Months later, Afghan evacuees abroad and at US bases still wait to be resettled
By Priscilla Alvarez, Kylie Atwood and Ellie Kaufman, CNN
(CNN) -- Aminullah Hotaki flew out of Afghanistan on September 21 with his wife and 5-year-old son. They landed in the United Arab Emirates where they expected to stay for a short period of time before coming to the United States.
Now, three months later, he is still there.
Hotaki is among the approximately 2,900 people who are at lily pad locations overseas that the United States used to process evacuees prior to their arrival to the US.
It's just one part of an ongoing and historic effort to resettle tens of thousands of Afghans after a frenzied evacuation out of Afghanistan this year. Around 83,000 Afghan nationals, American citizens, and lawful permanent resident arrived in the US as part of Operation Allies Welcome, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The scramble to leave Afghanistan resulted in thousands of Afghans departing with little to no belongings, including crucial paperwork. The lack of documentation and other setbacks, like a measles outbreak that put a pause on flights to the US, has left many on bases for prolonged periods of time.
Hotaki does not have his passport with him because he dropped it at the US embassy in Kabul just days before the Taliban took over, he told CNN. The hope was to get the process churning for his special immigrant visa, which provides a pathway to the United States for Afghans who were employed by or worked on behalf of the US government. But the Afghan, who worked doing IT for US forces in Kandahar for years, never got his passport back because the US had to flee the embassy.
While it's unclear why Hotaki's case has been delayed, documents are often critical to the vetting process. Without it, the process can take longer.
The State Department would not comment on Hotaki's specific case.
"The United States is working closely with allies and partners on our shared objective of quickly assisting vulnerable Afghans including?by providing humanitarian?aid?, safe haven, and refugee resettlement.?We are working to find ways to facilitate travel for those who do not have all the required documentation," said a State Department official.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration surged personnel to transit countries to help process Afghan evacuees, including taking their fingerprints, biometrics, among other information. Individuals are fully screened and vetted before they board a flight to the US, and according to DHS, the multi-layered vetting process continues upon their arrival.
But as Hotaki waits, he's also without other medical necessities. He takes blood pressure medicine and he began taking depression medicine after he was attacked by the Taliban in February, when they found out he had worked with the US. He doesn't have access to either in Abu Dhabi.
"I do not have clothes or medicine," he said. "And when I close my eyes, I think the Taliban is in front of me and hitting me again in the head."
Arriving at US military bases
For many Afghan nationals who have arrived in the US, their first stop was a domestic military base before resettlement in US communities. Nearly 48,000 Afghans have been resettled, according to the administration, but tens of thousands are still waiting to move to their permanent homes in the US.
It's been a heavy lift for the Biden administration in the wake of a dismantled refugee resettlement infrastructure that struggled to stay afloat amid record low admissions under former President Donald Trump.
"It's going as well as it can possibly go, given the chaos of the evacuation," said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency. "The State Department and the US government have really been doing their best to be creative and integrate the Afghans off the bases, given the evisceration of the US resettlement program over the last four years."
The administration expects to move all Afghans off the domestic bases by mid-February, according to officials.
The Defense Department previously estimated that it would cost around $4.2 billion to facilitate resettlement of more than 65,000 Afghans at overseas and US military installations through December, according to the department. But because of a freeze on resettlement over a measles outbreak and the difficulty in finding housing, among other challenges, Congress provided an additional $4.3 billion in supplemental funding.
Afghans in the US tell CNN of intense struggles they faced at the military bases and in communities across the US.
"I stayed at Fort Pickett for 91 days and some of my colleagues are still at the fort and probably will not be out until mid-February 2022. This caused mass depression. Many pregnant women failed to live in limbo and attempted to commit suicide considering hormonal changes," said Ahmad Zafar Shakibi.
He also said there was a tremendous amount of misunderstanding, harassment, and bigotry in the camps, particularly as the US and Afghan cultures collided.
Unemployed and needing assistance
Shakibi, who came to the US with his wife and 3-year-old child, has been relocated to New York. He is now looking for daycare for his child and employment for himself.
"Unemployment still haunting," he says.
Some Afghans in the US are spending hours each day walking their children to school because they don't have a car. Others are having troubles learning how to pay bills and find basic necessities to live.
"The majority of them still don't have their food stamps and are starving," Shakibi said, noting that some Afghans are in hotels, Airbnb, temporary houses, or in churches across the country.
"It is hard. On a personal level I feel guilt all the time," said Mohammad Haroon Amiri, who is living with family in California with his children and wife until they are on their own feet. He would like to stay in California but he plans to take a job in Indiana once his background check is complete because it's the only job offer he has so far.
"I want to take control myself," Amiri said. "This is how life is, things go the way you do not expect them to go."
Over the last four years, refugee resettlement agencies lost staff and had to close offices in the wake of declining refugee admissions, leaving them to rely heavily on volunteers to assist those refugees who are joining new communities.
Refugee advocates have largely commended the Biden administration for its assistance in the effort and credited former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell for his role in organizing public and private support. But Markell is set to step down next month to serve as the ambassador to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
President Joe Biden tapped Markell in September to be the temporary point person overseeing the administration's Afghan evacuee resettlement effort in the US. While Markell's position as lead on Afghan resettlement was always designed to be short term, his upcoming departure comes as refugee resettlement agencies still race to find housing and urge the administration to tap another person to fill his role.
"The US refugee program needs a senior White House coordinator with authority," Hetfield said.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, echoed Hetfield, saying Markell has "been a coordinator, troubleshooter, point guard -- all bundled into one position that has a high-level stature and authority of a close ally and friend of the President."
Some administration officials privately hoped Markell would have been able to stay in the role longer, but they say that there is a well-equipped team at the White House to continue working on resettlement support.
In an interview with CNN, Markell recognized the work ahead for the Biden administration and refugee advocates.
"These resettlement agencies are simultaneously rebuilding capacity from having lost so much capacity over the last four years and at the same time, they're handling the biggest resettlement effort in any of their lifetimes," he said.
In his role, Markell traveled around the country, engaging with state and local officials. Among the steepest challenges he and the administration faced was the housing crunch across the United States.
"Everybody understood, as did I, the fact that while these folks were here at a very good time for the job market, the housing market is very tight and very expensive, particularly in some communities across the country," Markell told CNN.
"The success here is largely dependent on the local community organizations tapping into their networks of landlords and landlords opening up their places to these evacuees," he added.
To increase options to evacuees, the Biden administration launched a program this fall that allows veterans with ties to Afghans, as well as others, the opportunity to bring them to their cities and serve as a support network as they get their lives started in the US.
At least sixty circles are approved or in the final stages of approval nationwide to support Afghan families, with more expected in the coming weeks, according to Danielle Grigsby, co-founder and director of external affairs at Community Sponsorship Hub. The hub is largely responsible for the process.
The administration has not said whether it will replace Markell, saying only that those who worked closely with him, like Special Advisor for Afghan Resettlement Curtis Ried and other senior administration officials, will continue to carry forward the effort. The administration is also expected to lean on sponsorship initiatives, like the sponsor circles, to build up capacity.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken visited the staff from resettlement agencies and Afghans who recently arrived in Virginia last week.
"To those who've made the journey who are side by side with our diplomats, our men and women in uniform in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, we're so grateful that you're here and we want to do everything we can to welcome you warmly to our country," Blinken said.
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