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This teen fled Afghanistan for Connecticut. Her family still needs help to escape.

Nilab 19, takes a moment in the living room of her apartment furnished by a resettlement agency, Connecticut Institute for Refugees, that is helping her with a place to live. Wishing her family in Afghanistan could be here with her for this new start in Bridgeport, Connecticut March 10, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Nilab, 19, takes a moment in the living room of her apartment furnished by a resettlement agency, Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, that is helping her with a place to live. While moving in on March 10, 2022, Nilab would turn to her own thoughts when not engaged with others. She misses her family terribly. Still in Afghanistan, they are in danger from the Taliban while she tries to find her way in Bridgeport.

It was an impossible decision: board the plane out of Afghanistan alone, or stay back to look for her family and risk her life.

That’s the choice an American soldier told 19-year-old Nilab she needed to make.

Just minutes earlier she was with her parents, brother and sister at the airport in Kabul. Then the Taliban began firing into the crowd, and chaos broke out. Overwhelmed with fear, Nilab tried to find safety. But in doing so, she separated from her family.

“When I [looked] around to find my family, I see nobody. I tried to call so many times, but nothing. Nobody answered me,” Nilab recalls.

All she could do was cry as the American soldier tried to comfort her, and told her the reality she was too scared to face.

So she did what she thought was best and got on the plane.

She now lives alone in Connecticut and is struggling to rebuild without her family. Nilab has asked Connecticut Public to use her first name only because she fears retaliation by the Taliban against her relatives in Afghanistan.

“It’s very hard when your family is not here and you want to restart. It’s very hard alone,” she said.

The life she left

Nilab holds the door for refugees services case manager Stephanie Rowlett as she helps with the last few bags during her move into her apartment building in Bridgeport, Connecticut March 10, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Nilab holds the door for a refugee services case manager as she helps with the last few bags during Nilab's move into her Bridgeport apartment building on March 10, 2022.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in mid-August last year, the life her family knew ended.

She worked at a local hospital while attending college to become a diplomat in Kabul. Her mother worked for a peace organization, her father was an engineer, her brother a reporter and her little sister a student.

But that life is now just a distant memory.

“I miss my mom. I need my mom here. I need my family here to live [safely] with me,” she said.

Since leaving Afghanistan, Nilab has spoken to her family only a handful of times. After failing to flee the country, her family couldn’t resume their lives. They were forced to abandon their home and ditch their cellphones to prevent the Taliban from coming after them. Today, they go from home to home hoping to find refuge for a couple of days while not putting anyone in danger.

Nilab waits until they contact her. And she said that can take weeks on end.

“They cannot go outside. They cannot do [anything]. And my mom is sick. She needs a doctor,” Nilab said.

Resettling in a foreign land

Nilab hangs a window blind that had come loose in her apartment on moving day. Most all of her belongings came with her, but she will be going back with the Rinaldi’s tonight before moving in for this next part of this journey on her own in Bridgeport, Connecticut March 10, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Nilab hangs a window blind that had come loose in her apartment on moving day in March.

After a layover in Qatar, Nilab arrived at a military base in Texas last September. From there she headed to her uncle’s house in Wolcott, Connecticut. But the living arrangements fell short, and within three weeks, she had no place to sleep.

Luckily, a neighbor took her in.

“I saw her crying and I asked her where she was going. She said she wanted to go to Social Services. And I knew I couldn’t leave a 19-year-old girl in the street all by herself with nothing but her suitcase. So I took her in,” said Lina Rinaldi.

Sitting around their kitchen island, Nilab said Lina and Mario Rinaldi have become her extended family. For five months, the Italian couple made sure she always found food on the table, had a ride to English class and more.

“I’ve always wanted a daughter. I have a daughter now. It makes me happy,” said Lina Rinaldi. “In Italian we have a saying: If we have food for three, we have room for one more.”

Nilab credits the family with giving her the love and support she’s needed the last couple of months. She said it’s been pivotal to her journey in the United States and what she hopes to do next.

“I hope to finish my college over here. I want to have a beautiful life over here and study diplomacy,” she said. “I love to help people – my Afghan people, my Afghan children, my Afghan women. I [would] love to do [this] in the future.”

And, like any family, they’ve stood by Nilab through all the milestones. In fact, they recently helped her move into a new apartment.

Nilab secured an apartment in Bridgeport’s West End with the help of a resettlement agency, Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants. The agency is set to help Nilab with the first three months of rent while she finds a stable job.

Concetta “Lina” Rinaldi, likes a globe lamp she found while Nilab dosen’t show much interest as they look for items she needs and to make her apartment more comfortable at the local Goodwill in Bridgeport, Connecticut March 20, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Lina Rinaldi and Nilab (foreground) shop at the local Goodwill in Bridgeport for items Nilab needs to make her apartment more comfortable.

“I am happy, but I miss my mom,” Nilab said while standing in her bedroom for the first time. The small one-bedroom apartment is equipped with a bed, sofa and kitchen table, but she says it feels empty without the ones she wants to share it with the most.

Resettling hasn’t been easy.

Learning a new language and navigating a new culture is hard – but not knowing if her family is safe has been unbearable. As she tries to concentrate in school and focus on her future, her mind wanders to their whereabouts.

“I worry about my family. I think about it all the time – why [is] nobody calling me? What’s going on now? What is [the] Taliban doing now?” she said.

Having no immediate family is taking a toll, Merri Klar has observed.

Klar, a Woodbury resident, connected with Nilab when she realized Nilab might need some support. Klar helped Nilab get a computer and is now navigating college applications with her. But she worries about Nilab without her family.

“She can’t sleep. She can’t concentrate. It’s pretty much all she thinks about,” Klar said. “My hopes for her are grand, but I don’t think she can ever fully realize a happy life here in the States until she knows her family is safe.”

Reuniting could be a long, difficult process

Nilab brings out the rice for the main dish in her Afghani lunch Dopiaza -- onions, lamb and rice, followed by Concetta “Lina” Rinaldi and with Merri Klar, a volunteer with New Start Ministry that all joined together for the first meal Nilab cooked in her new apartment in Bridgeport, Connecticut March 15, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Nilab brings out rice for the main dish, Dopiaza -- onions, lamb and rice. She’s followed by Lina Rinaldi, while Merri Klar, a volunteer with New Start Ministry, is reflected in the mirror. They joined Nilab for her first meal cooked in her new apartment.

Around 700 Afghan evacuees like Nilab have resettled in Connecticut – more than double the number initially expected in September. Across the country, over 80,000 Afghan nationals are rebuilding lives after fleeing their home country – many with families unable to leave Afghanistan.

After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul shuttered, and all normal consular services in the country were suspended. Without those services, family members left behind have limited options – unless they make their way to another country with a U.S. Embassy. And that’s a challenge in itself.

Evacuation flights out of the country are hard to come by. The U.S. has yet to reach an agreement with the Taliban to let more people leave the country.

Once they land in a lily pad country, evacuees could apply for certain U.S. immigration visas. Those visas can take time and money – things many evacuees might not have.

For those already in the U.S. longing to reunite with their loved ones, the road ahead is also complicated because of limited options for U.S. immigration statuses.

When the U.S. airlifted evacuees to safety in August, Congress let many like Nilab come to the country on humanitarian parole. The rarely used immigration program allows parolees to legally work and live in the United States for two years. And in the meantime, they have to apply for a different immigration status – like temporary protected status (TPS) or asylum – in hopes of staying in the country for a longer period. But it’s easier said than done.

“What they created is an immediate glut in the immigration court, and an immediate run on immigration lawyers,” said Ann O’Brien, director of community engagement with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS).

O’Brien said it was the fastest way for the U.S. to help Afghan nationals enter the country legally, but that now puts them in a line to permanent legal status that’s been choked up for years.

The U.S. asylum program has a backlog of more than 400,000 applications, according to the Migration Policy Institute. While not all Afghan evacuees were paroled into the United States, a report by Homeland Security finds that over 40% have no direct pathway to permanent legal residence – including Nilab.

“It’s a total nightmare,” said O’Brien. And now evacuees and advocates across the country are scrambling to find any practicing lawyers to represent them in cases that often take years.

“Agencies like ours, across the nation on the ground, are literally like training large numbers of lawyers that do other lawyering by day but have the ability to file a brief with the court. So that they can take on one asylum case by night and on weekends,” O’Brien said.

She said many evacuees have to establish some kind of permanent status in the U.S. before they can even think about sponsoring their families. Even then, each immigration status has different limits on who is eligible.

Meanwhile, many resettlement programs across the country are still recouping after lack of support from the previous administration. The Trump administration cut refugee admission by more than 80% and left agencies with few federal resources. The new administration has vowed to restore the refugee program, but that takes time.

And Connecticut resettlement agencies say keeping up with the rapid demand has been a challenge.

“The sheer volume – and I’m not talking about just in Connecticut – and speed at which people have arrived is something unique,” said Susan Schnitzer, the president and CEO of Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants (CIRI) in Bridgeport.

She said the organization hopes to double its refugee support staff as case workers’ caseloads mount. All while they do what they can to support family reunification.

“Being separated from family is always the most difficult part,” Schnitzer said. “We have collected the names of family members, and sent those to our congressional delegation and some other folks we’ve been working with. But that’s about all we can do right now to help to advocate and help bring people over.”

Could help be on the way? 

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is championing a bill that could streamline the immigration situation. Nilab has personally asked him to help her family.

Introduced in December, the Honor Our Commitment Act could help set up more resources on the ground to get people out of Afghanistan.

“In the chaotic days after the American withdrawal, people were able to board planes, but many were not,” Blumenthal said. “And so there are thousands still left with targets on their backs with family members here. Honor Our Commitment is about keeping our promises to them that we would not leave them behind.”

He said the act would encourage the government to support countries near Afghanistan to host evacuees while they wait to access temporary status in the United States. It would also give support to those already here – like Nilab.

“One thing that we’re trying to do, through this bill and other means, is extend the [humanitarian] parole status beyond the two years so that they have more time to gain a more permanent status,” Blumenthal said. “I hope we can extend it to three to five years.”

Many advocates are also calling on Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. The measure would allow Afghan evacuees to apply for permanent status one year after entering the country. The act mirrors other alternatives employed in the past during humanitarian crises. Congress passed adjustments acts after the Vietnam War, Cuban Revolution and more.

Nilab said she will have her first meeting with an immigration lawyer in May – seven months after she arrived.

Life without her loved ones

Nilab’s, first meal Dopiaza, onions, lamb and rice, Samposa, a baked pastry with chicken filling, chicken soup and for desert is Firni, Afghan custard pie in Bridgeport, Connecticut March 15, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Nilab’s first meal in her new apartment is laid out on the table. It included Dopiaza -- onions, lamb and rice -- chicken soup and Samposa, a baked pastry with chicken filling. Also on the table is Firni, an Afghan custard pie dessert.

As she settles into her apartment, Nilab said it still doesn’t feel like home yet. She hopes to start college in the fall, but right now she’s working at a food stand in the mall.

“I come home every day, and I feel [like] my mom is waiting here. But she’s not,” Nilab said.

Life without her family has been especially hard these last couple of days. She’s observing Ramadan – the ninth month in the Islamic calendar honored with prayer and fasting from dawn to dusk. What used to be a month of reflection and community with loved ones is now one of trying to stay true to her culture when she’s so far away.

Concetta “Lina” Rinaldi, talks with Nilab sipping Afghani tea after her phone call to her parents on Afghan New Years day in Bridgeport, Connecticut March 20, 2022. Lina took Nilab into her home five months ago when she found her walking with her roller case crying with nowhere to go. She has become family to the Rinaldi’s giving her unconditional love and support as she tries to find her way on a lonely and frightening journey.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Lina Rinaldi (left) talks with Nilab while sipping tea after Nilab's phone call to her parents on Afghan New Year's Day. Rinaldi took Nilab into her home five months ago when she found her walking with her roller case, crying with nowhere to go. She has become family to the Rinaldis, who've given her unconditional love and support as she tries to find her way on a lonely journey.

“Back in Afghanistan, my mom was cooking all the time, and sometimes we invited my uncle and grandfather. It was more fun because everyone wants to eat something different,” she said.

Today, she tries to break her fast at dusk every day with whatever is easiest – sometimes she cooks and other days she grabs food on the way home. Yet, she admits that actually eating is hard when she wonders if her family has food, too.

Still, she tries to focus on the future.

“I hope I finish college over here. I hope my family comes here and I have a beautiful life with them,” Nilab said. “I hope the American government [doesn’t] leave us alone, because like my family, [there are] a lot of families.”

Nilab wishes her mother a very quick happy new year during the short time they have on the phone. “I love you, she says.” There is no time for real conversation. Hi, how are you, everything has to be condensed to the most important news to share their lives for a few minutes while the family are in hiding, interspersed with many I love you’s. Bridgeport, Connecticut March 20, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Nilab wishes her mother a quick happy new year during the short time they have on the phone. “I love you, she says.” There is no time for real conversation, and everything has to be condensed to the most important news to share for a few minutes while the family is in hiding.

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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