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There are certain images that are hard to shake. The first is from August of 2021, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The United States was in the middle of pulling out of the country. It was going poorly.
The Kabul airport got overrun with people—the runway too. Throngs of desperate Afghans trotted alongside military planes as they tried to take off. Some clung to aircraft as they taxied around. And others, against all odds, found a way to scramble onboard. There’s a picture of what happened next, captured by a military photographer: the belly of a cargo plane packed with people, not a seat belt in sight. I can still see it if I close my eyes.
Within days, scores of people like the ones in that photograph were touching down in the U.S. These images—of what happened after these refugees touched down—they’re the ones images that stuck with Elena MacFarlane. “We were all happy when people were arriving at Dulles,” MacFarlane said. “I remember this picture of this dad and this little girl walking in all smiling and I thought, OK, now you’re here. But what’s going to happen to you? It can’t be easy.”
MacFarlane lives just outside of D.C., a few miles from where refugees were landing. And I think it’s fair to say these images changed her life. After she saw them, she joined a volunteer army of sorts, one that tries to help Afghan refugees however they can.
She’s still got her day job; she’s a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, actually. But in her spare time, she’s a kind of fixer. She collects and delivers items right to refugees’ doors. Last month, she let one of our producers, Elena Schwartz, tag along with her.
MacFarlane and a few other volunteers have a Google Doc where they keep a running list of things Afghan families have requested. If people need cleaning supplies, she finds them. If a kid doesn’t have a winter coat, she might end up thrifting for it. She’s on Buy Nothing groups on Facebook. She really knows her way around Craigslist. “It’s like Tetris or bingo,” she said. “I need to find the items and then find the family that needs the item.”
Right now, MacFarlane’s pulled up in front of the Calvert Hall apartment complex in suburban Maryland, a row of yellow brick buildings three and four stories high. At the entrance is a big banner that reads “We Welcome Refugees.” In the months since the U.S. pullout, this building has become a hub for newly arrived Afghan people. MacFarlane’s got a toy train set in her trunk, along with some baby clothes and three sewing machines. And she’s trying to figure out how to distribute it all.
If this system seems ad hoc to you—a volunteer with an overflowing basement, playing hooky from work to deliver old sewing machines that have been rehabbed by an airplane mechanic—that’s because … it is.
And it’s why we wanted to follow MacFarlane around—to figure out, if, in the months since these Afghan refugees arrived, the system to support them has gotten any more robust. She says not really. “There is no other system than you and me,” she said. “The aid comes in waves. we had a lot of volunteers, a lot of donations when the crisis was in the news, and then it goes down and the need is still there. There’s still thousands of people in third countries like Albania, Poland, Qatar, Abu Dhabi. They’re in camps waiting to be processed. So we always need support. Even when it’s not on the news.”
Much of the work of helping to create a life for newly arrived Afghan people is outsourced to volunteers like Elena MacFarlane, which leads to a whole other question: If an American volunteer thinks this system is haphazard, how does it feel to the families themselves?*
The U.S. has welcomed tens of thousands of Afghan refugees. On a recent episode of What Next, producer Elena Schwartz visited with a few of them to ask: How’s that going?
One of the families living at Calvert Hall is Lila and Basheer. Those aren’t their real names. They’ve still got family and friends who are back in Afghanistan. And even here, they’re worried that the Taliban could target their loved ones if it gets out that they left the country.
The story of how Lila and Basheer ended up at Calvert Hall is crazy but also familiar. Lila began working with the U.S. government back in 2008. She wasn’t involved with the military; mostly she did operational management for nonprofits, including managing projects related to women’s health and family planning. When the Taliban resurged, though, they drew up a list of people who’d collaborated with Americans—and Lila’s name was on it. Lila knew her family needed to get out of the country. Fast.
When the crowds flooded the Kabul airport last August, Lila, Basheer, and their four kids were there. But in the stampede toward the gates, their passports got lost, and they had to go back home.
When they got back, they found the place had been ransacked by the Taliban. Luckily, there wasn’t much for them to find. When the Taliban took Kabul, Lila’s office told her to destroy anything she had related to her work. Her ID card, her computer files—anything that could’ve been incriminating—was already gone.
“There was nothing at house,” Lila said. “They came and searched the house, and some people took whatever was left, like our house items.”
Luckily they weren’t there the night the house was searched. “We were at my sister’s house that night, and we received a call from our landlord,” Lila said. “He said that the Taliban came to our house and they were asking for my phone number. And he helped us and he said that we’d left to Pakistan and were no longer in Afghanistan.”
Lila’s landlord, lying to the Taliban like that? Telling them the family had left the country? It might have saved her life. For a while, the family stayed with Lila’s sister. Eventually, when it became clear they probably weren’t going anywhere anytime soon, they found a place nearby. Lila went back to work, but she did her job from home to keep a low profile. And Basheer grew a big beard to try to pass as a Talib.
This ended up being useful whenever the family confronted the Taliban—like at the checkpoints all over Kabul. Lila says that Basheer looking religious helped the family avoid any extra scrutiny: “Whenever they would see his beard, it’s like ‘OK, he’s our own, just let them go.’ ”
The whole time, they were searching for a way out of the country.
Basheer ended up finding the family’s passports at a pawn shop near the airport—someone must have grabbed them and left them there. But even with the right documents, once U.S. forces were gone, getting evacuated was next to impossible. And there wasn’t much time: Lila’s passport was set to expire on June 15 of this year—and the Taliban wasn’t granting renewals.
Still, Lila kept reaching out to resettlement organizations and lobbying for her family’s evacuation. Finally, almost a year after the Taliban took Kabul, it paid off. One night, when one of the kids was playing Minecraft on her phone, Lila got the call.
“My son brought me the mobile, and he said, ‘Mom, there is a call for you and someone is talking English.’ It was from the State Department, and they said your name has been included in the list. You’re planned for evacuation on June 15, which was the last day for expiring of my passport.”
Their first stop was a military base in Doha, Qatar. They ended up staying there for 11 weeks, living in a giant tent with another 1,500 families, everyone sleeping in curtained-off bunk beds.
Finally, at the end of August, they were able to board a flight to D.C. Lila says they didn’t really know what was waiting for them when the plane landed. “When we got to the airport, there was someone who said, ‘You have an apartment already rented for you, a three rooms apartment.’ And I was so excited to see it because people were saying different things, that the rooms were small and it’s very dirty. So I wanted to see how things were there.”
Lila says she’s relieved that her family is safe from the Taliban. And she does feel safe here. But starting your life over isn’t easy. After fighting for nearly a year to get out of Afghanistan, Lila and Basheer are here—Calvert Hall, a squat apartment building right off the highway. They live with their four kids: Bahman, Behrooz, Aziz, and Homa. Aziz is the baby, but Lila tells me that Homa gets spoiled the most, because she’s the only girl. Homa’s the only kid who gets a room to herself; the three boys all sleep together in one space with three beds and some toys.
In Homa’s room, there are little dolls in all different colors taped to the wall above her bed. “She took me to the Walmart and we just bought all these dolls. And she said that I’m not sleeping alone,” Lila said. “So they’re giving company to her.”
All around the apartment, there are traces of the place they left behind. The floor is covered in handmaid rugs they bought back in Afghanistan when they learned they could only bring $1,500 in cash with them when they left
Most other things in the apartment were provided by aid groups, or found on the curb. Aziz has been sleeping in a bed covered in pictures of puppies from Paw Patrol that Basheer brought it in the other day. “Yeah, we got a small bed from the trash, one of the families was just throwing it away—they didn’t maybe need it,” Lila said.
The thing I kept noticing no matter what we talked about is just how optimistic Lila is. I can’t even say she’s trying to stay positive. She just is. “The only thing that bothers us is the roaches,” she said. “Our enemy! That’s the only problem we have here. The rest, everything is going very well.”
That’s cockroaches, and they’re all over the apartment. The family has also had to deal with bouts of bed bugs. “My friend was asking me how are you doing with the roaches. And I said, ‘“I hate these roaches, because they are more tough than the Taliban. I got rid of the Taliban, I am sure I will not get rid of roaches.’ ”
These kinds of problems that Lila is describing, they’re common among Afghans who’ve settled here. The fact is, it’s hard to find anything better.
The people who’ve left Afghanistan reach the U.S. with no credit score and, most of the time, no money. Resettlement agencies pay the first three months of rent for them, but after that, they’re mostly on their own, which means Afghans need to live in places that don’t require a credit check and let you move in without a security deposit. There aren’t too many nice apartments you can rent under those conditions.
Afghans do receive a little money at first, to help. But Lila says it doesn’t go far enough. “We receive $560 on a monthly basis now. We already received the first installment of $280, and we bought all these school bags and these things,” Lila said. “We have to be careful spending the money. But I’m sure we’ll get a job as soon as we get our Social Security numbers. That’s the main concern for us now.”
That’s the other thing Lila and Basheer really need: Social Security numbers.
Without Social Security numbers, Lila and Basheer can’t work. They also can’t open a bank account, get a debit card, or do any of those normal day-to-day things that being banked allows you to do. They don’t have a car, for example, but they can’t order an Uber, because doing that requires a debit or credit card. Lila tells me that when they have to buy groceries, they bring their things home in a shopping cart. Then they walk the cart back to Walmart and then walk home again. Usually, it takes at least an hour.
Supposedly, the resettlement agency filed the necessary paperwork to get them their numbers back in September. The cards were supposed to be mailed to them at Calvert Hall. But more than a month later, nothing’s turned up.
So today, our plan is to go to the Social Security office and see if we can track the numbers down. Basheer grabs everyone’s passports, Lila packs some water, and we head out. In order to get to the Social Security office, we have to take one bus to a big station where we can transfer to another bus. The whole trip would be only a 16 minute drive, but using the bus, it takes us over an hour to get there. While we’re riding, I ask Lila what sort of work she and Basheer plan to look for once they get their Social Security cards.
“Whatever job is available, I will do it,” she said. “I just want to have a source of income for the family. Work is work. There is no shame in any work. But it is a shame to just sit at home and look for the government to help you.”
What Lila just said, about how it’s shameful to sit at home and rely on the government’s help—it really struck me. Because the irony, of course, is that in order to work, Lila and Basheer need the government’s help, which brings us to the Social Security office.
When we finally get there, rain has started to fall. There’s a queue of people outside the door being shepherded one at a time into the building every few minutes by security guards. It takes about 20 minutes of waiting, at which point we’re all pretty wet, but eventually we’re up.
Inside, it looks like the DMV, with people slumped in hard plastic chairs waiting to be called up to different windows. Lila gets right to work filling out a form for each member of the family. The whole time, we’re listening and waiting—there’s no discernible logic to which numbers go when.
Once we’ve been there for over an hour, Lila starts watching the clock. The kids get home from school in two hours, which means there’s only an hour left before we have to catch the bus home. After some scrambling, Lila manages to get in touch with a neighbor who says she can watch the kids for an hour after they get home. And at 3:21, they’re finally called.
We go to one of the windows, where the agent takes the forms from Lila and looks them over. He’s brusque but not unkind. And then, he tells us something unexpected. Apparently, Lila and Basheer already have Social Security numbers—in fact, the whole family does. And they’ve been mailed to Calvert Hall—to a stranger.
It turns out, back when Lila and Basheer’s immigration paperwork was first started, they needed to provide the government with an American address. Obviously they didn’t have an American address yet, so they provided a point of contact instead—the relative of an old colleague of Lila’s, who, as luck would have it, also got resettled at Calvert Hall. Only this guy didn’t know the family personally. So whatever mail he’d received addressed to them, they weren’t getting it.
Then the agent gives Lila Post-it notes, with Social Security numbers on them. Just think about that for a second. You’re in a strange country where your ability to work, save money, get a loan—pretty much everything—is dependent on having a special number attached to your name. And after weeks of waiting, calling, searching, finally you get it, this magic number, handed to you on a Post-it.
“I must admit that you have been lucky for us,” Lila said. “Fortunately we received our Social Security numbers. Now we’re so excited to apply for a job. It’s great and exciting news for everyone.
“There are always obstacles. We have been through so much bad time, so this is the very good time that at least we get something positive in return. So that’s why I can always be positive. I only understand there is a great day after the bad days. So I’m always hopeful for the great day to come,” she added.
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There are more than 88,000 Afghans who have come to the U.S. over the past 15 months; thousands more are still waiting in secondary countries to get here.
Of those people, Lila is one of the lucky ones. She speaks good English; everyone in her family is, for the most part, healthy. She and Basheer are able-bodied, and once Basheer gets his Social Security card, hopefully they’ll be employed.
But for the others? Who’s helping them learn an unfamiliar language? Who’s taking charge of their health care? How many of them will figure out the buses, navigate the Social Security office, and get the documentation they need?
How many of them will be left just waiting?
Correction, Dec. 9, 2022: This article originally misstated that there is no federal refugee resettlement agency.