An Afghan Family’s Journey from Darkness to Light

We were glued to the TV the summer of 2021. Every member of my family, my extended family, and my entire community here in the United States and Canada. One by one, cities in Afghanistan were falling to the Taliban. The chaos rivaled the many decades of suicide bomb carnage, rocket fire, Taliban executions in public squares, and other horrific images to which we thought we had long been numbed. As Afghans long settled in the United States, our first thought was, how do we get our family out?

Nearly everyone in my father’s family left Afghanistan many decades ago. We settled first in New York, and then scattered throughout the states in the forty years since we first arrived and were granted asylum. For some of us, the transit was relatively easy: while Soviet tanks rumbled through our city of Mazar-i-Sharif and mujahid forces geared up for the resistance, we snuck across the border into Pakistan and then worked with smugglers to get onto flights to the United States. Others spent years in Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey before finally making it here. But once in the United States, we quickly made lives for ourselves, rarely looking back to what and who we had left behind.

My mother’s family, though, wasn’t as quick to give up on the promise of refuge Afghanistan once provided. As ethnic Uzbeks, we were refugees from the former Soviet Union into Afghanistan. They believed that, unlike the Soviet conquest of Central Asia, Afghanistan’s instability would be temporary and peace was right around the corner. So they stayed – through the Afghan-Soviet War, through the Civil War, through the Taliban’s first reign, and then, following a brief period of peace, through the return of the suicide bombings and roadside attacks. History seems to have rewarded those who gave up on the country and punished those who believed that, one day, it would return to being the land of pomegranates, flowing rivers, and the safe, simple, easy life they once knew.

During the evacuation in August 2021, my family members were on WhatsApp day and night. Calls came in from Mazar pleading for us to find a way to get our extended family out. Calls came from elsewhere asking us what we Americans were doing about the crisis. The U.S. military was boarding folks onto planes at the international airport in Kabul — was it worth the risk of traveling 400 kilometers on the single Taliban-controlled highway to the capital?

We didn’t know how to advise them, but we did know the U.S. immigration system and we, like so many others, believed in the promise of our new nation. We frantically filed as many humanitarian parole applications as we could – more than 30, but just drop in the bucket of the more than a hundred aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins’ children (generations in Afghanistan are much shorter than they are in the United States), as many didn’t have passports that would allow them to travel. We also filed I-130 family reunification petitions for my four aunts and uncles, each approved in the lightning speed of one week, without the DNA testing that is standard for sibling petitions. That gave us some hope that perhaps Afghans were exempt from the now 15-year waiting period for siblings of U.S. citizens. We were certain that the U.S. government had a plan and an approved immigration petition was our family’s way out of the country. We also filed a single marriage-based I-130, for a couple who were married in May 2021.

My cousin’s young son, an aspiring pharmacist living in Philadelphia, married a relative of my mother’s in Mazar. The match was made by his mother, who had survived cancer for 11 years but passed from COVID-19 at the tender age of 46. The bride was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, a country that has no asylum system. Like nearly every Afghan refugee in that country, she held a temporary visa that had to be renewed every two years. Under Crowned Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, those visas became prohibitively expensive. Although the Saudis had no problem spending billions of dollars on war in Afghanistan over the last four decades, they made no space in their country for Afghan refugees to settle with dignity there. In 2019, as insurgent attacks raged in Afghanistan, she and her family packed up their lives and “returned” to a country they barely knew. They weren’t there for Afghanistan’s redevelopment under President Karzai. They certainly didn’t want to stay there in its state of chaos and destruction.

After the couple’s marriage-based petition was filed and approved, we had high hopes that she would be called and manifested onto a relocation flight. We waited and waited. We called our senators in New York and Pennsylvania. We made case inquiries. Through my position at Human Rights First, I kept a close eye on U.S. government-charted flights out of Afghanistan. We applied for humanitarian parole for her – still sure it was the path out. Although spouses, unlike siblings, are entitled to immediate travel to the United States, nothing came of any of our efforts to get her out and into this country.

The memory of my cousin, her mother-in-law, motivated us all to do everything we could to bring the couple back together. A year later, the National Visa Center finally told us that she was ready to begin her consular processing. We submitted all required fees and documents and asked multiple times for the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to expedite our request. We were told that our request was approved but still heard nothing. With each passing day, our hope faded.

Both Congress’ failure to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow all evacuated Afghans to directly apply for permanent residency, and the inconsistent and belaboring security questions Afghans were asked during their asylum interviews suggested that we weren’t very far past the days of the Patriot Act. We wondered why this population was viewed as being the very terrorists that they fought against and fled from, many having lost family members in that fight and flight.

As we approached the two-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul, one of the darkest days in a country with many shadows and very little light, our young bride finally arrived. As I watched her exit her gate at New York’s Kennedy Airport, I felt joy and pride at what we were able to do and hugged her tight to welcome her to her new family and new country.

Each person we are able to bring to safety offers a glimmer of hope. Perhaps not for the future of Afghanistan, but for the use of compassion, resources, and grit to bring people out of the darkness and into the light.



  • Shala Gafary

Published on August 31, 2023


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