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With Broken Hearts, SoCal Afghans Plead With US To Take In More Refugees

Hameeda Uloomi wears a black jacket with a zipper. Her long brown-hair drapes past her shoulders and she has a small nose ring.
Hameeda Uloomi, 18, is organizing a demonstration in downtown Los Angeles to bring awareness to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
(Helena Uloomi )
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Five years ago, Hameeda Uloomi and her family escaped war-battered Kabul where, as a child, she witnessed the bombing of a bus on her way home from school. Their new U.S. life was suburban and calm in Rancho Palos Verdes, but Uloomi, now 18, continues to yearn for Afghanistan.

“Even as a child I had so much love and so much passion for that country,” Uloomi said. “I would think to myself that I would come back and I'll clean up the streets. I’ll be the next president, hopefully.”

So Uloomi said watching Afghanistan swiftly fall into the hands of the Taliban regime last weekend broke her heart, especially for the women and girls whose rights could be severely curtailed by the return of the fundamentalist regime. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, women and girls couldn’t work or go to school, or leave their homes without a male relative.

“The survivor's guilt is getting to me because I'm here and I'm not experiencing that," Uloomi said. "But all the other children are."

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Uloomi said it’s her duty to speak out for the millions of Afghan girls who cannot. She’s organizing a Saturday demonstration at noon in downtown Los Angeles outside the county’s Hall of Justice, an event she is hoping will draw Afghan refugees and their supporters from across the region.

The message to U.S. policymakers: Open the borders to more Afghan refugees and increase aid to tens of thousands of Afghans who helped the U.S. military over two decades of war.

Really, we’ve all been crying almost every single day.
— Wida Karim

President Biden is reportedly allocating $500 million in additional funds for relocating Afghan refugees. It would include applicants for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). The U.S. had previously pledged to help evacuate more than 80,000 Afghan civilians who qualify for SIVs, including translators and others who worked with the U.S. and could face retribution from the Taliban.

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Helping Uloomi with the L.A. event is Wida Karim, an Afghan American actress from Orange County. Karim’s family came as refugees to the U.S. after fleeing the country in the late 1970s during the Afghan-Soviet war.

Her philosophy professor father and her mom, a biology teacher, embraced their new country, even as they lost their careers and had to survive at first by working in restaurants. The family watched with hope from afar as the lives of Afghan girls and women improved over the past 20 years of the U.S. occupation.

Karim said her family does not think U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, and were prepared for their departure, but they were still shocked by the speed of the Taliban takeover.

“My mom’s been crying," Karim said. "Really, we’ve all been crying almost every single day."

A Feeling Of Betrayal

The family felt betrayed by Afghan’s former U.S.-backed president, Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country as the Taliban forces moved into Kabul.

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Headshot of a curly-haired woman staring into the camera.
Wida Karim, an actor who came as a refugee from Afghanistan, said she felt betrayed in the last few days by the presidents of the U.S. and Afghanistan.
( Mike Daugherty)

But even more hurtful, Karim said, was President Biden’s speech Monday, in which he forcefully defended his administration’s decision to withdraw all troops.

“In his speech, he doesn't seem like he really cares about Afghanistan,” Karim said. “The Afghan Americans that did vote for him in my communities — in my family — were very heartbroken by his comments. I will not be voting for him again.”

Karim said her goal now is to re-create the warm reception her family got four decades ago for the Afghan refugees headed to the U.S. But she fears political divides in the country and antagonism towards immigrants will make for a harsher climate.

New Arrivals Expected

Refugee advocates are also gearing up for the new arrivals. A staffer from the Garden Grove office of World Relief Southern California is planning on traveling to Virginia to help receive and process refugees, according to Jose Serrano, an associate director of the organization.

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Serrano said advocates thought they would have more lead time to help refugees adapt to their new home, but the sudden fall of Afghanistan has created unexpected urgency and anxiety.

Serrano spent part of Monday afternoon counseling an Afghan refugee who had stopped by the office, fearing for the lives of his mother and siblings, especially because of their U.S. connections, and thinking of how to help them escape.

"Our clients are terrified and they’re waiting to see what is going to happen to their loved ones,” Serrano said. “We are concerned, and scared for them as well.”

Uloomi said she has been staying in touch with family in Afghanistan daily through Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

"It's pretty scary getting calls from them not knowing whether we will get to hear their voice tomorrow or not," Uloomi said.

Prior to the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, Uloomi had been raising funds to provide school supplies for Afghan students through a group she founded. But these days she is focused on building awareness for the Afghans trying to flee the Taliban, and contacting other student organizers on college campuses.

Uloomi, who starts San Diego City College next week, plans to study international relations and law. She hasn't given up on returning to Afghanistan. With the Taliban in power, though, she said it may taken longer than she thought.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.