Afghans traverse 11 countries to reach the U.S.

STORY: This is a selfie snapped by a migrant as he trekked through the jungles of Panama.

While many have traveled thousands of miles from South through Central America to the U.S. border, Fazal Khalili's journey began on the other side of the earth: Khalili is from Afghanistan.

Determined to leave after the return of the Taliban, the 25-year-old is one of thousands of Afghans who made their way first to Brazil, and then north in hopes of reaching the U.S.

Images and videos form a visual diary of Khalili's arduous journey through 11 countries by foot, by aircraft, and by boat.

Nighttime shots show his final approach to the U.S., the slats of the border fence dark against the night sky.

After crossing, border agents took the migrants to a detention center, Khalili said, and about 36 hours later, he was released into the United States with a notice to appear in immigration court.

This image shows Khalili with his nephew in Houston.

Khalili declined to speak to Reuters on camera for this story, but he shared the footage from his trip.

More than a year after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Kabul, the number of Afghans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum has shot up, with hundreds of people each month risking a human smuggling route that is notorious for kidnapping, robbery and assault. Even then, it is unclear whether the Afghans can find permanent refuge in the United States.

The State Department told Reuters that it has tried to speed up visa processing, though it declined to comment on individual cases. Taliban spokesmen have said in the past that those who have left can come back but did not respond to requests for comment about the escalating exodus through South America.

That exodus brought Jamshid Nabizada and his wife Nahida to Indio, California, where they spoke to Reuters about their journey.

He said they hired a guide during a trek through a jungle region known as Darien Gap on the border of Colombia and Panama. But the guide abandoned them, they were robbed at knifepoint along the way, and a storm washed away their food, water, and belongings. The Panamanian government said “it provides care to all migrants who enter the country through Darien, so that they continue on their way.”

Another Afghan who made it to the U.S. is 25-year-old Ilyas Osmani. He recalled the rickety ladder that helped him surmount the final barrier between him and America.

"There was fence and there were the people and put the ladder on the fence. So we climbed on the ladder and came to the land of the U.S. between the two walls, you know, between the two fences. So now we spent a night there and the U.S. police came and the border patrol, they came and gave us some water and blankets to spend the night there and tomorrow will talk with us."

Osmani had won a U.S. immigration lottery in 2020 allowing him to apply for what's called a “diversity” visa. But precautions during the COVID pandemic delayed visa processing, and the U.S. embassy in Kabul closed when the city fell to the Taliban.

About 88,500 Afghans have been resettled in the United States, with most arriving around the time of the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Thousands more want to leave the country. Some 51,000 Afghans have applied to enter the United States on an emergency basis since the Taliban takeover, but DHS said only around 600 have been approved. In addition to trying to speed up processing, the U.S. State Department said it has offered support to governments in the region to avoid “irregular migration.” It declined to comment on the individual cases Reuters profiled.

In mid-January, Osmani traveled to San Francisco for an immigration court hearing date he was given at the border. But when he arrived at court, he was told his case was not in the system.

Nonetheless, he's happy to be here.

"It feels good to me when I think that I am now in the United States. But hopefully to get the documents as soon as possible, that will leave with safe mind and happy life."