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‘I feel helpless’: Afghan immigrants in Maryland fear for families back home amid Taliban takeover

When Ahmad learned the Taliban were closing in on Afghanistan’s second largest city, Kandahar, he arranged for his family to move north to the capital, Kabul.

He said his family escaped the day before the city was captured, Aug. 13. But two days later, the capital also fell to the insurgents.

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“Now that they have captured Kabul, there is no exit plan, there is no exit solution,” said Ahmad, who worries for his siblings, his dad and, especially, his mother. “I talked to them but I can’t do anything. I feel helpless, very helpless, and hopeless.”

Ahmad, 37, knows what the Taliban are capable of: Back home, they targeted him for his work on development funded by the U.S. government beginning in 2013. That work enabled Ahmad to come to America with his wife and children in 2019 with a Special Immigrant Visa, which took years to process. The rest of his family was not eligible.

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He’s safe in Gaithersburg, but their fate is less certain.

“As a consequence of my work, the threat is now on my family,” said Ahmad, who asked to be identified only by his middle name due to concerns for his family’s safety. “God forbid something happened to my family, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

Ahmad and others in Maryland’s Afghan community watched on the news and social media as the Taliban swept across their home country last week at an alarming pace, capturing province after province with little resistance. They are afraid of the danger it poses for families left behind and devastated it could reverse hard-fought progress on women’s rights, education and infrastructure.

“The diaspora is just feeling profound grief right now,” said Nadia Hashimi, an Afghan American author and former candidate for Maryland’s 6th Congressional District.

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They’re also preparing to welcome more of their people.

As U.S. troops scramble to evacuate tens of thousands of Americans and vulnerable Afghans, resettlement organizations are prepping to meet the surge in need. Maryland has received thousands of immigrants through the Special Immigrant Visa program over the past decade and expects to welcome a few hundred more in the coming weeks and months.

Like Ahmad, many will arrive scarred by the Taliban’s threats and worried for the loved ones they left behind.

Another Afghan immigrant who settled in Gaithersburg remembers receiving threats from the Taliban after 2012, when he began working on a U.S. government infrastructure project that saw roads paved, bridges erected and canals dug.

“That project helped a lot to change their life in Afghanistan, in the rural areas. That makes you proud that you have done something [for] your people and you have implemented the U.S. government project well,” said the 31-year-old man, who also asked to remain anonymous because of concerns for the safety of his family in Afghanistan.

The insurgents left notes for his father at the man’s family home in a village outside Kandahar. “Your son is working with the invaders, so we are not going to let him leave alive,” he recalled one saying.

Ahmad remembers similar encounters, and how the Taliban talked to his neighbors, asking when they could expect him to come and go from work. The situation forced both men to Kabul, and to seek the special visas.

Having obtained the visa in 2018, the man who requested anonymity resettled in Albany, New York, where he delivered food before securing an accounting job in Anne Arundel County, he said. His eventual wife, parents and siblings stayed behind.

Annie Osborn, right, and other volunteers, receive, sort, and pack thousands of items donated to Afghanistan refugees at Lapis, an Afghan restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. The restaurant, owned by an Afghan family, will be accepting an assortment of household items, including toiletries, linens and kitchen supplies at two restaurants, Lapis and The Berliner, each weekday until Aug. 27 to give to Afghan refugees resettling in the Washington region.
Annie Osborn, right, and other volunteers, receive, sort, and pack thousands of items donated to Afghanistan refugees at Lapis, an Afghan restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. The restaurant, owned by an Afghan family, will be accepting an assortment of household items, including toiletries, linens and kitchen supplies at two restaurants, Lapis and The Berliner, each weekday until Aug. 27 to give to Afghan refugees resettling in the Washington region. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Afghans who helped the U.S. have been airlifted to the U.S. Army’s Fort Lee south of Richmond, Virginia, since July. Members of the Maryland team of the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that helps those around the globe affected by conflict and disaster, are among groups at the military base welcoming the refugees and assisting with the paperwork and settlement process, said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director for the IRC’s Maryland branch.

Over the past two weeks, the IRC’s Baltimore and Bethesda offices have resettled about 30 Afghans evacuated on an emergency basis in Maryland, Chandrasekar said. But the pace is picking up. Usually, he said, they get three weeks’ notice that a family is arriving through a Special Immigrant Visa, enough time to rent an apartment. In many cases, that’s not possible, so they’ve been arranging temporary housing through Airbnb.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said the state expects to receive at least 180 refugees through the program, and would welcome more.

Close to 6,700 people with Special Immigrant Visas have been resettled in Maryland since 2010, said Katherine Morris, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services. While the program is open to applicants from Iraq and Afghanistan, Morris said most people resettled in the state over the past four years came from Afghanistan.

After a refugee arrives, months of intensive case management follows, Chandrasekar said, including helping people with cash, food and medical assistance. There are also employment services and English classes, if necessary.

They’ll benefit from the generosity of businesses like Maiwand Kabob, a family-owned Afghan restaurant chain with six locations in Central Maryland.

“We’ve been donating,” said Samina Rafiq, 38, whose family owns the business. “Anyone that comes, that flees our country, I think that’s the best thing you can do other than praying for all of them.”

Rafiq said they do it because her parents remember fleeing Afghanistan in the early 1980s for Pakistan, where she was born, after the Soviets invaded the country. They empathize with immigrants, who, as they did, arrive in the U.S. with nothing.

“When I was coming here from Afghanistan, I had a career, I had a house, I had everything in my country and I had to leave everything behind,” Ahmad said. “I came here and I just started doing essential work like delivering goods to people’s houses, and that was the hardest time, but I had to make a living. I had children and I was concerned about their future.”

Now working as a financial analyst in Baltimore, Ahmad plans to help his fellow immigrants settle in, though he recognizes it will be hard for anyone to focus on a new life.

They likely will be consumed by rapidly evolving developments back home. First, it was the abrupt Taliban takeover. Then the insurgents’ public statements — of peace and not dramatically curtailing women’s rights — which many Afghans struggle to believe.

The Taliban said “you’re all forgiven for what you’ve done, but we don’t trust them,” said the Gaithersburg resident who wished to remain anonymous. “We know that now they are saying [that] because still the Americans are at the Kabul airport.”

The Taliban, he and Ahmad said, historically hold the whole family accountable for the actions of one relative.

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Once U.S. forces fully leave Afghanistan, the Taliban “want to spread their roots, then they will start the executions or whatever they want,” the man said.

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Time is short to evacuate his wife, parents and siblings, he said.

But that could be difficult given the stringent eligibility requirements for the special visa program, which limits who a recipient can bring with them to the U.S. to spouses and unmarried children younger than 21, according to the U.S. Department of State.

“We are so worried and panicked,” he said.

Already, Taliban fighters have responded violently to protests. The New York Times reported that the insurgents have intensified searches for those who helped Americans and are threatening to kill or arrest their families if they cannot find them.

The author Hashimi, whose parents and husband were born in Afghanistan, said she was heartbroken to see people painting over pictures of women on beauty salon advertisements. Hashimi thought about the woman elected to parliament and the girls she encountered in classrooms during a 2003 visit to Afghanistan who were “wide-eyed with ambition.”

Was it all for naught, she wondered.

“For those of us who have been paying attention, we knew all of the gains that had been made,” said Hashimi, 43. “They were delicate gains, you know, they weren’t set in stone. But, they were real, they were tangible, they were measurable and they were worthy of celebration. And very, very quickly, truly in a matter of hours, we were watching all of it fall apart.”

Ahmad and the other Gaithersburg resident said their families have plenty to fear. They’re frustrated that his relatives don’t qualify for the special visas because they fail to accommodate the Afghan culture of large family units living together.

“Back in Afghanistan, when you say your mother is not your immediate family member, people would just laugh and they would say ‘How can you say your mother is not your immediate family member?’” Ahmad said. “That’s the thing we have lost.”

Chandrasekar said many clients have been reaching out for help bringing their families to the U.S. Their legal teams try to offer assistance, but it can be difficult for those who haven’t fled already and established themselves as refugees in other countries.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear pathway for people residing in Afghanistan right now to come to the U.S. as immigrants, as a refugee,” he said.

For Ahmad and his fellow Gaithersburg resident, life goes on, but their minds are with their family back home.

“I’m here in the USA,” the man said, “but their life is still in danger in Afghanistan.”

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