After a year in the U.S., Afghan refugees face daily challenges and an uncertain future
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan one year ago led tens of thousands of people to flee the country and come to America. But for some who are here on humanitarian parole, the resettlement process has been rocky.
Bilal and his wife Sediqi get a faraway look in their eyes when talking about the losses they faced over the past year. The couple — both amputees — fled their home in Kabul last August as the Taliban swept through the city. They now live in San Antonio.
“Physically, I'm here. But mentally — trust me — I'm there,” Bilal said.
In Afghanistan, Bilal worked for a U.S. Embassy-funded human rights organization that empowered young women to take part in sports. A polio survivor, he was also a paralympic athlete in wheelchair basketball. Sediqi worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross fitting prosthetics and orthotics.
They asked that their last names be withheld because they fear retribution against family members who are still in Afghanistan.
The Taliban froze the couple’s assets at the bank, so they landed in the United States with just the clothes on their backs. Now they’re haunted by the dangers their families still face.
“I lost my mom, and we just left our parents behind and we came here," Sediqi said. "I think we are still in shock. But day by day, we want to recover ourselves."
To qualify for their San Antonio apartment, they had to pay six months rent up front because Bilal didn’t have a work history. The amount exceeded what Bilal called his “welcome money” — a three month benefits package Congress passed in October to help Afghan evacuees get on their feet.
“I was thinking ‘This amount is very big,’” he said. “But when I heard about the rent, about the process…then I decided to get help from the GoFundMe.”
Bilal works two jobs to support the family: a full-time position with a refugee services group and part-time as a restaurant dishwasher.
“It’s really hard because I have one leg that is disabled. So standing for more than three or four or five hours, it really hurts. But there is no other option right now for me. I have family back in Afghanistan that also need support from us.”
It’s also been a challenge to pay for medical care. Bilal said they can't afford health insurance. Medicaid benefits are limited in Texas. While a federal program for refugees covers some basic medical needs, it doesn’t always cover things like mental health counseling, dental work and new prostheses — and many providers won’t accept it.
As a result, the couple relies on a free refugee clinic for most of their medical needs. Community organizations and private specialists sometimes donate to their care, too.
Many Afghan refugees are dealing with these kinds of problems and worse.
“Some of these folks have blast injuries, amputations, bullets that are still in their bodies, shattered bones that never heal properly. If they don't get Medicaid, they're literally out in the cold,” said Margaret Costantino, director of the Center for Refugee Services in San Antonio, which has a sizable Afghan population.
When the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan last year, it granted some evacuees humanitarian parole status, a temporary visa that allows them to live and work in the U.S. for two years. But after that, their options are limited. They don’t receive the full refugee resettlement benefit from the government until they apply and get approved for asylum. As part of that process, they must endure long waits and individually justify their need for protection.
Costantino said because the Afghans on humanitarian parole are essentially stateless people, it’s hard for them to put down roots. Many are nearing immigration and work authorization deadlines, and it’s unclear how long they’ll be able to stay here.
“So they can work, they pay taxes, they go to school, they pay their rent, but the future for them is really still kind of murky,” said Costantino.
A bill now before Congress would give more than 80,000 Afghan asylum-seekers green cards and afford them the opportunity for citizenship down the line.
Although Bilal and Sediqi lose sleep over their future and their loved ones left behind, there’s one major bright spot: their 4-month old daughter Mahsa, whose name means “moon” in Persian.
“I think when she was born, she was really our hope,” said Sediqi. “When we saw her, we just forgot everything that passed.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.