On the day he turned 24 earlier this month, Asmatullah checked the status of his asylum request online, hoping that an approval would be his birthday gift.
When he realized that his case was still pending, he took a deep breath and looked up at the California sky, more than 7,000 miles away from the city he grew up in but that he fears returning to.
It’s been more than 18 months since Asmatullah and some members of his family rushed to Kabul’s besieged international airport after Taliban fighters stormed into the capital and retook control of Afghanistan.
“It was crowded and I saw a little boy that lost his parents,” he told the Guardian, speaking in a park in Sacramento during a break between rainstorms last week. “I grabbed him and started yelling ‘whose son is this?’ whose son is this?’”
In the crush and mortal danger from so many directions, he knew he needed to get himself out. Asmatullah managed to board an evacuation flight after showing an American soldier a certificate his father had received for his work as a civil engineer in several US military construction projects in the country, which would put him and his family in peril as Afghanistan came back under Taliban control.
Asmatullah asked for his last name to be withheld out of concerns for the safety of his father, who remains in Afghanistan.
The plane took off and he, his mother, sister and two brothers escaped, flown first to Qatar for vetting then the US via the government’s humanitarian parole system, a special immigration authority that the Biden administration used to resettle tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees, dubbed Operation Allies Welcome.
Within six days of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Asmatullah arrived in Pennsylvania. He was later taken to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, where he was offered temporary housing and medical care for four months until he was able to travel to Sacramento, home to several relatives who had emigrated to California following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, after Al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks on the US on September 11.
Asmatullah was given permission to live and work in the country legally for two years.
That period runs out this September and he’s increasingly concerned that if his asylum request is not approved he – along with tens of thousands of other Afghan evacuees in the US – is at risk of losing his work permit and protection from deportation and he dreads the prospect of having to return to a Taliban-controlled nation gripped by humanitarian crises.
But nearly two years since the fall of Kabul, only a small percentage of evacuated Afghans have managed to secure permanent legal status in the US’s clogged immigration system.
“We are strongly pushing for an extension of parole status. This is very much within the power of the [Biden] administration,” said Tara Rangarajan, executive director of the the International Rescue Committee in Northern California, a resettlement organization that assisted 11,612 of the more than 78,000 Afghan refugees relocated to the US as part of Operation Allies Welcome.
“There’s an unbelievable mental instability of not knowing what the future holds. It’s our responsibility as a country to help ensure their stability,” she added.
In the Sacramento area alone, IRC has helped resettle 1,164 Afghans.
Asmatullah watched his little brother ride a bike near a tennis court in busy Swanston Park, in a part of Sacramento with a growing Afghan population, in the county with the highest concentration of Afghan immigrants nationwide.
“Sacramento feels like home and I love it,” he said. “Here, we are not concerned about getting killed, I just want to worry about getting an education.”
Nearby is bustling Fulton Avenue, notable for its Afghan stores and restaurants, where Asmatullah and his family enjoy spending free time, he said.
Asmatullah’s ambition in the US is to become a computer scientist and he recently enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at American River College, a Sacramento public community college.
His 14-year-old sister is one of more than 2,000 Afghan refugee children in the local public school district and he said she’s eager to pursue higher education, an opportunity now out of reach for women in Afghanistan.
He also hopes that his asylum request is approved so that he can apply for a green card and ultimately find a legal path for his father to come to the US and be reunited with the family.
Meanwhile, legislation that would help Asmatullah and thousands of other Afghans out of their nerve-racking wait with a clear pathway to permanent residency, the bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act, stalled in Congress last year.
The law would provide the evacuees a sure pathway to permanent US residency. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar called it “the right and necessary thing to do”, while Republican Lisa Murkowski called on the US to “keep our promises” adding she was proud of legislation designed “to give innocent Afghans hope for a safer, brighter future”.
But Chuck Grassley, the Senate judiciary committee’s top Republican, blocked the bill, seeking tougher vetting.
Almost 4,500 Afghans have received permanent residency through the Special Immigrant Visa program for those who directly assisted the US war effort, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
And as of 12 March this year, USCIS has received approximately 15,000 asylum applications from Afghans who arrived under Operation Allies Welcome, but has so far approved only 1,400, according to agency data provided to the Guardian.
Asmatullah said he always knew that starting again in America from scratch would be a challenge.
But he said: “I just want to show my siblings that a better life is possible.”