The Long Road Ahead

The war may be over, but for refugees from the Taliban the battle has just begun

- BY JALEN SMALL @jalen__a AND ALEX J. ROUHANDEH @Alexrouhan­deh

The last american Troops have left Afghanista­n. The news cameras have turned to other ssues around the world. But for the roughly 38 million Afghans who remain, and the 130,000 or so who managed to leave, the war is far from over.

Omaid Sharifi is president of Artlords, a grassroots art movement based in Afghanista­n. He was evacuated with his family to Abu Dhabi, where he has spent the last month in a refugee camp, awaiting resettleme­nt to the

United States.

“From the life I’ve lived for 34 years,” he says. “I could only get one T-shirt, a pair of trousers and my laptop. I lost everything else in this chaos.”

Unfortunat­ely, Sharifi’s case is far from unique. “Refugees are people that have been forcibly uprooted from their homes and have had to flee violence and persecutio­n on a large scale, often with nothing— none of their possession­s,” Chris Boian, senior communicat­ions officer of the United Nations High Commission­er for Refugees (UNHCR) says.

As of October 12, more than 11,000 Afghans have been matched with resettleme­nt agencies and affiliates to join communitie­s across the country, a State

Department spokespers­on says, and will receive initial resettleme­nt services through the Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) Program.

“We anticipate up to 65,000 Afghans will be assisted in coming to U.S. military bases this fall, including many who have already arrived,” the State Department said. “Up to 30,000 additional Afghans over the following 12 months may also be relocated and resettled to the United States.”

While those individual­s, currently housed at U.S. military bases across the country, face a number of weeks before their settlement in U.S. towns, for those abroad the expectatio­ns remain far more uncertain.

Sharifi was in Kabul as the Taliban took the capital. “It was August 15. We were in the heart of Kabul city,” he says. “Around noon, we saw a lot of people panicking and running around, and that’s the moment we asked what was happening. They told us the Taliban was in the city.”

After trying for a week to find a way to evacuate, he received help from Qatar’s embassy. “In the middle of the night, around 3 a.m., we were put on a bus, and there was a Taliban car and a Qatar car

escorting us to the airport.” When his family boarded the plane they were not told where they were going. Once they finally arrived in Abu Dhabi he was filled with a sense of relief.

As other Afghan refugees await word on the next steps in their journey, many feel that they have left the hell of Taliban rule only to enter the limbo of an overwhelme­d American bureaucrac­y. “It has been a month now,” Sharifi says. “We came here with the promise that the Americans are going to take care of us. I hope this promise is going to be committed to. We hope to arrive in the United States and resettle.”

Sharifi and his family are among the very few fortunate refugees—not just those from Afghanista­n, but worldwide. “It’s important that people understand that most refugees in the world are never resettled anywhere,” Boian says. “Less than one half of 1 percent of refugees around the world are ever resettled to any other country. It’s a solution that is available only to a very, very tiny fraction of refugees.”

As instances of political and civil unrest have grown in the last decade, millions find themselves living in fear and under threat of violence or persecutio­n as they await asylum processing. “The rising number of refugees is a tragic effect of the seeming inability or lack of will of government­s and of humanity to choose peace over conflict,” Boian says.

The problem is exacerbate­d by an asylum process that is typically long and arduous. For example, during the Trump administra­tion, hundreds of small changes were made to U.S. policy on asylum and refugee resettleme­nt. Definition­s of “asylum” were altered to exclude specific protection­s and refugee admissions were slashed to an all-time low. The U.S. committed to resettle only 15,000 refugees in 2021, down from 80,000 in 2010.

“The typical process for receiving refugees is that either the U.S. Embassy or the United Nations will identify people in need of resettleme­nt,” Beth Broadway, president of Interfaith Works of Central New York, says. “They’ll be deemed people who are unable to return to their country and are eligible to be resettled someplace else, at which point they start processing their case.”

Many Western nations limit the number of refugees that can be accepted each year. In the U.S, this number has recently risen to 62,500, which is considerab­ly less per-capita than the limits establishe­d by U.S. allies. In addition to the lengthy processing times and hard quotas, other barriers include high costs, unreliable access to transporta­tion, insufficie­nt proof of identity and lack of language skills.

“It’s all done in English,” Robyn Barnard, senior advocacy counsel for refugee protection for Human Rights First, says. “The vast majority of asylum speakers don’t speak English as a first language, so that can be really complicate­d.” And that’s just for the basic applicatio­n. “You also have to provide a lot of evidence to prove your case,” Barnard says. “And if you think about the conditions that some people flee...for example, the Afghan refugees who are being evacuated were told to get to the airport and only allowed one small piece of hand luggage.” In such chaotic conditions, critical documents of identifica­tion are often forgotten, lost, confiscate­d, stolen or destroyed.

Many legal obstacles are also in place, including the denial of access to legal counsel. “There is no guarantee for legal counsel for anyone who’s gone through this process to seek asylum,” Barnard says. “Some legal systems guarantee that you can get appointed counsel if you cannot afford to hire someone yourself, which does not exist in immigratio­n or refugee law.”

Women are particular­ly disadvanta­ged in their attempts to seek asylum in the U.S. “The refugee definition doesn’t include gender as a protected ground for Refugee Protection,” Barnard says. “What that means is that women, girls or others who are fleeing gender-based violence or persecutio­n, have to prove their refugee case by curating the prosecutio­n to one of

the other protected refugee grounds.”

Obstacles like these limit or prevent many people who are in need from receiving the full protection­s guaranteed to them by the UNHCR 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Without these protection­s, millions of people will have to remain where they are and continue to live under the persistent fear of persecutio­n or death.

Even for those refugees to manage to achieve some sort of protected status, the road forward is daunting. “There are three scenarios,” the U.N.’S

Boian says. “One is returning to your own country when it’s safe, two is integratin­g into the society where you found safety and the third is resettleme­nt.” The wait can last decades. “The average time now for being refugees is approachin­g 20 years on average, worldwide,” Boian says. “So it’s not always something that can happen in a matter of weeks or even months.”

When Sharifi finally does make it to the U.S., like those who came before him, he will receive a one-time payment of $1,250 to start his life in America. From there on, he and his family will be solely responsibl­e for finding shelter, food and a stable source of income.

“It is frightenin­g to come to a new country, coming with a background of trauma after you’ve lost everything,” says Amarra Ghani, founder of Welcome Home Charlotte. “Coming to a country with nothing, where you don’t speak the language and you don’t really know anyone is scary.” Inspired by the Pakistani heritage of its founders, the nonprofit primarily serves families from Afghanista­n, Syria and Myanmar. It began as an operation working out of a garage in Charlotte, North Carolina, created to try to help refugee families adjust to life in a new city in a new country. The volunteer-based organizati­on now operates a food bank, teaches English language classes and provides other support services.

Ghani emphasizes her organizati­on is nonsectari­an. “We’re not a Muslim organizati­on,” she says, “but all of our refugee families are Muslim.” Ghani says her religious faith inspires her work. “As a person who understand­s the story, who knows the history and has a lot of love for the Prophet,” she says “I can see that our own Prophet was a refugee.”

“We came here with the promise that the Americans are going to take care of us. I hope this promise is going to be committed to.”

As its name indicates, Interfaith Works is also a faith-based organizati­on, though it is comprised of representa­tives of multiple faiths. “We draw upon a large base of different faith traditions,” Broadway says. “Whether it’s a Muslim mosque or a Jewish temple, whether it’s Catholic, Protestant or Buddhist, they’re all together at a roundtable of faith leaders, to get to know each other and work together on humanitari­an issues.”

The organizati­on is currently coordinati­ng with state and federal officials to resettle 248 Afghan refugees to central New York. It is a complex process that involves meeting families at the airport, providing them with housing and food, assigning a case manager, helping them apply for public benefits and remaining present as a resource for families to ask questions.

The task is even more complicate­d for recent refugees from Afghanista­n who have not yet begun the formal asylum process. “The biggest challenge is finding the support for them that is typically provided for refugees,” Broadway tells Newsweek. “People coming from Afghanista­n will not have those benefits. And it’s impossible to do that for a large number of people without the federal government’s support in our county.”

The role of the local community is critical in the resettleme­nt process, according to the U.N.’S Boian. “Support for integratio­n into their new communitie­s is extremely vital,’’ he says. “Resettleme­nt works best, in the long term, when the people that have been resettled have that kind of support right away from the beginning, just to help them get on their feet and learn how things are done.”

Ghani of Welcome Home Charlotte says that citizens of countries faced with an influx of refugees need to understand the causes of the migration in order for the process to work. “If Western countries have infiltrate­d a country, and because of their infiltrati­on refugees have been created, then you cannot tell them they are not welcome to the same country that infiltrate­d them,” she says. “If we don’t want refugees, let’s stop creating refugees.”

Sharifi experience­d that reality firsthand.

“We made our fair share of mistakes, but the internatio­nal community also had their fair share of mistakes in Afghanista­n,” he says. “There’s lots of blame to go around. I take my share of the blame, and I hope the global community does the same.”

Despite the hardship, Sharifi remains deeply committed to his country and his people.

“I feel hopeless. I’m exhausted. My heart is broken a thousand times,” he tells Newsweek. “But at the same time I’m not giving up. I am trying to make sure that we use our voice and become the voice for the 38 million Afghans silenced under the Taliban.”

“Coming to a country with nothing, where you don’t speak the language and you don’t really know anyone is scary.”

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 ?? ?? HOMELESS Clockwise from far left: Afghans at a U.S. Army base in Ramstein, Germany; Omaid Sharifi; a displaced persons camp in Kabul; and kids at a U.S. Army base in Kaiserslau­tern, Germany.
HOMELESS Clockwise from far left: Afghans at a U.S. Army base in Ramstein, Germany; Omaid Sharifi; a displaced persons camp in Kabul; and kids at a U.S. Army base in Kaiserslau­tern, Germany.
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 ?? ?? NOT A HOME Afghan refugees are living for the time in barracks at the U.S. Army base in Fort Mccoy, Wisconsin.
NOT A HOME Afghan refugees are living for the time in barracks at the U.S. Army base in Fort Mccoy, Wisconsin.

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