Afghan Women Who Aided U.S. Military Wait for Asylum in America

The New York Times

Reporting from Westchester County, N.Y., and Dallas

Members of the Afghan Army’s all-female platoon are some of the roughly 70,000 Afghans living in the United States whose temporary status has left them with an uncertain future.

It was almost 3 a.m. in New York, but Nazdana Hassani refused to fall asleep.

She stared at her phone, closing and refreshing WhatsApp, hoping that her mother’s internet had been restored at her home in Afghanistan.

She tried three more times, but the call would not go through.

The last time Ms. Hassani saw her mother in person was August 2021, days before the Taliban seized control of Kabul.

Ms. Hassani, 24, served in the Afghan National Army’s Female Tactical Platoon, a squad of all women that accompanied U.S. Special Operations troops on missions seeking out high-level Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS targets. As the Taliban took over two summers ago, Ms. Hassani faced a decision: live under a repressive government as a woman who worked alongside the U.S. Army, or flee her home country for the United States.

Of the 45 Afghan women who served in Ms. Hassani’s platoon, 39 escaped amid the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops nearly two years ago.

Now Ms. Hassani and most of her platoon are among the tens of thousands of Afghans living in the United States as humanitarian parolees, a temporary legal status. This month, the Biden administration announced a plan to allow Afghans to apply for a parole extension so they can continue living and working in the United States after their status expires in August. It is unclear if the extensions, if granted, would be for two years, as they were the first time.

For those who were in the platoon, the goal is to stay in the United States long term and to have their families, who are still in Afghanistan, join them. Ms. Hassani and nearly all of the platoon members have applied for asylum — a protected status for those fearing persecution in their home country — but the system is severely backlogged. Only three of the women so far have been granted asylum, which enables them to obtain a green card and bring their families over.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, has sponsored the Afghan Adjustment Act, a bill that would create a legal pathway for permanent residency for Afghans who worked alongside Americans during the Afghanistan conflict.

“So many of our Afghan allies risked their lives and their loved ones’ safety to protect our service members,” Ms. Klobuchar said.

The legislation stalled in the last Congress amid Republican concerns about the vetting of applicants, but Ms. Klobuchar said she was working with Republicans to build support for another attempt later this year.

Ms. Hassani, who works at a gift shop in a quiet suburb of Westchester County, N.Y., shares an apartment with two Afghan women whom she met at a shelter for evacuees in 2021.

The only piece of art in Ms. Hassani’s room is a painting propped up by the foot of her bed.

“I made this when I first came to the U.S.,” she said. “Some volunteers at the camps gave us paint and canvas.”

Joining the army was Ms. Hassani’s childhood dream. The youngest member of the platoon, she was born just months before the start of America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan.

“I remember my mom telling us, the Americans, they are here for us, they are good people,” Ms. Hassani said.

The idea for Ms. Hassani’s platoon came about a decade into the war, when the U.S. military decided it needed female troops to help patrol rural villages. It was considered culturally insensitive for the male soldiers to search or talk to Afghan women.

Mary Kolars, an Army captain who worked closely with the platoon, said having them on missions was invaluable. “They had information about tribal affiliations, they could look at a village and tell us what doesn’t fit, they helped us search for high-ranking targets.”

Today, most of the platoon members are scattered across the United States working minimum-wage service jobs.

Since arriving, Ms. Hassani clings to memories of her adventures in the army.

“I try to be grateful for my life here,” she said. “But my life and job, it’s all just very different now.”

Last month, Ms. Kolars, Ms. Hassani and nearly all of the platoon members in the United States traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act.

“Every day hurts, because I know that my family is not safe in Afghanistan,” Ms. Hassani said.

She and other members of the platoon said they underwent extensive background checks to serve alongside the American military. The women also said that they had to obtain written permission from male relatives to join the Afghan Army. Those documents contained information about the women’s families and remained in Afghan government files after Kabul fell.

Many of the women said that since then, relatives have been threatened, tortured or killed by Talibs, according to Ms. Kolars. She and other American soldiers who worked with the platoon said they think the Taliban has used the documents to track down family members.

“It’s just hard, to live life with this constant anxiety about the family that is back home,” said Jawida Afshari, 34, who served in the platoon for nearly a decade and who helped train recruits, including Ms. Hassani.

Both women interviewed for asylum last October — Ms. Afshari was granted asylum, while Ms. Hassani’s application is still pending.

Ms. Afshari, who works at a Chick-fil-A near her Dallas apartment complex, said she often finds herself thinking about life before Kabul fell. She had been weeks away from obtaining a law degree at Kabul University.

“I am so lucky, because the women in Afghanistan, they can’t work at restaurants, they can’t leave the house,” Ms. Afshari said. “But it can be hard to remember how long I worked and studied at home, and how that was all taken away so quickly.”

While she waits for the opportunity to apply for a green card, Ms. Afshari tries to carve out pockets of joy from her life in Dallas. Most of her neighbors are immigrants from Iraq and Mexico. “None of us can speak English, but we find a way to talk,” she said with a laugh.

The day she discovered an Arabic grocery store nearby that stocks halal meats, Ms. Afshari cooked a feast of Afghan shawarma for her neighbors.

Mahnaz Akbari, the commander of the platoon, also does not have asylum. She has used her English language skills to work for a nonprofit in Washington. She said she tries to keep morale high even when the women are exhausted, often through group video calls.

While cooking dinner in her Silver Spring, Md., apartment last week, Ms. Akbari propped up her phone on the kitchen counter, waiting for platoon members on the West Coast to join.

During these calls, the women exchange photos, share Afghan recipes that can be made using American groceries and advise one another on questions about life in the United States. How many credit cards are you supposed to open? Is going to the D.M.V. as bad as people say? Ms. Hassani said those calls have become a lifeline.

In the weeks after her asylum interview, Ms. Hassani was consumed by anxiety, wondering why there had been no update on her case. She kept replaying the interview in her head, wondering if she had somehow made a misstep. Ms. Hassani said Ms. Akbari’s support helped her stay calm.

“Mahnaz takes time to cheer us up,” she said, “so we don’t give up.”

Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.

Ava Sasani is a reporter for the National desk. 

A version of this article appears in print on May 30, 2023, Section A, Page 12 of the New York edition with the headline: Afghan Women Who Aided U.S. Troops Live in Uncertainty in America.
Afghan Women Who Aided U.S. Military Wait for Asylum in America