The Abdils decided Afghanistan was no longer safe after their 14-year-old son, Abdul-Azim, was kidnapped on his way home from school. For years, the Taliban abducted children for ransom or used them as leverage in negotiating with the Afghan police. As much as it pained them to abandon their son, Fazela and Hakeem Abdil had other children — two teenage daughters — to think about. They were faced with a difficult choice: stay in an increasingly dangerous Afghanistan or leave their home forever.
Up until then, things had been peaceful for the Abdils. “We had a well-arranged life. We had work, a house. Life was pretty comfortable,” Hakeem says. But conditions in Kabul had grown worse when many assumed they’d get better. In February 2020, the Trump administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban, promising to withdraw all troops within 14 months so long as it abstained from attacking US soldiers. The violence did not end and, in fact, became more pronounced.
So the Abdils made the painful decision to flee, knowing that they would be leaving Abdul-Azim behind.
If the decision to leave is complicated, it is followed by the equally convoluted, bureaucratic process of emigrating. Hurriedly, the Abdils fled to Tajikistan where they awaited visas into Ukraine. Then they began a process to enter the US. After working alongside the Americans for nearly a decade in logistics and transport, Fazela qualified for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, granting her and her family permanent safety in the States. The SIV can be read two ways: as a reward for aiding American forces or an acknowledgment that helping the US can put an Afghan’s life in peril.
That process left them in nearly two years of limbo. But, last December, the Abdils finally arrived in California. From the airport, they were transported to a mosque near Union City, where they slept on floor mats for one night, shielded by a single curtain. Without any money to spend on Ubers or bus passes, the family walked an hour and 40 minutes to a local nonprofit, the Afghan Coalition, to begin the process of resettlement.
When I meet them, it is the first week of February 2022. The early afternoon sun is beginning to clear Northern California’s winter haze as Hakeem Abdil carries a laundry basket full of cleaning supplies to the door of his family’s first apartment in the United States. This arrival is long overdue, but the family has little time to ease into this new life. Shooing my hand away from the doorknob, the staunch middle-aged man welcomes me into their modest two-bedroom apartment in Fremont, just under an hour’s drive southeast of Oakland.
The kitchen is tiny; the living area is mostly empty save for a rug and a handful of bed pillows lined up against the wall for sitting. There’s a laptop on the floor of the first bedroom. Beside it are English-language learning workbooks and a binder of resettlement paperwork. In the second room, there is one queen-size bed, the largest piece of furniture in the home and the only place for any of the four people living in the home to sleep.
It’s not extravagant, but after two years without a permanent home, it’s a place of their own, at least for now.
“We are happy here,” Fazela says. She generously hands me a plate of mandarin oranges, and we sit on the living room floor as we talk. “Happy, but we would like to receive some support.”
The Abdils’ fraught living situation might seem surprising when you consider that, even still, they are some of the luckiest recent Afghan refugees. They’d left before the US announced it would pull out, giving them a head start of nearly a year on the wave of new refugees, many on SIVs, that would attempt to resettle in California. But, if finding semipermanent housing was so difficult for the Abdils, what can even newer Afghan families expect to find when they land in the States? And can an already strained housing crisis absorb 100,000 new people?
Hopefully, among those next to arrive in the US is Abdul-Azim. Just weeks after they left Afghanistan, the Abdils learned that their son had escaped Taliban captivity, ultimately making his way to Germany where he waits to join his family in California. When I ask about Abdul-Azim, Fazela leans forward, hiding her face, stifling tears between words. It’s been two years since she has seen him.
Last August, President Joe Biden confirmed that America would end its nearly 20-year involvement in Afghanistan by withdrawing its remaining military forces. But it wouldn’t just be the military returning to America; around 100,000 Afghan refugees would be resettled in the US — allegiance to Americans rewarded with a new life in the States.
Many Afghans would have trouble fleeing. As the Taliban encroached on Kabul, the fast-changing conditions on the ground made it difficult for Afghan allies, many of whom were admitted as humanitarian parolees. But if leaving was difficult, arriving would be as well. The largest Afghan population in the US exists in the Bay Area. The administration had promised refugees homes, and now, it attempted to place tens of thousands of families in densely populated areas that, for decades now, have been acutely afflicted by a lack of affordable housing.
In order to accommodate the surge of refugees, the Biden administration rolled out a series of resettlement programs that would be coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security and its Operation Allies Welcome. It’s a dizzying system: DHS handles the intake and initial processing of refugees, but a separate emergency program called the Afghanistan Placement Assistance Program, run by the State Department and in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services, helps to provide cash and benefits assistance. For decades, nine resettlement agencies have been contracted by the State Department to help, and those agencies have hundreds of satellite and affiliate groups to help refugees on the ground. Additional benefits ranging from healthcare to employment services are run through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
To complicate things further, benefits could vary depending on whether refugees were admitted to the US on SIVs or as humanitarian parolees. Though HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement was created by the United States Refugee Act of 1980, many refugee benefits are spearheaded by the State Department’s contracted nonprofits, like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Church World Service (CWS).