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His mother is out of Afghanistan, but a reunion is still on hold

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Shinwari, who asked to go by his last name to keep his family in Afghanistan safe, had applied for a family reunification visa for his mother in June. And though he’d received notice that the visa was pending, everything changed on Aug. 15. "When I turn on the news, I see the whole government was collapsed," he said. "The Taliban -- they control Afghanistan."

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August, Shinwari had one goal: get his elderly mother out of the country and into the U.S. He had served with U.S. special forces for about eight years and feared the Taliban could take it out on her.

But despite his efforts, his mother, Bibi, had limited options with a pending U.S. immigration visa. And Shinwari -- who we’re identifying only by his last name so as not to jeopardize his family’s safety -- was forced to leave her behind.

His mother is diabetic and had no one to care for her in her native country, and Shinwari was in West Haven trying to remain hopeful, he said.

And it worked.

He eventually found out about a chartered flight from Afghanistan organized by volunteers.

“I said this is my last hope. Let’s see if this is going to work and she’s going to make [it] through,” he said.

Bibi is now at the Dubai International Humanitarian City in the United Arab Emirates. It’s a nonprofit temporarily hosting Afghan refugees as they make their way to the U.S.

Her evacuation out of Afghanistan was made possible thanks to Task Force Argo, a volunteer group of private citizens using their connections to help people leave the country. The group consists mainly of veterans, active military members and government officials who are committed to helping Afghan allies and their families after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“We have a fundraising team, we have the logistics team and we have a ground ops team,” said Sarah Yoshida, who is a handler — someone who tracks, shepherds and helps house refugees as they make it out of Afghanistan. “We have people we work with in Afghanistan who go out and find safe houses and do a bunch of things for us,” said Yoshida, one of two handlers assigned to Bibi.

Yoshida said that in doing this work, she’s grown committed to each family she helps. The key to the whole operation is trust.

“It's a stressful thing being a handler,” Yoshida said. ”You’ve got all these people’s fates in your hand, and you’re trying to communicate, ‘Hey, you need to trust me, you’ve never met me. But trust me, and when I say go, you gotta go. And I’m gonna send you through 11 Taliban checkpoints to get there. And then get on this plane and go who knows where.’”

In this case, Yoshida doubted Bibi could make it out at first because of strict immigration requirements, but she refused to give up. Task Force Argo helped Bibi find legal aid and extend her passport so she could fly. Yoshida remembers finally calling Shinwari with the good news and hearing his excitement.

“He was like, ‘I got her in the car. She’s on the way.’ And I'm like ‘What!?’ So I think he understood that this was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal. And he understood the severity and how quickly we needed to move. And he got it done,” Yoshida said.

Bibi is just one of over 2,000 refugees Task Force Argo has been able to evacuate free of charge to the families, according to its website. But getting out of Afghanistan is only the first step. It’s unknown how long Bibi will be in the UAE. Her case could be expedited by the U.S. government or she could be moved to another country, also known as a “lily pad” site. But it’s all uncertain.

Shinwari said he and two young sons call Bibi every day to keep her in good spirits. And while she is safe, it’s still not the ideal situation. He dreams of seeing her play with her grandchildren again and have things like reliable medical care, but that could take some time, he said.

“On the one hand, I’m happy that she is out, but on the other, my hands are tied,” Shinwari said. “I’m [trying to] bring her here as soon as possible because she [has] diabetes, she’s sick.”

Yoshida said that while passing through a holding location like the humanitarian city may not be easy for the families, it gives the U.S. government time to vet people. During the wait time, refugees could complete their immigration processes and undergo medical checks.

“It’s a necessary evil, I think, in some ways, because you don’t want to bring mumps and measles and you don’t want to bring terrorists and you don’t want to bring people who can’t legally work,” Yoshida said. “And so I think you have to do that somewhere. Our first priority was getting them to safety, and UAE was able to offer us that.”

Chris George, executive director of New Haven-based Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, said he’s helped welcome some refugees who have waited in lily pad sites for up to 20 years.

“So you know, on the one hand, it’s awful to see these Afghans languishing in these lily pad areas for months. But moving them from Afghanistan to a community in the United States within a year is, in the world of refugee resettlement, very, very fast.”

He said moving refugees right now is tricky. The U.S. military bases where refugees usually arrive before being resettled are at or nearing capacity. And until those are cleared, the U.S. can’t shift its effort to outside lily pad sites. But Bibi’s case could be different, he said.

“She has a son and he would take the lead in helping her. It’s not like a family that comes to the United States and doesn’t have any relatives or friends. So she has an advantage,” George said.

As for Shinwari and his family, the only option is to stay hopeful once again. He’s working with pro bono immigration lawyers through Task Force Argo to expedite his mother’s case.

“Now we wait,” Shinwari said. “I tell my sons they will see her very soon.”

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.

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