When Meena first heard the Taliban had arrived in the Afghanistan capital of Kabul, the news left her in shock. A year ago last August, the 27-year-old had only recently started a job in the U.S. embassy where she helped oversee programs for Afghan women addicted to drugs. “We were so scared,” recalled Meena, a likely target of the Taliban because of her ties to the American government. “It was the worst memory of my life.”
The news not only terrified her — it set in motion a rapid series of events that would eventually bring her to Chicago and put her on the frontlines of a wave of rushed resettlement. A year later, her future and safety still remain in question.
That’s because few Afghans are offered the typical five-year path to American citizenship that comes with formal “refugee” status, as a federal immigration spokeswoman was quick to clarify. Instead, they must apply for asylum within a year if they hope to make the U.S. their permanent home — an unprecedented circumstance caused by the United States’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan and the sudden, mass migration that ensued.
Meena understands better than most what it’s like to face a critical deadline and have a life that hangs in the balance. For the past five months, she has been working at RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency on Chicago’s North Side, where she’s part of a newly formed four-person asylum team. Meena now tries to help as many Afghans as she can through the process, while waiting for news of her own.
Her story offers insight into the chaotic wake created by the frenzied evacuation from Kabul last summer and how the people who resettled in Chicago have no guarantee they will get to stay. If Meena is granted asylum, her family will have access to education, health care and a community that has embraced them. Meena herself will continue to work. She will also be part of a new resilient, multilingual and globally minded generation who can help shape a changing American landscape.
But if not, her whole world could fall apart for a second time. “I have nightmares where I feel that I am still in Afghanistan and the Taliban are searching for me and they’re going to kill me or my family,” said Meena, who asked that her last name be withheld out of concern for the safety of friends and family in her home country. “I cannot go back.”
Thousands of Chicago Afghans in limbo
Meena’s experience makes her a particularly empathetic ear for the people who seek assistance from RefugeeOne. She will hear from many over the next few weeks and months as Afghans who came throughout the fall approach their own one-year deadline.
As the Taliban entered Kabul, Meena sequestered herself in her apartment building, which housed many Afghans working with foreign governments. But when members of the Taliban threatened her via phone, she and her family fled to an uncle’s house outside the city. Not long after, Meena’s family apartment was ransacked and the doorman tortured.
On Aug. 19, 2021, Meena received word from the U.S. embassy that she would be evacuated from the Kabul airport. She was told not to bring any belongings besides her papers. It would be a quick and discreet exit from the country. Five days later, Meena left everything behind except for her employee badge, a single earring and bangle bracelet.
After a brief detour through Qatar and Germany, where she was reunited with her mother and siblings, Meena landed at a U.S. military base in Virginia. She spent 44 days there before resettling in Chicago last October.
Starting a new life hasn’t been easy, especially while mourning the one she lost. “I still cry when I think about the life that was thrown away,” she said.
The vast majority of the 85,000 Afghans who resettled in the United States arrived on humanitarian parole — or temporary status — and must apply for asylum to stay.
A recent bill, titled the Afghan Adjustment Act, offers a glimmer of hope. Should it pass Congress and become law, the act would model programs that offered permanent resident status to Cubans in the 1960s and to Vietnamese in the 1970s. The bill is sure to face some anti-immigration pushback in coming months and still has to wind its way through committees. Even should it eventually pass, it won’t take effect before tens of thousands of Afghans submit their plea for asylum.
For these refugees, Meena’s team plays a critical role. Besides Meena, it includes another Afghan, an immigration lawyer and an immigration coordinator who have spent the summer tackling asylum applications for more than 60 Afghan families, representing more than 200 individuals. The agency has attempted to do so at a blistering pace, and it isn’t the only agency in the resettlement business. Across the city, 2,500 Afghan refugees remain in similarly precarious positions.
The asylum process is onerous. It begins with a series of questions outlined on an application called the I-589. The questions are meant to turn difficult, complex lives into clean, shaped narratives. “Have you or your family, or close friends or colleagues ever experienced harm or mistreatment in the past by anyone?” “Do you fear mistreatment if you return to your home country?”
The application also asks for ample documentation — photos, employee badges, letters of employment, military service letters — showing an applicant faces persecution at home. Each applicant must also write an affidavit that outlines their personal history. Once an application is submitted, applicants must plead their case to a U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services officer. After that, they wait for a final decision. The entire procedure can take years.
Sharon Rummery, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in an e-mailed response to questions from WBEZ that the federal government created a program to help streamline and expedite the process for Afghan evacuees and that, as a result, Afghan applications should be resolved within a matter of months. So far, 4,600 Afghans have applied for asylum across the country and 300 have been approved.
In Meena’s case, she submitted her application earlier this summer and conducted her interview on July 18. Now, she waits. But not idly. On any given day, she and her colleagues complete one or two asylum applications, Shukrullah and his family among them.
To go back is to be ‘sent to be killed’
Growing up in Afghanistan, Shukrullah, 23, was used to living with anxiety.
For most of Shukrullah’s life, his father worked for the Afghanistan Technical Company, a partner organization of the United Nations. A military veteran, Shukrullah’s father was tasked with demining explosive devices planted by the Taliban.
The job took Shukrullah’s father all over the country. This work made him a target of the Taliban, and for years, his father would often notice cars following him home from work and receive threatening phone calls. (WBEZ also agreed to withhold his last name out of concern for Taliban reprisal.)
Then, in August 2019, the Taliban kidnapped Shukrullah’s father as he left work. “We were calling everyone we knew,” recalls Shukrullah. “My father was missing for almost two weeks.”
Held captive in a rural mosque, Shukrullah’s father was cuffed, beaten with a leather whip and accused of being an American spy. But when a resident vouched for his work with the Afghanistan demining operation, Shukrullah’s father was released on the condition he quit the company. He didn’t. His father’s decision kept Shukrullah on edge for almost two years.
When Shukrullah and his family were evacuated to the United States last fall, Shukrullah could finally breathe again. “In America, I wake up and I’m not worried,” he said. “I don’t have thoughts about whether my family is safe. Whether my father will return home from work. Here, I feel secure.”
With the help of the RefugeeOne team, Shukrullah and his family applied for asylum in late August. Shukrullah knows what fate awaits him in Afghanistan. If he is sent back to Afghanistan, he said, “it’s like America is sending me to be killed.”
Many Afghans fear the same end and asking them to express that fear is not easy. But it’s part of the job. “It brings emotional traumas back up,” said Nicole Redmond, an immigration coordinator who works alongside Meena at RefugeeOne. “It’s a really difficult conversation.”
And asylum applicants have to share their personal horrors and concerns twice: once in the RefugeeOne office and again in an interview with a federal immigration services officer. “The interviews tend to become interrogations,” said Abubakr Meah, an immigration lawyer who joined the asylum team in April. “It seems like the officers are asking questions that are designed to back our clients into a corner.”
Meah warns clients about a few potential pitfalls. In the case of Afghan refugees, paying taxes to the Taliban can prompt additional probing from interviewers, according to Meah. So can acts committed while serving alongside the U.S. coalition forces.
“They may have carried out military duties that resulted in death just like the consequences of any war,” said Meah. “These guys fought alongside our soldiers during the longest war in U.S. history. And now it seems like these officers are asking questions designed to trick [Afghan refugees] into confessing.”
This infuriates the lawyer. “The United States dropped the ball on the evacuation, and they’re dropping the ball now when it comes to taking care of those they evacuated.”
While the federal immigration services agency says asylum applicants should be prepared to discuss issues surrounding criminal activity in their interviews, another federal agency — the Department of Homeland Security — announced this summer that Afghans who lived under Taliban rule should not be mistakenly denied “humanitarian protection” on grounds of terrorism or persecution. The announcement singled out Afghans who worked in the embassy or assisted American forces on the ground and said this group, specifically, should not be denied asylum. It would only be granted after applicants underwent rigorous screening and vetting, the office said.
Meah is not alone in his commitment to helping as many Afghans as possible navigate the cumbersome asylum process. Last year, communities across the country organized to help new Afghan arrivals with apartments, basic furniture and even food. But after a year plagued by new crises — a European war, new variants of COVID-19, the threat of an economic recession — the world’s attention has been pulled elsewhere.
But Afghans continue to arrive. Many will spend the next year planting roots in Chicago. They’ll get jobs and pay their rents. Their children will attend school and join neighborhood soccer teams. But eventually they’ll confront the same uncertainty and find themselves sitting with Meena staring down a long bureaucratic journey.
Meena, meanwhile, tries to remain optimistic about her own case. Inside the busy, fluorescently lit RefugeeOne offices, she keeps her phone close. Whenever it buzzes, she holds her breath and prays for good news.
Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.” Follow her on Twitter @elly33.