Mina Le has a slight smile in the faded photograph. In it, she is 8 years old and has just landed in the United States with her parents and eight siblings. They arrived from Vietnam with nothing except the knowledge that they had escaped the war in their homeland.
Today, Le remembers the many years that passed before her family and other Vietnamese refugees became self-sufficient, often because of the trauma they carried.
“From the years during the war in our country, the trauma from coming here, losing everything, starting over again and all that trauma we hold inside of us — and it manifests itself in many different ways.”
When Le watched videos of Afghans desperately crowding the airport in Kabul in August 2021 to escape, she had flashbacks. The parallel with the hasty U.S. pullout from Vietnam in 1975 prompted her to action. More than 40 years after her arrival in the U.S., she is helping another generation of refugees — new arrivals from Afghans.
Le and Ismail Khan, a former U.S. military interpreter in Afghanistan who arrived in the U.S. in 2014 on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and is now a U.S. citizen, co-founded the Afghans of Puget Sound Alliance to assist new Afghan arrivals.
Since August, 3,000 Afghans have arrived in Washington state, and more than two-thirds have settled in the Seattle area. Those who assisted the U.S. during the war in Afghanistan may qualify for an SIV.
‘They will be homeless’
The SIV is a complex and highly vetted immigration process intended to take nine months, but now has a backlog of three or four years. If granted, visa holders and their immediate family are given permanent residency upon arrival.
Others who evacuated Afghanistan were given humanitarian parole for up to two years.
On May 16, the Biden administration granted temporary protected status (TPS) of 18 months to those already in the U.S. who pass a background check.
Neither option provides a path to citizenship. Afghans can apply for additional parole time, but Khan worries the humanitarian parole designation will expire before the government is able to approve the thousands of asylum or family or work sponsorship applications that have already been submitted.
“They will not be able to work,” predicts Khan. “Not being able to pay their bills, they will be homeless.”
The Afghan Adjustment Act, which allows some Afghans to apply for permanent residency, is the solution, supporters say. It would protect them from deportation and give them permission to work while the applications are being processed.
The Biden administration requested the measure be included in a supplemental spending bill that gave $39 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine. Opponents blocked the addition, citing concerns over vetting and required expediency to get money to Ukraine. It failed to be included in the measure and is now in limbo. One of its proponents, Democratic Senator Chris Coons, wants the measure reintroduced, saying, “Our nation’s moral and global leadership depends on us taking up and swiftly passing” the bill.
For now, government resettling agencies assist evacuees with basic needs until 2023.
But Le says the organizations are short-staffed and lack “the infrastructure to absorb this amount of refugees in such this short a time.”
‘You are not welcome here’
Many new refugees like Liaqat Bahar were left overwhelmed with no ongoing support. Upon landing in the U.S., he and his brother were sent to a Miami, Florida, hotel for two months, where he was told by his caseworker, “You are not welcome here.” He became ill and was bewildered.
“How do I make an appointment? And where do I go to see the doctor?” he wondered.
A friend contacted Khan, who flew the Bahar brothers to Seattle because “I was in their shoes once, and I can see how much help they need,” Khan said.
The Afghans of Puget Sound Alliance was created to supplement assistance from U.S. government agencies.
The alliance organizes help for new arrivals through a group of Seattle volunteers, often former Vietnamese or Afghan refugees, to assist families with specific needs.
Khan and Le meet regularly with the male heads of the families to help them file job applications. The first priority is language skills, Khan explained.
“If someone speaks English, they go right to college to get those certifications and those degrees. And for those who don’t speak English, we introduce them to ESL classes,” Khan said.
From embassy nurse to stacking pistachios
Mohammad Mushtaq Azizi stacks clear containers of dates on the shelf next to the saffron pistachios at the 786 Market in Kent, Washington.
“This is not my permanent job,” said Azizi, acknowledging he must improve his language skills before moving to another job. He makes a minimum wage of $14.50 an hour for his family of five, including a newborn. It is a big contrast to his previous job as a nurse at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that he had held for years. Azizi will study for a nursing certification to work in a U.S. hospital.
Most new arrivals were forced to leave extended family members — parents and siblings — in Afghanistan because the immigration status includes only immediate family. With technology, the Afghans in the U.S. hear their struggles daily through video calls and emails.
Le says it’s something she’s familiar with — the struggle to balance a new life with what is left behind.
“They have an eye toward the future. But their whole body is tilted toward their (home) country, because that’s where their family is,” she said.
Aline Barros contributed to this report.