Aug 30, 2022 - News

One year after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Afghans in Charlotte are in legal limbo

Tahira Askari and Bahroz Mohmand. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

editors note: The interview with Tahira Askari has been translated from Dari.

Tahira Askari and her family arrived at the chaotic scene at the Kabul airport last August, with a crowd of people surrounding the walls, and Taliban surrounding them.

  • The teenager heard gunshots and people calling out for help. She saw people being beaten and lying on the ground, injured.
  • They slept on the street outside the airport for two nights. Finally, after moving to another location, they managed to board a plane to Qatar, then Germany, then Washington, D.C., then Wisconsin, before they became among the over 1,700 Afghan refugees to arrive in North Carolina since last August.

Now 17, Askari lives in Concord now and dreams of studying journalism in the U.S. But like tens of thousands of Afghans now in the United States, she faces a ticking clock with her legal status. And she is bogged down in a years-long legal process to obtain citizenship.

What’s happening: The U.S. completed the withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago today, Aug. 30, and has resettled more than 76,000 Afghans in the country.

  • Initially, North Carolina was set to resettle 1,200 refugees but that swelled to 1,730, according to the latest figures provided by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Charlotte agencies resettled 298.

Why it matters: In that year, Afghans in Charlotte and elsewhere have tried to build new lives for themselves, but their legal status is in limbo.

Context: Most Afghans have temporary status in the U.S. through humanitarian parole, which does not have a clear path to citizenship, and only lasts for two years typically.

  • Afghans can apply for asylum, and their cases will be expedited, receiving an interview within 45 days.
  • But it’s still a lengthy process that attorneys often assist with, which is a financial barrier for families that had to start over when they moved here. Plus, the nearest office handling the asylum interviews is in Virginia.

Once they receive asylum, they can apply for their green card after a year, and in four years they are eligible to apply for citizenship, says Rebekah Niblock, a staff attorney with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy working for its Immigrant Justice Program.

  • While the asylum process is being sped up for Afghans compared to other refugees, it still means years of waiting and legal fees before they can become citizens.

Driving the news: A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act in August at the behest of immigration groups to provide a process, with vetting, to apply for permanent residency.

  • U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, Charlotte’s Congresswoman, plans to cosponsor the legislation in the House, spokesperson Sam Spencer tells Axios.
  • Spokespeople for Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr did not respond to Axios regarding their stances on the bill.

One family’s story: Askari remembers the Kabul streets were quiet the night the city fell last August. She stayed at home for two days with her family, until her uncle called from the United States and told them to head to the airport.

That uncle, Bahroz Mohmand, started working as a translator helping Afghan and U.S. special forces to communicate in 2004.

Photo courtesy Bahroz Mohmand
  • The job became dangerous. At one point the Taliban was kidnapping interpreters and putting bounties on their heads for $100,000, he says.
  • So in 2012, he moved to the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa program.
  • Mohmand had been trying to get his family out of Afghanistan since 2018, but could only bring his parents over — at least until that night Kabul fell.

His “heart was just shaking” that night, he says. He didn’t sleep for five days. He questioned whether sending them to the airport was the right decision. At least at home, they were safe, he thought. Now they were compromised.

“I can’t imagine if something happened to them,” he told me, choking up. “I wouldn’t live with that guilt myself. Because I was the only one from my family working for the army. And then basically, all their lives were in jeopardy because of me.”

Two months later, they arrived in North Carolina. All 32 of his family members that made it out packed into his home.

  • “That was the happiest moment,” he said. “And then I kind of forgot about what I went through. But it’s like a wound in my heart.”

Getting here, though, is just the beginning for most Afghans.

Bahroz co-founded the Interpreting Freedom Foundation, which helps newly arrived Afghans adjust to life in the U.S., for example, navigating the DMV and obtaining a driver’s license.

Catholic Charities, the organization that resettled 204 refugees in Charlotte last fall, says at least one adult in each household is now working, says Laura T. Jones, resettlement director. Catholic Charities has been driving Afghans from Charlotte to Arlington for the interviews for their asylum cases, Jones tells me.

Though all are in permanent housing who were resettled last fall, affordable housing remains a challenge for new refugees.

  • In January, a Charlotte Observer article detailed problems some Afghan families reported with Catholic Charities’ resettlement, including not having enough food and being unable to receive necessary medical care. In an op-ed, the agency called the article inaccurate and unfair, and Jones says Catholic Charities has served its Afghan clients very well.

Zia Ghafoori delivers food to 67 Afghan families in Charlotte every Tuesday, filling in the gaps he believes are left by local resettlement agencies.

Ghafoori, program director for the Allies Program at the nonprofit Independence Fund, is a former interpreter for the U.S. special forces. 

  • Many of the families that arrived are large, Ghafoori tells Axios, and need to rent a big house, but that often costs more than $2,000 a month. That leaves little left over for utilities, food and other expenses.
  • “They left everything, they [are] coming here, and they don’t know what to do,” he said. “They need to run to get their license. They need to run, go take their children to school, they need to run to learn the language.”

Mental health impacts: Afghans are also dealing with psychological trauma from the conflict, and the asylum process can reopen some of those old wounds, says Daniel Elkins, chief of staff at the Independence Fund. Interviewers may bring up difficult questions in an attempt to ensure the applicant isn’t a security risk.

  • “You start asking someone very specific details about, you know, ‘what type of violence have you seen, and what type of military trauma have you been exposed to?’” he said. Such questions aim to determine whether someone is  a bad actor, but, he adds, “a lot of times, it’s just completely insensitive.”

What’s next: Mohmand’s family is still waiting to hear back on their asylum cases. In the meantime, their work permits expire next year, and their lives are in flux until they receive permanent residency.

He believes the Afghan Adjustment Act would show Afghans they belong here and they aren’t in danger anymore.

  • “They still think that they might go back, they might send them back, you know, they don’t have that hope yet, because all they have is a work permit with the expiration date.”

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