The Afghans Who Got Out

Listen to this episode

S1: Hey, everyone. I got a special announcement for you today. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Slate. So for a limited time only, we are offering our annual Slate Plus membership at $25 off. As a member, you will get no ads on any of our podcasts that includes this podcast. You also get unlimited reading on Slate.com and member exclusive episodes and segments from shows like Slow Burn and Amicus and the Political Gabfest. For the past quarter century, Slate podcasts have been covering all the major news, events, elections, social issues and historic court decisions. Our culture shows have debated if things are sexist, named the best summer songs and explain the latest TikTok trends if we’ve become part of your listening routine. We’re asking that you support our work by joining Slate Plus. Sign up for Slate Plus at Slate.com. What next? Plus to keep us going for another 25 years? Again, we are giving you $25 off an annual membership through October 31st. So sign up now at Slate.com. Such what next? Plus? Three days a week. Sharifa Abbasi drives deep onto a military base in Quantico, Virginia. Quantico is known as the crossroads of the Marine Corps, but it’s not the Marines Sharif is there to see. It’s the refugees, hundreds of them, all from Afghanistan, all of them trying to figure out where they’re going to go from here. How overwhelming is it for you? Because my understanding is you are Afghan as well.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Overwhelming in terms of my work. There are just this whole situation being overwhelming,

S1: I think, in terms of the whole situation.

S2: I think if you ask any Afghan in the past couple of months has just been, you know, nonstop nightmare. It’s just never ending, especially in August. You know, when the evacuations were underway, everyone was going through extreme mental distress because they had family members that were going to the airport that were getting assaulted, that were getting shot at that were getting turned away. I think every single Afghan felt as if they were also there at the airport, with those members of the family anxiously waiting to see if they made it through, if they made it to the plane, if they were OK.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Sharifa is an immigration attorney. When she saw pictures of planes full of desperate Afghans after having that trauma response, she had another realization. When the planes landed, it was going to create a logistical nightmare. So she got a job as the legal lead at Quantico. And now she spends the bulk of her work week translating the vagaries of U.S. immigration law into dari and Pashto. Is there a logic to who maybe got out of Afghanistan and who didn’t?

S2: That’s a good question, to be honest with you. I don’t I. I see so many random people there from all walks of life from different provinces. I can’t seem to make sense of it in terms of how exactly the evacuation was done. Some people are just saying that they were near the airport, they saw the crowds gathering and, you know, the mass gathering. And so they they went into the crowd. I really like at a loss of words that I mean all of it to be to be exact.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: One woman told her the explosion at the airport that killed at least 60 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. She survived it and in fact, she was able to get on a plane because of it.

S2: That was the only reason why she was able to get in because apparently after the explosion, that gate just opened and everybody was able to swarm in. And she said, till this day, you know, when she sleeps, she hears the sound of the explosion. So it’s a lot of trauma. You know?

S1: Today on the show, tens of thousands of Afghans are now living in the U.S., but they are still struggling. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Sharifa is not a stranger to hopping on a plane and arriving in a new land. She and her family did just that in the early 90s. They fled Afghanistan during the country’s civil war, but a lot of Sharif has extended family. They remain overseas, including her entire maternal line aunts, uncles, cousins. A couple of nephews were lucky enough to make it out during the evacuations. But others, they’re still stuck.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah. You know, every day they they call us and they talk to my mom. They tell us what? What’s going on with them? I always tell my mom, I’m like, Whatever they’re going to like, we’re going through it here with them because they call us and they tell us in, you know, you feel so helpless from here. And then I think for me, especially because I’m an immigration attorney and they call with so much help thinking that I can do something for them. And I’m just like, there’s not really much that I can do at this point in time. So it’s even more devastating in that sense.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Sharifa says her uncle calls her mother regularly, giving updates on how the Taliban takeover is changing his life. He often simply pleads for help. So for someone like your uncle? What is day to day like?

S2: He owned a restaurant, and they basically shut down his restaurant, so his only means of livelihood. They forced them to shut it down because I guess in the beginning, the Taliban came. He had some families dining at the restaurant where there was men and women dining like families, and they basically came and they said, Why did why are you allowing this? And he said their families like these are families of like four or five. It’s a husband and wife and their kids, and they basically made him shut down his restaurant because he had people, men and women. I guess, dining in one area, huh? And they beat him up. They literally assaulted him, physically assaulted him. Shut up, shut down the restaurant. And because my uncle was able to do well during the last 10 years because of his restaurant business, he was able to build like a nice house there, and they come every day asking him for a bribe. Like, Give us this much money. Like we you have money because you were able to build this house, huh? What kind of business? Where you doing things like that? So every day, I mean, he he calls and he’s just like, I have to I have to figure something out like this and I don’t know how long I can. I can tolerate this.

Advertisement

S1: Well, I imagine as an attorney, you must have done everything you could to try to help him.

S2: Yeah, of course. There’s the truth of the matter is, I mean, everybody comes up to us and calls us. They think that we have some magic, one where we can help people in that situation. But there’s there’s only so much that we can do. There’s no consulate in Afghanistan right now. There’s no U.S. embassy.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: What are his options, even

S2: if he doesn’t have much options? I mean, the only option at this point for him is humanitarian parole, and even with humanitarian parole, he has to get out of the country somehow. And that’s nearly impossible for people at this point in time. It’s too dangerous.

Advertisement

S1: When did you decide you needed to start volunteering with people coming into this country, like how did you begin to do that?

S2: I mean, right away, I just I couldn’t sit back. You know, I felt like I had to do something in one capacity or another. I just I had to get involved. I had to do something. And, you know, I mean, if I if I couldn’t help at this point in time with the skills and, you know, whatever I’ve done in my experiences and then when when am I going to put these skills? What am I going to put this to use? I had to do something, and this is I couldn’t just sit back and not do anything.

Advertisement

S1: Sharifa heard how thousands of Afghans were being held temporarily at a convention center in Virginia after they touched down. So she went. It became a place for Afghan Americans to rally around refugees, supporting them with food and donations and legal help.

S2: I mean, it’s it was just overwhelming, I would say, is the word that I would use to describe it is a lot of people coming in at once and just everyone trying to figure out what the process is, but mainly they were just getting registered there. There’s been a couple of hours to maybe a night or two nights there until they were able to find transportation to to get moved to the next step in the process, which is the military visas.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: What surprised you when you got there?

S2: What surprised me is just the sheer volume of people coming in at once and then also just hearing their their experiences, their stories. I mean, I met this girl who had a visa and she had a visa that was granted in June. And I asked her, I said, Why didn’t you come in now? You have your visa, you had a visa like you. You were able to come into the country earlier. She just broke down and started crying. Hmm. And she said that she didn’t come because she was actually planning her wedding, she was going to get married. Her husband is a US citizen here. And she was waiting for her wedding there. She was going to have her wedding there and then come here after the wedding. And she said, in fact, she just booked the venue the day before the Taliban came in. She was like, I literally just booked the venue for that wedding and my husband was supposed to come to travel from the US. We were going to get married and then I was going to come in. And then she went to her phone and, you know, showed me pictures of her wedding dress like everything that she had, all the wedding preparations and everything that she had. And she’s like, I lost all of this. She’s like, You wait your whole life for something like this. And now I can’t even. I just lost everything. I’ll forever remember her story because, you know, nobody chooses a situation like this. They were just starting to get comfortable with life over there because she was showing me pictures of her life in Kabul. And, you know, she seemed like she had a pretty good life. Like they had a nice house. She had a nice car. She was even on Tik Tok like making videos. And so she said, Yeah, she’s like, I worked. My mom worked. You know, my brothers work like all of us had jobs. They’re pretty westernized. You know, when I when I was looking at her videos, so it’s just, you know, it just made me think like how hard people had worked in the last 20 years to build a life for themselves. Like when you you were actually given an opportunity to sit down and talk with these folks, there’s just not like a number, you know, a lot of them don’t like. If they had to choose, they wouldn’t have come. You know, nobody spends, like all this time building a life for themselves and then dropping all of that and starting from scratch here. And I think that’s the story that everybody needs to understand, like nobody chooses for themselves unless they have to. But if they’re literally running for their lives, which, you know, even my uncle at this point, that’s where he is right now. His life is in danger in my mom tells him every day she’s like, If you can just leave everything and get out, just leave everything and get out. And that’s essentially the choice that it comes down to. No one is going to go and sit, you know, on the wing of an airplane or hold on to an airplane unless they really have to, unless the situation on the ground is so bad that you choose to put your life at risk. That’s the decision that you have to make at that point in time.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: After the break, when Afghan refugees were sent to military bases around the country. Sharifa decided to keep pitching in. Part of what makes Sharif, his work and the work of other immigration attorneys dealing with Afghan people so complicated right now is that the law is literally changing day by day. There was no time to give people fleeing Afghanistan official status as refugees. So instead, many are now in the U.S. on something called parole. That’s a temporary status. It basically allows people to live here for a couple of years. But that came with other complications like who’s going to provide for those people?

S2: Normally, if you come in on parole, you know, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get benefits. But in this class of like for this class of individuals that have been paroled and through the evacuation process, as you know, under operation allies welcome, there has been legislation, legislation that has passed. So they get the three month parole benefits. They have certain benefits that they get because of the because of their parolee status. Maybe two or three weeks ago, the government passed legislation that basically said, you know, any Afghan that has been paroled and they get refugee benefits. So even though they’re they’re paroled in because of legislation that has been passed, they they are getting benefits that would not otherwise be available to them.

S1: Parolees are going to have to apply for permanent residency or seek some other way to stay in the U.S. long term. And it can be costly navigating around the immigration system. Refugees often have some of their application fees covered by the government parolees. They don’t.

S2: Some of these people are, you know, if they’re lucky, they have family here. They have some sort of tie here in the U.S. they can help them. But literally a lot of these people don’t have anybody and they have nothing. They have nobody. So I think that’s where a lot of these nonprofits are going to have to step in and offer pro bono representation for their two system. What their immigration paperwork.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: My understanding is that the parolee status, it’s good for two years, and then you have to figure something out. It just makes me wonder if we’re kind of kicking the can down the road and someone like you who’s an attorney is saying, OK and a couple of years, I’m going to see a new surge of people who are maybe trying to get some other status in the country.

S2: There will be a surge. Definitely there will be a wave. Right now, most of them are on the visas. But once once these people come off the basis, they’re going to realize that, Hey, I need to do something about my status. And then that’s you know, where the immigration attorneys are are going to see a wave of people seeking immigration help.

S1: Is there one family that you’ve been able to follow through the entire process of lending in this country and now living somewhere in Virginia or elsewhere that you would share?

S2: I do know of a family. They were at the base in Wisconsin, Fort McCoy. Now there in Virginia. But they basically they they didn’t wait like to go to get place to a resettlement agency. So they there’s a term that they call on the basis of independent departures where these people are just, you know, once they’re done with the whatever they need to do in order to maintain their parole status, everything that they have to do and, you know, such as getting their vaccines, medicals, things like that, then they are given an option to leave. And so a lot of these people, when they leave the bases, it’s called the independent departure. In this one family that I know specifically, that’s what they did. They they don’t have housing. They’re just like the family that’s here is kind of giving them housing for right now until they get housing for themselves. They also they are these people. So they all also qualify for federal benefits. So they, you know, they have to

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: go like food stamps and things,

S2: food stamps, Medicaid, whatever federal benefits that the state that they can get through the state. But even for that, I mean, you got to go and sign up and they’re severely, severely like at capacity as well, like overcrowded.

S1: Oh, you mean like when when they show up to get benefits, it’s just crazy.

S2: Yeah. So last night I was talking to somebody and she told me she had her parent because her parents were although she got them off the base. And she said that she went to the Social Services Office to apply for some of these benefits. And she’s like, the line was out the door outside.

S1: Was it refugees or was it just everyone?

S2: It’s mostly people that have just left the bases like independently departed the bases and have to go and like try to figure out ways to apply for the benefits and things of that sort themselves?

S1: What do you hear about them, the ones that left Wisconsin and made their way to Virginia?

S2: I think they’re actually like one of the lucky ones because they have family here, so they have a support system here. So they’re doing OK, and I think they’re just happy that they’ve been able to be reunited with their family. Of course, they have a long journey ahead of ahead of them in terms of settling down and finding work and things like that. I mean, they know they they have that ahead of them. But also this family lived in Kabul. They’re pretty educated, so I’m not so worried about them. The people that I’m worried about more are the people that came from the, you know, the outer provinces, the the rural provinces that have never been to school. They have never even been like in a city setting, and they have no familial support here, no ties to the US. They’re just going to get placed somewhere. And what are they going to do if they don’t speak the language? They have no support here. Nothing. These people, I mean, you have to understand a lot of them are not even educated in dari, like in Afghanistan. They didn’t even attend school. So not only did they not speak English, but they’re just they don’t have like basic knowledge of like just very basic stuff.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: It must be a little bit like landing on another planet and then. It doesn’t sound like there’s an opportunity for folks to ease into whatever life they’re about to enter because if you’re going from. A resettlement centre, a conference centre that’s been repurposed to a military base. I can’t imagine going from that to all of a sudden suburban Virginia.

S2: Unfortunately, that’s the process. And if you like, even with the bases, they they have a little bit of time to ease into it because the base is just the everything is being provided for them. They’re not getting thrown out into the real world. But once they get off these bases, I feel like that’s when it’s going to really hit them because they’re going to let go. Even the government benefits like those are not permanent. That’s going to end at some point, you know, and then you’re going to get hit with the responsible. I always tell them, even when I’m speaking to some of them, I’m like, Once you get out of here, that’s when the real, like real war, the real world is going to hit you. And it’s going to be hard because you’re going to get hit with smack with responsibilities. Like, there’s so many bills here that each person has. There’s so many responsibilities you’re going to have to learn to speak English. You’re going to have to learn to go get a driver’s license. You’re going to have to figure out how to buy a car, get insurance, get health insurance, get car insurance, enroll the kids in schools, doctor’s appointments, things of that sort. This is not like daily life in Afghanistan, you know, so there’s a disparity, cultural disparity. First of all, and then, you know, we have life as well that unless they’ve kind of at least, you know, the people that lived in the rural provinces like they lived a completely different lifestyle than the way it is here.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You’ve said that you feel like you took Afghanistan for granted. What did what did you mean when you said that?

S2: I mean, nobody ever thought that the situation would happen, you know, nobody. I don’t think anyone thought that the Taliban would come back and take over. No, I just thought, you know, once the Taliban, once the US went into Afghanistan, we thought that that’s it. That’s the end of the Taliban there. Yeah, they’re going to come back and they’re going to, you know? You know, they have their attacks, but they’re never, ever going to be in a position of power again. And, you know, back when they were there in the 90s, I had no hope to visit. At that point, I was like, I’m never going to be able to go back. But then, you know, when the US, when the US went into Afghanistan and. You know, things started to open up again. Everyone had this sense of hope again that, OK, now we can go back, we got our country back and now it’s gone back like this. Everyone says it’s gone back to the dark days. I mean, I can’t ever go back there.

S1: Never.

S2: Yeah, nobody. I mean, how am I going to go there with the Taliban like that? That’s not an option for any of us. And in fact, I mean, I took it for granted because I only went back once I could have gone back more and I didn’t because I always thought, Oh, I’ll go back and I’ll go next year, I’ll go next year. And I I did. I mean, I planned many trips there because I have friends there. I have really good friends there, I have family there. I just thought that I would always have the option to go back to that opportunity to go back. And now I can’t. My mom can’t ever go back to see her family. No one is going to take that risk. You know you.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Sharifa Abbasi, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: It’s great talking to you.

S1: Sharifa Abbasi is an immigration attorney based in Virginia, and that’s the show before I get going. I have a special announcement here. You know how I’ve been telling you all the reasons you should subscribe to Slate Plus this month? It turns out I’ve got one more reason. If you signed up, you can get free. What next? Swag? I’m talking stickers. Buttons. Here’s how it works. Go to our show notes. Click the link to fill out a Google form, and I will pop some swag into the mail for you, but only if you’ve joined Slate Plus and only if you’re one of the first 30 people to sign up. So get on it. All right. What next is produced by Danielle Hewitt, Davis Land, Alana Schwartz, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. I will be back in this field to say hi tomorrow.