This story was originally published at Prism.
By Bareerah Zafar
Before arriving in the U.S. six years ago, Besemellah Khuram experienced firsthand the invasion and occupation of his home country of Afghanistan by U.S. military forces in the name of democracy and freedom. Over the past few days, he bore witness from Sacramento, California, through TV screens and phone calls with family as the nation’s major cities fell to the Taliban. Now, in the wake of this week’s events—coming on the heels of decades of years of war, chronic poverty, natural disasters, and a pandemic—the 36-year-old community group leader is anticipating a fresh wave of people fleeing Afghanistan.
“The whole country is panicked and living in fear,” Khuram said. “Everything is lost.”
But here in Sacramento, he’s preparing to help offer folks refuge and advocating for other U.S. communities to do the same.
Khuramt runs a Sacramento-based community group for Afghans that acts as a space for Afghans to connect and provide support for one another. The city is one of the leading destinations for Afghan refugees because the community is welcoming and supportive, he said. Organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) are active in the area, offering free services to aid in refugee resettlement. Local mosques, such as the SALAM Islamic Center, also support refugees by providing financial assistance through community donations to help refugees adjust to their new life. Khuram said that because the existing Afghan community in Sacramento is already so large, refugees feel safe and connected to their culture.
“It feels like home in Sacramento,” he said.
Khuram arrived in the U.S. in 2015 under a Special Immigration Visa (SIV), a program created to protect Afghan allies who aided U.S. government operations on the ground in Afghanistan.
Though more than 300,000 Afghan civilians have been affiliated with the U.S. mission, only 16,000 Afghan SIVs have been issued since 2014, according to the IRC.
“It is vital that the Biden Administration fully commits to its promises to continue to provide the humanitarian aid and diplomatic support that is so desperately needed,” IRC Afghanistan Director Vicki Aken said in a statement.
There are currently more than 18,000 SIV applications in the pipeline, as well as thousands of Afghans in dire need of protection who are ineligible under the SIV program because they did not provide services to American operations. The Biden administration has taken steps to resolve this issue by introducing the “Priority-2” designation for Afghans affiliated with the U.S. who don’t qualify for the SIV program. However, this program came under fire for requiring refugees to first seek shelter in a third country in order to become eligible.
On Monday, President Joe Biden issued a memorandum directing Secretary of State Antony Blinken to use the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act to help meet the “unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of refugees, victims of conflict, and other persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan.” The Biden administration recently took steps to speed up SIV processing, which usually takes years to complete. Starting at the end of July and in the coming weeks, thousands of SIV applicants will be evacuated from Afghanistan and hosted at a U.S. government facility in Virginia.
Evacuees will arrive in groups of 250 every three to four days and enter the U.S. as “parolees,” meaning their case for resettlement is pending final approval. They will be aided by organizations such as the IRC, CAIR, and other agencies, along with community groups like Khuram’s.
Oussama Mokeddem is the policy and advocacy manager of the Sacramento chapter of CAIR. He said that though they do not know the exact number of refugees they will be aiding in the coming days, members of the organization are ready to provide free services pertaining to immigration status, obtaining visas, obtaining paths to citizenships, and more.
“It really is unfortunate to see such instability, yet again, as a result of poor foreign policy and lack of infrastructure,” Mokeddem said. “Our number one priority is ensuring that families are helped and supported through this time.”
He urges Americans to listen to Afghan voices and to provide them the support they need. As for Khuram, though he has no hope for the future of his home country, he urges his fellow Afghans to raise their voices, and he urges the international community to show humanity for his people.
Bareerah Zafar is a journalist and beauty editor located in Southern California. She dedicates her work to empowering underrepresented communities through storytelling.
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