Dec 25, 2021 - Politics & Policy

What Afghans face 4 months after evacuation

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

As the Taliban moved on Kabul in August, Tahera Ahmadi, 31, a married doctor, fled Afghanistan with just a backpack. Now, she's trying to rebuild a life in Alexandria, Virginia.

The big picture: As people around the world celebrate Christmas and the start of a new year, Ahmadi and about 74,000 other Afghan evacuees are navigating their own new beginnings in the U.S.

  • About 48,000 people have been resettled under Operation Allies Welcome, and 26,000 others are at seven military bases around the country where they go through immigration processing, health screening and vaccination.

Their journeys have been winding and uncertain. Many have been marked by heartbreak and devastating loss, isolation and bewilderment. Even for those with strong links to the U.S. — like Ahmadi and her husband — the vast landscape of the unknown looms over everything.

  • Ahmadi flew from Herat, Afghanistan, to Kabul on Aug. 7, about a week before the Afghan government collapsed. She was evacuated to Qatar and later Germany.
  • Ahmadi and a friend who arrived in Qatar together were beaming despite the sunburn, dust, coughing and uncertainty. They showered, clothed, under a large tap. "We were so happy we got out," she recalled.

Behind the scenes: Ahmadi's husband had worked at the U.S. Consulate in Herat before it was attacked by the Taliban in 2013. He came to the U.S. shortly after on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and worked in California, most recently as an Uber and Lyft driver.

  • In Afghanistan, Ahmadi had worked as a volunteer and contractor for USAID and other international organizations, coordinating English-language programs and providing workforce development for women. That put her in danger when power changed hands.
  • She remembers her husband telling her to stay in Kabul until she could get out — not to return to Herat because it was so dangerous. "'If you die, die there,'" he told her.
  • Ahmadi landed at Dulles International Airport on Sept. 4 and was taken to Fort Pickett, Virginia, one of the seven processing locations. She stayed there for almost two months.

At the end of October, Ahmadi left Fort Pickett voluntarily — a path taken by about 5,000 Afghans with close ties in the U.S.

  • Her husband packed his things into a car and drove from California to Virginia to reunite with her.

How it works: People resettled by the State Department and local agencies receive assistance in the first 30–90 days with housing, finding employment, getting their children into schools, and learning English.

  • But the flooded system is strapped by a shortage of affordable housing and staff at resettlement agencies, and the Biden administration is facing criticism that the process is moving slowly.
  • A major concern among community organizers now is the risk of Afghans becoming homeless when assistance runs up, says Shekeba Morrad, a lawyer in the D.C. metro area and volunteer helping to coordinate resettlement efforts.

What's next: A stopgap program known as humanitarian parole gives Ahmadi and others two years in the U.S. as they wait for their green cards and SIV applications to be processed.

  • She's considering getting a medical certification but has to weigh their financial needs.

What to watch: More than 60,000 Afghans who worked with the U.S. and applied for visas to come to the country remain in Afghanistan.

  • The U.S. intends to continue to welcome additional Afghans to this country over the coming weeks, months and years, a White House official told Axios.
  • "We owe them a debt of gratitude and obligation, but it goes beyond that," says Jamil Jaffer, director of the National Security Law & Policy Program at George Mason University.
  • "It’s about every other person that we try to recruit, that the CIA tries to recruit as an asset, that we try to hire at an embassy. They’re going to say, 'Why should I trust you? Why should I rely on you?'"

What you can do: For the Afghans resettling across the U.S., "something as simple as friendship means the world to these people," Morrad says.

  • Private citizens can formally sponsor Afghans through a program launched by the State Department earlier this fall.
  • Informal outreach is also tremendously comforting, Morrad says. "Celebrating holidays with them, sending cookies, teaching your children to help refugees in school."

Stef Kight contributed reporting to this story.

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