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Story Publication logo August 24, 2022

Afghans Who Fled Their Homes During the Chaotic U.S. Withdrawal Reflect on the Last Year

A woman sits on the floor next to a row of paintings that are on the floor propped up on a white wall

August 15 marked the one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan that prompted tens...

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The U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August caused hundreds of thousands of Afghans to flee their homes. More than 76,000 of them were evacuated to the U.S., with most entering on humanitarian parole, allowing them to live and work in the country for two years. Nick Schifrin and producer Valerie Plesch spoke with two refugees whose lives are now hanging in the balance.

Video by PBS NewsHour.

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Read the Full Transcript

Amna Nawaz: The U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August prompted hundreds of thousands of Afghans to flee their home country.

Over the last year, more than 76,000 of them were evacuated to the United States and most entered on humanitarian parole, which allows them to live and work in the U.S. for two years.

Nick Schifrin and producer Valerie Plesch spoke with two refugees whose lives are hanging in the balance as they face uncertainty over their immigration status one year on.

Nick Schifrin: In suburban Virginia, every brushstroke illustrates irreplaceable loss, red paint for danger, a painting for a one-year anniversary, one year of fear and silence.

Jahan Ara Rafi, Afghan Refugee (through translator): It was a day that vanished the hopes of all Afghan woman. So the colors I chose are based on the current situation in Afghanistan.

Nick Schifrin: The artist, Jahan Ara Rafi, is a refugee 7,000 miles from home.

Can you show me some of the art?

Jahan Ara Rafi: Yes.

Nick Schifrin: Her new series of paintings is called Women in Red, girls and women whose lives, like her own, were shattered after last year's Taliban takeover.

One group faces the horizon united in prayer.

Jahan Ara Rafi (through translator): You can see a woman around a dry tree. They tied fabrics in the tree, as is their cultural tradition, because all the doors of hope are closed for Afghan woman now. They don't have any option, other than to pray.

Nick Schifrin: Today, Rafi is one of the lucky ones. Her niece and nephew, twins, already lived in the States. She escaped on an evacuation flight last August just hours after a suicide bomber killed hundreds of Afghans and 13 U.S. service members at a makeshift airport entrance, the Abbey Gate. Rafi knew she had to leave.

Jahan Ara Rafi (through translator): I was afraid because I was a female artist, and all my artwork was about woman's lives. So we decided to leave Afghanistan until we are able to breathe again.

Nick Schifrin: And you boarded the plane, and the plane took off. Can you tell me what you were thinking as you had to leave Kabul?

Jahan Ara Rafi (through translator): When I was looking at my people inside the airplane, a plane that was probably meant for 100 people, but there were more than 600 or 700 people inside, I was crying for Kabul, that its people were displaced.

I cried for the land where neither woman nor men were valued. There was no art in that land anymore, only a dark regime that had taken over.

Nick Schifrin: That day, she had to leave all her paintings behind. She brought only three books that immortalized her art.

And this is your work right here?

Jahan Ara Rafi: Yes.

Nick Schifrin: An international contemporary art catalog.

Jahan Ara Rafi: Make art, not war.

Nick Schifrin: Make art, not war.

A series of her paintings exhibited in Germany.

Jahan Ara Rafi: This was the first meeting.

Nick Schifrin: And the origin of the work that makes her most proud. Rafi helped start the country's first contemporary art center and taught a class of young women.

Jahan Ara Rafi (through translator): When a society doesn't have art, it's as if that place is unknown. Art and culture are a country's identity. Woman are part of society, same as men. When a boy can learn art, why can't a girl?

Nick Schifrin: In Virginia, her day begins at 8:00, when she says goodbye to her father and leaves their apartment.

When she arrived here, a social worker helped her find a job. She was actually offered two, but chose the closest one to her house, a bakery inside her local Giant supermarket.

How has it been in the bakery at Giant?

Jahan Ara Rafi (through translator): I don't know whether I should say fortunately or unfortunately. My job involves designing cakes, fortunately, because we are in peace, and, unfortunately, because we are refugees, and we don't have a country.

And there's a feeling of emptiness.

Nick Schifrin: And uncertainty.

Rafi's on humanitarian parole that allows her to live and work in the U.S. for two years. She wants to return to Kabul when it's safe. Until then, she's applying for asylum.

Jahan Ara Rafi (through translator): I think every Afghan who has been evacuated has two years residence permit. Based on what I have heard, after one year, we would be allowed to apply for permanent residence.

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, President and CEO, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service: At this moment, that is more aspirational than reality.

Nick Schifrin: Krish O'Mara Vignarajah is the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It's helping refugees who arrived last year resettle.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah: They entered the U.S. on a temporary status called humanitarian parole.

But, of course, the drawback of it is that it only provides that short-term protection.

Nick Schifrin: What are their options for staying in the United States?

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah: So their real pathway at this moment is asylum. The asylum system is extremely backlogged. It's complex. It typically requires a lawyer to help navigate it. And for the individuals who come, time is of the essence. And, frankly, they don't have the resources to be able to always get a lawyer to navigate it.

Nick Schifrin: She calls on Congress to pass newly introduced legislation, the Afghan Adjustment Act. It would adjust the status of an Afghan in the U.S. currently here on humanitarian parole to — quote — "lawfully admitted for permanent residence."

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah: Essentially would allow is for an adjustment from humanitarian parole, which would allow them to apply for a green card and then ultimately get citizenship. It would be an unprecedented failure if Congress didn't, because they have done this for every modern wartime evacuation population, whether that's been the Vietnamese, the Cubans, the Iraqi Kurds.

And so I do have faith that we will do this for the Afghans.

Former Afghan Soldier: When I arrived here, somebody just told me, the United States of America is a land of opportunity.

Nick Schifrin: In another Virginia suburb, this Afghan also evacuated Kabul last August. We're keeping him anonymous.

He's a former officer who used to hunt for Taliban spies inside the Afghan military.

Former Afghan Soldier: We removed those people, those who worked for Taliban, for ISIS, for terrorist groups. Those are not accept democracy. Those are not accept human rights.

I think my future will be here.

Nick Schifrin: Why is that?

Former Afghan Soldier: If I go to Afghanistan, they catch me and they kill me.

Nick Schifrin: And so he's trying to make this rental house feel like a home. But his cooking isn't as good as his mom's or his wife's. And there's no father to talk to, the family he had to leave behind.

Do you talk to your family in Kabul now?

Former Afghan Soldier: Every day.

Nick Schifrin: What do they say?

Former Afghan Soldier: They say they are trying too much to find you.

Nick Schifrin: The Taliban is hunting for you.

Former Afghan Soldier: The Taliban, mm-hmm. Several times, they come into my home, and they told us: "Where's your son?" And my family just told him: "My son's not working as a military officer. He was just a student. And, right now, he's in Turkey or Iran."

Nick Schifrin: They have to lie?

Former Afghan Soldier: Yes, they have to lie.

It's really difficult, because I love my family. I miss them. It's not easy for a father or for a mother to leave without his son.

Nick Schifrin: In the U.S., he's applied for jobs at Giant supermarket and Walmart, but was rejected. He just got a new job running cables for local I.T. workers. But, every day, he drives Uber Eats.

This order is from a local Taco Bell, two tacos and two drinks, the delivery is to a nearby residential building. The trip takes him about 15 minutes. Over two to three hours of driving, he will make 15 to 20 bucks.

So, after all you have been through, what's it like to be doing Uber Eats here?

Former Afghan Soldier: One day, I hope to don't deliver food to people. One day, I hope to get a school, to learn skills. But, right now, I have to drive because I have to support my family back home, and I have to support myself also.

Nick Schifrin: He's also applying for asylum, and he hopes to bring his family here. He dreams of creating a home for himself and others like him.

What do you hope for your life here in the U.S.?

Former Afghan Soldier: I hope, one day, I open my own business in America. I will help other refugees, not just from my country, from other countries, to live in America.

Nick Schifrin: Perhaps like Rafi. Over the last year, she's exhibited her work in Washington, D.C. She dreams of being the change she wants to see.

Jahan Ara Rafi (through translator): My past work delivered messages of despair. I want to bring some changes to my artwork to show the hope, smiles and happiness that Afghan woman feel. I'm coming from a country where woman were always deprived.

My goal is to use my art to be the voice of these woman. I want to voice their message to the world.

Nick Schifrin: And she has become that voice that many of them do not have.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.



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