An Afghan family faces many challenges trying to resettle in the U.S.
NPR's Rachel Martin follows one family's journey from Kabul, Afghanistan, to northern Virginia, and their search to find jobs and housing in the U.S.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Imagine for a moment what it would be like to lose the life you had built. You got an education, got married, had kids and you rose to the top of your profession. You were proud and happy. And then almost overnight, it was gone.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
RICHARD ENGEL: Now the Taliban are out in full force. They took over the presidential palace.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, there are scenes of panic and pandemonium at Kabul Airport today as desperate people...
LINSEY DAVIS: Helicopters and black smoke visible. American diplomats, including the ambassador, evacuated to the airport...
MARTIN: This is what happened to Kamila Noori (ph). The mother of six broke all kinds of barriers to become one of the most prominent judges in Afghanistan. And she handled the toughest, most dangerous cases - ISIS terrorists, Taliban fighters. Here she is speaking through our translator.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: She was giving order to hang them, like, for death.
MARTIN: How many times did you give that sentence?
KAMILA NOORI: (Through interpreter) More than 60 or 50 times I give it. That's why after two days, they have to leave the country.
MARTIN: Now she's living in a hotel in an office park about 15 miles outside Washington, D.C., along with her husband, five of her children, their spouses and three grandchildren. The U.S. got them all away from the Taliban. But like so many other Afghan refugees, now they are on their own, trying to build a life in a country they do not know.
(SOUNDBITE OF UTENSILS CLANGING)
MARTIN: The hotel room is sparse. There's a small kitchen, where her family is finishing up a breakfast of fried eggs and Afghan bread. Kamila's 33-year-old son, Masi (ph), is happy to share.
MASI MOHIB: Is this sesame or poppy seed?
MARTIN: These are sesames. Poppy seeds are the black ones.
MASI MOHIB: The black ones?
MARTIN: Kamila and I situate ourselves on the edge of the two queen-sized beds. Her outfit says a lot about her in-between state of existence. She's wearing this dress that would be considered pretty chic in Kabul - long and black with a row of crystals on one shoulder, and a black sheer headscarf that she's constantly adjusting. On her feet, rubber FILA flip-flops procured somewhere along the journey from Kabul to the U.S. On August 15, the Taliban took over the government of Afghanistan. Remember, Kamila wasn't exactly in their good graces, right? She had sentence dozens of Taliban fighters to death. Her husband, Mohibullah Mohib (ph), was a lawyer who had prosecuted the Taliban. He tells me an angry mob showed up at their house.
MOHIBULLAH MOHIB: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He said, they came three times. And they was, like, shouting and yelling that he put us in jail for 20 years, for 10 years. Where is the judge? And where is the prosecutor?
MARTIN: We should note, they found this out after they had escaped the country. But let's back up. They were granted special permission from the U.S. government to leave, something called humanitarian parole. But first, they had to get through the chaos at the airport. Here's their son, Masi.
MASI MOHIB: Three times, we went to the gates. But we were not able to get inside. And my mother was there. She fall down. The crowd was on top of her. She wasn't conscious on that day as well. She was not able to breath. Lots of people walk on her shoulders, on her head. So I grabbed her. And we came back to home.
MARTIN: On one of their attempts, Masi was trying to make his way through the mob in front of the airport gate when he noticed something, a man lifting a baby up over the barbed wire fence into the hands of a U.S. soldier. Masi pressed record on his phone.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey. Baby. Baby. Baby.
MARTIN: The video would end up going viral, representing the lengths that Afghans were willing to go to get their kids out. Eventually, Kamila and her family got into the airport and onto a U.S. military plane.
What was happening in your mind and your heart in that moment?
NOORI: (Through interpreter) It was terrible that I am leaving my country. And it was so horrible that - how and in which situation I am leaving my country.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: The C-17 was filled to capacity with other Afghans with their own stories of a life turned upside down. They sat on the floor, shoulder to shoulder. In Kamila's own family, there were many dreams now deferred - her daughter who just finished med school, another daughter who was building a career as a lawyer. They ended up at a military base outside Washington, D.C., run by the Marine Corps. And they stayed there for 56 days. The U.S. government connected them with an aid group called Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service - or LIRS. The agency got them into this hotel. But now it's up to them to find their own permanent housing and jobs. Here's Masi Mohib again.
MASI MOHIB: Well, actually right now, we are in here.
MASI MOHIB: So we need to get...
MARTIN: Out of here.
MASI MOHIB: ...Our house first. Yeah. So we don't know where we're going. Like, will we stay at Tysons? I said Will we go to Annandale? Will we go to Arlington?
MARTIN: LIRS told Masi they'd give him a certain amount of money to cover rent for a few months. But he has to find the place himself because they are totally overwhelmed.
MASI MOHIB: The case manager who's supporting our case, he asked me that I should help him. I should go and find a house for myself. And then I should do the lease and everything. And then I should come and collect the money from them because they are overwhelmed. They don't have the capacity to serve all these people.
MARTIN: Is that true?
KRISH O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Well, I mean, it's certainly true in terms of the volume of what we're talking about. What we would have resettled in a year, we're having to resettle in a week. And that's week after week after week.
MARTIN: This is Krish O'Mara Vignarajah. She's the CEO of LIRS.
VIGNARAJAH: You know, we're certainly in that process of ramping up significantly in the hiring and rehiring of staff, many of whom were furloughed or fired during the previous administration. But, you know, there are definitely moments where the staff feel overwhelmed and might feel a little bit like triaging.
MARTIN: The agency gave Masi a letter he could show potential landlords proving his rent would be covered.
MASI MOHIB: Yesterday, I went to four places. I had a tour. And they said, do you have credit score? I said, no. I'm new in the country. And then I showed the supporting document. They said, this is not working for us. You need to have a credit score. Or either someone with a good credit score should cosign for you.
MARTIN: Again, Krish O'Mara Vignarajah.
VIGNARAJAH: Finding safe, affordable housing is probably the biggest challenge we're facing right now. We know that, you know, Americans are feeling the impact of affordable housing and the crunch. So now imagine you're a refugee with no community ties or nest egg to draw from. It can be difficult to convince someone to rent to folks who have no guaranteed income or rental history or even a Social Security number.
MARTIN: Vignarajah says there's another problem. Those Afghans who were brought here under the humanitarian parole program, like Kamila's family, they're only allowed to be here temporarily. We went to the top on this question.
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: I am Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security.
MARTIN: Secretary Mayorkas told us the U.S. government has resettled 80,000 Afghan nationals in this country since the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
MAYORKAS: Some are U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, special immigrant visa holders, individuals who worked alongside us in the theater of war. And many others are vulnerable Afghan nationals - journalists, women, judges, other individuals in need of humanitarian relief.
MARTIN: We've been talking with a family that was evacuated under the auspices of a program called humanitarian parole. That was designed to expedite evacuation for a certain subset of Afghans who are high-risk. Do you have any idea how many Afghans were taken out of the country as humanitarian parolees?
MAYORKAS: So we had the privilege of rescuing tens of thousands as to whom we exercised, the secretary's discretionary authority to grant humanitarian parole.
MARTIN: It's my understanding that humanitarian parole only allows these Afghan refugees temporary immigration status here. Is that correct?
MAYORKAS: Actually, Rachel, it's technically not status but rather temporary lawful presence, that their presence in the United States is permitted by the United States government as an exercise of discretion. They do not have a path to status just by reason of the fact that they have been paroled into the United States. They might be able to develop a path to status if they qualify for asylum under the laws that Congress has passed.
MARTIN: Many of these people were at risk because they were actually on the frontlines of the fight. Take this family that we've been speaking with. The woman is a judge who sent Taliban fighters to jail. Her husband was a prosecutor. And now they're waiting in a hotel room with no idea how they're going to find a place to live or how they're going to make a living or how they're going to secure a permanent residency in the United States.
MAYORKAS: The instability that the family you mentioned might feel in a hotel not understanding what their future might provide speaks to some of the challenges that we face. We are working on a landscape of, essentially, a refugee program where our systems were dismantled in their entirety by the prior administration. Our refugee and Asylum programs were gutted. But we are working across the federal government, with local communities, with non-profit organizations, the private sector, all of civil society, to build a future for these people.
MARTIN: The near future is what preoccupies the Mohib family, the big stuff, like finding apartments and jobs, not to mention figuring out their permanent immigration status - and the small stuff, like getting U.S. SIM cards for their phones. Like tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, they are living in the in-between. Kamila is still grieving all she's lost. I asked her what memory she conjures up when she thinks of home.
NOORI: (Non-English language spoken).
MARTIN: "I remember, every morning, my car would arrive to take me to work," she tells me. "And I would look down from my apartment. And now there is no job, no nothing." She pauses for a long time and catches her breath through tears. And then a beat later, the emotional energy shifts. The door to the hotel room opens. And Kamila's grandchildren come running in.
MARTIN: From across the room, I ask 7-year-old Leema Mohib (ph) the question that a stranger asks a child when making conversation.
When you grow up, what do you want to be?
What does she want to be when she grows up?
LEEMA MOHIB: I want to be an astronaut.
MARTIN: Her grandmother, the judge, looks on from the bedside and smiles in a longing kind of way. She knows what it means to have an audacious dream. The question now is whether America can be the place where her children and grandchildren can reach for theirs.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SOUL'S RELEASE'S "HEADING HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.