Four countries, six years, 7,000 miles: one Afghan family’s journey to the US

The distance from Afghanistan’s south-western province of Nimroz to Iran’s historical city of Yazd is 480 miles (773km). To survive the journey, Zahra Amiri and her family ate snow.

Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, more than 76,000 Afghans have been resettled as part of the US government operation labeled Allies Welcome. Zahra, 21, and her family are among the newly arrived Afghans, relocating from the cities of Kabul and Nimroz to Yazd and Tehran in Iran, then to Ankara, Turkey, before finally resettling in Denver, Colorado, in February.

Zahra and the rest of this new Afghan community are set to contribute nearly $200m in taxes and $1.4bn to the American economy in their first year of work, according to new data released this month by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Since their arrival, more than 41,000 working-age Afghans have been placed into various industries including accommodation and food services, retail trade, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing. This new community of Afghans arriving in the US with a multitude of skills and degrees has the potential to contribute significantly to the American economy, especially as the country grapples with inflation and supply chain issues.

Zahra Amiri’s trek, spanning four countries and more than 7,000 miles, illustrates what these refugees had to endure to begin their new life.

Zahra’s father, who held a government-related job, was killed in a 2014 suicide attack. After her father’s death, Zahra and her four siblings in Kabul had lost not only a parent but also their family’s chief provider – and with that, the sense of peace that he helped shroud them with had been shattered.

Being the eldest, Zahra was suddenly confronted with two options: either forcibly marry a husband who could financially support her or flee.

“I did not want to end up … jobless and uneducated, so I chose to become a refugee,” Zahra told the Guardian.

One day in 2016, Zahra sat down with her mom and revealed her plans to her.

“Let’s move out of here,” she said about Afghanistan, where 65% of all civilian casualties from suicide attacks globally occur and where 57% of girls are married before the age of 16. “We are not in a situation where we can live out our lives in peace in Afghanistan.”

Her mother agreed. That year, Zahra, her mother and her siblings – the youngest of whom was two at the time – journeyed from Kabul to Nimroz, a south-west Afghan province that lies east of Iran. From Nimroz, Zahra and her family traveled to Yazd, one of Iran’s largest cities, with scarcely any food or water, forcing them to eat snow in a desperate attempt to nourish themselves.

Border officials in Yazd turned Zahra and her family away, deporting them back to Nimroz. They tried the trip a second time and finally made it through to Tehran where the next leg of the journey awaited: Ankara, Turkey.

“They would just throw families in each truck,” Zahra said, recalling how she was separated from her family for nearly two weeks on the way from Iran to Turkey before finally reuniting with them in Ankara in March 2016.

In Ankara, Zahra and her family filed for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and submitted a visa application to the US. In the six years that it took for her family’s application to be approved by the US government, Zahra completed her high school education while working as a dishwasher and a coffee maker, earning between $1.10 and $1.93 daily.

“It’s not unusual for an application to take that long, especially considering that she applied during [Donald Trump’s presidency] where refugee arrivals were repeatedly cut, where we had things like the travel ban that really damaged the US government’s ability to process refugee applications,” an IRC spokesperson, Stanford Prescott, told the Guardian.

The US government approved Zahra’s family’s visa application early this year. On 2 February, Zahra donned a knitted sweater and pushed two pink quilted suitcases across the terrazzo tiles of the Istanbul airport.

She was finally bound for the United States.

Federal immigration services chose Colorado as the state in which to resettle Zahra’s family. With the IRC’s assistance, Zahra and her family arrived in Denver, initially to stay at a hotel for two months before being relocated to an apartment.

As with many of its refugee clientele, the IRC provided financial literacy classes, job training courses and an interpreter to Zahra and her family. The IRC helped Zahra lock down a job with the airline caterer Sky Chefs about a month and a half ago, building on the skills she had amassed while working in restaurants and kitchens.

At Sky Chefs, Zahra earns $19 an hour as she takes orders, packages them and gives them to customers. She earned a promotion to a manager assistant’s position two weeks ago and now trains new hires.

“I can move up positions here, unlike in Turkey where even when I gave my 100%, I could not move up because I am a woman and because of my refugee status,” she said.

Top job titles held by newly arrived Afghans include general production, warehouse worker, food preparer, driver and security guard, according to data from the IRC.

Typically, Afghan refugees are placed in their first jobs within 126 days of their arrival and earn an average of $16.67 an hour – which amounts to an annual income of $34,673.

“For most of these families, this is their very first job,” the IRC’s director economic empowerment, Erica Bouris, told the Guardian. “They are getting lots of things situated in the first year.

“In a lot of ways, this is very much step one in that much longer process of rebuilding their home, their life and integration into the communities.”

Bouris added: “We see lots of really interesting pathways, whether it’s that they try to pursue a certification so that they can work in a job that’s similar to what they had back home, or they might, as they settle into a new community, see for example that there are a lot of jobs in healthcare in this community and they pay well so they might pursue education and training so that they can move into a healthcare job.

“Each story is really individual, but people absolutely do take steps towards additional education, skills and training and have medium and long-term career goals that they pursue.”

Zahra is currently taking English as a second language (ESL) classes as she prepares to enroll in Aurora University’s dentistry program at the start of next year.

As many Afghans carve out new lives for themselves in the US, many still face the possibility of losing their legal right to reside in the country. The US government allowed them to enter the country in attempts to bring thousands of fleeing Afghans to safety as quickly as possible.

But humanitarian parole lasts only two years. It is not like the US’s refugee resettlement program, where participants have a clear path towards American citizenship.

Afghans on humanitarian parole must seek other paths of obtaining permanent immigration status, such as asylum, at the end of the two-year period in question.

However, without the assistance of specialized lawyers, the Byzantine asylum process is particularly difficult to navigate. Many Afghans who fled their country were also advised to destroy identification documents, professional certifications and other information that could support their asylum claims, further complicating their situation.

Although organizations like the IRC have launched various programs and collaborate with pro-bono lawyers to assist Afghans with their asylum claims, there’s another hurdle: The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is facing its own mounting backlog of asylum applications.

With the pandemic exacerbating processing delays, the USCIS is currently struggling with a backlog of nearly 5.2m cases and 8.5m pending cases. The backlog was significantly lighter – 2.7m cases – in July 2019.

“This year, even though the [Joe Biden White House] set an ambitious goal of [admitting] 125,000 [refugees], they’re only going to admit a fraction of that amount and what that shows is that refugee admission is broken and needs a lot more work so that ambition can be reality,” the IRC’s senior director of resettlement, asylum and integration policy, JC Hendrickson, told the Guardian.

As a result, the IRC has been calling on Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, a bipartisan bill introduced earlier this month that would provide Afghan refugees with a pathway to lawful permanent residence in the US.

“This bipartisan legislation will provide a pathway to lawful permanent status for certain Afghan civilians, offering them a way out of legal limbo and the looming threat of deportation with great risk to their personal safety,” said Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a co-sponsor of the bill. “Congress has a track record of passing similar legislation on humanitarian grounds, and we must swiftly do so again.”

Many Afghans remain optimistic as they settle into American society’s fabric and rebuild their lives. To Zahra, being in the US means more than just experiencing upward economic mobility.

“I know I’m new,” she said. “I know at the moment I have no voice, but in the future, I would like to raise my voice and let people know that men and women can work equally.

“If anyone needs help now or in the future, I’m willing to show them a way that they can pursue. I want to let Afghan women know that they can do what a man can do. It’s my dream to let Afghan women know that we are as equal as men.”

Four countries, six years, 7,000 miles: one Afghan family’s journey to the US