From Kabul to Virginia: An Afghan family is starting over in America
Outside of her apartment window in Kabul she could see snow-capped mountains. Now, when Kamila Noori looks out of her window all she sees are office buildings and parking lots.
Noori was a prominent Afghan judge, now she's in a foreign country — a country she doesn't know, where she doesn't speak the language and where she and her family have to start over.
It's a story repeated by tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who had to leave their home after the Taliban took control of the country in August. The chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport, where people desperately tried to secure a spot on an evacuation flight, caused a public uproar around the world.
Noori and her husband, Mohibullah Mohib, managed to get their family out safely. And after nearly a week of travel, they arrived in the United States. They were safe, but they lost everything else.
"I remember the food that we left on the stove," Noori said through an interpreter. "We just packed small bags with clothes and necessities."
The Mohib family is staying at a hotel in Northern Virginia, slowly adjusting to their new lives. They occupy a total of five rooms, split between parents, six children, their respective spouses and three grandchildren.
They are starting from scratch
Their eldest son, 33-year-old Masih Mohib, speaks fluent English. Back in Afghanistan, he worked as a contractor for the U.S. government for the past nine years. Since the family arrived in America, he has taken on a new role, that of family advocate.
"The resettlement agencies, they are overwhelmed," Masih said. "They cannot help every individual."
That means a lot of mundane tasks have fallen on Masih's shoulders. He had to apply for social security numbers. He has been the one looking for permanent housing and employment opportunities. And he was the one getting SIM cards for the family's cellphones.
The organization in charge of helping Masih and his family to settle in the U.S. is Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), which is the local arm of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
LSSNCA confirmed that resources are thin due to the large number of Afghan refugees that came to the U.S. in 2021. The decision by President Biden to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by September simply overwhelmed the system.
"The average annual resettlement numbers for our agencies have been between 500 and 600. That was in a span of 12 months," LSSNCA Vice President of Operations Mamadou Sy told NPR. "Between July 1 and the first week of November, we have resettled 1,600."
It's a challenge to find housing
One of the biggest challenges for resettlement agencies is finding permanent housing. In the D.C. metro area, Sy said, the average wait time for a refugee family to move from temporary to permanent housing increased from roughly two weeks to more than a month.
This lack of affordable housing is compounded by the fact that many Afghan refugees want to resettle in areas with high living costs, such as Northern Virginia or California. The reason for this concentration is that those areas already have established Afghan communities.
"We don't know where we're going," Masih said. "Will we stay at Tysons? Will we go to Annandale? Will we go to Arlington?"
Their future status in the U.S. is uncertain
But it's not just housing for the Mohib family, it's also a question of whether they will be allowed to remain in the U.S. long term. The family is here through an immigration program called humanitarian parole. And unlike special immigration visa (SIV) recipients, parole does not mean permanent residence or any lawful immigration status. All it does is provide the recipients with a temporary stay.
"They do not have a path to status just by reason of the fact that they have been paroled into the United States. They might be able to develop a path to status if they qualify for asylum under the laws that Congress has passed," Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, said.
This uncertainty about whether they will be able to obtain a legal immigration status proves to be an additional obstacle for thousands of Afghan refugees who have arrived in the U.S. during the summer as it limits job and housing opportunities.
"Our systems were dismantled in their entirety by the prior administration. Our refugee and asylum programs were gutted," Mayorkas said. "But we are working across the federal government, with local communities, with nonprofit organizations, the private sector, all of civil society, to build a future for these people."
But until then, the family shares the hallways of an extended stay hotel. They often get together in one of their five rooms for short conversations, a quick bite to eat or to play with the grandchildren.
It's a stark contrast to the life they lived in Kabul. The Mohib family is highly educated. Not only was Kamila Noori a respected judge who sentenced terrorists to death — including Taliban fighters — her husband worked as a prosecutor for the attorney general's office.
One daughter became a doctor. Another one worked as a lawyer and Masih got an IT degree. The Mohib family's children took advantage of two decades of progress that was made in Afghanistan after the U.S. toppled the Taliban regime in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
They had to leave in a hurry
But after the U.S. and its allies left the country, that progressive lifestyle became a liability for the family. The occupations of Kamila and Mohibullah in particular forced the family to flee the country.
On the day that Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban, the family went into hiding. It was a decision that potentially saved their lives, because, as relatives later confirmed, an angry mob was looking for them.
"They were shouting and yelling, 'She put us in jail for 20 years, for 10 years. Where is the judge? And where is the prosecutor?' " Noori said.
It took the family roughly a week and three tries to get a spot on a U.S. military plane. On the first attempt, Noori was nearly trampled to death by the crowd outside of the airport gates. Masih had to pick up his unconscious mother to keep her safe.
Despite this horrifying experience, there was no second guessing. "It's better to die this way at the airport than be hunted down by Taliban," Masih said.
After layovers at two military bases in Qatar and Germany, the family finally arrived in the U.S. Together with thousands of other refugees, they spent nearly two months at the Marine Corps based in Quantico, Va.
There they received a medical checkup, including COVID-19 vaccine shots, and supplies. While grateful for the military support, Mohibullah remembers a lot of sleepless nights at Quantico brought on by concerns about the future, crying babies and bad smells.
Now to focus on the younger generation
After more than a month of staying at the hotel, Kamila and Mohibullah as well as their children were able to sign leases and move into their own apartments. Muslim community members and a nonprofit group called KindWorks helped the family furnish their new places, which are located in close proximity to each other in McLean, Va.
Yet, their daily lives still don't consist of much more than going on walks, shopping and dealing with the various agencies and nonprofits. They know that returning to their legal professions is highly unlikely, given the language barrier and the difficulty of getting certified to practice law in a foreign country.
As a result, their lives' focus has shifted to that of supportive parents and grandparents. It's a role that Noori is firmly embracing.
"I'm glad they can grow up here and have a good life," she said. "We already had our life."
The dreams of their grandchildren are no different than those of any American boy or girl. Seven-year-old Leema Mohib confidently says she wants to be an astronaut when she grows up, and her father, Masih, believes that she's in the right country to make it happen.
"I'm happy because the dreams of our kids can become true here in the U.S.," he said. "This is the land of opportunity. Back home it was a dream. Here it's a goal [they] can reach."
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