If they can get visas, Afghan refugees in the United States are hopeful that even the darkest of the hard times — fleeing a war that has killed more than 60,000 people since 2001 — are over.
Many still lack visas for the promised resettlement, but others got approval last year. And as America looks to end its longest war, some of those who have been touched the most by it still must worry about where their children will go to school.
“I am really grateful that Obama reached an agreement with the Taliban, so that we can start a new life,” said Zia ul Hassien, 58, the lone foreigner in her Afghan village. A week after the Obama administration agreed to pull out 9,800 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, Hassien was still hanging on to hope that her two children will be the first batch of Afghan refugees to be resettled in the United States.
“I am deeply troubled that the Taliban are saying that they don’t recognize the U.S. government, and that it might not be possible to implement the agreement,” Hassien said.
The refugee saga in the United States is complex and a long way from over. Many Afghans have been outside the country for years and officials say that the United States cannot meet the demand for resettlement until there is a fresh surge of new arrivals. Meanwhile, the Philippines and Lebanon have a combined total of close to 400,000 war refugees, according to UNHCR, and these places cannot accept just any Afghan.
“The main problem is that from the beginning, the United States has been able to admit about a fifth of all Afghans seeking refugee status from Afghanistan,” said Jundi Heggan, a UNHCR representative in Kabul. “That has left a very big number of Afghans outside the country.”
The program has been delayed for more than a year because of bureaucratic problems and issues within the Obama administration. But in the meantime, some Afghans have been sending a series of requests to the State Department for a “visa waiver” to travel to the United States under the program that Obama initiated in 2015.
“Some other states have allowed Afghans to work as a right of their citizens, and some of them are based on the visa waiver program,” said Wasifullah Mujahid, who is also the country representative for UNHCR in Kabul. “But the United States is the main one.”
There are currently about 35,000 Afghan refugees being helped by the UNHCR and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. They will be responsible for covering the costs of their U.S. resettlement once they are reached, and some said they are afraid to try to go to the United States if they are not on their way yet.
“If they don’t let us come, we will see what to do,” said Zahra Ahmadzai, 35, a former driver in Afghanistan who still lives in the same village in eastern Afghanistan as her family. “The government is still afraid to allow us to go to America. The situation here is not safe.”
It was years ago when Ahmadzai’s family ran away from the Taliban, leaving Ahmadzai’s older brother in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Her father was killed by insurgents a year later, in 2007. His wife was eventually killed as well.
“We knew that the only safe place for us was America,” Ahmadzai said. “We sold all our property, but the money was not enough for our relatives to come with us. At that time we were paying off a land worth of $5,000, and we had to borrow the remaining $3,000 to put our father in an expensive hospital in Pakistan.”
After traveling to Iran, Ahmadzai’s family came to the United States when they were accepted into the refugee resettlement program. She said her children now attend a school near their Afghan village, and she hopes that they will be the first to go to the United States. “I don’t know what they will do, but we need this new life,” she said.