In the News The Arizona Republic

Uncertainty continues for Afghan allies two years after arriving in the U.S.

Partner Mike Williams was quoted in this article from The Arizona Republic discussing the current state of Afghan asylum applications.

Ahmadullah Noori’s face lights up when he talks about his passion for flying. The 27-year-old completed more than 1,300 hours as the pilot of a U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopter for the Afghan armed forces in the fight against the Taliban.

“(Pilots) can walk in the ground and they can walk in the sky,” he said.

But in June 2021, his time as a pilot came crashing down when his chopper took a direct hit and dropped 500 feet to the ground. Noori sustained major injuries that required numerous surgeries.

Two months after the crash, as Noori recovered still in pain, the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan.

After spending several days in Qatar, and then in Germany, Noori ended up at a military base in New Mexico. But after a few weeks, he and other pilots evacuated from Kabul moved to Phoenix.

When he arrived by himself in the U.S., he had hoped to become an airline pilot. But doctors told him that because of the head injuries he sustained, that likely would not happen.

"The moment that they said you got dangerous and you cannot fly, I just stared at them and they broke my heart,” Noori said.

He is now working at Sky Harbor International Airport as a ramp agent, helping with underwing services like loading and unloading luggage or cabin maintenance.

More than two years after the fall of Kabul in August 2021, Afghans who resettled in the United States like Noori continued to rebuild their lives in the country, while oftentimes their families remain back in Afghanistan.

Despite their roles as allies to the U.S. government back home, their future in the U.S. has been on shaky ground since the beginning.

After the Taliban took over the country, the U.S. evacuated thousands of Afghans who had worked alongside the U.S. government and military under Operation Allies Welcome. To date, more than 115,000 Afghans have resettled in the United States under the program, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"The Afghan newcomers contribute to our economy, support their families, and enrich the cultural fabric of our society," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement marking two years since the start of the Operation. 

Melanie Reyes is the community engagement and advocacy senior manager for the International Rescue Committee in Phoenix, one of several resettlement agencies in Arizona. She said the arrival of Afghans in local communities placed a heavy strain on the refugee resettlement system that was gutted in the four years prior.

Finding housing in the middle of a pandemic was especially tough, and it continues to be an issue to this day.

"When Afghans came in, we were placing them across the Valley in neighborhoods that may... schools may not have served refugees before,” Reyes said. “So looking for housing and the support that came with that, with the rental assistance, that ends right? And you have refugees with amazing skills that they can't use here, but need to feed a family and pay the rent.”

'Anxiety, depression, stress': Waiting for humanitarian asylum

Mursal Sadat had built a life in Afghanistan that made her a prime target for the Taliban. She is a single woman, who graduated from the American University of Afghanistan and worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development — helping to build up infrastructure in the country.

But when it became apparent that the Taliban would take control of the country, she fled, leaving behind her parents and siblings as she sought refuge in the United States under Operation Allies Welcome.

When she settled in Concord, a city in the Bay Area of northern California, Sadat immediately applied for asylum. Under congressional mandate, the U.S. government was required to process her application in less than 150 days.

For Sadat, it took nearly 400 days filled with anguish.

“It gave me a lot of anxiety, depression, stress,” she said. “It affected my day-to-day life where I have a problem focusing on my job, where I could lose my opportunities for promotion because of not being able to travel internationally, and not being able to give 100% to my job."

Like the 115,000 other Afghans who arrived in the U.S., Sadat also received a two-year humanitarian parole permit. It enables them to work right away and apply for more permanent protections like asylum.

But for up to 20,000 Afghans, their asylum applications are still pending despite the 150-day mandate. The humanitarian permits for those without an asylum decision are set to expire in the next few weeks.

Sadat believes that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, the agency responsible for adjudicating their cases, approved her application mostly because she is one of seven people who filed lawsuits against USCIS to force the agency to comply with the 150-day limit.

“Coming to the U.S., waiting for a very long time for my asylum, one thing that was really annoying me is that I have already gone through that process, the vetting process. My background is clear,” she explained.

Though she already received asylum status, Sadat is continuing with the lawsuit on behalf of the Afghans who are still waiting. They hope the federal judge in San Francisco overseeing their case will certify it as a class action suit.

"The fact that this large number has been sitting in limbo — not just individuals, but also families of those individuals — I think it shows how high the stakes are both for the government in terms of processing these individuals and keeping their end of the promise, but also why we had to bring this in federal court now,” said Michael Williams, an attorney from Kirkland & Ellis who is litigating the case.

When the two-year humanitarian parole permits expire, Afghans who have not received an asylum determination can apply to renew their parole status. But those decisions are done on a case by case basis, Williams said.

The risk and main concern is that without permanent protections in place and because of the delays at USCIS in processing asylum applications, some Afghans will lose their legal status in the country altogether.

Other proposals for more permanent solutions for Afghan allies resettled in the United States are languishing.

The latest version of a bill known as the Afghan Adjustment Act has been introduced in both chambers of Congress. U.S. Reps. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) and Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.) are cosponsors on the House version.

The bill would establish a path toward citizenship for the Afghans who arrived in the United States after 2021. It would also expand eligibility for Special Immigrant Visas to Afghans outside the U.S. who were a part of that country’s military or government before it collapsed.

The act had been included in the defense spending bills this summer, but it did not end up in the final Senate version. That means the act is unlikely to pass anytime soon.

"After serving alongside us as allies for two decades, they should not fear that they might be forced to return to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan," said Jennie Murray, president and CEO for the National Immigration Forum.

The group conducted a poll earlier this month showing overwhelming support among the American public for permanent protections for Afghan allies. Two-thirds of the 1,200 voters polled said they support the Afghan Adjustment Act. That level of support spans across gender, age, race or political affiliation.

No One Left Behind

Even though more than 115,000 Afghan allies have arrived in the United States since 2021, there are thousands more who remain stranded as well as their families.

No One Left Behind, a nonprofit set up to help interpreters working with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimates that about 152,000 people who qualify for the Special Immigrant Visas remain in Afghanistan. So far this year, the group evacuated 1,317 Afghans, even though the U.S. government no longer has a diplomatic mission in that country.

The Special Immigrant Visas are available only to individuals who were employed directly by the U.S. government or NATO in Afghanistan. The U.S. Department of State said it has issued 38,500 visas since 2014. The program was extended through the end of 2024, but the number of visas available has only increased slightly.

However, other individuals who worked alongside the U.S. government in other capacities are not eligible for the SIVs, nor are their families.

Sadat’s family fled to Pakistan about six months after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, fearing they would be targets given their daughter’s association with the U.S. government. Nearly 18 months later, her family remains stuck in Pakistan with an expired visa.

“They do not have a job. They cannot go to school. They are basically locked in their apartment,” Sadat said. “Can you imagine how depressing is it for a family to leave their country and be locked in a house, in an apartment? Where you can't go out because you will get arrested and you will be deported back to a country where you are no more safe?”

Sadat’s experience mirrors that of thousands of Afghans living in the United States, who left behind family in Afghanistan or in neighboring countries.

She feels pressure not just to provide for herself, living in an expensive area like the Bay area, but she is also the main provider for her family members. She said she must regularly work extra hours to save enough money to send to them.

Without permanent status in the United States, Afghans in the U.S. have very limited options to visit or petition on behalf of their families.

Sadat received assurances that her family would receive assistance if they left Afghanistan, but they’ve been unable to get an appointment or help from the U.S. diplomatic mission in Pakistan.

Although she said she is thankful for the opportunity to resettle in the U.S. and for her job, Sadat said her parents' situation, coupled with the length of time it took to get a decision on her asylum application, has left her feeling frustrated.

“Studying with them, working with them, being their ally, I always trusted the U.S. government. I was one of the ones who highly supported them, and I still do. I respect them,” Sadat said. “But unfortunately, the promises that they make, they are false. I feel betrayed. I feel mistreated as their ally. And what they did to me is not really fair."

I'm glad they helped us. Otherwise, we couldn't make it'

On a recent evening, Sajjad and Mo Novrouzi, two brothers from Tolleson, walked around a resource fair inside the gymnasium at Alhambra High School.

The neighborhood around the school in central Phoenix has one of the highest concentrations of refugees in Arizona. Of the 2,100 students enrolled at Alhambra, about 600 of them are refugees, according to school officials.

The 18- and 22-year-old siblings were born in Afghanistan. The family left 13 years ago, spending nine years in a refugee camp in Turkey where the two siblings grew up. Four years ago, they resettled as refugees in the U.S., ending up in Tolleson last year.

The two walked around with a black t-shirt that read “I speak Dari, Turkish, Farsi and English.” They volunteered to help anyone who might need their help translating at the resource fair aimed at connecting refugees in the area with services ranging from enrollment in HeadStart early education to English language classes.

Mo said he thought back to the moment his family arrived in the United States four years ago.

"Somebody helped us to sign up for school. They teach us about transportation, the bus, how to get a car. How to sign for a house. They helped us with that,” he said. “It was kind of hard, to be honest. I'm glad they helped us. Otherwise, we couldn't make it. Maybe it would be harder. Right now, I just want to do the same and help people out.”

Dr. Jodi Weber, the principal at Alhambra High, said not as many Afghan students enrolled at her school as she expected. But she still highlighted the role that schools like hers play as a resource in helping students and their families succeed as they rebuild their lives in the U.S.

"We see a lot of students who need medical assistance or dental assistance. Some need eyeglasses and have never had an eye exam. You know, all of those medical things,” Weber said. “The language obviously is a problem on its own, but then it's an even bigger barrier when trying to seek those services.”

One great challenge Afghans in the U.S. faced upon their arrival was that during the Trump Administration, the number of refugees resettled in the country plummeted to historic levels, reducing the capacity of the resettlement agencies to help them when they arrived.

By the end of fiscal year 2021, just when Afghans were starting to arrive in the U.S., Arizona had only taken in 647 refugees, according to the Department of Economic Security. In the past two years, more than 2,500 Afghans have resettled in the state.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, resettlement agencies stepped up their efforts. But they struggled with finding long-term housing or providing in-person services.

During that time, the agencies working in Arizona also increased coordination with state and local governments to help Afghans and other refugees resettle in the state.

Last month, the Arizona Legislature kicked off the first meeting of New American Talent Study Committee made up of elected and community leaders to draft a report identifying ways to further integrate refugees and asylees into the state’s workforce and society.

State Sen. Flavio Bravo is a co-chair for the committee. He represents Legislative District 26, which includes Alhambra High School.

"I think we're going to schedule at least four committee meetings that we can touch enough topics to ultimately produce in December recommendations on if there's any barriers that can be removed at the state level or if there's anything that we could do that doesn't require legislation for state agencies," Bravo said.

The committee teamed up with the City of Phoenix, resettlement agencies and community nonprofits to host the resource fair for refugees at Alhambra.

Phoenix has taken a greater role in assisting refugees and asylees living in the city and the organizations that help them. In March, under the direction of Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari, Phoenix created the Office of Refugee Support.

"A lot of great work was done, but there's always more to do,” Ansari said. “Two years later, I think the state we're at now is trying to help people not only survive here, but create opportunities for them to become really successful and thrive.”

The city has allocated $8.3 million in funding available through the American Rescue Plan Act to four resettlement agencies in the Valley. The funding helps these nonprofits provide emergency services to refugee and asylee families such as medical or dental services, or food and housing, among others.

Ansari, whose mother sought refuge in the U.S. from Iran nearly 40 years ago, said her mother’s experience helped shape the work she is helping to lead through the city’s new Office of Refugee Support. But she said those efforts should continue well after Afghans and other refugees have settled into their new lives.

From refuge to rebuilding: What happens after asylum

Afghans like Sadat and Noori, who are now reaching the two-year mark since they arrived in the United States, say they are thankful for the help they have received so far to rebuild their lives and to continue supporting their families.

For Noori, the process had its ups and downs. On one hand, he received asylum in the U.S. and can start thinking about a long term future here in the country. But, it is unlikely that he will fly a plane again.

He could take several medical tests after he’s done with the two remaining surgeries to treat the injuries he sustained when his chopper went down in Afghanistan. But that requires thousands of dollars that he doesn’t have at this time, especially being the main provider for his family back in Afghanistan.

He is currently working at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport in underwing services. He aspires to rise up to the manager duties, but always to be near the airplanes.

That requires more training and education, which is also dependent on having the money for them, or scholarships, he hopes.

However, Noori is not discouraged by this situation. His faith, family and his desire to reunite with them in the near future keep driving him forward.

He has also learned to appreciate small wins. After undergoing a series of surgeries that limited his mobility for some time, Noori is able to exercise at the gym again and can do almost 100 pushups, he beamed.

Inside his Tempe studio, a short drive from the airport, the first object he sees when he opens the door after a long day of work is a frame he found inside a Goodwill store during a particularly tough day. It has a single word on it. He took it as a sign.

"I went all the way down to the bedsides, there was some furniture and there were some things. And I saw this word, hope,” he said. “I stuck for a part for one minute or for a few minutes, and I said 'Yes, don't be helpless. Maybe something is happening for some reason.'”