They escaped Afghanistan, but war’s struggles followed them
Los Angeles Times August 28, 2022
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Inside a two-bedroom apartment in Sacramento, three siblings laughed as they watched an eager group of contestants competing to win a Lamborghini on a YouTube stream.
Zabiullah Musafer, 43, and his wife, Yalda, 34, shook their heads at their children, content that the show — however ridiculous — was helping them learn English one year after they fled Afghanistan and moved to California to seek asylum.
In many ways, Musafer said, America has provided him and his family with the safety and opportunity they had hoped for. He quickly found a full-time job at an Apple warehouse. His children — Sefatullah, 18; Rabia, 16; Muqaddas, 12; and Subhanullah, 10 — are enrolled in school. He and Yalda take English-language courses. Many in Yalda’s family immigrated to California several years ago, during an earlier phase of the U.S. occupation, and on weekends the Musafers spend time with her sister’s family, cooking together or exploring Northern California.
But their new life isn’t without its challenges.
Musafer’s children share one bedroom; his two daughters share a bed. His thoughts often drift to those left behind in Afghanistan and what their futures hold. He isn’t clear on his immigration status: Although he spoke with a resettlement agency about his asylum application nearly five months ago, he hasn’t heard back since that initial screening.
“Of course, I worry,” he said, as the sound of people vying for the lime green sports car blared in the background. “I am always thinking about that. I call my caseworker, and he says he’s trying to do what he can. I can’t afford a lawyer, so I am still waiting for help.”
About 94,000 Afghan nationals, U.S. citizens and permanent residents were evacuated from Afghanistan during Operation Allies Welcome — the Biden administration’s ongoing effort to resettle vulnerable Afghans, including those who worked on behalf of the U.S. — according to the Department of Homeland Security. They include more than 85,000 Afghan nationals who have settled in states such as Texas, California, Virginia, Washington and Pennsylvania. Of those, more than 77,000 were paroled into the U.S. on a case-by-case basis for humanitarian reasons, for a two-year period, DHS said.
The journey from their home country is one marked by hardship and the need for swift adjustment — as well as hope for their futures.
Some Afghans who have resettled here say that the hardest part of starting a new life has been navigating the red tape to sign up for social services, finding housing and understanding how to file for asylum with little guidance. Others point to the difficulty in reconciling a previous life of working for the government or military in Afghanistan with working low-wage jobs in America, and suddenly finding themselves at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, often isolated by language and culture.
Many are focused both on the U.S. and the home they left behind, concentrating on building their new lives while also keeping an eye on, and sometimes sending money to, colleagues and loved ones who live under Taliban rule back home.
A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation this month to establish a pathway to permanent legal status for Afghan evacuees. The proposal, called the Afghan Adjustment Act, would provide another option for those pursuing permanent legal status through the asylum system or the special immigrant visa program. Both options are hampered by severe backlogs and long processing times.
Musafer and other recent Afghan immigrants are watching the proposal closely.
“Our fellow armed service members of the Afghan army, the airborne division, and special force units are still stuck back home,” said Musafer, a former fixed-wing squadron commander in Afghanistan’s air force. “I urge the U.S. government not to abandon the evacuation process and ultimately not abandon the people of Afghanistan.”
About 10 miles from Musafer’s home, Ali Zafar Mehran questioned why the resettlement process for Afghans hasn’t gone more smoothly. Since arriving in the U.S. in April, Mehran, 36, has struggled to find housing. His caseworker told him that it could take months for the resettlement agency to help him find a place to live. He quickly ran into the complicated red tape of the health care system when trying to find an affordable doctor for his pregnant wife.
“This resettlement system and refugee services are not fair,” said Mehran, who worked as a budget adviser for the Justice Sector Support Program — an international partnership with the U.S. and Afghan governments to help reform the Afghan criminal justice system and curb the flow of narcotics. “Some of my friends received good services. But most are in bad situations like me.”
His resettlement agency didn’t help him find a home, he said. When they arrived in California, Mehran, his wife and 6-year-old daughter lived with an Afghan friend in Modesto for about 20 days, he said, though his friend’s apartment did not have enough room for them all.
He found his current apartment through another friend, who said he knew the leasing office manager in a complex in the Arden Arcade area where many Afghans have resettled. Unlike other places that Mehran had found, this apartment did not require a co-signer with high income to back his application.
He moved in immediately. But because he transferred to another county, Mehran said, the resettlement agency closed his case.
Mehran used his “welcome money,” about $3,500 disbursed by the resettlement agency, to pay for the apartment that he has furnished with hand-me-downs and items he’s salvaged from the street. His wife, Karima, 31 — a former nurse who gave birth to their second daughter after moving to California — sleeps on a mattress he pulled from the trash. The decorative pillow cases that he brought from Afghanistan are also filled with things he found in the garbage.
He borrowed roughly $12,000 from friends to purchase a car, a rug and other household items.
“I really didn’t expect it, that life will start like this in the United States,” Mehran said. “I have lots of other problems. I must earn money to send to my parents in Afghanistan.”
Each month, he receives roughly $1,400 from Sacramento County in the form of cash aid and food stamps. His rent, before utilities, is $1,465. He recently started a job at a liquor store and works in food delivery when he can.
“I have a master’s degree in finance, and more than 10 years of experience,” Mehran said, sitting on his living room floor. “I can do nothing because there is a wrong system for refugees.”
When the Afghan government collapsed after the U.S. withdrawal last year, one of the first changes many Afghans and outsiders feared was the potential crackdown on women under a resurgent Taliban. For years, women there had come to prize their freedoms — working in government, journalism and other formerly male-only occupations and going to school and college.
Working toward their goals was not without its difficulties, Afghan women say, but they made hard-won progress. And for a generation of Afghan girls who had never experienced Taliban rule, it was the only upbringing they knew.
This year, Taliban officials decided that girls should not be allowed to go to school after completing the sixth grade. Officials also issued a new dress code for women appearing in public, stipulating that only their eyes should be visible, after banning women from taking long-distance road trips alone in December.
At 26, Zahra Karimi had spent much of her life in Afghanistan as an independent woman. She faced challenges as a member of the Hazara ethnic group, she said, but she was still able to pursue her education and work for the Afghan government. All that changed Aug. 26, 2021, when she slogged for hours through the Kabul airport and left her country by herself after losing her friends in the crush of people who had poured into the area. The journey left her legs bloodied, cut by the razor wire placed throughout the airport for security.
“I had never seen the Taliban in person,” she said in Dari. “I’d only seen them on television or on the news.”
Despite that, Karimi said, she knew that the Taliban would not want a young woman like her to continue working. Women back home live in fear and anxiety, she said, and she knows she could never live a life where she would be expected to stay home without the option to work.
Sitting in front of her laptop in her Seattle apartment on a recent weekday, Karimi practiced her English in an online class. She flipped through a binder of notes as they reviewed proper grammar.
“What is your work schedule?” her instructor asked the class. Karimi glanced at a list of potential answers.
“No. 3, I work every day,” she replied in an excited rush. “Teacher, No. 3!”
A few minutes later, she walked into the kitchen, where she had prepared a traditional Afghan breakfast of eggs mixed with tomatoes and started to make tea. Karimi answered questions from the stove as she heated up some bread.
“They leave people alone here and you’re able to live your own life,” she said, switching back to Dari. “People are so kind when they learn I came alone as a woman to start my life.”
She works in a hotel cafeteria and hopes to study nursing.
Still, she said, there are things she misses — big aspects of her life like her family, whose photos hang over her bed, and smaller moments like sharing a meal with her girlfriends on Thursdays. When she thinks about the people she left behind, she feels distressed.
“My family is the most important thing to me,” she said. “My friends call me and say, ‘Zahra, it’s good that you left.’ They’re at home; that’s it.”
Whenever Meena Mosazai’s husband watches news about Afghanistan, she tells him she doesn’t want to know what’s happening because it’s at times too much for her to bear. A former journalist and NGO worker, the 30-year-old fled Kabul, the capital, because she worried her years in the media would make her a target.
“Some women when they make it to the top, they sacrificed lots of things,” she said. “After the Taliban came in, even those people — that woman who sacrificed, who got a job, who got a name for themselves — they lost it.”
For Mosazai, one of the hardest parts of Taliban rule to watch is the repeal of women’s education. Education has been important throughout her life, she said — she loves to read and believes every woman should have the opportunity to learn what they’d like.
She tears up when she thinks of her nieces losing the opportunities she was afforded.
“We try to be happy here. I’m not only thinking about my family, I’m thinking of the entire generation,” she said, dabbing at her eyes with a scarf. She looked at her daughter, Moska, 1, toddling around the living room. “I cannot imagine if she would grow up [under] the Taliban, that she would not be educated.”
Seema Rezai locked herself in her Kabul bedroom when the Taliban retook the city. She cried each night, wondering how she could live under a government that would keep her away from the sport that had become an integral part of her identity: boxing.
Rezai, 19, was on her way to the gym when the Taliban arrived in Kabul. She trained with her coach that day, but he suggested she head home as soon as possible. He advised her to not come back, but she couldn’t stay away.
“The Taliban came inside our gym, because people told them that there was a girl that (is) training inside,” said Rezai, who lives near Seattle with her parents and three siblings. “They talked with me, they talked with my coach. ... They took all of my information, my name, everything. They said, ‘Where do you live at?’ I was afraid.”
The Taliban arrived at her doorstep the next day and instructed her father to not allow his daughter to go to the gym. Rezai felt broken.
“My friends, the Afghan girls, they’re stuck back home,” she said. “And I think I’m guilty about that.”
The teenager found herself in the unfamiliar role of breadwinner when she and her family arrived in Washington. She found a job working at the front desk of a Seattle hotel, and later found her parents jobs too. When she isn’t working, she trains at the gym in pursuit of her goal of joining the Refugee Olympic Team as a boxer in 2024 — a position she hopes will put Afghan women, and their struggles, in the spotlight.
“When I can be a champion ... I can be a voice (for) them in the world,” she said. “Then the world can listen to me.”
Others who fled Afghanistan left because they felt they would never be safe, despite any Taliban claims of so-called general amnesty for those who had worked with foreign forces.
The day the last American military plane left Kabul, Shir Agha Safi arrived in the U.S.
A military man, he led hundreds of soldiers in Helmand province in anti-terrorism missions and the fight against insurgents. He knew he would never survive if he stayed, so he left his home after defending it for 20 years.
The moment he landed, he wanted to “disappear from everyone.”
As other Afghans arriving in the U.S. sought paths to either coast, Safi chose Iowa because no one else seemed to be going there. It wasn’t until other Afghans joined him in the following weeks that he realized many weren’t receiving the type of support they had expected. He stepped back into his role as a commander, volunteering to help refugees by starting a nonprofit with the aim of training Afghans to help other Afghans.
He hopes to be able to help with interpretation services, to help newcomers find English-language courses and jobs, and to arrange rides for their appointments — though he is still settling in himself.
On an August evening, Safi, 30, paced up and down a Des Moines street flanked by postwar homes and commercial buildings and tried to flag down a truck that was transporting donated furniture to his new home. The movers arrived and began carrying Victorian-style furnishings up the stairs. One man asked Safi where he was from.
“Afghanistan,” Safi said.
“Welcome to America,” another mover replied.
The first mover stayed quiet until he caught a glimpse of a photo in Safi’s bedroom that showed his days in the Afghan military. The mover shared that he had served in the U.S. military in Kunduz province. He thanked Safi for his service.
After swapping war stories, the pair finished setting up Safi’s new home. The men said goodbye to the former commander, illuminated by the red lights of the moving truck.
Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent and photographer Marcus Yam contributed to this report.
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