In the News

A year after they fled the Taliban, many are up against a deadline to apply for asylum. But the application process can be daunting.

SAN DIEGO —  One year ago, Masooma Said waded through chest-high water in a stream next to the Kabul airport to beg a soldier to save her, her mother and her sister.

She waved the credential she had from her job with a United Nations agency and pushed her documents toward him.

As the soldier lifted her out of the crowd, relief at the chance to get away from the Taliban mixed with the pangs of leaving behind the life she had built as the family breadwinner in Afghanistan’s capital city, a rare occurrence in her country for a woman even before the Taliban, she said.

“I wanted to hug the soldiers so bad. I was screaming and crying,” the 24-year-old recalled. “But I was leaving behind my home, my job that I was so proud of, my friends, my hobbies, my pet.”

She began to cry at the memory of her beloved cat. The pain still feels fresh.

Said and her family, now in San Diego, are among the more than 124,000 Afghans U.S. officials estimate were evacuated as the country fell back into Taliban control in August 2021. Including those who’ve made it out of the country since then, almost 80,000 Afghans resettled in the United States — about 3,000 of them in San Diego, according to county data.

One year later, they, and most Afghans lucky enough to be brought to the United States during the chaos of the withdrawal, are still living in limbo.

Most were let into the United States through a legal process called humanitarian parole, which grants temporary permission to be here but does not come with a long-term path to stay.

Much of her argument will hinge on the fact that they are a family of women.

Without an act of Congress giving them a way to apply for green cards, many, including Said and her family, are up against a one-year deadline to apply for asylum.

For more than 36,000 evacuees, that is the only path currently available to them to try to make the United States their new permanent home because they don’t qualify for special visas given to Afghans who worked for the U.S. military. But most haven’t yet applied.

As of the end of July, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had received roughly 2,400 asylum applications from people evacuated under Operation Allies Welcome, according to the agency.

That could change if Congress manages to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, a recently introduced bill with bipartisan sponsors that would create a path to green cards for Afghan evacuees. Though advocates are confident that with enough effort, the bill will reach President Joe Biden’s desk, it’s not yet clear whether it will be successful or whether Afghans will become the newest political stalemate on immigration.

‘I have a voice here’

For Afghan women who were evacuated, being able to stay in the United States would give them a chance at a future far beyond what they could hope for back in their home country.

“The one thing I’m very grateful for is that I’m secure here. I can speak openly. I have a voice here,” Said said. “There, women have no rights now.”

That difference hits her the hardest when Said gets behind the wheel of her old, gold Lexus. Driving herself — anywhere — is something she says she never would have been able to do in Afghanistan.

“To me, the little things count a lot,” Said said.

Under the Taliban, women are not supposed to go out without a male relative accompanying them.

Muska Gailani, 28, of the Afghanistan Women Council, who is still living in Kabul as a women’s rights activist despite the dangers, called the regression for women under the Taliban heart-breaking.

“Leaving my house it comes with a lot of trying to make up my mind — should I go out, do I really need to go out,” Gailani said. “You just never know what will happen. You cannot trust the situation.”

There are no men in Said’s family. Her father died two weeks before Kabul fell.

Because they would have had no men to escort them, the family would have feared going on even the most basic errands if they hadn’t managed to escape.

Even before the Taliban took over, Said said, she faced difficulties being a working woman, especially as one who worked for foreigners.

Her father had served in the Afghan military and was disabled, so Said said she went to work to support her family, taking a job with the U.N. focused on issues of food insecurity.

Now in the United States, Said is once again the family breadwinner. She works as a case manager at Alliance for African Assistance guiding other newly arrived Afghan families through the process of resettling in San Diego.

She hopes to be able to get a university degree, something she felt unable to do in Afghanistan because of the insecurity there. But with no permanent status in the United States, she isn’t eligible for most financial aid and will have to figure out how to pay for classes.

In the meantime, she works, drives her younger sister to school and runs errands for the family. And, she has taken on filling out their asylum applications herself, which must be submitted before Sept. 9, the date they entered the United States.

She will have to prove that her family meets the definition of a refugee under U.S. law — that they are likely to be persecuted by the Afghan government or someone the government cannot or will not control because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.

Filing in time

For evacuated families who don’t have any English-speaking members, applying for asylum likely feels especially daunting if they haven’t found legal help or someone to translate their documents.

Holly Strum, who, along with her teenage daughter, began offering supplies — and friendship — to newly arrived Afghan families in San Diego last year, said the adults in some of the families she’s met are illiterate.

The father in one family that she befriended asked her about the status of their asylum application and handed her some documents. When she looked more closely, she discovered it was a blank application still waiting for the family to fill out.

She doesn’t think many families know about the one-year filing deadline.

For those who do manage to file, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is supposed to expedite processing and to give answers within five months, as required under a funding bill passed by Congress last September.

But the agency, like immigration courts, was already backlogged with asylum applications when Kabul fell.

So far, more than 250 asylum applications for Afghan evacuees have been approved, the agency said. It did not respond to requests for the number denied or the total number adjudicated.

Peter Lucier, a Marine veteran who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, was one of thousands of veterans and activists who volunteered with the so-called “Digital Dunkirk” network in August 2021. The collaboration worked to evacuate former allies from the country when Kabul fell to the Taliban ahead of the U.S.'s planned Aug. 31 departure.

As a third-year law student, Lucier said he thought he was in a position to help.

For the past year, he said, he has received a crash course in U.S. immigration law working to help recently arrived Afghans settle in St. Louis, where he lives.

He soon realized that the asylum system is in no state to handle the tens of thousands of Afghans now applying.

“Our cases are bursting,” Lucier said. “This problem is a catastrophe.”

Abdul Qasim Temori worked for the U.S. as a guard and now lives in El Cajon with his family. He does not speak much English.

He has already worked with the International Rescue Committee to fill out his asylum application, he said, and so is waiting on the next step — an interview with an asylum officer.

A green card will mean the possibility of bringing the rest of his family to safety in the United States.

He was able to bring his five younger children, ages 12 to 21, along with his wife when they fled. His other three children — a son, 30, and two daughters, 27 and 25 — are all married and still in Afghanistan, living in hiding.

He fears that his son in particular will be killed by the Taliban — he has already been beaten twice. Temori also sees a big gap in the lives and futures of his daughters here and there.

“They all wish to come here,” he said through a Dari interpreter. “Afghanistan is not a good situation for them.”

The fact that his four daughters are in school in the United States is enough to illustrate the difference, he said. That would not be possible in Afghanistan.

He dreams of the girls becoming doctors or engineers. There are not many women doctors in Afghanistan, he said.

A path or politics

Many evacuees have their hopes set on Congress passing the Afghan Adjustment Act.

Said waited to start her asylum application, thinking Congress would have done something to help people like her before now.

Introduced in both the House and Senate on Aug. 9, the act would allow Afghans like her and Temori to apply for permanent legal status without having to prove that they would face persecution back in Afghanistan.

It would also make a faster path to green cards for evacuees who are still waiting for Special Immigrant Visas, which are given to Afghans who aided the U.S. military and have often taken years to be approved.

The bill has taken longer than anticipated to get in front of Congress, said Shawn VanDiver, a San Diego Navy veteran who led the effort to organize veterans and activists to help evacuate and resettle certain Afghans under an umbrella group, #AfghanEvac.

Still, he’s confident there’s enough bipartisan support to get it to the president’s desk. The group has been active on Capitol Hill since the withdrawal, calling for more support for Afghans.

“It’s going to take the hard work and determination it took last August,” VanDiver said. “We saw all sorts of Americans stand up — they’ll get it done again.”

The Afghans trying to establish permanent, stable lives in the U.S. are, for the most part, the same who worked during the U.S. occupation to make Afghan society better, said Chris Purdy, the director of Veterans for American Ideals and Outreach at Human Rights First, a nonprofit humanitarian group. They include members of the Afghan military, interpreters who worked with U.S. forces, judges, teachers and those who worked with non-governmental organizations.

Purdy, an Army National Guard veteran, was part of a legislative working group that helped craft the Afghan Adjustment Act. Veteran advocacy is going to be key in getting the bill signed into law, he said.

“I don’t know if the American public truly understands how much of an issue this is for veterans — this is a huge veteran issue,” Purdy said.

In addition to working as translators, Afghans also fought alongside U.S. forces for years. When the Taliban seized control of the country, those U.S. collaborators became targets.

“The words duty, honor and moral obligation mean something to the veteran community,” Purdy said. “We give a (expletive). We don’t just want 10 percent off at Lowe’s.”

Still, that veteran support doesn’t always result in easy wins in Washington. The recent PACT Act, which extended Veterans Affairs health benefits to veterans injured by burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, failed to pass the Senate in July over Republican opposition. After an uproar from Democrats and veterans groups, the bill passed the Senate Aug. 2, and Biden signed it into law eight days later.

And earlier this year, Republicans blocked a bill that included aid to support recently arrived Ukrainians until provisions for green cards for Afghan evacuees were removed.

Purdy said he’s afraid Republicans might shy away from supporting the bill to avoid giving Biden a “win.” However, he points out, the withdrawal from Afghanistan was far from a win for Biden.

“The Biden administration wants this to go away,” Purdy said, “and it’s easier for Republicans to criticize the withdrawal than to solve the problem.”

VanDiver acknowledged the political fight to come.

“It’s about to get really ugly,” VanDiver said. “We don’t want to have to repeat what we had to do to get the PACT Act passed. We are not going to tolerate anyone trying to use Afghans as political pawns.”

The bill was introduced in both chambers with bipartisan co-sponsors, including Democrat Scott Peters of San Diego in the House and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham in the Senate.

“Our country has done this before,” Peters told the Union-Tribune, citing similar adjustment legislation passed after the Korean and Vietnam wars. “There’s nothing new about it.”

However, some Republicans have expressed concerns about Afghans who came the the U.S. since last summer. In an Aug. 4 letter to the Pentagon inspector general, Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin cited a whistleblower who came forward alleging more than 300 Afghans on a Defense Department watch list were admitted to the U.S. and called for an investigation.

Similar vetting concerns led to the Afghan Adjustment Act being dropped from the Ukrainian resettlement funding bill in May.

Peters said the concerns of skeptics should be assuaged by a requirement in the bill for “rigorous vetting” of Afghans to qualify.

Patience and hard work

For many Afghans, getting a green card will only be a step along the years-long struggle to feel at home and fully resettled in the United States.

Mohammad Idrees, 30, worked as a translator for the U.S. Marine Corps at the Kabul airport during the evacuation. Now he works multiple jobs in San Diego to try to help his family start over.

Back in Afghanistan, his wife, mother and father all had government jobs — his wife in the Ministry of Finance, his mother as a judge and his father at the Supreme Court of Afghanistan.

His wife has always wanted to be an entrepreneur, Idrees said, and he hopes to invest in her dream once their financial situation is more stable.

For now, he works full time at Alliance for African Assistance, and he also works part time at a grocery store and for Uber Eats. His wife worked as a translator in an elementary school until summer came.

His father found a job as a security guard. His mother is focusing on learning English.

“My mom likes working, but because of not knowing English and her age, no one gives her a job,” Idrees said.

Masoud Zarify, 37, said he remembers well the struggle to feel settled and to find enough work to support his family. He arrived on an SIV with his wife and children in late 2016.

“It takes a couple of years (to feel resettled),” he said. “Even for a U.S. citizen, if you move from one city to a new city it takes time to resettle and set up everything correctly. For someone from Afghanistan, it’s way different and way harder. It takes time, but it gets better.”

He had worked in IT coordinating between his country’s troops and the United States. With all of that experience, he still struggled to find a job in his field when he came to San Diego.

Eventually he convinced someone to give him an IT job. After that, better jobs came easier, he said. Now, he has his own business and recently bought a home in Temecula. It was only after becoming a homeowner that he felt he had managed to make a life here.

“That feeling when you came from that role here to the U.S. and start working with Uber… that’s why I say patience for the new people. But it changes. It gets better,” he said. “When you learn how to survive in Mars, the life gets better.”