explained. “We were in Slovakia when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.”
We’re not using Ahmad’s last name to protect his family in Afghanistan. He said he and about 30 other Afghan pilots were in Europe at a U.S. training camp when they got the devastating news. Their American hosts spirited them to the U.S.
“The U.S. government took us from Slovakia, they didn’t send us back to Afghanistan, because they told us that ‘It’s danger for you,’” Ahmad said.
Afghans who were able to flee their country did so with little, if any, opportunity to say goodbye to loved ones, or even time to think things through. They left behind families, jobs, homes. Once here, they spent months in cramped military base camps, waiting to be resettled. Some got fed up and left the bases on their own.
What Ahmad worried about most was potential danger to his wife and four children, the youngest of whom is 4. They have had to move several times for their safety. He fears that his military ties to the U.S. have made them targets.
“I am worried about them, because I know the Taliban will just make problems for them,” he said. “The Taliban has all of our data. They know that we were in the training. They have all our documents.”
He said he was told by training camp staff in Slovakia that his and other pilots’ families would be evacuated. But it didn’t happen.
“We were thinking they would help us, they will take our family, but they didn’t do anything for us,” Ahmad said. “Now we are here, and … they are in Afghanistan.”
Ahmad is now staying with a cousin in Anaheim. He works two jobs to send money home, one assembling medical devices, the other stocking produce in a supermarket. He allows himself just enough time to sleep.
Sometimes, Ahmad admits, it all feels unbearable.
“It makes me feel very sad, because it is difficult for me,” he said, “Sometimes I feel that death is better than life, because I cannot see my family, they are missing me.”
‘Trauma Upon Trauma’
In the chaos that followed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government last August, people’s lives were upended overnight.
Headlines and news images of Afghan families arriving at U.S. airports have been supplanted by heartbreaking images from Ukraine and mass shootings here at home.
Since then, we’ve heard great success stories of Afghans entering the U.S. workforce, being welcomed by American neighbors and invited to Thanksgiving dinners.
But for many Afghans, life in the U.S. remains filled with uncertainty: Permanent, affordable housing has been difficult to find amid the housing crisis. And for many, their long-term immigration status remains a question mark.
“That is a lot of stress, that is trauma upon trauma,” said Jose Serrano, director of outreach and immigration with the Garden Grove office of World Relief, a nonprofit that works with refugees. “And that is exactly what we are seeing with families.”
Serrano is assisting Ahmad with his immigration applications. He said while some Afghans arrived with pending applications for Special Immigrant Visas, reserved for people who worked with the U.S. military or government, the vast majority admitted last year entered with only temporary protection known as humanitarian parole, which is set to expire for them next year.
As of May 20, Afghans may also apply for Temporary Protected Status, known as TPS, which is good for 18 months and could be renewed — but is still temporary.
Last month, Congress rejected a proposal known as the Afghan Adjustment Act, which was left out of a spending bill for aid to Ukraine. Like similar adjustment acts that have benefited Cuban, Vietnamese and Iraqi refugees, it would have given displaced Afghans who don’t qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa a path to permanent legal status and eventually U.S. citizenship.
Without this, the best hope for Afghans is to seek asylum, immigration providers say.
“Not knowing what the future holds, it's really important that they apply for whatever benefit that is made available at the moment,” Serrano said. “Otherwise they will fall out of status.”
But asylum is a long and complicated process with no guarantees. And the clock is ticking.
‘What If My Case Doesn’t Get Approved?’
Immigration providers say it’s necessary for Afghan asylum seekers to file within a year of their arrival in the U.S. if their case is to pass muster.
“I think everybody had some hope about the Afghan Adjustment Act to pass,” said Lilian Alba, vice president of immigrant and refugee services with the International Institute of Los Angeles, a refugee resettlement agency. “It didn’t pass, and so the pressure is on now more than ever. We are working against the clock.”
Alba said her organization and others are moving quickly to get Afghan refugees in for legal screenings if they haven’t had one, “working to ensure every Afghan family is able to file an asylum application no later than their anniversary date.”
The hardest thing about this, Alba said, is the emotional component. Already, the process of seeking asylum can be re-traumatizing, she said, forcing people to recount things they’d rather forget.
On top of that, “knowing now that they have only a few months to file an immigration application is adding a lot of anxiety, because families were hopeful that the government would be able to provide some stability and protection,” Alba said.
“Some of them feel that this is not what they signed up for, you know?” she added. “While they are appreciative and grateful that the U.S. brought them to safety…now they are concerned about, ‘What if my case doesn't get approved?’”
‘Son, What Can I Do?”
Just making sure no one slips through the cracks is a challenge. Some Afghan refugees left the U.S. military camps on their own, without critical information they needed to ensure they file immigration paperwork on time.
Others may have missed important details for a variety of other reasons, as an overburdened U.S. refugee resettlement system strained to process more than 70,000 people at once, more than 9,000 of whom settled in California.
“When you have a large number of people that are coming in at the very same time,” said Serrano with World Relief, “even if resettlement agencies do provide that information, it's extremely difficult for someone to retain all of that, especially when you've experienced trauma.”
Ahmad, the former Afghan air force pilot, remembers there was a group that helped him with money for a plane ticket as he left Fort Pickett, but not much else. He remembers being told to work with an attorney, but not how to go about doing so.
In fact, Ahmad only connected with World Relief last month, referred word-of-mouth by his cousin, a former refugee himself. Before then, he wasn’t sure what to do.
I said, 'Son, what I can do? I cannot come to you. We are just trying to get you from Afghanistan.’
“I was just asking from other people, ‘What should I do?’” Ahmad said. “What should I do for my family?”
Now, at least, his asylum application is being filed. But it could still be years before he sees his wife and children again.
Ahmad says his youngest son, the 4-year-old, frequently asks him when he’s coming home. Last month, as the family prepared for the Eid holiday in Kabul, his little boy asked again — why wouldn’t he be there?
“I said, “Son, what I can do? I cannot come to you. We are just trying to get you from Afghanistan.’”
Ahmad tries to reach his family every morning around 4 a.m., before he departs for his first job of the day. While he knows there’s no easy solution, he tries his best to keep their hopes up — and his as well.
“I am just telling them that don’t worry, one day you will come to the United States very soon,” he said. “But in reality, I know that it will take a lot of time.”