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After a traumatic journey, Afghan immigrants on humanitarian parole cope with uncertainty

Saeed Sharifi (left) and his cousin, Mina Sediqi, at their attorney's office in Dallas.Kim Leeson

FRISCO, Tex. — As American troops withdrew from Afghanistan and Kabul fell to the Taliban in August, Mina Sediqi, 23, weighed the kind of decision that might come only once in a lifetime.

Her cousin, Saeed Sharifi, had been approved to evacuate to the United States, yet he was only 15 and needed a chaperone. On a frantic, evening phone call, their aunt, Atefa Sharifi, 37, insisted Sediqi accompany him. But Sediqi was hesitating.

Unlike Saeed, who had waited eight desperate years to join Sharifi in Texas, Sediqi had not dreamt of a life outside Kabul. She was enrolled in the Afghan capital’s most prestigious university and treasured spending time with her large, close-knit family.

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But she could already feel her world collapsing in on her. As Taliban forces swiftly swept through the country, she lost her job working on women’s rights issues for a human rights organization. Classes were suspended. More and more, she found herself stuck at home. Sediqi put her aunt on speaker and her family huddled around her as Atefa Sharifi explained the stakes.

“‘You have to leave for your education and your future,’” Sediqi remembered her aunt and mother both advised.

Crestfallen, Sediqi relented. An ambitious, young woman who once so meticulously charted her own path, she would have to learn to live in uncertainty in an unfamiliar country. That uncertainty has been exacerbated by the precarious immigration lifeline the US government has provided her, a temporary status known as humanitarian parole.

Atefa Sharifi (left) with her adopted son, Saeed, and niece Mina Sediqi, at their attorney's office in Dallas.Kim Leeson for The Boston Globe

Roughly 66,750 Afghans have arrived in the United States since Aug. 17, as part of evacuations after conditions quickly deteriorated in their country this summer ahead of the chaotic withdrawal of American troops. About 1,500 of them were granted special immigrant visas, which allow people to legally enter the country and hold jobs, because they worked with US military and government officials.

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But with visa processing delays and refugee services lagging, more than 65,000, including many children and young people like Sediqi and Saeed, had to be admitted on humanitarian parole, a more limited status that is typically granted in compelling cases and emergency situations. Only about 30,000 of them are eligible to receive the same special immigrant visas at some point, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

That means the rest have no direct path to permanent residency or citizenship. And not until this month could those refugees on humanitarian parole even apply for the same benefits as visa holders, including funds to find housing, clothing, and food.

Sediqi and Saeed have been placed in limbo in a sprawling, archaic US immigration system that tends to put people’s lives on hold and has increasingly provided fewer stable paths to staying in the country without fear of deportation, with cases often hinging on the arbitrary discretion of immigration officials and judges and the whiplash of politics. Refugees and immigrants on humanitarian parole typically have to renew the status every two years as they apply for asylum, visas, or other forms of immigration relief.

Congress has tried to address some of its drawbacks, last month making people here on that status eligible for English and job training programs, as well as federal financial assistance to find housing and health care. But with few families yet to leave US military installations, immigrant lawyers and advocates say it’s too soon to gauge whether the changes will be enough to provide a smoother transition for tens of thousands of Afghan families.

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“At the end of the day, there are just a lot of questions,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which represents Afghans seeking special immigrant visas, “and these are life-or-death questions.”

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Sediqi and Saeed are among those first Afghans to be released from US military bases, leaving Fort Bliss in El Paso, Tex., this month after weeks of sleeping on cots in crowded facilities and undergoing medical checks.

At Atefa Sharifi’s brick home in Frisco, a wealthy suburb just north of Dallas, they and their aunt, who also adopted Saeed as her son back in their home country, expressed relief to be reunited. But often, particularly when Sharifi is alone, her mind drifts back to her remaining family in Afghanistan and a constant worry.

“Because of my work and my service, I put their lives in danger,” she said.

Nearly a decade ago, she had been working in citizen support services in the consulate section of the US Embassy in Afghanistan when she began to receive death threats, text messages, and phone calls from unknown numbers. She decided she needed to flee after armed men attempted to pull her out of her brother-in-law’s car while she was out shopping and take her work Blackberry.

Soon after, in 2013, Sharifi received a special immigrant visa, which is available to people who work with the US military or government and would allow her to receive a green card and eventually citizenship. She and her husband moved to the Dallas area, but US immigration agencies refused to recognize her adoption of Saeed, and they were forced to leave him behind with his grandmother in Kabul.

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For the loved ones of Afghans who have risked their lives working with American officials, humanitarian parole has served as one of several pathways to safety in the United States. But it has been a fairly narrow one, particularly as the Trump administration made cuts to legal immigration services, further straining already long delays in visa processing and overburdened immigration courts.

US immigration officials twice denied Sharifi’s petitions for humanitarian parole on behalf of Saeed. They had been separated for eight years when the third application she submitted in 2019 was approved this summer, just as the Taliban were pushing through rural areas into Kabul and humanitarian parole was quickly becoming the main rope out for tens of thousands of families.

By then, Sharifi’s harassers now appeared to be targeting her son. Men followed him home from school in July. “’Where is your mom?’” Saeed recalled they asked. “And, ‘When will she come?’”

Saeed had waited so long to come to the United States, he had all but lost hope. When Sharifi called in August to tell him that his application had been approved and that he should pack because he might have to leave soon, he didn’t truly believe it. He threw a few T-shirts in a backpack and went to bed without dinner, too anxious to eat. He wasn’t expecting his grandmother to rouse him from his bed just hours later after Sharifi called again with the news: A former US State Department supervisor had helped her get permission for his evacuation.

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Sharifi called Sediqi’s family next and urged her to accompany him. She had only a matter of minutes to decide whether to stay or to go. Sediqi’s father took her and Saeed to a gas station near the airport with some other relatives. Then together, with the help of a volunteer, Sediqi and Saeed rushed into the deadly chaos.

“People were running and shouting, and there were gunshots,” Sediqi said. “It was the first time I was experiencing hearing gunshots and seeing the Taliban face to face.”

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The United States has used humanitarian parole for refugees before, most recently with the evacuations of interpreters from Iraq in 2007 and more than four decades ago during the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. But the status has more commonly been used in cases of medical emergencies, funerals, or other situations of humanitarian concern.

Unlike people who receive visas or enter through US refugee programs, those on humanitarian parole have not in the past had immediate access to green card legal status, work permits, and a massive support network of social workers and advocates to help them integrate into the country.

As nonprofits, businesses, and community leaders across the country gear up to resettle Afghan families, the Biden administration has assembled a national network led by former officials from the Obama and Bush administration to help coordinate services for all of the Afghans. And with the changes enacted by Congress, those on humanitarian parole will now have access to those same benefits, lawyers and advocates said.

“Evacuees shouldn’t be punished because we waited so long to get them out, and that we didn’t get the paperwork straight,” said Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Salem who pushed for the resettlement measures.

But that doesn’t resolve the other challenges of humanitarian parole. And Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a nonpartisan immigration advocacy organization, said groups like his will continue the push for legislation that can provide long-term immigration relief and residency for Afghan arrivals “so that they can go on to fully own the American dream.”

Sharifi and her husband are trying to adopt Saeed in the United States, a move that would allow him to apply for a green card. Sediqi will have to seek asylum, a process that could take years.

But she is determined to succeed in her new country and to graduate from college, remembering she has received an opportunity others in her family have not. Atefa Sharifi’s sister, Latifa, a prominent human rights lawyer who had accompanied Sediqi and Saeed to the Kabul airport with her children, was not granted permission from the United States to evacuate. Her child was injured in the mayhem, and her family remains in hiding.

“I want to show the world that Afghan girls are strong,” Sediqi said. “They have goals like other girls in the world. They’re strong … they still have hope.”