Aug 17, 2022 - World

Afghans' long wait

Photo illustration of a lone man on a couch surrounded by abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Tens of thousands of Afghans who helped the U.S. military, as interpreters or in other roles, remain desperate for a new home a year after the U.S. left their country.

The big picture: Thousands haven't been able to leave Afghanistan. Thousands more are stuck on military bases in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. Others are newly arrived to American neighborhoods — but still struggling to adjust to life in the U.S.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has confronted the limits of a slow and outdated immigration system and the challenges of vetting the sheer number of Afghans who might be eligible for some type of resettlement in the U.S.

  • At almost every step of visa and travel processes, Afghans remain in limbo as the administration tries to carry out its promise to care for those who aided the U.S. during its longest war.
  • That's forced innovations — including the launch of a program allowing private citizens to help sponsor refugees — but left tens of thousands waiting nonetheless.

By the numbers: More than 81,000 Afghans have begun new lives in the U.S. over the past year. About 1,300 have been resettled in the U.S. and granted refugee status, which comes with a pathway to citizenship.

  • Most of the rest are in the U.S. under a short-term mechanism known as parole. It only offers protection for two years and does not guarantee a permanent stay.
  • The State Department estimates that more than 74,000 Afghans — some potentially in the U.S. — are at various stages of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process, a program specifically for Afghans who assisted U.S. war efforts.
  • Most of those people, along with their family members, are still in Afghanistan; some are in other countries, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

"I can't think of a client who is here, who is Afghan who doesn't have someone else stuck in Afghanistan who is a close family member," New Jersey attorney Jason Scott Camilo tells Axios. "It is very frightening for them to try and figure out how to get people out because you really can't right now."

Reality check: Afghans who get to the U.S. face other challenges. A recent government survey found more than a third of Afghans who had found a job since arriving in the U.S. were working below their skill level, according to select results provided to advocacy groups.

  • There is also a need for affordable housing and essential home goods.

Zoom in: Zarifa Adiba conducted the first all-female orchestra in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover. After the group’s return to power, she was stranded in Kyrgyzstan, where she had been in school. Broadway director Sammi Cannold and others helped her obtain an employment visa to come to the states.

  • Adiba's mother, three brothers and sister managed to escape their home in Kabul and arrived in the U.S. on parole in January.
  • They are currently in Queens. But only Adiba speaks English, and the family is unfamiliar with the culture. They've struggled to find affordable legal assistance to navigate the immigration process. Adiba only recently discovered her family was eligible for food assistance.
  • She said in an interview that it's important for Americans to understand that refugees are not coming to the U.S. because they want to lean on the system, but because they have no choice. "They are forced to leave their homeland."

What we're watching: Non-governmental organizations such as No One Left Behind and Human First Coalition have proliferated to help with evacuations and resettlements.

  • About 800 Afghan refugees were welcomed to the U.S. by groups of American citizens who signed up as private sponsors through a new program called Sponsor Circles, said Nazanin Ash, CEO of Welcome.US
  • That served as a model for the Biden administration's United for Ukraine efforts, which have brought in roughly 30,000 Ukrainians through private sponsorship and more than 100,000 Ukrainians total, through various pathways.
  • While government systems have been stretched thin, Ash said they have learned "we do have just extraordinary capacity if we're tapping into the broader willingness and compassion and energy of our American communities."

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