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Remembering our obligations to Afghan refugees

August 15 marks a year since I watched my fellow Afghans fall from the wings of a U.S. plane as it left Kabul airport. The images on seared themselves in my memory and brought an urgency to my desire to see my fellow Afghans safe. I hope that in the time since then, our resolve as Americans to do right by the Afghan people hasn’t dimmed. In particular, the crisis in Ukraine should not altogether overshadow Afghan resettlement needs.

I was born in Kabul and came here with my parents during the Soviet invasion of our country. As refugees in the 1980s, my parents impressed on me the importance of a helping hand to integrate. It’s what set me on my own career path helping refugees resettle when they arrive here in America. Since last year’s withdrawal of American troops from my country I’ve been busier than ever.

In Los Angeles alone, where I help people integrate, I’ve helped hundreds of Afghans. Roughly 79,000 Afghan nationals have come to the U.S. as part of Operation Allies Welcome. It’s the coordinated effort across the federal government to support and resettle them. It includes people who worked on behalf of the United States when American troops were on the ground. More than half of the Afghan immigrants in America live in the Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and New York metro areas, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

These Afghans were lucky enough to make it here, rather than fall, desperate, from the wings of a plane. But when they did arrive, they all faced a new life here with little sense of security. The airlift was a daunting task that would not have been possible without the USA. Many people were airlifted to relative safety, despite the upheaval and loss of life on both sides. Meanwhile, arriving fresh from Afghanistan in the United States does feel like its own kind of free-fall. You’re optimistic because you don’t have a choice, but you pray that your landing is not too hard. The U.S. recently loosened some visa restrictions that have barred many from green cards. It’s a positive step.

Coming to America after enduring 20 years of war is hard enough. Many Afghans must learn English. Or they must take care of family members who don’t speak it. They need to figure out how to become a legal permanent resident, so they can settle here. Otherwise, they face the uncertainty of what might happen next. But lawyers cost money. And there isn’t enough free legal help available for everyone. People don’t know if they’ll be here for two years before the U.S. kicks them out again. It’s hard, in those circumstances, to avoid succumbing to anxiety.

Meanwhile, the housing crisis in Los Angeles is dire. I’ve seen families struggle to find homes even with rental help. Now they’re facing eviction and uncertainty about the path forward. High housing costs are a struggle for everyone on a low income in Los Angeles. They’re particularly challenging for people who have recently arrived here as refugees. Inflation makes matters worse. The desperation is such that Afghan women and girls are vulnerable to trafficking. I have heard about forced marriages in return for payment. Nobody should find themselves in such a desperate situation and we must do more to help.

It is hard enough for those who make it here to move forward. Still, many more Afghans are stuck under the Taliban back home. More than 78,000 such Afghans have applied for special immigrant visas. Fewer than 3 percent have evacuated so far. There is one concrete step the U.S. government can take today to help. Since the spring, we have expanded Temporary Protected Status for 75,000 Ukrainians. It’s a humanitarian program that gives legal cover to refugees. It means they don’t have to jump through the same paperwork hoops to get visas. President Joe Biden has spoken about America’s moral obligation to help Ukrainians. It’s true, and inspiring to hear him say so.

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