Photo depicting Hadi Ebrahimi in a blue collared shirt working from a laptop at a desk.

Facing Parole Expiration, Many Afghan Refugees Lack Guarantee of a Future in the U.S.

by Daniel Hart

The Seattle Globalist was a daily online publication that covered the connections between local and global issues in Seattle. The Emerald is keeping alive its legacy of highlighting our city’s diverse voices by regularly publishing and re-publishing stories aligned with the Globalist’s mission. 

At his lowest point, journalist Hadi Ebrahimi found himself hiding from the Taliban in a pitch-black cemetery in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In August 2021, as U.S. forces withdrew, the Taliban swiftly retook control of the country. They banned the 28-year-old’s radio station, which had advocated for democracy and challenged their ideology. One day, Ebrahimi’s brother called to warn him the Taliban were searching the neighborhood where he was hiding. Ebrahimi left the house and started running. After nightfall, he waited in a cemetery for his brother to pick him up.

On Oct. 31, 2021, Ebrahimi received the documentation he needed to fly from Kabul to a U.S. Army base in Qatar. Before he left, his mother told him the next time she saw him might be in another life. After 26 days in Qatar, he boarded a flight to the United States. At an Army base in New Jersey, he was granted humanitarian parole status.

Since this ordeal, Ebrahimi has joined a community of Afghan people who have settled in and around Seattle for decades. In South King County, a tight-knit group of recent arrivals has rapidly expanded in the last two years. Even as they put down roots, many who left during the U.S. withdrawal face the imminent expiration of their permission to stay in the country.

During the U.S. withdrawal, tens of thousands of fleeing Afghans who had assisted U.S. forces or otherwise drawn the Taliban’s ire received humanitarian parole, a status reserved for exceptional circumstances. Although it provided a quick emergency route through the complex U.S. immigration system, it does not provide a path to permanent residency.

Ebrahimi only learned this months later when an Afghan friend told him he needed to apply for asylum. When he realized his future in the United States was not guaranteed, old nightmares started up again. He dreamed the Taliban were looking for him or that they had killed his brother. He began waking up exhausted. He didn’t want to go to bed.

His friend knew an attorney in Seattle who could help him submit his asylum application. In May 2022, Ebrahimi moved to Seattle. Despite working, he had to borrow $1,000 to pay the attorney’s fee.

Ebrahimi lives in Fremont, but to find a halal shop, he travels south. In the last two years, close to a dozen Afghan bakeries and grocery stores have sprung up in Kent. About 400 local Afghans attend Masjid Quba, a Kent mosque established in 2019. As more Afghans arrive, the weekly meetings have spilled out under outdoor canopies, set up to protect attendees from the rain.

In December 2022, a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services officer interviewed Ebrahimi. After four hours of questions, he felt like she didn’t believe his account, despite seeing hundreds of pages of his articles translated into English.

Every night, Ebrahimi checks the status of his application on the USCIS website. Every night, he sees the same word: pending. His parole and work authorization are set to expire in November.

Photo depicting the exterior of Masjid Quba with white canopies set up to protect attendees from the rain.
Canopies outside Masjid Quba. The Kent mosque has grown significantly since its founding in 2019, having to use canopies to shelter the outpouring of attendees from the rain. (Photo: Daniel Hart)

In exchange for the Afghan people’s assistance, the United States promised protection and for some, legal status, said activist Aneelah Afzali. The Special Immigrant Visa program was created for Afghan and Iraqi people who assisted U.S. forces. Yet even among those who qualified, many had no chance to leave Afghanistan. In April of this year, a White House review of the U.S. withdrawal primarily blamed the Trump administration’s decisions, but acknowledged that the evacuation of eligible Afghans should have started earlier.

Now 45 years old, Afzali fled Kabul as a child with her family and resettled in the United States. After attending Harvard and launching a legal career, Afzali founded and directs the American Muslim Empowerment Network. AMEN is an initiative of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), a Redmond-based nonprofit and Islamic center.

Afzali believes that permanent legal status for Afghans isn’t charity; it’s an obligation. The current process is expensive and can take years. In the rush to escape, many evacuees had to leave without key documentation. Ebrahimi said many parolees were not told they needed to apply for asylum. The immigration court system is also overwhelmed by the simultaneous Ukrainian refugee crisis.

Photo depicting Aneelah Afzali in a blue-and-white flowered top and matching blue headscarf speaks animatedly at a conference table.
Aneelah Afzali, founder of the American Muslim Empowerment Network, talks about how the organization pivoted its focus to address the Afghan refugee crisis. (Photo: Daniel Hart)

In September 2022, Afzali and hundreds of other faith leaders from across the country signed an open letter urging Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. This legislation would streamline the process for parolees to apply for permanent status. In decades past, Congress has made similar adjustments for parolees from Vietnam, Cuba, and Iraq. Last December, 32 retired U.S. military officers penned their own letter advocating for the act. Days later, Congress failed to include it in the yearly spending bill. Leading Republican senators cited concerns about insufficient vetting.

Ebrahimi said he and other parolees are anything but a threat to the United States.

“I value this country more than anybody else,” he said, “because I have been living in a country [where] we didn’t have any freedom, any opportunity, any liberty.”

With many parolees’ status expiring this autumn, time is running short.

“We haven’t even given them a firm foundation on which to be able to rebuild their lives here,” Afzali said, “because they don’t even know if they can stay.”

Ebrahimi said he imagines a good future for himself in the United States, including working as a journalist once more.

“In the middle of dreaming,” he said, “this nightmare comes to my mind: What about if I don’t get my asylum?”

The Afghan Adjustment Act continues to lack bipartisan support. Ebrahimi said he plans to apply for Temporary Protected Status, which could potentially extend his parole. Without a clear idea of where the Afghan Adjustment Act will land, Ebrahimi and the thousands of other humanitarian parolees are still waiting to officially begin their new lives in the United States.

The USCIS website provides information about applying for permanent asylum. Several local resettlement agencies including Jewish Family Service, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Community Services, and World Relief offer immigration legal services.

Seattle-based journalist Daniel Hart investigates low-visibility, high-stakes stories about immigration, politics, and religion. Working with refugees in a variety of contexts has led him to dig into the geopolitics of displacement and experiences of resettlement. You can follow his work on his website.

📸 Featured Image: Hadi Ebrahimi, like thousands of recent Afghan refugees, has resettled in Seattle under a special status of humanitarian parole. That status ends this year, and the pathway to permanent residency is still unclear. (Photo: Hadi Ebrahimi)

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