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Newly arrived Afghan immigrants are settling into their lives in San Diego, while thousands of others wait inside Afghanistan. As more attention turns to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, veterans who worked with the Afghans for decades worry they may be forgotten. Steve Walsh has the story.

San Diego Afghans worry they may be overshadowed by Ukraine refugee crisis

Newly arrived Afghan immigrants are settling into their lives in San Diego, while thousands of others still wait inside Afghanistan and in countries that took them in after the American pull-out in August.

Advocates worry as more attention turns to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, people who worked with the Americans over the past two decades of the Afghanistan War may be forgotten.
While Americans are watching as the Russian invasion of Ukraine produces millions of refugees, almost overnight, Jawid Karimi and other Afghan refugees are still focused on news coming out of Afghanistan, like the recent videos of girls being turned away from schools.

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Matt Bowler
Jawid Karimi came to the US as a refugee after the Americans pulled out of Afghanistan in August 2021.

“Girls are asking why I’m not allowed to go to school. They don’t have any answer for that,” said Karimi, as he translates video clips of news reports from Afghanistan that he watched on his phone.

Karimi was employed by a human rights commission in Afghanistan. He arrived in San Diego five months ago with his wife and two boys along with a growing number of other Afghan refugees. His son is in middle school and he just won a trophy for chess. Even as Karimi’s family slowly acclimates to the US, he and many newly arrived Afghans are nervous that the US will move on, leaving thousands of people who worked with the Americans stranded, some of them in hiding.

RELATED: The U.S. will take in up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war

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Matt Bowler
Jawid Karimi came to San Diego with his wife and two sons.

“They change their house, going from this house to another house to hide them,” Karimi said. “This is a big concern. If they are forgotten, something bad may happen to them.”

Part of the reason for the large influx of Afghans to San Diego is they connected with local veterans, who helped them get out of the country last summer.

Shawn VanDiver is part of a coalition of mainly veterans groups who continue to work to get Afghans, who worked with American troops, out of Afghanistan. As talks have broken down with the Taliban, the number of flights have slowed to a trickle. Behind the scenes, AfghanEvac has been working with the Biden administration, but, VanDiver said, the White House has said very little publicly in months.

“We're willing to bend over backwards to help Europeans that we haven't served with at the scale that we have with Afghans,” VanDiver said. “And that we've kind of taken our time on Afghans, folks with whom we serve for 20 years. Folks that stood by us on the battlefield.”

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Matt Bowler
Karimi's young son is adjusting to San Diego, even winning a chess trophy.

Afghanistan did not come up during the president’s first State of the Union Address. VanDiver was particularly frustrated after the Biden administration announced that the US would allow 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“Nobody's saying that we shouldn't be helping Ukrainians,” VanDiver said. “We all agree. What we're saying is that it would be nice if folks who didn't look like us got the same help as folks who looked like us.“

The refugees are still waiting for the administration to get behind a plan for creating a permanent status for thousands of Afghans like Kamiri, who is in the US under humanitarian parole.

A kind of emergency status was used for the majority of the 75,000 Afghans who came to the US last summer. Naomi Steinberg is with refugee aid group HAIS.

“It’s not a permanent status in any way,” said Naomi Steinberg, with the refugee group Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). “It’s not an immigration status. It was very important, and that allowed a lot of people to get here very quickly, and obviously time was of the essence, but what has happened now is that they are here with no path to permanency.”

RELATED: Thousands of Afghan refugees are still living in hotels while they wait for housing

Very little has been said about how the administration plans to process the 100,000 Ukrainians listed in the president’s pledge.

The biggest problem is not the shifting focus from one refugee crisis to another according to Steinberg. It is that two major refugee crisis’ are happening while the US is still recovering from the previous administration's decision to gut the US’s refugee resettlement program.

San Diego Afghans worry they may be overshadowed by Ukraine refugee crisis

That forced groups that work with refugees to lay off staff inside and outside the county, she said.

“So it's a lot easier to wreck a program and it is to rebuild and so that's where we are now, slowly but surely building up,” Steinberg said. “An extraordinary progress is being made, but it feels painfully slow for the individuals who are directly impacted.”

Javid Besharat arrived under the Special Immigration Visa program. He just received his green card, which will allow him to use his degree in computer programming in San Diego. He was beaten by the Taliban as made his way into the Kabul Airport with his family, days before the last American plane left in August.

“One of them had a one meter pipe on their hand and they were beating on my back, on my foot. We escaped from them and somehow we entered the airport,” Besharat said.

He left two brothers behind, who also worked for an American company. The Taliban has searched their homes, looking for their documents.

“Our suggestion for the American government is that please help the people or for the family of those who were helping the Afghan government and also the American troops in Afghanistan,” Besharat said.

Because for many people, time is running out, he said.

I cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from deploying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.
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