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New Afghan refugees adapt to a strange land: Nebraska

Mujtaba Karimi
Posted at 12:20 PM, Apr 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-30 13:20:09-04

Mujtaba Karimi crowded with hundreds of others outside a half-open gate to Hamid Karzai International Airport one night late last August. Afghan or maybe American soldiers – he’s unsure in the darkened chaos – fired their rifles in the air and launched tear gas, trying to disperse the crowd.

Karimi did not run. He couldn’t.

The 27-year-old was a young up-and-comer with the Afghan government. He lived in a nice apartment. He drove a Toyota Land Cruiser and he wore good clothes. But by late August 2021 the government had fallen to the Taliban, President Ashraf Ghani – Karimi’s boss – had fled the country and America and its allies were evacuating as many of their friends as they could. Everybody wanted out. But Karimi needed out. As an official of the old guard government, he was no longer safe.

He waved his blue official Islamic Republic of Afghanistan passport in front of a beefy U.S. Soldier at the gate. He yelled “Diplomat!” – the only English word he knew that came close to describing his status.

The beefy American reached out and grabbed Karimi, pulled him through the crowd. Suddenly he was on the other side of the gate. He was on his way to something entirely new.

“It was a small thing,” Karimi said. “But it changed my life.”

Today, the 27-year-old lives in Omaha. In some ways, it’s not bad. He has a decent apartment. He takes English classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – today he’s much more comfortable with English than that perilous day in August.

Mujtaba Karimi
Mujtaba Karimi looks around while studying in Criss Library on campus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on Monday, April 25, 2022, in Omaha, Neb. Karimi said he often studies in the library until midnight as he works toward his goal of passing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam in order to attend Harvard which he refers to as, “the school of John F Kennedy.” Though Karimi earned two college degrees in his home country of Afghanistan, he would like to study political science before returning to become a leader. As a former government official in Afghanistan, Karimi fled the country as a refugee in August of 2021 when the Taliban took over.

But in other ways, it’s not so great. In Afghanistan, he could leave work at 4 p.m. Today he works second shift and is up past midnight studying English. He once worked for his nation’s president. Now he works for Walmart, pushing forklifts loaded with boxes from trucks into the store.

He wants to become a citizen and make something of himself here. He wants to attend the prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, something he dreamed of long before relocating to the United States. But he knows he will need to take a lot more English classes and haul many more boxes in Omaha before he steps behind the ivy walls in Massachusetts.

The fall of Kabul late last summer spurred a mass exodus from Afghanistan. Roughly 75,000 Afghans have come to the United States since then. As of last week, state officials say that 1,214 have resettled in Nebraska.

Mujtaba Karimi
Mujtaba Karimi walks across campus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on Monday, April 25, 2022, in Omaha, Neb. A former government official in Afghanistan, Karimi fled the country as a refugee in August of 2021 when the Taliban took over.

Some are educated professionals like Karimi, who fled because they were Taliban targets. Others fled because they could see no future under the Taliban. People are still desperately trying to leave.

“Everybody is just trying to get out of Afghanistan because of the restrictions and poverty,” said Sayed Omar Sadat, 27, who fled Afghanistan because his wife worked in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. “The passport department is crazy nowadays.”

Those that came during the sudden Afghan influx faced confusion and chaos once they landed in Nebraska. So many arrived in such a short time that it overwhelmed local resettlement agencies. These agencies faced years where they were starved of federal funds and received almost no refugees because of Trump Administration policies that severely limited refugee numbers. In the last nine months, following an abrupt pullout from Afghanistan by the Biden Administration, they have been forced to quickly swing into action.

“Because the airlift happened over a quick, two-week, period … there was very little time of actually very little structure around how those resettlement efforts would happen,” said Matt Martin, assistant vice president for refugee and immigrant programs at Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. “In a normal world, that’s a very structured process.”

Kubra Haidari, a former Afghan refugee and current case manager for Omaha’s Refugee Empowerment Center, said chaos reigned from August until February.

“Every day we were working, from like early morning…till 12 o’clock at night,” she said.

For many, an arrival in Nebraska was a bureaucratic accident. Sadat and his wife wanted to go to Virginia, but Virginia had reached its limit of Afghans. An immigration agent told him he was going to Omaha.

“It was the first time I had ever heard of Omaha,” he said.

He Googled it. That’ll work, he thought.

Many Afghans arrived with their documentation in disarray – or no documentation at all. The vast majority came in under a humanitarian parole status that allowed them to stay for up to two years. They must change to another status or face potential deportation.

More than half had to go into temporary housing, some for a significant period of time, Martin said.

Mujtaba Karimi
Mujtaba Karimi, second left, shakes hands with Fidel Mokeba of the Democratic Republic of Congo, right, while joking around with Nabila Safari of Afghanistan, from left, Moses Kasa of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Harouna Nakanabo of Burkina Faso during a break in their intermediate reading, writing and grammar ESL class in Allwine Hall on campus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on Monday, April 25, 2022, in Omaha, Neb. A former government official in Afghanistan, Karimi fled the country as a refugee in August of 2021 when the Taliban took over.

Some hiccups have resulted from well-meaning people trying to help new arrivals. A Grand Island meatpacker brought in six families – 41 people total – to central Nebraska so the adult males could work in the plant. The necessary coordinating or planning wasn’t completed. The families ended up living in a hotel. But there has been a groundswell of support and locals are now working to get them into permanent housing.

“A situation where a significant number of people are just dropped into a community without forethought and planning is really a recipe for, if not disaster, then at least some chaos and confusion,” Martin said. “We want to do what we can to get ahead of that in communities so it can be a better process for everyone.”

At the Empowerment Center, intake works like this: The refugees are met at the airport and taken to their first residence, often an Airbnb during the recent wave. On the second or third day, they are brought to the office. The staff explains basic things, like calling 911 in an emergency.

Later comes cultural orientation.

“When they arrive here, I think everything is a challenge for them,” Haidari said.

Ahsan Arian, 29, a new arrival, said some of his fellow new immigrants are puzzled by things like a mobile phone or Google Maps. “They don’t know about voice mail,” he said. “They don’t know about texting.”

Kubra Haidari
Kubra Haidari, a case manager at the Refugee Empowerment Center, leans in to help a student during a drivers education class for refugee women from Afghanistan at the REC on Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Omaha, Neb.

Driver’s license training is a critical class. Many Afghans have experience driving, but motoring around Omaha is a very different experience than the streets of Kabul.

One client drove his car for twenty years in Afghanistan but here was befuddled with all the stoplights and signals.

Many women don’t know how to drive at all. And learning to drive is important for women who might get left alone with children while their husband works. Their lives in Nebraska open up if they can learn to drive. It helps them show their husbands they are equal, Haidari said.

The housing chaos made life difficult for parents who needed to get their kids into schools. Many showed up without records of required shots. The medical clinic the Empowerment Center works with nearly doubled its clients per week to 100 to accommodate the influx. Children can’t go to school without a vaccine card. And they can’t attend without a permanent address – Omaha Public Schools doesn’t want them to enroll in one school, then move to another a week or month later.

New Afghan arrivals struggle with these things while continuing to unpack the heartbreaking ways in which they left their homes.

Arian was a journalist for French broadcaster RFI in Afghanistan. Colleagues of his have been murdered by the Taliban. His bosses told him he should leave. When he did, he had to leave behind his parents, siblings, his wife and 14-month-old child.

He prays it’s temporary, hoping to soon reunite with his family and build a new life in Nebraska.

“I can’t live without them,” he said in a recent interview in his northwest Omaha apartment, where the living room currently consists of a donated chair, a stool and a Sony TV that doesn’t work.

In Afghanistan, being a journalist is a dangerous but respected profession. In Omaha, he works the assembly line for Airlite Plastics while he applies for asylum.

Layla Sultani
Layla Sultani, right, a refugee from Afghanistan, smiles alongside case manager Wazhma Ahmadzai during a drivers education class for refugee women from Afghanistan at the Refugee Empowerment Center on Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Omaha, Neb.

“I was something more in Afghanistan, but here I am something other,” he said.

Ultimately, he wants to be a U.S. citizen. “It would be a good gift for me.”

Shafiq Jahish, 34, knows how hard this transition is. He’s been in the United States for eight years and works in information technology for First National Bank. It took him three-and-a-half years to get a visa even though he worked for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

“There are hundreds of pages of application that you have to complete,” he said. “Learning the system is one thing. But if you cannot speak and write in that language, it is even more difficult.”

Established immigrants try to help, he said – Jahish translated much of the interview with Khan. But life in America is hectic.

Even though Arian is educated and has experience with English, here the pronunciation and the speed are different. He’s starting an ESL course. He hopes to be more fluent in a few months.

Afghan photo 7.JPG
Kubra Haidari, a case manager at the Refugee Empowerment Center (REC), right, mimes “stop” while teaching a class of refugee women from Afghanistan how to drive at the REC on Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Omaha, Neb.

As the Afghan arrivals continue to adapt to their new home, Lutheran Family Services is preparing for the next wave of refugees to come: Ukrainians. President Biden has said he will accept 100,000. But they should arrive differently, not in one giant airlift. Already the agency has greeted some Ukrainian walk-ins.

“Right now we are challenged on that front because there is no Ukrainian refugee program, at all. And so the services that we can provide are very minimal,” Martin said. “But we are trying to do what we can to provide at least some basic needs, emergency support, for the few who are asking so far. We are preparing to support more as necessary.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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