Ahmad Wali’s journey to America was years in the making, but what he remembers most vividly is how time froze when they were in the air. The Afghan-born Wali had finally secured a Special Immigrant Visa, affording him permanent legal residence in the United States, and to reach America, Wali and his family took a local plane to Kabul, followed by an international flight to Dubai and a 15-hour flight to New York. The trans-Atlantic flight lasted for what seemed like an eternity. He and his kids played games, took naps, ate snacks, paced the cramped aisles between the rows of seats, and still had hours remaining. When they finally landed and made it through customs, Wali felt indescribably happy. He remembers thinking, “I’m one of the luckiest people to be in the U.S., because my family is safe. My life is safe.”
First issued in 2006, Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) have been granted to approximately 20,000 local nationals and their families who face threats in Iraq or Afghanistan as a result of their service to U.S. forces.
Ben Wormington, a marine who enlisted after 9/11, worked alongside local translators on each of his three deployments to Iraq. “Interpreters are like glasses,” Wormington says. “They bring everything into focus.” Wormington relied heavily on local nationals to provide clarity on the landscape, the attitude of civilians, and when something is amiss—for example, when not to trust a local due to an obscure tattoo indicating prior nefarious activity.
Whether translating, providing base security, navigating for foot patrols, or working for an American non-profit, aligning with America in any capacity is a risky move for most local nationals.
“We were getting threats,” says Wali, who worked for an American NGO in Afghanistan. “I was afraid that, on the way [to work], someone would shoot me. We were afraid someone would attack our offices. Life was under threat.”
After a deadly attack on the guest house of Sapna Owais’s NGO in Kabul, as well as other militant threats, her organization took measures such as using rental cars instead of company cars so they couldn’t be easily identified. “I was scared,” she said, “but we continued our work and kept a low profile.”
As Afghanistan descended into political turmoil, U.S.-affiliated Afghans became so fearful that many decided to undergo the arduous Special Immigrant Visa process, which typically takes several years, and ultimately leave behind their lives in Afghanistan.
Wormington was able to help Ted—a translator he worked with on his third tour in Iraq—obtain an SIV just before the coronavirus outbreak. “Once he got his visa, we could wait for [the International Office for Migration (IOM)] to schedule his flight,” says Wormington, “or we could just get him here. I made the call, You know what, the guy’s been waiting 12 years… So we got him here.”
But, as it turns out, SIVs have stepped from one tumultuous world into another.
“We left Afghanistan, where it was a war zone, and we just arrived to the U.S. to be safe,” says Ajmal Afandi, an Afghan translator who arrived with his wife and son two months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “I came here with a lot of hope. I still have the hope… but I didn’t expect something like this to happen.”
Special Immigrant Visa recipients from Afghanistan, where hospitality is a cornerstone of the culture, are arriving at an especially inhospitable time. Even though Owais arrived before the pandemic, she struggled through her first months in America. “There was no one from our families. No relatives. We don’t know anyone.” With no one locally to host or visit, her feelings of homesickness intensified.
The normal social challenges of moving to a foreign country are now even more daunting, since typical environments for meeting new people—schools, parks, civic centers, offices, places of worship—are all closed. Physical isolation is taking a toll on recently-arrived families who are aching for a sense of community. “I’m really missing my family and my friends back in Afghanistan,” says Afandi, describing the communal family living that’s typical in his home country. “In our family, there were about 20 members…We had a big house, and we all lived together. Here, it’s lonely living with your small family.”
In mid-May, a fresh tragedy struck Afghanistan. On May 12, dozens were killed in two terrorist attacks: one on a hospital in Kabul, another at a funeral in Jalalabad. Newly-arrived families mourned alone. When the major holiday of Eid fell one week later, those same families had to celebrate alone, too.
Women for Afghan Women, an international human rights organization, has been trying to offer some virtual support. They’ve raised money for the families of the attack victims, as well as struggling local community members in Queens, and they moved both their memorial vigil and Eid programming online. The staff has also called to check on approximately 3,000 community members, but the temporary closure of their community center makes programs difficult to implement, and the lack of social connection has precipitated other problems, like domestic violence on victims stuck at home with their abusers.
News of the ongoing violence in Afghanistan has also heightened fears for family back home. SIV applicants can remain dangerously delayed in the pipeline for many years, and the process could be further slowed due to closed embassies, fewer flights, and immigration limitations.
“There are so many consequential problems we don’t necessarily think about when we talk about the pandemic,” says Dr. Mashura Akilova, a lecturer at the Columbia School of Social Work. “And we know displaced populations are much more affected by mental health problems than the general population.”
“Their family members—a lot of them are still overseas,” says Christopher Purdy, a U.S. Army National Guard veteran who served in Iraq before joining Veterans for American Ideals, which advocates for SIVs (as well as broader immigration reform). “And yet the administration has [made] it incredibly difficult for those people to come to rejoin their families. So the emotional toll that our SIVs are facing is significant.”
With high expectations for their new lives in America, disappointment, especially on the employment front, is particularly devastating. SIVs often arrive with the impression that their education and English skills—plus their experience working with Americans at high-level positions—will help them secure a well-paying job in America. But even in normal circumstances, their qualifications—including higher degrees—are met with skepticism, and twenty years of work experience can go ignored. Families arrive with few resources, allocated $1,125/person by the government (which doesn’t last long in New York City), and with hopes dashed, many SIVs desperately take minimum-wage jobs that deprecate the skills they bring to the table.
“These people worked with the U.S. army and American organizations in Afghanistan, and they had good incomes,” explains Naheed Samadi Bahram, the U.S. Country Director of Women for Afghan Women. “They think they will have the same opportunities here.”
Their disappointment is now compounded by health fears. More than half of New York City’s “frontline” workers are immigrants, which places many SIV families at increased risk for contracting the virus. Afandi, for example, started work on February 18, only to test positive for COVID-19 a few weeks later. The joy of landing a job was quickly undermined by the acute loneliness of having to isolate himself even from his own wife and child shortly after arriving in his new country.
Meanwhile, Wali was working on a sanitization crew, and he was troubled by the lack of hazard pay and basic protection—such as masks and gloves—given to janitors cleaning offices with known positive cases. When he brought these concerns to his supervisor’s attention, he was told to get back to work.
Wali soon developed severe chest pain. Unable to obtain a COVID-19 test, he presented his employer with a note from the ER doctor advising him to self-quarantine. But his note was illegally dismissed, and Wali was forced to go on voluntary unpaid leave, making him ineligible for unemployment benefits.
“This is the worst experience of my life,” Wali says. “There’s no way for me to pay rent and pay for my kids’ expenses.” He has since been laid off.
“I don’t want to be a burden on the government,” he says. “I want to work. But I don’t want to be a slave.”
Feeling marginalized or left out is not just a problem when it comes to socialization and employment: as SIVs attempt to find housing or open bank accounts, people unfamiliar with the SIV program are skeptical of their eligibility or legal residency and frequently impose degrading requirements for extra documentation.
SIVs arrive unfamiliar with American society, but the fact that American society seems completely unfamiliar with them can be disheartening. Yalda Afif, a program manager at HIAS, a Jewish non-profit that helps refugees resettle, says even social service agents often aren’t aware of the SIV status, and as a result, SIVs—especially those who don’t have a resettlement organization to advocate for them—aren’t always able to get the services or benefits they’re entitled to, like SNAP or Medicaid. When offices are closed and registrations aren’t happening face-to-face, misunderstandings multiply and additional documentation can be hard to procure.
The Special Immigrant Visa status, which should afford them a badge of service to our country, can make resettlement even more of a challenge. And sometimes, indifference gives way to open hostility. “They can be discriminated against based on their clothing and the way they present themselves in the community,” Afif says. “[Young girls] are being bullied in school for the way they dress, the way they wear the headscarf, or because they don’t speak the language.”
Through all these burdens, their determination and optimistic belief in America endures, as they and their families are choosing to focus on the positives. “We have a saying in our language: you cannot hide the sun by one finger,” says Wali. “It means, if you face one or two people who are bad, it doesn’t mean all the people are bad. There are a lot of kind people here. We have a lot to be thankful for.”
While it may feel like everything has come to a standstill, community members are trying to provide assistance in small ways, from dropping off groceries to English conversation practice over video chat. And those who are aware of the quiet sacrifices SIV families have made and understand the challenges of resettlement have welcomed them with open arms.
“With these people, with the volunteers that are working with us,” says Afandi. “We really feel like we gained a family.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
This work was supported by the National Geographic Society.
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