Feeling alienated in a foreign land: Afghan refugees in the United States struggle to acclimatise

Virginia's Fort Pickett Houses Afghan Refugees As Part Of Their Resettlement
5 min read
01 March, 2022
Having fled Afghanistan after the return of the Taliban in August, Afghan refugees have struggled to adjust to their new home in the US. Gripped by feelings of betrayal and sadness, they enter a country that still views migrants with distrust.

In August 2021, following Washington's withdrawal from Afghanistan and the swift advance by the Taliban, the US military rushed to fly out tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans from the country.

The majority of the evacuees were nationals who worked alongside the US personnel during Washington's twenty-year-long occupation of the country and their close relatives.

Operation Allies Welcome officially started on August 29, 2021, when President Biden delegated the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to lead the resettlement operations and coordinate the efforts to support Afghans moving to the United States.

"[Afghan] evacuees have to go through many hardships during the integration process. A lack of English, the challenges to get employment, the cultural and religious gaps are all daily challenges they have to overcome"

The abrupt and chaotic retreat of the US military and the following evacuation from Kabul's airport was the most complex and extensive airlift ever done in recent history.

Around 75,000 Afghani refugees have been resettled in the US, while thousands remain on military bases waiting for a permanent relocation.

Many Afghans were allowed into the United States due to humanitarian parole – which grants the evacuees to enter the country without visas for pressing humanitarian reasons – but they are not allowed to have legal permanent residency without applying for asylum through the traditional system. Asylum status is essential to be eligible to apply for a green card and become a lawful permanent resident in the United States.

Evacuees who fled Afghanistan walk through the terminal to board buses that will take them to a processing centre, at Dulles International Airport [Getty Images]
Evacuees who fled Afghanistan walk through the terminal to board buses that will take them to a processing centre, at Dulles International Airport [Getty Images]

According to a recent Department of Homeland Security report to Congress, around 36,000 Afghan evacuees lack a direct pathway to permanent residency in the US, backlogging the resettlement process and the procedure to obtain legal status.

Most Afghans brought to the United States lack any requirements to apply for asylum because they failed to produce any documentation on their identity in the first instance.

Due to the rapid pace of evacuations and the chaos following the withdrawal of the US military, a large number of Afghans arrived in the United States without paperwork or personal ID.

Society
Live Story

US agencies are working on security screening and vetting on Afghan evacuees to find out if they pose a risk for national security, but this could endanger the efforts to integrate those people while some could face deportation.

"HIAS and the rest of refugees and legal community are advocating the Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act and provide legal status for all the evacuees," said Bill Swersey, vice-president of communication at Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), NGOs who support the government in resettling refugees in the United States.

"While it is imperative for the government to perform security checks, we must also support the integration and the cultural orientation of these people, who have helped the United States in Afghanistan."

"Refugees feel that they haven't done enough to defend their country from the Taliban. Humiliation and dishonour are recurred words, as many were soldiers in the Afghan National Army"

According to the immigration code, under humanitarian parole Afghans evacuated to the US have only two years to apply through the normal procedure and get permanent residence. However, the current circumstances make it challenging for them to secure this status.

“The resettlement programme has specific requirements and is based on the economic self-sufficiency of the refugees. Housing and employment are the most important aspects and the most difficult tasks to achieve through the entire process because the aid programme duration is between three to six months," stressed Swersey.

Efforts to relocate the refugees continue thanks to the support of non-profit and interfaith organisations who work relentlessly to find houses, employment, education and cultural classes for the new arrivals. Still, for many Afghans, the struggle hasn't ended with the resettlement procedure but strains with the traumas of a war-torn country.

Afghan refugees stand outside housing in the Village, where they are temporarily living at the Ft. McCoy US Army base on September 30, 2021 in Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin. - There are approximately 12,600 Afghan refugees being cared for at the base under Operation Allies Welcome.
Afghan refugees stand outside housing in the Village, where they are temporarily living at the Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin. There are approximately 12,600 Afghan refugees being cared for at the base under Operation Allies Welcome [Getty Images]

"Evacuees are under physical and mental stress due to the decades of war in Afghanistan," Yalda Afif, an Afghani cultural mediator who supports refugees in social inclusion told The New Arab.

The sudden change in the political situation in Afghanistan and the unexpected breakout from the country left many in an emotional shock.

As previously reported by The New Arab, many Afghans had to choose either to flee the country to save their life or leave behind their loved ones. According to several international human rights organisations, the Taliban have been targeting civilians, journalists, members of the civil society, while performing summary executions of dissidents, arbitrary detention and unlawful restrictions on the human rights of women and girls.

A situation that severely impacted the mental health of those who fled the country, with cases of anxiety, sadness and hopelessness spiking among the refugees.

While the government tries to speed up the relocation process and meet evacuees' needs, the agencies are pressed to find accommodation in neighbourhoods that met specific requirements such as affordable housing and cultural and linguistic support services available.

"Evacuees have to go through many hardships during the integration process. A lack of English, the challenges to get employment, and the cultural and religious gaps are all daily challenges they have to overcome."

Culture
Live Story

The sense of betrayal by Afghanistan's political and military elites is a common feeling. Refugees feel that they haven't done enough to defend their country from the Taliban. Humiliation and dishonour are recurred words, as many were soldiers in the Afghan National Army.

“Although they were well equipped to fight back against the Taliban, many stated that just days before the fall of Kabul they received a direct order from commanders to retreat from the cities and districts they were assigned to defend," pointed out Yalda.

Now they have to fight again, but this time to rebuild a brand new life in a foreign country.

Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in the analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is the editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis on the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @OsservatMashrek