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'There's a Lot That's Not Working Within the System': Afghan Evacuees Struggle with Housing and Immigration Hurdles

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A man holds a child by the hands as the child flips upside down inside of a house. Another child plays nearby on the floor while a woman works on a computer at a kitchen table in the background.
While Nazia Gabar teaches English classes to women from Afghanistan who have resettled in the United States, her husband Hassam plays with their two children at their home in San Leandro on Sept. 8, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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Over four months since the fall of Kabul, some Afghan evacuees are still working to find a sense of stability here in the Bay Area.

For some families, it's an ongoing search for an affordable home and a job. For others, like Sadaat, it's fighting with bureaucracy to obtain the necessary paperwork for their loved ones in Afghanistan to join them.

Sadaat arrived in the Bay Area on Oct. 21 — flying from Abu Dhabi with her three children, ages 8, 10 and 12. She preferred to use a pseudonym for fear of Taliban retaliation against her husband and other family members who are still in Afghanistan.

Before leaving her country, Sadaat worked for a U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, project on agricultural development.

She received her visa in August before Kabul fell to the Taliban, but her husband was still waiting for his paperwork. She waited another two months, leaving the country with her children. Now she's in Fremont.

“I'm here with my three children, I'm just struggling with that — finding resources and finding different sources to help me out. How can I get him out of there?” she told KQED.

She said her husband had previously worked with the U.S. government, and now he has to live in hiding from the Taliban regime.

"He's not living a normal life,” Sadaat said. But she acknowledges that caring for three kids by herself in the U.S. is also far from normal.

Since she has to take her kids to school and pick them up, Sadaat hasn’t been able to find a job. Her brother lives in Fremont and has been helping her move around the city until she can get her own license and car to drive.

"It’s not easy to survive in this country," she said. “We have been already waiting for three years and still — such a messy situation.”

“This pending situation is very frustrating for me,” Sadaat said. Her kids are having trouble focusing as well, living in a new country without their father.

Aminah Abdullah, who is the charity coordinator at the Pleasanton Muslim Community Center in the East Bay (MCC), says that for many recently arrived evacuees, the biggest challenge is housing, and once housing is secured, everything else becomes easier. To help bridge the gap and provide food, MCC has been coordinating food drop-offs for families who are in need of support, many of whom are waiting for state benefits to kick in.

Abdullah said they’re also asking for used cars so they can fix them up for families. “A lot of people are working from home now. They might have an extra vehicle they no longer need. They could donate it to MCC and we would fix it up if needed and pass it along to a refugee family,” she said.

MCC works with refugee resettlement organizations like the International Rescue Committee and Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay who assist with housing and support in the first few months of arrival.

Searching for stability

For M. Shakir, who left Kabul with her husband and 4-year-old son, the journey since mid-August has been long and slow.

After sleeping on the floor overnight at the airport in Kabul, they left Afghanistan Aug. 17, landed in Qatar and were then moved to Germany. After five days, Shakir said, they arrived in Washington, D.C., and from there were moved to Fort Bliss in Texas, where about 10,000 evacuees were placed, with 100 people to a tent.

“It was really hard … I must say terrible,” she said. At Fort Bliss they lived in a tent with several families, but she said that hygiene was very poor. After staying there for two and a half months, they left to move in with relatives in Fremont.

But within the first week of their arrival, they were told by a manager of the building complex that there was an occupancy limit and they would need to leave.

Now they have to move again.

But the financial support they receive from the government is not enough to provide a security deposit, and some places ask for a credit history, something they also don’t have.

“We are totally lost in this situation,” she said and added that some landlords were asking for a five-month deposit on a one-bedroom apartment.

Back in Afghanistan, Shakir said, her husband was a contract worker for U.S.-based companies and they were in the process of applying for a special immigrant visa (SIV) when they left, but she said they applied for humanitarian parole and have received approval to stay for now.

In many cases, humanitarian parole was seen as a temporary workaround that would allow individuals to enter and stay in the U.S. without a visa for “urgent humanitarian reasons.”

Legal and community groups say they expect to file at least 30,000 humanitarian parole applications, but nationwide only about 100 applications have been approved since July.

For Shakir, who received temporary status under humanitarian parole, it hasn't solved all of the challenges. Her CalFresh card stopped working, so the family needs help with food in addition to housing.

“We waited for four weeks and it didn't arrive at our mail address. Then they said, 'Wait, one week more.' We waited one week more. Still, it didn't arrive," she explained. "Then they said, 'OK, you apply for replacement.' We applied for a replacement again.”

For now, this has meant they are forgoing meals so their son has enough to eat and they rely on family members for assistance.

“We are affected and sometimes we feel very heavy," she said.

“We had a good life there back in Kabul, in Afghanistan … life before was quite amazing. Like my husband was a civil engineer. And also he had his own business,” she said. Shakir was a professor at a university, teaching management.

“We don't want to be a load on the government. We have experience. We can work, you know?” she said.


The ongoing humanitarian parole backlog

Spojmie Nasiri, an immigration attorney in the Bay Area, said she began frantically filing humanitarian parole petitions for people seeking to evacuate Afghanistan soon after the Taliban takeover.

For those in Afghanistan, "humanitarian parole is the last resort,” she said. “The unicorn of seeking relief into the U.S. The criteria has always been very stringent."

Because the U.S. embassy in Kabul is closed down, Afghans need to travel to another country with an operating American embassy or consulate to be approved for humanitarian parole.

"And we all know that with the dire situation in Afghanistan, particular minority groups, women judges, lawyers, other groups that are targeted by the Taliban are in dire danger right now and are living in Afghanistan either in safe houses or in hiding," Nasiri said.

"And how are they going to possibly go to a third country that is not issuing visas?"

Immigration attorneys working with clients in Afghanistan are calling for the U.S. government to lower the requirements for humanitarian parole.

Paris Etemadi Scott, the legal director of the Pars Equality Center in San José, said one of her clients in Afghanistan has been moving constantly to stay safe because his experience as a contractor for the American government and education in the U.S. puts him at imminent risk.

Scott explains that even this client is likely to have his application for humanitarian parole denied because it would be so difficult to get a third party to corroborate that he is at risk of imminent harm.

"This is a very high evidentiary standard, basically asking Afghans who are in hiding, who don't have enough to eat, to try to find a person to write a statement specifically naming them and the risk of harm they're suffering," she said.

"Potentially going to Taliban and asking them to notarize the statement. And that's just, that's basically tantamount to abandoning our Afghan allies."

She and other advocates are calling for an Afghan parole program with a criteria based on general risk rather than showing evidence for individual harm. "At this stage, it just seems like the U.S. is washing its hands of Afghanistan and just moving on," Scott said.

Kyra Lilien, director of the immigration legal services program at Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay, said while the organization has resettled 300 people in the Bay Area over the last four months, none of her clients has been approved for humanitarian parole.

"The question of the hour is, what other option is there? And really, there is none," Lilien said. "There's sort of the false option that the U.S government is advancing, which is that Afghans should find their own way out of Afghanistan somehow."

On Dec. 13, over 200 organizations sent a letter to the Biden administration regarding humanitarian parole denials for Afghans. The letter, spearheaded by Project ANAR (Afghan Network for Advocacy and Resources), marks the second appeal by the group to the White House and members of Congress. According to The Wall Street Journal, 60,000 visa applicants remain in Afghanistan.

For Jane Pak, co-executive director at Refugee and Immigrant Transitions in Oakland, it's been hard to see the different parts of the system that don't connect — from people in Afghanistan being told to apply for humanitarian parole without the structure in place to do so — to what appears to be blanket rejections of applicants already in the United States.

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"All these efforts to do the right thing are met by systemic flaws that are damaging and hurtful,” she said.

Although dealing with all the immigration hurdles has been very difficult, Pak said, the support from the already settled Bay Area Afghan community has been a source of joy and warmth.

"What's been beautiful is how the communities have been coming together in solidarity," she said, "doing everything they can to volunteer, to raise resources, to welcome people who are here."

But she said, at the root of it, “there's a lot that's not working within the system ... and I just want to call attention to that."


Legal assistance 

Food assistance

Volunteer with the Muslim Community Center

Resources in all Bay Area counties
Dial 211 for United Way's resource line (150 languages).



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