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‘They’re not safe’: Afghans in Idaho fear for family members after U.S. exit

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Boise resident Muhammad Jan Salehi, a refugee from Afghanistan, believes that the Taliban will harm Afghans who worked for Americans, and they will take away freedoms from women. | BY SARAH A. MILLER

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – In the fallout of the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, families in Idaho with deep ties to the country are beset by anxiety for their loved ones back home. The U.S. military’s tumultuous departure last month has left some in the lurch, stuck in a country whose new leaders — the same group the U.S. ousted after 9/11 — they fear.

Suddenly facing a changed reality, immigrants in Idaho who worked with U.S. forces are agonizing that tendrils from their past actions — which have brought them to a new nation — now endanger their families. Worried about social media posts that were critical of the Taliban, which has resumed power, or their appearance in photographs snapped while brokering meetings with village elders over the course of a 20-year American engagement, some Afghans feel powerless.

For Shafiullah Karimi, a former interpreter for the U.S. Army who came to Idaho in 2014 on a special visa reserved for Afghans, the strain of the past few weeks has permeated into his life in Boise, and even cost him his job, he said.

As a former employee of the U.S. military, Karimi is especially fearful for his parents and siblings still living in Kabul, who could face retribution for his work. Two of his brothers, he said, have received threatening, anonymous phone calls from people calling them the “brother of a traitor.”

The stress built up and became too much, causing Karimi to be late for work and terse with co-workers, he said. At the end of August, he was fired from a job he’d held for six years at a food production plant in Nampa. He now feels caught in a vise over concerns for family members who are half a world apart.

“My family here, I don’t have (a) job,” he told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “My family there, they’re not safe.”

Though Karimi, 38, was happy to resettle with his wife and children in the U.S., he now fears the move might come at a steep price.

“I am in a safe place right now, but targeting my family is more worse than they target me,” he said.

In the ongoing push to reunite families, Afghan refugees and advocacy groups working on their behalf seek clearer information from the U.S. government about how to get loved ones out of the country. The situation grows more urgent with each passing day, they say, as the Taliban establishes its oppressive government.

With Boise and Twin Falls once more set to become designated resettlement locations for Afghans seeking asylum, according to Gov. Brad Little’s office, refugee leaders in the state hope the U.S. will support those in trouble.

“We’re just urging the White House to take care of the refugees because Afghans are still waiting for their flights,” said Yasmin Aguilar, a local Afghan who works as an immigration specialist with Boise-based nonprofit Agency for New Americans. “All of us have family there. People are desperate. We all urge the Biden administration to have a clear, black-and-white (process) for these people who are left … about how to get out of the country, who to contact out of the country and how to live in another country.”

TREASURE VALLEY RESIDENTS HAVE FAMILY STRANDED IN AFGHANISTAN

Karimi’s experience isn’t unique. He’s one of hundreds of Afghans who have resettled in Idaho over the past two decades, mostly in Boise or Twin Falls, with many awaiting word from family still in Afghanistan.

Estimates suggest that tens of thousands of Afghans are eligible under the special immigrant visa program to exit the country, but got left behind when U.S. forces withdrew on Aug. 30. The number of other Afghan civilians who fear Taliban reprisal is more difficult to pin down, though it could be as many as 300,000 people, according to the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency with an office in Boise.

Those totals are above and beyond the roughly 124,000 people the White House said the U.S. evacuated from Afghanistan since the end of July. Of that number, upwards of 80% were at-risk Afghans, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in the days after America’s formal pullout.

So far this year, 37 Afghan refugees have resettled in Idaho, according to the Idaho Office for Refugees, including 19 since the end of July. Of the greater total, nine have arrived via the special immigrant visas for Afghans who worked on behalf of the U.S. government.

In the disorder that accompanied the U.S. military’s withdrawal, some Afghan civilians who had planned to leave the country were stymied by crowds at the airport, and by violence.

Abdul Wasi Noori, 33, a former interpreter with the U.S. military who lives in Caldwell, has multiple brothers and sisters who applied — and were accepted — to emigrate from Afghanistan to Canada in the past month. Two of his siblings and his parents also were preparing to leave while waiting in a Kabul hotel. In August, they readied themselves for the airport when U.S. intelligence received word of an imminent terrorist threat.

On Aug. 26, as the U.S. approached its month-end deadline for evacuations, a suicide attack and ensuing battle outside the Kabul airport killed more than 100 people, including 13 U.S. service members. An Afghan extremist group at odds and fighting with the Taliban claimed responsibility.

The bombing stopped Noori’s family’s evacuation cold, he said, and they’ve since returned to Kandahar Province, in southern Afghanistan, where they live.

“Everything is an emergency (right now),” Noori said in an interview. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen next.”

sisters
Sisters Bahar Shams Amir, Khatera Shams, Homeyra Shams and Narges Shams are refugees from Afghanistan who run Sunshine Spice Bakery and Cafe in Boise. They are raising money there and sending it to a sister in Afghanistan, for her to distribute. | Sarah A. Miller, SMILLER@IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM

AFGHAN WOMEN FACE CONFLICT, POVERTY, TALIBAN RULE

Homeyra Shams, whose family runs a cafe near Winstead Park in Boise, has an elder sister and niece who are sheltering in their home in Kabul.

Shams, 29, and three of her sisters, along with their parents, came to Idaho in 2003. In the 1990s, her family first fled the Taliban for Iran and then Turkey, before gaining refugee status. But her eldest sister, a doctor, stayed behind and now lives in Kabul. Since the Taliban has retaken power, she has stopped going to work and has no source of income.

Shams said food prices have risen in recent weeks, and banks and money transfers have been difficult to access, pushing families into tough circumstances. Though the Taliban has said women will be allowed to work, a spokesperson for the group recently suggested that women should stay home for now because the organization’s fighters might still hurt them, according to The New York Times.

The Taliban already squelched protests against their regime, according to United Nations human rights officials, who say at least four people have been killed in recent repression efforts, such as house-to-house searches for participants. The group’s conduct has stoked fears about what Taliban rule portends, especially among Afghans who remember the extremist group’s regime before the U.S. arrived in October 2001.

Shams and her sisters have been raising money at their cafe for impoverished Afghan families, she said, and her sister, whom she declined to identify by name out of concerns for her safety, has been helping to distribute the money in Kabul.

When Western Union reopened earlier this month, Shams said she sent her sister about $1,000.

“Women and families, if they don’t die from (conflict), they’re going to die from poverty,” Shams said.

‘AN HONOR FOR IDAHO TO DO ITS PART’

Aside from special immigrant visas and refugee status, some Afghans are also applying for humanitarian parole, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program that allows foreigners in imminent danger to come to America temporarily.

In ongoing collaboration with the Taliban, the U.S. government continues to work to get about 100 Americans out of the country, in addition to the many translators, interpreters, advisers and others who assisted the U.S. military and its allies.

Refugee resettlement groups expect up to 400 more Afghans to arrive in Boise and Twin Falls through next summer. Both cities are among the 139 locations nationwide where Afghans will be resettled, Little’s office said.

“There’s a lot of coordination, care and thought that goes into discerning how many people a community can support,” Holly Beech, spokesperson for the Idaho Office for Refugees, said by phone. “As a nation, we have a responsibility to honor our commitments to those who served along us, and it’s an honor for Idaho to do its part.”

On Thursday, the first international passenger flight since the Taliban takeover departed the Kabul airport. Aboard were a mix of Americans, Canadians and British citizens totaling more than 100 people bound for Qatar, en route to their home nations, according to news reports. A second flight with nearly 160 foreign national passengers, including Americans, departed from Kabul on Friday.

Before then, the Taliban prevented several chartered flights for Afghans fleeing through the country’s capital from taking off. Taliban leadership claimed the travelers did not have proper documentation, including passports and visas, Blinken said during a midweek news conference at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany.

During the delay of flights, the United States resorted to an evacuation of four Americans by land into a neighboring country, an unnamed senior official with the State Department told several news agencies, without offering greater detail. U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, said on social media that the four family members are residents of his Texas congressional district.

LEADERS ADDRESS REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT IN IDAHO

Ahead of the last U.S. troops departing Afghanistan, Noori said he filled out a form on the website for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in hopes of extracting his family.

Karimi said he contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, Idaho’s senior member, on behalf of his family, but was told continued assistance has become more difficult now that American forces are no longer on the ground.

In a letter to the Biden administration on Friday, Idaho’s congressional delegation and Little said they want to be helpful but also want to make sure that U.S. Homeland Security will not lessen “vetting standards” — such as medical screenings and background checks — for refugees seeking to resettle “in order to expedite” the process.

They also requested that the president work with Idaho, because “we have also been informed that this action is being done through federal mandate and without consultation from the states.”

The leaders said the Idaho State Police had been directed to work with local refugee agencies to “develop additional state vetting measures.”

In separate statements, many of Idaho’s elected leaders, including Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, have expressed support for helping families of Afghans who worked with Americans leave their home country.

“While we have been contacted about the status of close to 300 Afghans, and had a few successes in the evacuation of (special immigrant visa) applicants and the spouse of a U.S. citizen, many of those we are trying to assist still remain,” Lindsay Nothern, a spokesperson for Crapo, said in an email. “Our office is committed to helping those individuals in any way we can.”

Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said Biden botched the Afghanistan war’s close, leaving Americans and Afghans in a dangerous situation.

“We cannot, and should not, trust the Taliban to keep any of them safe,” he said in a written statement. “I expect the administration to work closely with Congress in the coming days and weeks to ensure we bring every American and partner to safety.”

IDAHO OFFICE FOR REFUGEES VIRTUAL MEETING

On Tuesday, the Idaho Office for Refugees will host a one-hour virtual panel that includes speakers directly impacted by the war in Afghanistan as well as the current evacuations. The event starts at noon and is open to the public, with those interested in attending asked to register for the Zoom meeting on the IOR website.

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