Afghan Refugee Families Struggling To Reunite A Year Later

·10 min read

A year after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and heartbreaking scenes of chaos at the Kabul airport, many refugees who fled to the United States are still desperately trying to reunite with their families.

Last August, Amina Ahmadi and her nine relatives were one of those families in the airport trying to board a plane after receiving threats from the Taliban. Ahmadi, 27, spoke to TODAY through Dari translator Liaqat Ali Eftekharie, and said she was in the airport for one day and night.

Then a deadly bomb explosion separated the family. Ahmadi said she had no idea what happened to her relatives or if they were still alive. Without internet or any way to communicate, Ahmadi took her young brother, sister and nephew, one of whom is just 10 years old, onto the plane to America.

Two weeks later, she found out her parents had survived — but they hadn’t made it onto a plane. Now, Ahmadi takes online classes in the U.S. while her siblings attend summer school. 

“I’m no more than a sister for those kids,” she said. “I can’t be their mom, I can’t be their dad. They need their actual mom and dad.”

Ahmadi said her siblings are not dealing well with being apart from their parents, and while they call each other every day, it’s just not the same.

“They always feel very sad despite the fact that we try our best to keep them happy,” she said. “I’m concerned about their future, about their health, because I have no experience.”

As Ahmadi looks ahead to starting work, child care will become another hurdle. She said she’s calling on the U.S. to take action.

“I request the U.S. government to help reunification of parents with their children,” she said. “I request that (my parents) should be helped to get into the U.S. and take care of their kids because I cannot do much more than that.”

Thousands of families are in similar straits. A U.S. State Department spokesperson told TODAY in an email that Afghan children's safety is their "utmost concern."

"We are strongly committed to family reunification for families who were separated by operations last August and are actively working to develop a system for identifying and bringing immediate family members of those who arrived through Operation Allies Welcome to the United States," the statement said.

So far, 81,000 Afghan citizens have moved to the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security. But for those still trying to bring family members over, the odds are not in their favor, according to CEO and President of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service Krish O'Mara Vignarajah.

"We know USCIS has received over 46,000 applications from Afghans overseas, but as of early June, it has adjudicated fewer than 5,000 applications and denied 93% of them,” Vignarajah told TODAY, citing United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data first reported by CBS News. “That’s a jaw-dropping denial rate. I think it stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric of solidarity that we hear from U.S. officials.”

The USCIS, part of the Department of Homeland Security, told TODAY that it has received more than 48,000 applications from Afghans: Of those, a spokesperson said in a statement to TODAY, 369 were approved (less than 1% of total applications) and around 8,000 have been denied. The remaining roughly 39,000, the department told TODAY, have not yet been decided.

The fall of Kabul and the race to evacuate

The Taliban claimed victory in Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, after seizing the capital and taking over the government. The Taliban’s moves were made possible due to the U.S. withdrawing troops from the region. What ensued was mass panic to evacuate, with people storming the airport in an attempt to flee.

Overwhelmed by the number of Afghan refugees entering the country, resettlement agencies in the Washington D.C.-Virginia area looked to national organizations for assistance — and that’s where Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service stepped in.

LIRS is a non-profit organization that has been resettling refugees for the past 80 years. Vignarajah told TODAY that LIRS created a temporary office in Alexandria, Virginia, last November to assist with the influx.

The Alexandria office of LIRS, set up as a temporary office last November. (Courtesy of Laya Neelakandan)
The Alexandria office of LIRS, set up as a temporary office last November. (Courtesy of Laya Neelakandan)

LIRS has assisted 11,000 Afghan refugees in the past year, according to director of field operations Khalis Noori. The all-Afghan team of 25 in Alexandria have successfully resettled 1,393 individuals, he said.

The team is made up of Afghan refugees who came to the U.S. at different times. "They understand the difficulties; they’re from the same country," he said. "So they can relate more."

Some refugees’ best chances are to apply for asylum, which previously had a cap of filing one year after arrival in the U.S. That deadline was recently extended to two years, Noori said.

“The government, the federal, the state — they all have to just focus and provide these individuals with the right legal service,” Noori told TODAY. He mentioned the proposed Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow eligible Afghans to apply for permanent residence. Although it was created at the end of 2021, the bill was only introduced in the House and Senate this month. The legislation currently has bipartisan support, but Noori said in some cases, it's already too late to help those who need it.

Living in fear

Dr. Zia-ul-Shiwa was also in the Kabul airport last August, desperately trying to push his way in with one of his older sons while his wife and seven other children — including his 7-year-old with cancer — waited in the car outside.

Shiwa hoped to move his family to America to keep them safe from the Taliban. But inside the airport that day, he had to make a heartbreaking decision.

He begged for help getting his family on the plane. Officials told him they could only control inside the airport — outside, where the rest of his family waited, was already in the hands of the Taliban.

“They said, ‘You see, the situation is impossible. Even we cannot do anything,'" Shiwa recalled.

Shiwa decided to board the plane to the U.S., hoping his family would be able to join him soon. One of his daughters was able to fly to Germany, but his three sons, three daughters and wife remain in Afghanistan.

Dr. Zia-ul-Shiwa is trying to bring over his wife and six children who are currently in hiding from the Taliban in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Laya Neelakandan)
Dr. Zia-ul-Shiwa is trying to bring over his wife and six children who are currently in hiding from the Taliban in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Laya Neelakandan)

Shiwa said his 7-year-old son with cancer has not been able to receive proper treatment in two years, both due to COVID-19 and the need to hide from the Taliban.

Before the fall of Kabul, Shiwa’s daughters were passionate about their studies in school, he said, and Shiwa himself was the founder and director of an educational organization. But now, his daughters must hide at home.

Shiwa said that since the Taliban has learned he is in the U.S., they have searched the family's home three times in the past month.

Now, he said he's trying to apply for a green card and asylum at the same time in hopes that something will come through for their family reunification.

‘I shouldn’t suffer like this’

For nine years, Rashid, who asked that his real name be withheld for safety reasons, worked as a contractor for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, providing logistical services and managing radio stations working against the Taliban. In 2016, the Taliban began sending him threats and attacking him. He fled to Australia while his family remained in Afghanistan.

“I was trying to keep myself safe,” he said.

Rashid said the Australian government promised that his family would be able to move there within a year. But then the world shut down due to COVID-19, the Australian borders closed and bringing his family over was no longer an option.

He said his family had begun the process of trying to leave Afghanistan — but the day after they interviewed for their visa at the Kabul embassy, Afghanistan fell.

“I tried to just send them to the airport, but the situation was very bad at that time. So I said to just wait, everything will be fine. And now it’s been a year, and we’re still waiting,” he said.

Rashid moved to America. The immigration process in Australia is slower, he explained, so he believed his chances were better in the U.S.

Today, his children, ages 14, 12 and 9, remain stuck in Afghanistan with his wife. Rashid said he tried to work with both the Australian Department of Home Affairs and the U.S. State Department to bring his family over because of his foreign work, but he said he was told that their “hands are tied.”

“It’s really killing me at the moment that I’m a permanent (resident) of two very powerful countries. And I’m paying taxes, I’m doing business for them, I’m working here … but they are not able to evacuate my family,” he said.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said while they can't comment on specific cases, they are "committed to continuing to reunite families." An Australian Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told TODAY in an email that the department cannot comment on individual cases, but the government "remains committed to supporting the Afghan community at this distressing time and asks for patience with visa application processes."

The outside of the LIRS Alexandria office, located in a church. (Courtesy of Laya Neelakandan)
The outside of the LIRS Alexandria office, located in a church. (Courtesy of Laya Neelakandan)

“The way I lost all of my wealth, all my savings and everything, I don’t care about that ... But the most good time that I have to be with my family? I lost that,” Rashid said. “I shouldn’t suffer like this.”

He said he is currently working to move his family over, although their passports are expiring soon and there is no longer an embassy in Afghanistan.

The State Department spokesperson said they are aware that the lack of an embassy is "extremely difficult," and they "strongly encourage" Afghanistan's neighbors to keep their borders open to refugees.

The long road ahead

For most, the road ahead is unclear. The Taliban continues to kill Afghans, and in the time that the office has been open, Noori said he has only seen one family reunified.

Khalis Noori is the director of field operations at the LIRS Alexandria office. (Courtesy of Khalis Noori)
Khalis Noori is the director of field operations at the LIRS Alexandria office. (Courtesy of Khalis Noori)

Advocates like LIRS president and CEO Vignarajah also worry that although all refugees are deserving of assistance, Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed while Afghan refugees are forgotten.

“The fact (is) that tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees have been admitted under the Uniting for Ukraine program through humanitarian parole, and we’ve seen that 93% denial rate for humanitarian parolees from Afghanistan in sharp contrast," she said. "It’s important for us to understand that though Afghanistan has fallen from the news headlines, there is still critical need, and we can’t turn our backs on those families.”

More than 71,000 Ukrainian refugees have immigrated to the U.S. since March, when President Joe Biden announced a plan to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians to the country.

Noori said the lasting mental health effects of family separation and the evacuation prompted him to create weekly mental health workshops for both the refugees and his case managers.

For Ahmadi, Shiwa and Rashid, the hope of seeing their parents and children again only exists in their dreams after being separated from each other and living in danger for a year.

Shiwa said he knows exactly what he’s going to do if his family gets here.

“First, I have to care (for) my sick child," he said. "And second, as soon as possible, I have to enroll (my daughters) in school to continue their education.”

But he fears the dream may never become a reality.

“I’m not sure if (reunification) is possible or not," he said. "It’s difficult for us.”

Related: