Many Afghans are still in limbo a year after the American evacuation
A year after America ended its longest war, many Afghans are settling into new lives inside the United States.
Advocates say the U.S. still isn’t doing enough to rescue those still under threat, especially women who fought to open society and now face a crackdown under Taliban rule.
Masooma Esmaelzada and her five sisters were evacuated from the Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport, on August 30, 2021. They were among the last American flights before the U.S. left Afghanistan. Their father died just 40 days earlier.
They were no longer allowed to drive by themselves. With no male relative in the house, the women were virtually trapped in their home as the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
“It is something like a nightmare,” she said. “Maybe for the people who are living in the U.S. it looks like a movie but for us every minute was like a horror film. We didn't know what will happen next.”
Her family arrived in San Diego in January. Before fleeing, she taught English literature at the local university.
Occasionally, in the middle of the night, Esmaelzada holds virtual classes with her former students, both men and women, now that English has been removed from the curriculum and women are often barred from class.
“They had goals,” she said. “They had dreams. But right now, they say, 'we do not know about our tomorrow. What should we do?' They are really broken.”
She now works with La Maestra Community Health Centers, helping other recent arrivals.
The transition to the U.S. is especially tough for Afghan women. While Esmaelzada’s father stressed education for his daughters (one sister is a neurosurgeon and another an architect), many of the women Esmaelzada works with cannot read or write.
“Some of the organizations, when they help, they say that 'okay, you have to start working,'” Esmaelzada said. “But how? When they do not have any knowledge, when they do not know the language, when they do not even have that self confidence to work”
In the hectic last days of the American presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. prioritized getting out people who worked with the American government and contractors over the years. These were people who were likely to qualify for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV), according to Devon Cone with Refugees International.
“There are women that are in the U.S., Afghan women that are in the U.S., but largely they are mothers, wives and daughters of these SIV applicants,” Cone said.
In December, Cone met with a group of female Afghan refugees evacuated to Albania who were waiting to be resettled. They were doctors, lawyers and advocates for women’s rights. The type of people often held up as examples of the positive changes fostered by the U.S. during 20 years in Afghanistan. Most did not expect to come to America.
“Because of the work that these women did they were at risk by the Taliban, yet they didn't work for the U.S. government, they weren't subcontractors for (the) U.S. government ... so there really was no way and there's still very few ways for them to get to the U.S.,” Cone said.
A year ago, Navy veteran Shawn VanDiver formed Afghan Evac, to coordinate the range of vet groups working to get people out of Afghanistan. One year out, they worry public attention is fading.
“What’s really important is the world doesn’t stop talking about this,” VanDiver said. “As soon as the world stops talking about it, that’s when we will see the uptick. And what we saw when Ukraine kicked off was that there was an uptick in raids on houses, in beatings.”
“What’s really important is the world doesn’t stop talking about this. As soon as the world stops talking about it, that’s when we will see the uptick. And what we saw when Ukraine kicked off was that there was an uptick in raids on houses, in beatings.”
The group supports the recently introduced Afghanistan Adjustment act, which would help Afghans caught in immigration limbo. Masooma Esaelzada’s sister Gulsom Ismailzada worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development. She didn’t work directly for Americans, but it was enough to get their family on the radar for their last minute evacuation.
“They said we need the spaces for the people, not for your luggage. So you should come only with one small backpack,” Ismailzada said.
Without some other permanent solution, the sisters now have two years to make it through the backlogged humanitarian parole process. Ismailzada came to the U.S. as a student in 2011 to study public policy. This time, like most Afghans, she arrived in San Diego with almost nothing.
“It made me sad,” she said. “And it just telling me that my education was useless, that I cannot use it for my own people, for my country. So it may be useless for the time being. So that's the thing that made me disappointed and hopeless.”
She is grateful that she at least gets a chance at a new life, while so many others are still in danger.
U.S. and Mexican officials hope the new Otay Mesa East Port of Entry will shorten long wait times at the San Diego-Tijuana border when it’s open in 2024.
Local advocates say the U.S. is not doing enough to help Afghan women under threat from the Taliban. In other news, officials broke ground Monday on a project to create a second border port of entry in Otay Mesa.