'Why can't you bring us there?'

Afghan lives in limbo, two years after US withdrawal.

Yasin, an Afghan refugee who traveled to US via Mexican border,
Yasin, an Afghan refugee who travelled to the US via Mexico, is seen in the entranceway to the basement where he lives with family [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]
Yasin, an Afghan refugee who travelled to the US via Mexico, is seen in the entranceway to the basement where he lives with family [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Washington, DC - Two years: That’s how long Jawad has been in hiding, first in his home country of Afghanistan and as of last month, in his home-in-exile, Pakistan.

Since the withdrawal of US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan two years ago this month, Jawad says the dangers he faced in his homeland over his past work as a logistics contractor for the United States military multiplied.

But despite the increased threat under the country’s new Taliban government, his seven-year effort to receive a special US visa for Afghans who directly supported American forces appears to have stalled – and Jawad says hope has turned to disappointment.

“I accept that I’m not the only person who is in the same boat. I have colleagues and know other people who are waiting this amount of time or even longer,” he told Al Jazeera through an interpreter in a phone interview from a village outside of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

“But we were there and we helped the Americans when they needed our help. And now it is time that I ask for their help in getting me out of this situation”.

The 30-year-old – who, like many people who spoke to Al Jazeera for this story, asked to only use his first name for fear of retaliation – is among hundreds of thousands of Afghans whose lives have been marked by two years of separation, uncertainty and fear since US forces withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021.

While the West’s exit from the war-torn country was hailed by members of some segments of Afghan society, for thousands more, the chaotic US withdrawal – and the Taliban’s takeover – left them with little hope for a future in their homeland.

Taliban fighters in the presidential palace
Taliban fighters took control of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country in August 2021 [File: Zabi Karimi/AP Photo]

Many, like Jawad, remain stuck in precarious states of suspension, either in the US or abroad. Even those who have found a level of physical safety continue to grapple with new challenges, and the trauma of having had to leave family members behind.

“In Afghanistan, I would hear of neighbours and other people getting dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night,” said Jawad, who fled to Pakistan with his seven-months-pregnant wife and their four-year-old daughter in late July.

They brought a single backpack with them. But Jawad said they had no other options. “What if they come after me?” he said of the Taliban. “What will happen to my wife and daughter if they were to do that?”

'What is an ally?'

Afghan resettlement Kabul
A US Marine escorts evacuees at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 18, 2021 [File: Nicholas Guevara/US Marine Corps/AFP]
A US Marine escorts evacuees at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 18, 2021 [File: Nicholas Guevara/US Marine Corps/AFP]

A month before the US was set to finalise its withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden stood at a podium in the East Room of the White House.

With the flags of the various branches of the US military behind him, Biden spoke directly to the “Afghan nationals who work side by side with US forces” in the country: “There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you, just as you stood with us,” he said.

But since then, government reports have shown Biden’s pledge was one that his administration was ill-equipped to deliver, as the White House said in its own assessment in April that former President Donald Trump’s administration had “no plans for how to conduct the final withdrawal or to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies” in place.

That was reflected in the chaotic scenes in August 2021 at Kabul’s international airport, where thousands had gathered in hopes of escape as the Taliban overran the capital and ultimately, took control of the country. At the same time, the US-backed Afghan government dissolved and President Ashraf Ghani escaped to the United Arab Emirates, leaving Afghans to fend for themselves.

Those who had worked with US forces during the country’s 20-year occupation of Afghanistan desperately tried to get onto evacuation flights, clinging to planes on the tarmac, and those who couldn’t – including the Afghan journalists, women’s rights campaigners, and other activists who feared becoming targets of the new Taliban government – went into hiding or fled the country.

Afghans at Kabul airport amid evacuations
Afghans gather on a roadside near the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's takeover [File: Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

Amid continued criticism over the withdrawal, the Biden administration has re-upped its commitment to resettling Afghans in the US.

"The Biden-Harris Administration continues to demonstrate its commitment to the brave Afghans who stood side-by-side with the United States over two decades," the State Department told Al Jazeera in a statement earlier this month.

But advocates say US immigration pathways remain severely backlogged two years later. As the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an independent US government watchdog, put starkly in an April report (PDF): Washington “has left most of its allies behind”.

For Helal Massomi, the question of “What is an ally?” is one that for two years has swirled in her mind, without a clear answer.

It has persisted since Massomi – who held a prominent role as an adviser with Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, the body leading inter-Afghan peace talks ahead of the government’s fall – left Afghanistan on an evacuation flight with 15 at-risk women and eventually resettled with a host family in Alexandria, Virginia.

And it has endured as the 27-year-old’s parents and siblings remain stuck in Pakistan, where they fled after the Taliban takeover amid threats directly connected to Massomi’s high-profile role and where they have little ability to support themselves.

“The human rights defenders, the journalists, the female tactical fighters who were there, they were the allies, they were affiliated with the United States, and their lives were at high risk because of their affiliation,” Massomi said.

Many do not qualify for special US visas – known as Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs – created for those who worked directly with the American military, as well as their families.

And attempts to expand other immigration pathways for those closely linked to the US, but not directly tied to the military, have so far proven inadequate, said Massomi, who added that more lanes are needed for Afghans who, like her family members, face persecution for their associations.

“Every day my family asks me, ‘You’ve done a lot, but why can't you bring us there? Why can we not be reunited with you?” she told Al Jazeera from Washington, DC, where she now works as an Afghan policy adviser for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a US non-profit advocacy group.

“And I don't have an answer for them," Massomi said. "Because I haven't been given an answer. Because I'm not considered an ally until I wear a uniform.”

Immigration pathways

US President Joe Biden delivers speech on Afghanistan
US President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's drawdown efforts in Afghanistan in a speech from the East Room of the White House on July 8, 2021 [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]
US President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's drawdown efforts in Afghanistan in a speech from the East Room of the White House on July 8, 2021 [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

Approximately 100,000 Afghan nationals have been resettled in the United States since the 2021 withdrawal, according to figures from the US State Department.

But the SIV system – which was launched in 2006 for nationals from Afghanistan and Iraq who were working with US forces in those countries – remains severely backlogged, according to immigration advocates, who watched as former President Trump curbed refugee resettlement and hardened other US immigration schemes as part of a push to stymie new arrivals.

The programme offers legal permanent residency in the US – often referred to as a “green card” – which can eventually be used to apply for citizenship.

In its defence, the Biden administration has pointed to the fact that SIV processing nearly ground to a halt under Trump, and said the resettlement rate has improved significantly as the programme rebounded under the Democratic Party president.

“The Biden-Harris Administration continues to demonstrate its commitment to the brave Afghans who stood side-by-side with the United States over two decades,” the State Department told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement in early August.

Evacuated Afghans arrive in US
Families evacuated from Kabul walk through the terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport to board a bus, August 27, 2021 [Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Photo]

The department said that, as of August 1, more than 26,500 SIVs have been granted to primary Afghan applicants since the US embassy suspended services in Afghanistan upon the completion of the US withdrawal. Still, about 69,000 completed SIV applications were pending as of April, according to the State Department’s quarterly report, while the agency acknowledged that tens of thousands of other people were likely in the early stages of applying.

However, based on average processing times, the Association of Wartime Allies estimated in April (PDF) that the backlog would take more than 31 years to clear. The group also estimated that more than 360,000 Afghan SIV primary applicants and family members were still waiting for their applications to be processed.

Meanwhile, other immigration pathways meant to serve people who are at risk due to their affiliation with the US – but who did not directly work with the military or meet SIV requirements – also remain largely constricted, said Adam Bates, supervisory policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP).

That includes a process known as Priority 1 (P-1) that allows people fearing prosecution to come to the US as refugees if they have been referred by a US embassy or an international refugee body, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Another programme, Priority 2 (P-2), also was set up by the State Department after the US withdrawal to broaden access for Afghans who had worked on behalf of or with the US government in various capacities, or with a US-based organisation.

However, the SIGAR watchdog noted in April that “bureaucratic dysfunction and understaffing have undermined US promises that these individuals would be protected in a timely manner, putting many thousands of Afghan allies at high risk”.

Afghans protest in Pakistan
Hundreds of Afghan refugees facing long delays in the approval of US visas protested in Pakistan in February [File: Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]

More than 5,600 Afghans were admitted to the US via the two schemes between the beginning of July 2021 and the end of last month, the State Department told Al Jazeera. Meanwhile, the department said that of the nearly 50,000 referrals it had received for the two programmes, it accepted 8,400 P-1 and 19,000 P-2 applications for review so far.

The Biden administration is “focused on increasing capacity, expediting processing, and resolving long-delayed applications, all while continuing to maintain rigorous screening and vetting standards” for the US refugee admissions programme, the department said.

But according to Bates at IRAP, which remains in an appeals battle with the US government after successfully suing in 2018 to speed up SIV processing, “the situation remains dire” for applicants stuck waiting in often perilous circumstances.

“The overall takeaway is that the US government and the Biden administration have not made good on their explicit promises to these communities,” he told Al Jazeera.

Short-term solutions

Rahim Amini
Rahim Amini was able to leave Afghanistan for the US, but he only holds temporary immigration status in the country [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]
[Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera English]

The Biden administration’s approach may also have encouraged some Afghans to travel to precarious third countries in the months after the US withdrawal, the SIGAR office has said, with the P-1 and P-2 programmes initially only available to people outside of Afghanistan.

To date, neighbouring Pakistan has received the most displaced Afghans of any country in the world – an estimated 600,000 people.

But the processing of US visa applications from Pakistan appears stalled, according to refugee rights groups, due to what they say are the residual effects of a diplomatic row between Islamabad and Washington. The State Department told Al Jazeera it is continuing to process visas from Pakistan, but acknowledged capacity “remains limited”.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Homeland Security in September of last year largely pivoted away from a special programme that had streamlined relocation to the US on what’s known as “humanitarian parole”. The status was given to more than 75,000 Afghans who relocated to the US via evacuation flights under the administration’s so-called Operation Allies Welcome programme in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal.

Afghans could also apply for the status from outside the US. In March, data published by IRAP and the American Immigration Council showed that between the start of 2020 and April 6, 2022, US Citizenship and Immigration Services received at least 44,785 humanitarian parole applications from those Afghans. Only 114 were approved, despite the government collecting over $19m in application fees, which run $575 per person.

Yet even for those who did manage to get to the United States on humanitarian parole, long-term stability remains elusive. The programme expedites peoples’ relocation to the US and gives them the ability to remain and work legally in the country for two years, but it does not offer a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship.

Rahim Amini
Rahim Amini drives for rideshare companies to support himself in the US [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

For Rahim Amini, an Afghan citizen living in the US on humanitarian parole, his status has translated into a daily rotation of juggling legal processes, striving to earn a living as a driver for rideshare companies, and longing to be reunited with family.

He has repeatedly sought – but failed to get – an SIV, citing his more than 13 years of contracting in logistical services for the US military at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. He has also applied for asylum, another pathway to stable residency in the US, but after a year, his application remains under “extended review”.

He yearns to reunite with his wife and young children, including his youngest son, born in Kabul on August 28, 2021 – a day after Amini boarded an evacuation flight from Afghanistan to Qatar.

The birth coincided with Amini’s first full day in exile, with his family forced to stay behind given the dangerous crush of bodies at Kabul airport.

“I always make promises for my daughter. She asked me, ‘When do you come?’ I say I’m coming tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow,” Amini told Al Jazeera from a park bench in Arlington, Virginia. “Two years of ‘tomorrow.’”

Advocates pressure Washington

Helal Massomi
Helal Massomi, a 27-year-old Afghan evacuee, is among an array of advocates working on behalf of Afghans in Washington, DC [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]
Helal Massomi, a 27-year-old Afghan evacuee, is among an array of advocates working on behalf of Afghans in Washington, DC [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Despite the continued challenges, the work of a coalition of human rights advocates has yielded some major successes with the Biden administration.

This is due in no small part to the involvement of an array of US military veterans' groups, IRAP’s Bates said. “Joe Biden doesn't care what I think; I work in a refugee organisation,” he said with a laugh. “But they have to care what the veterans' organisations think.”

Shawn VanDiver, a US Navy veteran, leads one such group. The founder of AfghanEvac, an umbrella organisation that connects some 200 advocacy groups, VanDiver credits the involvement of a “cross-section of America” with heaping pressure on Washington to do more for Afghans in need of resettlement.

“It’s all of these different people, from all different walks of life, from all these different ideologies. They have essentially cornered the administration,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the Biden administration also has been receptive and open to working with advocacy groups.

Advocates point to the launch in June of a two-year extension of humanitarian parole for Afghans currently in the US as one of their major victories. Last year, the administration also offered Afghans in the country what’s known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), shielding them from deportation through November 20, 2023.

Meanwhile, the US government has continued limited resettlement flights from Afghanistan, often in fits and starts, given the delicate situation with the country’s Taliban government, which Washington does not recognise. That has included family reunification efforts for Afghans with various legal statuses in the US. The State Department in January launched a process for humanitarian parolees to apply to have their family members relocated, although data on how many people have been brought to the US through the process has not been released.

But advocates say other major objectives remain frustratingly out of reach.

Helal Massomi
Helal Massomi became an advocate in Washington, DC after fleeing Afghanistan [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Organisations advocating for Afghans have coalesced around what they consider a crucial piece of legislation: the Afghan Adjustment Act. The bill would create a streamlined pathway to residency for those on humanitarian parole. It would also reform some aspects of SIV eligibility, boost consular processing capacity, and create an interagency task force on Afghan resettlement.

“It would mean so much for many people,” said the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service's Massomi, who described a flurry of meetings with officials from the White House, State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a carousel of members of the US Congress – all to advocate for Afghans.

“I'm happy serving the people,” Massomi said. “But at the same time, I shouldn't have to be doing this work. This should have been easy. We shouldn't have been doing this for more than – I mean, it's almost two years now.”

The Afghan Adjustment Act failed to pass last year in the US Senate, with detractors citing concerns that those who had been admitted on humanitarian parole in the chaos of the early days of the evacuation were not sufficiently screened. Introduced again in the Senate and House of Representatives in July, the bill has three times as many sponsors now, and opinion polls also regularly show American public support for the legislation hovering over 70 percent.

But in the hyperpartisan world of US politics, that’s far from a guarantee that the bill will pass, said James Powers, a US military veteran who last year travelled across the country in an attempt to drum up support for the legislation, which is supported by the Biden administration.

The measure's best chance is to be included as an amendment to a piece of so-called “must-pass” legislation, like the annual defence budget. However, it was not included in an early version of that legislation package, which was approved by the Senate in July.

“It's just the overall climate,” Powers told Al Jazeera in between calls with the Democratic and Republican senators from Ohio. “I mean, a bill can poll 80 percent across the American people and still only have a 30 percent chance of making it through Congress.”

Community support

Mohammad daughter
A three-year-old Afghan girl, who travelled from Brazil to the US with her family, plays in a pile of the rugs that her father sells [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]
A three-year-old Afghan girl, who travelled from Brazil to the US with her family, plays in a pile of the rugs that her father sells [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

As those efforts play out on Capitol Hill, more immediate concerns plague 23-year-old Marwa and 27-year-old Mastora.

The rental assistance they had received from a local organisation since moving into an apartment in the Flushing neighbourhood of Queens, New York will be ending in two months. And that will leave the two Afghan evacuees facing the city’s staggering housing market unaided.

“We're just constantly in a state of stress,” said Marwa, who spoke to Al Jazeera in Dari via an interpreter.

Losing access to financial and other forms of assistance is a common concern for those who were evacuated to the US, underscoring the continued needs of the many thousands of Afghans trying to rebuild their lives, said Naheed Samadi Bahram, the US country director for Women for Afghan Women, a support group in New York and Virginia.

“In the first year, [Afghan evacuees] had refugee resettlement support programmes," Samadi Bahram told Al Jazeera. "They were, for example, receiving rent assistance, cash assistance, and all of that. But all of a sudden, after a full year, the majority of clients are not eligible for that support.”

Women for Afghan Women found itself uniquely positioned to help in the wake of the 2021 evacuation, scaling up operations and pivoting to resettlement services, particularly in Virginia, as thousands of Afghans entered the country. Language classes, mental health counselling, job and housing support – all lifelines for those who fled with nothing – remain essential, particularly if they can be offered in native languages with a keen cultural understanding, Samadi Bahram said.

“We as an organisation, as the only organisation that was providing direct services on the East Coast for the Afghan community and Afghan immigrants, felt very responsible to address those needs,” she said.

“We should not forget that there is still a need for people to get to a place [where] they are fully independent,” she added. “We cannot resettle somebody in a year or two. There is a lot that goes into making people be independent.”

Two Afghan boys the US with their family via the US border are seen in the basement they share with thir family of six
Two Afghan boys in the basement they share with their family of six [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

For their part, Marwa and Mastora remain on humanitarian parole. They had gone into hiding in Afghanistan before boarding an evacuation flight for Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, where they spent 10 months at an evacuation centre, largely restricted to their rooms.

The pair, who asked to only use their first names for fear of retaliation, had worried that their jobs – as women who worked at Afghanistan’s Ariana television channel – would make them targets of the Taliban. They left their families, and their careers, behind.

“The first thing my office said is that all women who work automatically go home as quickly as possible because you are the most in danger,” Mastora said, recalling her final day at work as Kabul fell. “All of the neighbours on my block knew that I worked in media. I knew that if somebody had any ill feelings towards my family that they would expose me and I would obviously be in danger.”

But after finally getting to the US about a year after the Taliban’s rise, the pair found a life of high expenses in New York, and they faced the daunting task of climbing back up to the positions they had reached in their homeland. They worked in a clothing store at first, but soon decided to concentrate on studying English full-time instead.

“In Afghanistan, we had a position that was very respectable to many people,” Marwa said. “We had a sense of respect. It’s been very difficult to start from zero.

“It was hard for anybody from the young generation of the past 20 years to work so hard to get to their positions, but especially for women and girls,” she told Al Jazeera. “That young generation died once the Taliban came.”

Yet through their losses, the one-time colleagues became lifelines for one another. “My one family is Afghanistan,” Mastora said. “My second family is Marwa, who is here.”

‘All of the pieces of our life’

[Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera English]
Somaia, an Afghan refugee who arrived in the US after a long journey from Brazil, puts together a puzzle in her temporary apartment in Maryland [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]
Somaia, an Afghan refugee who arrived in the US after a long journey from Brazil, puts together a puzzle in her temporary apartment in Maryland [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Many of the newest Afghan arrivals to the US have taken more harrowing routes.

Yasin, 40, who asked to be identified by an alias, is among what immigrant rights groups say is a wave of thousands of Afghans who, as their displacement dragged on after the fall of Kabul, decided to try their luck by going to the US’s southern border with Mexico.

But for some, the long and hazardous treks to the heavily trafficked border – where hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, mostly from Central and South America, have tried to get protection in recent years – has ended in extended detention in US facilities.

Yasin said he had held a high-level role in an Afghan government environmental agency, a position through which he worked with organisations from around the world. When the government fell, he escaped Afghanistan with his wife and four children – aged two to nine – and was able to fly to Mexico City and rent an apartment with help from a fund set up to assist Afghan environmentalists.

However, in Mexico’s capital, his family’s application for US humanitarian parole was denied. A US-based environmental group also referred him to the P-2 refugee programme, but after applying he was “deferred for further review”.

With no sense of a timeline – and the funding he had received running out – Yasin said he applied for a US immigration appointment at the US border with the CBP One app. After the interview in April, he and his family were held for several days in a crowded detention centre, and eventually given a date to appear in immigration court, where he plans to apply for asylum.

Yasin is seen on a street in Washington, DC
Yasin is seen on a street in Washington, DC [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

“In my life, I never do one thing the wrong way – illegally. But if they deny me, my life, my existence in the United States will be illegal,” Yasin told Al Jazeera from a home in Washington, DC, where his six-member family has been living in a former colleague’s basement since their arrival in the US capital.

He is unable to work legally ahead of his court date, and he said he has been turned away from federal assistance due to his status. Still, he is hopeful for a future in the US – especially for his two young daughters.

“Afghanistan has almost 40 million people, and under the Taliban, 20 million ... cannot access their rights, women and girls,” he told Al Jazeera. “My ideas are completely opposite of the Taliban.”

That is a feeling shared by 43-year-old Mohammad, a former Afghan government worker who fled to Iran with his family of five and later flew to Brazil in the wake of the group’s takeover of Afghanistan.

Mohammad and his family spent only a few months in Brazil, before beginning a two-month journey to the US’s southern border, funded by money he borrowed from family and friends. They travelled through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

“We crossed 10 countries: Some by flight, some by bus, some by boat and on foot in the jungle,” Mohammad said, adding that he and his 14-year-old son would take turns carrying his three-year-old daughter on their shoulders when they had no choice but to walk.

Mohammad, Afghan refugee
Mohammad is seen at his temporary apartment building in Maryland [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Mohammad, who spoke to Al Jazeera from the living room of the temporary apartment the family now lives in, funded by a local charity in Maryland, said he was in the process of applying for asylum. But in the meantime, he also remains unable to work legally in the US.

He accrued at least $25,000 in debt to make the journey to the country, and his only income is made through selling online rugs made by hand by his family in northern Afghanistan, he said.

“We thank God we have passed this horrible, long journey,” Mohammad said. “We will try to establish our new life here and we will fight and we will try to help our relatives there. We have to be like a voice for Afghan people here.”

As he spoke, his wife, Somaia, kneeled nearby with their daughter, leaning over a puzzle showing the countries of the world. “Ah, we know this map well,” she said. “All of the pieces of our life.”

Source: Al Jazeera