Afghan refugees struggle to adjust to life in the US

San Jose, California, United States – Zainab, a teenager from Afghanistan who has lived in a cramped California motel room with her family for nearly a year, still has scars on her wrist from the shattered glass of a suicide bombing.

She and her sister, Zahra, are trying to quickly learn English so they can find work and help their family cover the sky-high cost of rent in San Jose.

“I have no choice but to help my family,” Zahra said through a translator inside the family’s budget motel room, filled with the aroma of cooked rice and strewn with stuffed animals and English grammar textbooks. The family spoke with Al Jazeera on the condition that their last name would be withheld.

Zahra’s 21-year-old brother, who the Taliban beat as he tried to enter the Kabul airport, remains trapped in Afghanistan.

“I have been crying for a year,” said their mother, Amina. “What will happen to my son? Will the Taliban kill him? I just want my son back.”

For Afghan families who have been resettled in the United States since the administration of President Joe Biden pulled military forces from Afghanistan last August, it has not been easy adjusting to life in a new country. The tasks pile up: searching for work, studying English, researching long-term immigration pathways, memorising local bus routes.

For many families, these difficulties are compounded by trauma from years of conflict, along with anxieties over loved ones still in Afghanistan. But the prospects for reunion are daunting: According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, of nearly 50,000 Afghans who have applied for humanitarian parole since July 2021, 369 have been accepted and about 8,000 rejected, with the rest still awaiting a response as of July 28.

Walid Aziz, an Afghan who resettled in the US several years ago, recently received news that his father’s application was denied. “I have very high anxiety; my family is in danger,” Aziz, who worked as a contractor for the US Embassy in Kabul, told Al Jazeera. “I served the US government. I don’t know why my father is not here.”

‘One crisis after another’

Despite their ongoing trauma, Afghan families who have relocated to the US have little choice but to press forward with the long list of challenges that come with resettlement.

Practical concerns, such as transportation and communication, can make everyday tasks complicated and frustrating – especially those that involve navigating US bureaucracy, such as signing up for healthcare. In California’s Bay Area, where jobs that pay enough to meet the astronomical costs of living are hard to come by, many worry about their ability to make ends meet.

“A lot of families are still in temporary housing, because rent is so expensive,” Zuhal Bahaduri, who assists families through the community organisation 5ive Pillars, told Al Jazeera. “It’s one crisis after another for these families. Leaving Afghanistan was only half the battle.”

At the same motel where Zahra’s family is staying, Saliha, who spoke on condition that her last name be withheld, says she has not seen her husband of more than 40 years for nearly a year. He was injured in the chaos at the Kabul airport and could not make it through the crowd.

She has now lived in this motel for seven months with her daughter and son-in-law, wondering what the future holds. “I just want to reunite with my husband. He is my everything,” she told Al Jazeera. “I wish he was here with me, so we could build a better life together.”

Zarghon stands with some members of her family in a motel in San Jose, California in August. Afghans who resettled in the US after the US withdrawal have struggled with myriad obstacles [Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]

In a room down the hall, Zarghon holds her six-year-old stepdaughter, Marwa, dressed in a butterfly T-shirt and pants with pink-and-white flowers. Marwa’s father is still trapped in Afghanistan.

“Her first day of school was very difficult, because when her mom dropped her off, she became scared she wouldn’t come back,” Zarghon told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition that her last name be withheld. “But her classmates have been very nice, and her teachers have helped her get new clothes. She likes to draw pictures of her father.”

Although some relatives are still living at the motel, Zarghon and five members of her family were eventually able to move into a three-bedroom apartment that costs about $3,300 a month. They currently receive rental assistance, and are incrementally paying larger portions before the full cost kicks in after six months. They are happy to have a place to live, but worry about finding jobs to cover rent once the assistance lapses.

Asifa – who escaped Kabul on the same day that a suicide bomber killed about 170 Afghans and more than a dozen US service members outside the city’s airport, and who also asked that her last name be withheld – is also worried. She received a housing offer for her husband and two of her children, but turned it down because she did not want to leave her daughter-in-law alone in the motel.

“She was very eloquent, but after the Taliban took over she stopped speaking for several months,” Asifa told Al Jazeera. “Sometimes she has fainting attacks several times a week.”

Overburdened system

A network of resettlement groups and community organisations are helping these families, but they are stretched to their limits, trying to fill gaps after resources for refugees were hollowed out during the administration of former US President Donald Trump. 5ive Pillars, which offers assistance to many of the families at the hotel, was founded in the aftermath of the fall of Kabul.

Many community organisations and Afghan American volunteers, who help with everything from food to legal assistance, are feeling strained and burned out – not only from the overwhelming demands, but also from the emotional nature of the work.

Some of these volunteers have their own painful family histories, which they are now seeing repeated among the newest round of refugees from a country that has been devastated by war and hardship for decades.

Arash Azizzada, co-founder of the progressive diaspora group Afghans For A Better Tomorrow, told Al Jazeera that state and federal governments have left “Afghan community organisations to pick up the pieces, most of which are underfunded, under-resourced, and on the verge of burnout”.

At the same time, many resettled Afghans are keenly aware that under humanitarian parole, which allows them only temporary refuge, they must get onto a more stable immigration pathway within two years of entering the country, or risk losing the work authorisation benefits that come with parole.

“We’re trying to place people in good-paying jobs, but if they don’t have more permanent legal status, everything is uncertain,” Yalda Afif, programme manager for the refugee assistance organisation HIAS, told Al Jazeera.

With plenty of obstacles ahead, some families still hold out hope that they will eventually be able to build a better life in the US.

“We are grateful to be somewhere secure,” Asifa said. “But at the same time, our hearts are broken.”

Farrah Omar assisted with translation for this story. She is a freelance media interpreter based in California and speaks Farsi and Dari.

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