A man holds a certificate acknowledging his work for Americans (center) as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021.  (Photo/RNS-AP)
A man holds a certificate acknowledging his work for Americans (center) as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021. (Photo/RNS-AP)

‘How are we going to survive?’ Jewish forum looks to support Afghan refugees

Zuhal Bahaduri was visibly moved while speaking about her cousins still in Afghanistan.

“There’s a sense of abandonment,” said Bahaduri, the daughter of Afghans who settled in the Bay Area. “What do we do next? How are we going to survive?”

The community organizer spoke during a Wednesday afternoon webinar hosted by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council about what Afghans are going through and how the local Jewish community can help.

“Living Our Values – Supporting Afghan Refugees in the Bay Area” brought together Bahuduri, Afghan immigration attorney Spojmie Nasiri and leaders from refugee resettlement agencies HIAS and Berkeley-based Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, addressing the legal and emotional problems facing Afghan refugees, both those trapped in Afghanistan and those who’ve made it out.

“People are getting out however they need to get out, however they can get out,” said Naomi Steinberg, vice president of HIAS, the immigrant-aid nonprofit headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland. “That is one of the reasons that this is such a chaotic response. People are running for their lives.”

Nasiri, who herself came to the U.S. as a refugee in the 1980s and today runs an immigration law practice in Pleasanton, said she had seven clients who made it out, but eight are still trapped in the midst of a chaotic situation.

“The stampedes, beatings, suicide bombers,” she said. “I had clients sending me photos of the river full of blood and bodies, and saying ‘I’m OK, I didn’t get hurt. But I can’t get into the airport.’”

One client is married to a U.S. citizen but didn’t have time to complete her paperwork before Kabul fell and the U.S. withdrew its troops from the country.

There’s a sense of abandonment. What do we do next? How are we going to survive?

She “went through everything she was supposed to do. Got into the airport only to be tossed out because she was not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident,” Nasiri said.

There are “many thousands” like that, she explained. And for those who do make it to the U.S., they face further challenges — including legal hurdles to obtaining status and receiving benefits — depending on the kind of visa they received. (Special Immigrant Visas were given to thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S., but others are being accepted as “humanitarian parolees” because they are in danger from the Taliban.)

But first, many refugees need basic necessities. For years, JFCS East Bay has been working with HIAS to help resettle Afghan refugees, so there is a system in place; but JFCS CEO Robin Mencher said the recent need has been unprecedented.

“We are staffing up,” Mencher said. “As soon as someone arrives, we meet them at the airport and we go through a 90-day process where they’re assigned a case manager to support their basic needs and acculturate them into the community.”

The agency, which hires Afghan staffers, also connects families with legal aid and other resources in the existing Afghan community, one of the largest in the U.S.

“It’s about really building the infrastructure to ramp up to meet the need right now,” Mencher said. “To make this happen with as much dignity and support as possible.”

In terms of what people can do to help, Bahaduri suggested contacting legislators to encourage them to support Afghan refugees and help deliver humanitarian aid. She pointed to the Afghan-American Coalition, which is setting up a script to help. And Naomi Steinberg, a vice president at HIAS, said the organization has a series of links on how individuals and congregations can take action. JFCS East Bay is also accepting donations.

According to its website, JFCS helped 43 Afghan refugees with special visas in August and is taking 89 more, plus 100 more with humanitarian parole.

“In the news it sounds like this is over,” Mencher said. “For those of us who work in resettlement, it’s just the beginning.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.