Afghans fled for a better future but 2 years later, it’s a dream for most

Millions of Afghans who have left their country since 2021 remain stuck in limbo as they seek to reach Western countries.

Lamha Nabizada
Lamha Nabizada currently teaches English to refugees in Maryland. [Courtesy: Lamha Nabizada]

Millions of Afghans have fled persecution and poverty since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, and many are stuck in limbo in countries around the world with few rights and freedoms and with no hope for a better future.

Nearly 3.6 million Afghans left the country from 2021 to 2022 amid a humanitarian crisis, the majority of them escaping to neighbouring countries, according to data shared by the International Organization for Migration.

It is estimated that since 2021, nearly 100,000 Afghans have been resettled in the United States and Canada while another 380,000 Afghans have found their way to European countries, but many of them are still waiting for permanent residency and a path to citizenship.

Here are some of their stories:

Lamha Nabizada, US

Lamha Nabizada is thankful she and her family have been able to make it to the US after the Taliban takeover, but she said it has also been a lonely struggle.

“We are happy that we are here. We are alive, and we are secure,” the 28-year-old said from Maryland, where she lives with her parents and younger brother. “But there are many difficulties and no one to guide us.”

Given her master’s degree in business administration and English language skills, she has been largely responsible for navigating through a complex US immigration system for her family while simultaneously finding suitable housing, working and sorting the logistics of everyday life.

Lahma’s family was targeted by the Taliban before Kabul fell because her brother, Khushnood Nabizada, worked in the media and the government.

Months before the Taliban takeover, an explosive was planted on his car in Kabul, but the 36-year-old escaped unharmed.

During the chaotic foreign evacuations, the Nabizada family – nine people, including three children – were able to use a contact at the US embassy to board flights first to Qatar, where they spent one night, and then to Germany, where they spent more than a week.

After arriving in the US on August 26, 2021, Lahma along with her family members stayed for seven months at a military base in Wisconsin, sleeping in an open barracks with 60 people.

“There were men and women there, so families put up curtains to be more comfortable,” she recalled.

On the base, she taught English and served as an interpreter at legal clinics serving recently arrived Afghans. Still, she said, she has found it difficult to find free or low-cost legal representation for her own family.

That help is crucial for the family to remain in the US. Lamha has applied for asylum, and like thousands of other Afghans, her application remains pending.

Her parents, ages 58 and 56, are on humanitarian parole, a temporary status granted by the US government to tens of thousands of the more than 100,000 Afghans who have relocated to the country in the past two years. The vast majority came in the immediate wake of the US withdrawal.

The two-year status allows people to work and receive some government support but provides no legal pathway to residency or citizenship. The US government recently launched an extension of the programme for another two years, but longer-term stability has remained elusive.

A bill that would create a streamlined process for many Afghans to become legal permanent residents remains pending in the US Congress after failing to pass last year. Despite widespread public support, it faces an uphill battle for passage.

Lately, Lamha’s attention has turned to another looming deadline – the September 9 expiration of her work authorisation. She currently teaches English to refugees in Maryland as part of her work with a non-profit.

She should legally be able to extend the work approval, but she has struggled to receive the appropriate forms from the US government, underscoring the difficulty of navigating a labyrinthine system even for the most educated Afghans.

“I’m so worried because if I lose my job we cannot afford our food, our rent, our bills, nothing,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that she is the sole breadwinner for her parents and brother. “I am the only one working and paying the bills. I don’t have any savings.”

Longer term, she imagines a life somewhat like what she had achieved in Afghanistan, where she had overcome countless barriers to receive her education and a job as a business development executive at Afghanistan’s first private insurance company. She feels those qualifications are not valued in her new home.

“I know that this is a good country and it is a land of opportunity, but it’s going very hard for us,” she said.

“I want to find a good job like I had. … I’m really under too much pressure and worry about my life. What will happen in the future?”

Khatera Hashmi, India:

Policewoman Khatera Hashmi was moved to India for treatment after she was allegedly shot, stabbed and blinded by Taliban fighters in 2020.

The 34-year-old is now living in New Delhi in a one-room apartment and is still recovering from her injuries. The United Nations refugee agency pays her a monthly honorarium, but that’s not enough to support her two-year-old daughter and husband, Mohammad Nabi Hashmi, now that the Taliban is in power and the Afghan government stopped paying her wages.

“I used to get a salary even while I was recovering that helped us. There were also Afghan colleagues and friends from civil society who were providing us support. But then the Taliban took over and everything stopped,” she said.

Khatera and her husband
Khatera and Mohammad Nabi Hashmi [Courtesy: Khatera Hashmi]

Hashmi applied for asylum in the US soon after the fall of the Afghan government. She has also had multiple interviews for resettlement with the International Organization for Migration, but she has not heard from them since.

“It has been two years, but they won’t even tell us how long it will be before we are given a result or are relocated,” she said.

Hashmi resorted to protesting in April at the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to demand a swift response to her case.

“I spent four nights outside the UNHCR office in New Delhi. Their guards removed me forcefully, but what are we supposed to do? We have been waiting in uncertainty about our future,” she said.

“All we are asking for is a way to survive this situation with dignity and for a better future for our children than the one we had.”

Hashmi says she was attacked by the Taliban for joining the Afghan police forces.

“I had witnessed how hard it was for women in Afghanistan to seek justice. Even going to the police to get help is such a challenge for women,” she told Al Jazeera.

With the support of her husband, the former tailor from the southern province of Ghazni enrolled for police training during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Hashmi said that less than three months into service in June 2020, she and her husband started receiving threats from the Taliban.

When the threats intensified, she was offered a transfer to Kabul. But before she could move, two men attacked her.

“They shot at me several times and also stabbed me in the face with a sharp object. They left me to die,” she recalled.

“The Taliban punished me for the crime of being a woman.”

Hashmi, who was pregnant at the time of the attack, gave birth in March 2021 while recovering in India. Her husband cannot take a permanent job because he has to take care of her and the child.

They receive 9,500 rupees ($114) every month from the UNHCR, but it isn’t sufficient, so the family lives on debt and charity.

“Our rent alone is 11,000 rupees [$132]. My medicines cost about 6,000 [$72] every month. Then there is expenditures for our food and other expenses,” she said.

Hashmi said she has not been able to pay her rent or electricity bills. “We are fortunate to have a patient landlord, but how long can he also tolerate not getting an income?” she asked.

The prolonged wait to find stability is taking a toll on Hashmi.

“My life is over, but at least my daughter can have opportunities that I didn’t. It is all I want. I am living for her.”

Shahid, Pakistan

Shahid took shelter in neighbouring Pakistan after the Taliban seized power. But life in Islamabad has been anything but easy for him, his wife and their three children.

“We came to Pakistan with nearly nothing in our hands. The little savings we brought with us is all gone,” said Shahid, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for security reasons.

Shahid is eligible for a US relocation programme for Afghans who worked for the American military or aid agencies. But he has been waiting for two years to hear back from the US government.

The 35-year-old has also applied to other European nations for asylum but with no luck.

Shahid said he feels abandoned by the Western countries for whom he worked despite risks to his life.

“The wait and the unknown have been torturous,” he said.

They have also caused problems in Pakistan.

“It has been very challenging to renew my visa here. But even with all my documents in order, I have been detained twice in the last few months,” he said, adding that he had to pay bribes to be released.

Shahid, who worked as a development professional, said he received numerous threats from Taliban commanders for his work in southern Afghanistan.

“They called me an infidel for working with Americans and the Afghan government. They referred to me as a slave of the foreigners,” he told Al Jazeera.

A few weeks before the Taliban seized Kabul, Shahid lost a close friend when a bomb attached to their vehicle detonated in the heart of the Afghan capital. He survived by mere chance, having taken a different car to work that day.

After the Taliban returned to power, they stepped up the threats against him, Shahid said.

“When they entered Kabul, my friends and I had to go underground. I started getting text messages and phone calls saying they were coming to kill me. I couldn’t go home because I was afraid they might kill my family, too,” he said.

Shahid failed to make it on to the evacuation flights conducted by foreign governments and had to frequently change locations to avoid capture.

“Then the Taliban started door-to-door searches and reached our neighbourhood. I knew if they caught me, I would be recognised and arrested and disappeared like so many others we have known. I asked my wife to pack a small bag of essentials, and we slipped away somehow with our kids,” he said.

Shahid headed straight to the border to enter Pakistan. “We decided to go to Pakistan, hoping that at least there we could appeal to one of the governments who were our allies to help us get to safety,” he said.

Shahid and his family crossed the border on foot. Two years later, he is deep in debt and has barely any resources to survive. His biggest concern is the future of his children, especially his daughter.

“My children were expelled from school because we couldn’t pay their fees. My daughter is a very smart girl, and she has the potential to become a very successful young woman. I want that for her. But it won’t be possible in Afghanistan or living in limbo in Pakistan,” he said.

He appealed to the US and other foreign governments for help.

“My children deserve a better future. I am ready to die. Just take my children and give them a safe place to grow up,” he said.

Yaqoob Khaliqi, United Kingdom

Yaqoob Khaliqi, who worked for a US-funded NGO, arrived in Britain in October 2021.

The 30-year-old and his wife, Khkula Sherzad, have “indefinite leave to remain” status, a legal arrangement that allows people to live, work and study in the UK for as long as they like. They may eventually use it to apply for British citizenship. Sherzad was granted entry into the UK on the grounds that she had been employed by BBC Pashto as a journalist.

Yaqoob Khaliqi [Courtesy of Yosof Zadra]
Yaqoob Khaliqi [Courtesy: Yosof Zadra]

They live in Nottingham, where he works for the International Rescue Committee, a charity that helps people affected by humanitarian crises. In September, Khaliqi will begin his studies for a master’s degree in international law at Oxford Brookes University.

Khaliqi worked as a translator for the International Development Law Organization in Kabul.

“We translated the laws, regulations, and we worked together with the Afghan government to improve the laws,” he told Al Jazeera.

Before the Taliban takeover, Khaliqi also worked for five years as a freelance journalist with local TV stations.

Before the fall of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, Khaliqi said insecurity around the country was rampant.

“The Taliban targeted people who worked for the government and at the same time those of us who worked with international organisations,” he said.

“I was concerned about my security and safety. That time was really difficult for me. In the morning, when I was going to the office, I didn’t think that I would make it alive,” he said. “Each moment and each minute, there was a possibility of being targeted by someone.”

His concerns grew after Ghani fled the country. With no president at the helm of the country, for Khaliqi, it became a choice between the Taliban and complete anarchy.

“There was a lot of concerns that shops and properties might be looted,” Khaliqi said. “I wanted the Taliban to come as soon as possible to the city, to go to all the government institutions, especially for maintaining the peace.”

Then, US and NATO forces withdrew and the Taliban did arrive in Kabul.

Suddenly, “there was no place to hide from them,” Khaliqi said. “No one understood what would happen next. Everything was unclear.”

A month after the fall of Kabul, Khaliqi and Sherzad received a message from the British government that they had been granted permission to travel to the UK. They flew to Islamabad on September 25, 2021 and arrived in the UK a month later.

Since leaving Afghanistan, the couple have had a baby girl.

“My daughter can get an education here in the UK, but I hope she, together with other Afghan girls, get their higher education in our homeland,” Khaliqi said. “It will help build a brighter future for the Afghan people.”

Saber Assadi, Iran

It has been roughly a year and a half since Saber Assadi fled Afghanistan for Iran with his wife, but he has been scrambling for months to leave again.

This time, he wants to go to Brazil on a special humanitarian visa, something he discovered on YouTube. But for now, he is stuck.

The 30-year-old, a Shia Muslim, is originally from the eastern province of Parwan and belongs to the Hazara ethnic group, which has increasingly been attacked by armed groups.

Saber Assadi in front of an Afghanistan flag
Afghan Saber Assadi is applying for a humanitarian visa to move to Brazil [Maziar Motamedi/Al Jazeera]

He has a degree in computer science, and he and his wife have been working hard to get their documents in order, so Assadi believes they stand a decent chance to get a visa, but nothing is guaranteed.

“The only thing left is to get a birth certificate for my daughter, who was born in Iran. She has just turned one year old,” Assadi told Al Jazeera.

He left Afghanistan about six months after the Taliban takeover. Its economy had been run into the ground due to its international isolation and offered few economic opportunities for educated Afghans, such as Assadi, who tried his hand at several jobs, from running a travel agency to exporting goods such as saffron to Pakistan and importing clothing from there.

Besides the economic hardships, Assadi also faced threats for being Hazara, and he feared the Taliban might target him for having worked with foreign companies.

He travelled to Iran after failing to secure a spot among Afghan refugees transported to Qatar in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover.

He may no longer be physically at risk in Iran, but he and his family have been presented with a new set of challenges that overshadow any future prospects.

“I see no hope for a future in Iran,” Assadi said.

“I’ve had friends and acquaintances move to Brazil. I’m told you can get a passport after a few years, but I feel like here [in Iran], you could stay for 50 years and not get it.”

Like many other Afghans, Assadi has also found himself struggling to make ends meet as Iran’s economy – targeted by harsh US sanctions – has been struggling with runaway inflation, squeezing most Iranians.

Despite his education and past work experience, he initially worked at construction sites. These jobs are often the only ones available to Afghan refugees in Iran, especially as their numbers have soared by millions since the Taliban takeover. According to government estimates, five million to six million Afghan refugees live in Iran.

After months of searching, though, Assadi has now managed to find work at a centre in Tehran that facilitates consular services for Afghan citizens. But he said his salary is barely enough to support his family. Due to high rent prices, he lives in Karaj, about 50km (30 miles) from Tehran and spends up to four hours each day on his commute.

“When you are forced to live outside your home country, you want to secure a future for yourself, or at the very least make sure your children can have a future,” Assadi said.

Aina J Khan contributed to this report from London, Maziar Motamedi from Tehran and Joseph Stepansky from Washington, DC

Source: Al Jazeera