Afghan New Yorkers take action as humanitarian crisis deepens

On Sunday, the world watched Afghanistan’s capital Kabul fall to the Taliban as the Biden administration rushed to evacuate diplomats, aid workers and other officials.

As US military helicopters quickly took off, taking the Americans to safety, dozens of Afghan civilians waiting at the airport were left behind as they desperately tried to board the planes – some dying in the process. .

Afghan New Yorkers told THE CITY that they watched the scenes unfold with a maelstrom of conflicting emotions.

“It’s your worst nightmare coming true,” said Awesta Zarif, 30, of Astoria, Queens. “We can only watch and hope and pray and wish things would get better there. And there is the guilt of not being there. You just watch [Afghanistan] from a distance and you feel so helpless.

More than 10,000 Afghans live in the New York City-Jersey City-Philadelphia corridor, according to the latest data from the 2015 American Community Survey. Many reside in Queens, with concentrations in Flushing.

Many left decades ago when the Soviet army invaded the country in 1979. Some arrived there during the so-called 20-year war led by the United States. Others, the children of immigrants, have not directly experienced the panic of fleeing a home, but now see parents and other Afghan compatriots experiencing it in real time.

The shock of chaos in Kabul is pushing Afghans in New York to mobilize to help their families back home and their compatriots who may soon find themselves in the city.

Bhshta Ibrahim Khail, a 24-year-old volunteer with American Afghans in New York, said he was busy sending messages furiously asking, “How can we help?”

“We are doing everything we can to get them out of there, to speak out, to be an advocate, to be a voice for the voiceless through this crisis they are facing.” Khail told THE CITY.

“A very beautiful country”

Mo Rahmati, 35, said his parents never spoke of leaving Afghanistan. He knows only vague glimpses of what happened after they fled the country in the 1980s: first to India, then to Arizona as refugees, and finally to Woodside, Queens, where Rahmati was born and grew up.

“Everything I’m watching on the news right now, I hate to imagine my parents going through this, but I know that’s probably what they were going through as well,” said Rahmati, who founded Nansense, a Afghan food stall that operates at the Queens Night Market.

Mo Rahmati is concerned for his family’s homeland and those fleeing the violence and uncertainty in Afghanistan.
Courtesy of Nina Roberts

Bashir Saleh was a 20-year-old engineering student when he fled Kabul in the 1970s.

He remembers waking up one morning, heading to the university and seeing tanks and troops.

Now 64, Saleh sells coffee and pastries outside of what has been Times Square’s Hard Rock Cafe for three decades. This job allowed his four children to pursue studies and a livelihood that he was not capable of.

“No parent wants their kids to be in this situation,” said Saleh, who now lives in New Jersey. “I remember we grew up in a very beautiful country. ”

When Saleh arrived in New York City with his immediate family of nine, they shared a two-bedroom apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. They received support from refugee resettlement groups and sponsorship from a church, but it was not enough to survive for long.

He took any job so his younger siblings could stay in school. He cleaned offices, sold ice cream, and eventually saved enough to buy his own coffee cart.

The passage proves elusive

Saleh’s experience is not that different from that of the Afghans who are now arriving in the United States. Churches and resettlement organizations still support new New Yorkers arriving as refugees.

But one main difference is in the numbers.

Historically, most Afghans have come to the United States as refugees or through family-based petitions, immigration lawyers have said. But under the Trump administration, the refugee path was almost completely interrupted.

Since the Biden administration took office, lawyers and US military veterans have spent months demanding a speedy evacuation and relocation of those who aided US troops, such as interpreters, and others. Afghans threatened by the Taliban.

Bashir Saleh in his coffee and pastry cart on West 43rd Street, a stone's throw from the Hard Rock Café.

Bashir Saleh arrived in New York City from Afghanistan over 40 years ago.
Hiram Alejandro Durán / THE CITY

Many Afghans facing violent chaos at Kabul airport had already been approved or were awaiting special immigrant visas (or SIVs), issued to people who aided US military interests. But many of them have not yet been able to fly to the United States.

Camille Mackler, executive director of Immigrant Arc, a New York-based nonprofit, acknowledged that lawmakers were working on additional avenues to US visa security for Afghan activists and others. But with the danger growing second by second on the pitch, Mackler is hoping New Yorkers will “put pressure on” Washington until “we have evacuated everyone we promised to protect.”

More than 300,000 Afghan civilians are believed to have assisted US troops during the war.

Arrival of the first families

On Monday, Catholic Charities NY helped welcome one of the first arrivals to the city since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

A local Kennedy Airport volunteer held up a sign with the name of an Afghan family, looking through the glass wall separating immigration and arrivals. She was expecting a former military interpreter and her family of six.

All seven, and their 10 suitcases, are expected to squeeze into a family member’s one-bedroom apartment in Far Rockaway – a temporary fix, said Mario Russell, director of immigrant and refugee services for Catholic. Charities.

The small number of Afghan refugees coming to New York usually do so because of family ties, while most refugees relocate on their own elsewhere due to the city’s high cost of living and lack of affordable housing, Russell noted. .

Carmen Maria Rey, US legal director for the International Refugee Assistance Project, said cities and states should “raise their hands” to tell the federal government that they are ready to accept and resettle refugees.

While states like Utah have publicly sent letters of support for accepting other refugees from the country, neither Mayor Bill de Blasio nor Governor Andrew Cuomo have made any public statements about Afghanistan.

Representative Greg Meeks (D-Queens), chairman of the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, has invited US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to answer his committee’s questions on the strategy of poorly planned outing.

“We can’t leave [our allies] behind, ”he told NY1,“ because it’s our word.

Call for help

Russell said refugees need mental health support, job training and, most importantly, transitional housing.

For now, he said, donations of money, housing or Airbnb from regular New Yorkers “would go a long way in helping, welcoming and supporting these often young families in transition. incredibly difficult “.

Rahmati said he is donating all proceeds from this Saturday’s Queens Night Market to two organizations: Children Without Borders and Emergency Relief Afghanistan.

Matt Pelak, an Army veteran living in Bushwick, Brooklyn, said he barely slept. He works at Amazon by day and with a coalition of veterans by night, calling anyone they can find in Afghanistan or elsewhere who can help bring their former fellow interpreters safely to American soil.

Pelak said fellow New Yorkers should “think about how you could offer an Afghan job, how you could donate furniture, clothing, just be there to support them and help them build communities when and if they arrive in New York. . “

As recently as last week, Wazma Wardak Hassan, the leader of the American Afghans in New York, met with the Afghan Consul General to plan the celebrations for August 19, Afghan Independence Day.

Instead, she spent Thursday lobbying politicians and managing offers of aid from New Yorkers – from care packages to donations and housing for refugees while waiting to hear from hers. . family members in Afghanistan.

The charitable response, she said, gave her hope.

“This pain is something I feel that resonates with everyone,” she said, noting that the pandemic has changed the way New Yorkers view the community.

“Race, color, religion, there’s no place for that right now. And as unfortunate as that is happening at this particular moment, it really brings us under that oneness. “

Planned walks

His work and that of others are just beginning.

A march from Times Square to the United Nations is scheduled for Saturday to advocate for safe passage for Afghan refugees. And next Thursday, activists are expected to lead protests in nearly three dozen cities around the world, including New York, to raise awareness of the growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

Zakaria Kazmi, 19, the main organizer of next week’s protest in Bryant Park, has never set foot in Afghanistan. He said he has maintained his connection to the country through his family and their memories, especially of the beauty of their homeland.

“We never really thought it would be safe to go back, and we’ve always dreamed of it,” said Kazmi, of Queens Village. “I always talked about wanting to visit where my parents came from one day. And it’s just overwhelming to think that it might never happen in my lifetime. “

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