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Local welcome efforts support Afghans on humanitarian parole

Thousands more applications are pending

Former US Army interpreter Israr and his wife are in the United States on humanitarian parole. AFP via Getty Images/Photo by Joseph Prezioso

Local welcome efforts support Afghans on humanitarian parole

On Aug. 16, 2021, Ahmad watched the Taliban march into his hometown in the province of Balkh over Facebook livestream as his brother videoed the takeover from his apartment. It was night for Ahmad and his wife, Rachel, in Dallas. They asked WORLD to use different names because they’re concerned for the safety of their family members who are still in Afghanistan.

The next morning, they called Ahmad’s family and told them to burn any pictures of their American daughter-in-law, along with any Western-style clothing, like jeans, and nonreligious books. Ahmad met Rachel when she came to Afghanistan for a mission trip. Along with the Western connections, the family wasn’t sure whether they would be targeted for their ethnicity as Hazaras, one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. They didn’t know what could earn them a death sentence. “We didn’t know, and so it’s literally like having conversations like: ‘That picture of your grandchild? Burn it.’”

Ahmad’s family is now in a hotel in Albania, and he is working to get them to the U.S., but it’s a slow process. Like many others, their humanitarian parole applications have been stalled or denied. In the meantime, Ahmad and Rachel are making refugees in Dallas feel more at home. They are two of many individuals and organizations on the front lines of local welcome efforts helping Afghan refugees cope with an uncertain future.

Since August, about 76,000 refugees have been evacuated to the U.S. Most were granted humanitarian parole—an emergency status that allows an individual to stay in the United States for two years for humanitarian reasons. More than 9,700 have come to Texas, according to Texas Refugee Services.

Refugee resettlement agencies have helped most of the refugees move into apartments. Ahmad helps pick them up at the airport and takes them to their apartment. Then, he goes on a hunt for a cheap, but durable, sofa and bed. He drives them to pick up their Social Security card, get vaccinations,and register their children for school. He and Rachel help them build a home by driving them to a store to find more furnishings. They sit and talk.

“[We’re] just building relationships, because that’s the No. 1 need right now. They are so lonely,” said Rachel. Many have left their extended family behind.

Afghans on humanitarian parole get access to work authorization. In Austin, the Global Impact Initiative helps Afghan refugees get settled and provides job training. Refugees can sign up for a two-week program to get their commercial driver’s license. Anjum Malik is the president of the Global Impact Initiative.

“There’s a big need for truck drivers,” she said. “But the problem was, they’re not familiar with the Western testing style, they’re not familiar with quizzes, most of them don’t have a formal education.”

About 40 students have expressed interest in registering for the driving course. Shirzoi Hamidi speaks very little English. He and his family left the country on a U.S. military plane. On Nov. 22, they arrived in Texas. Now Hamidi is learning English and hopes to get his commercial driver’s license to support his four children, ages 8, 6, 4, and 6 months. The organization will help refugees like Hamidi find a place to take the driving part of the course and is networking with trucking companies. They help them write résumés and learn interview skills.

The group partners with other organizations to help the refugees learn English and find apartments. “There’s no way any single group or any one person can do this. It’s a lot,” said Malik.

About 20 minutes away, Hope Clinic provides a different kind of service from a nondescript brick building in a small plaza. The clinic began when a group of medical professionals who attended Gateway Church decided to help resettled refugees who needed healthcare. About 15 doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants provide primary care. If a patient needs bloodwork or X-rays, the clinic foots the bill. Patients can get medication from a tiny pharmacy.

Afghan refugees began to arrive at the clinic in November 2021. Some had chronic diseases and an empty bottle of medication. “If you come to another country and have diabetes and you don’t speak the language, and you know that you will die if you don’t get your meds, those people are so, so thankful that someone stepped into the gap and talked to them,” said Jodi Schrobilgen, the executive director. Volunteers pray with the patients who ask.

After the initial evacuation, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has received more than 46,000 applications from Afghans hoping to come to the country on parole. The agency typically receives about 2,000 parole requests per year. Like Ahmad’s father’s, most cases are pending.

After filing for parole, Ahmad’s father received a letter from USCIS: “Please note, it usually takes 90 to 120 days from the date of this receipt for us to process your application,” it read. “However, USCIS is currently receiving an extremely high number of requests for parole. While we try to process all requests for parole quickly and efficiently, you should expect processing might take more than 90 days.” He received this letter in March.

Many other cases have been rejected. Fewer than 5,000 cases have been fully adjudicated, according to USCIS data obtained by CBS News, and over 90 percent have been denied.

In response to growing criticism of the denials and simultaneous free-handed use of parole for Ukrainians and others, the Biden administration broadened parole guidelines. Afghan applicants who failed to show “severe targeted or individualized harm” can claim that they are a part of a targeted group under “widespread systematic, or pervasive attack.” The new guidance instructs USCIS officials to accept other forms of proof in lieu of the third-party evidence that could identify the applicant as a target of serious harm.

Samantha Howland Zelaya is assistant vice president for policy and advocacy with the National Immigration Forum. “Under the new parole guidelines, or criteria, it’s possible more will get approved,” she said. “But there’s not a similarly streamlined program as Uniting for Ukraine.”

Two months after the Russian invasion, President Biden announced Uniting for Ukraine, a program that allows permanent residents, citizens, or organizations to sponsor Ukrainians to come to the United States on humanitarian parole for two years.

Under the program, 11,000 Ukrainians have arrived and 37,000 have travel authorizations. Sponsors must meet income requirements to prove they can financially support the refugee and commit to covering healthcare and other expenses. “We’re saying that we’re willing to take that on” for Afghans, Rachel said.

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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