Featured photo: Shamaila Shaiq, 25, posed for a portrait on her porch in Leicester on Aug. 2. Her resettlement from Afghanistan to North Carolina was coordinated by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. (photo by Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press)

This story was originally published by Carolina Public Press, story by Mehr Sher

Shamaila Shaiq, 25, works as a concierge, coordinating with guests, at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. Shaiq is dressed in a pink satin skirt and white shirt, and wears a loosely draped pink headscarf. She is a Tajik from Parwan province in Afghanistan. Raised in Kabul, Shaiq migrated to the United States in November 2021, along with thousands of other Afghans who evacuated their home country through Operation Allies Welcome in the aftermath of the U.S. military withdrawal and Taliban takeover

Shaiq is fluent in English and graduated from Kabul University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2019. She had a career as a business development officer, supporting Afghan women nationally for the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industries, or AWCCI. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, her career ended, she said. She is the first in her family to complete her education and finish college.

Shaiq left Afghanistan within two days of getting a call from the National Endowment For Democracy, based on a referral, to notify her of the evacuation plan in November 2021. “I felt like I was going to an unknown future, and I just took a small suitcase with some clothes and necessities,” she said.

Shaiq said she was nervous all night about telling her family and eventually settled on texting her older brothers: “You guys know how hard I worked for my education, for this career that I had, and now it’s nothing. So, I am not asking you, but I want to leave and just want to tell you that I have to leave.”

As the Qatar Airways plane took off from Kabul International Airport, Shaiq said, she felt heavy and began to cry, looking out of the window, as she thought about what had happened to her country. “I was leaving my family for the first time and may not be able to see them again,” she said. 

Shaiq’s story of resettlement in Western North Carolina is just one glimpse into the lives of thousands of Afghans who have resettled in the state. North Carolina ranks ninth among states taking in refugees from Afghanistan in 2023 and has a population of thousands of Afghan evacuees who are resettled in the state. 

In the last two years, Afghan arrivals in North Carolina faced challenges within a stretched resettlement system. With limited resources, communities have stepped in to offer volunteer support, but many say it’s not sustainable. Afghan arrivals also grapple with a backlogged U.S. immigration system, financial stability, and adapting to a new way of life. Around 3,568 Afghans resettled between September 2021 and June 2023, with 15 local agencies aiding them across 28 counties, including Guilford, Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, and Buncombe, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. This year, over 288 new Afghan arrivals have already resettled, according to NCDHHS.

History of Afghan resettlement in the state

The first wave of Afghan migration to the United States began in the 1980s, after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when thousands of Afghans were dispossessed and fleeing war. As a result, large Afghan communities have existed in the U.S. for nearly 40 years in Virginia, New York and California, according to 2019 data from the Institute for Immigration Research at George Mason University.

“The political context is different this time,” said David Marshall, a human geographer and professor of geography and history at Elon University, who researches migrant and refugee populations. Elon University School of Law’s Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic is a refugee service provider with the state, providing services for citizenship, transportation, interpretation and translation. 

“Many of the new wave of Afghan migrants came into the country because of their work with the U.S. forces, and so we have seen a lot of veterans groups, church groups, and communities that would have previously been suspicious of refugees now wanting to welcome them.”

Afghans are demographically, ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse, he said.

“It can be a misnomer to talk about Afghans,” Marshall said. Afghans include a majority of Pashtuns as well as Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities that are predominantly Muslim, either Sunni or Shia

The new wave of Afghans in the country also varies in terms of age, status, and skill level.

“On one hand, there are lots of young men who were of military age and were in the armed services, but there are also many families of people who were working with Americans or other Western organizations,” Marshall said. 

There is also diversity in education and skills. “Some may be coming in with a high level of skills and expertise but may have to get service industry jobs that don’t match their skill level,” he said. 

Marshall said that based on his observations and research on migrant communities in North Carolina, in the past most migrants and refugees were resettled in the state’s major urban areas, such as Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and Charlotte. But now they are resettling in more remote communities.

Resettlement challenges 

Shamaila Shaiq, 25, posed for a portrait on her porch in Leicester on Aug. 2. Her resettlement from Afghanistan to North Carolina was coordinated by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Photo: Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

When Afghans, like Shaiq, arrive in the state, local resettlement agencies “provide them and their families the services that support their pursuit of integration, self-sufficiency, and stability,” according to NCDHHS. 

Nonprofit resettlement agencies in the U.S. lost a significant amount of funding under the Trump administration in 2020, when U.S. refugee admissions were cut to a record low, capped at 15,000 people. This led to reduced government funding for the agencies meant to support refugee populations. Resettlement agencies receive the funding per refugee they serve. As a result, many organizations were forced to shut down or reduce staff

“Resettlement agencies were decimated by the Trump administration,” said Arash Azizzada, co-founder of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, a nonprofit group of community organizers in the Afghan diaspora. “Their support typically lasts the initial three months, and starting a new chapter after so much trauma and tragedy requires long-term investment.”

In May 2021, President Biden increased the admissions to 62,500 refugees, but many agencies remain underresourced years later and have been building  their capacity and programs to support the growing number of people migrating to the U.S.

“In many communities where we do our work, in New York for instance, it’s the Iranians and Pakistanis who show up [as volunteers] and speak the language, either Pashto or Farsi, and translate for asylum applications,” Azizzada, who is based in Los Angeles, said. “I think that shows Afghan newcomers the unique beauty that America does have, at times, across communities.”

“Resettlement agencies and other organizations that support new arrivals, like Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, lack support and rely on volunteer-based models. Volunteers show up but are burning out after two years because of the amount of work they have been doing to support new arrivals,” Azizzada said.

In states with larger, preexisting Afghan populations, such as California, Virginia, and New York, Azizzada said, the burden is usually on the Afghan community to show up for new arrivals.

“Afghans are deeply underresourced, undervalued, and not seen in American civic life. We’re new immigrants to this country and have a real lack of political power,” he said. “Organizations like ours can’t be expected to do this on a volunteer basis.”

Marshall agreed. “The support of caseworkers and volunteer communities is not necessarily long term or sustainable,” he said. 

Marshall also served as a mentor for Rachel Curtis, 20, a senior studying international and global studies at Elon University, on her two-year research project about the perceptions of self-sufficiency among Afghan migrants who have resettled in North Carolina. 

Curtis conducted her research on Afghan migrants in Burlington, Greensboro, Durham, and Charlotte. 

“There was a big need, and in my conversations with caseworkers, they were overwhelmed and taking on a lot of cases, so volunteers stepped up to help out, alleviating that pressure for them,” she said. Every resettlement agency has a caseworker assigned to a client, or a migrant or refugee, to help them resettle and navigate their needs, but there is a capacity issue with few caseworkers assigned to many clients, according to Curtis. 

“Our early findings were that some of the biggest barriers to self-sufficiency were communication difficulties,”Curtis spoke about the language challenges among refugees, volunteers, and caseworkers.

Resettlement agencies typically serve 150-200 new arrivals in a year, said Hanna DeMarcus, the resettlement director at Lutheran Services Carolinas in Western North Carolina. In the first three months of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Lutheran Services Carolinas received 87 people in three months in Greater Asheville. 

Lutheran Services Carolinas in Asheville was set up to help with their initial needs, such as long-term housing, signing them up for benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps, helping them find jobs, as well as enrollment in schools, according to DeMarcus.

“We provide all of the services needed to transition to a new country in collaboration with the local communities,” DeMarcus said. 

“The evacuation was unprecedented, and it was an all-hands-on-deck scenario, where our staff and the community really had to step up to welcome these newcomers to Asheville,” DeMarcus said. 

One major challenge for Afghan newcomers in Asheville was the availability of housing, according to DeMarcus, and the agency had to tap into community connections to find affordable housing options. 

“Just like in many cities in the U.S., affordable housing can be difficult to find especially if you’re looking for 87 people at once,” DeMarcus said. “Within the first three months of arrival, we were able to find housing that was safe, affordable and appropriate.”

But during the initial months, many Afghans stayed in short-term housing, such as Airbnbs or short-term rentals, according to DeMarcus. She said many residents in the communities in the greater Asheville area offered housing options far below market rates, and some even offered free housing for Afghans. 

“This is something that you don’t just find on Zillow; it comes from creating relationships, a network, and communicating the needs,” she said. “Housing remains a challenge.”

“We have started exploring subsidized housing options,” DeMarcus said. “The leaning on community support for rentals was unique at the time because of the large number of arrivals of refugees in a short period of time. 

“Leaning on individuals instead of landlords or property management companies is not something I would expect long term for refugee resettlement, but we had people offer lower-cost housing options for six months up to a year,” she said. “It was a stopgap measure at the time, but the community continues to support resettlement efforts in other ways, such as through volunteering and donating.”

Another significant challenge for local resettlement agencies is explaining U.S. systems to Afghan newcomers, according to DeMarcus. 

“The U.S. health care system doesn’t make sense to a lot of Americans, so explaining insurance, copays, deductibles, and whatnot to a newcomer can be a challenge,” she said.

Additionally, many Afghans are illiterate in their first language, Pashto or Dari, according to DeMarcus. “Illiteracy is an additional barrier that sometimes we don’t see with other demographics, but it can be navigated.” 

Volunteer support and community engagement for resettlement 

Shaiq moved to Asheville on Feb. 7 and has been there since, living at a volunteer’s home, who initially welcomed her through Lutheran Services Carolinas’ Circle of Welcome, a group of faith- and community-based volunteers who supported new Afghan arrivals. 

One local resettlement agency, Lutheran Services Carolinas, opened its Asheville office in Western North Carolina in January 2022 with the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program and has since also served Ukrainian arrivals. It is located in Buncombe County, the county with the fifth-largest group of resettled Afghans in North Carolina, according to NCDHHS.

This graphic shows the number of Afghan arrivals per county in North Carolina since Sept. 1, 2021, according to data Carolina Public Press requested from the N.C. Department for Health and Human Services. Note: It excludes data for counties with fewer than 10 Afghan arrivals due to privacy concerns, according to NCDHHS.

“We are funded by the federal and state programs, and we depend on them, but funding does fluctuate, and it is starkly different from what resettlement agencies used to have allocated to them,” said DeMarcus, the resettlement director for Lutheran Services Carolinas. “When we opened in January 2022, it was a very small staff, but we have been able to build capacity in the past year and have more than doubled from a staff of five people to 12.”

Lutheran Services Carolinas provided training and onboarding for the new volunteers in the Circle of Welcome.

Molly Dingledine, a volunteer, started helping Afghan newcomers in January 2022 through the Circle of Welcome. She volunteered with a family that moved to Sacramento, Calif., to be close to their relatives. Dingledine also hosts biweekly gatherings on Saturdays.

“We host a potluck for women and children,” Dingledine said. “We have a group of volunteer babysitters and usually do some sort of craft, such as jewelry making.”

Dingledine is the founder of Sisters in Circles, a North Carolina-based nonprofit, and through her organization, she also runs the Afghan Women’s Craft Collective for Afghan women in the Greater Asheville area who make handicrafts. She said 70 percent of the profits go to the artists, or Afghan women. 

“We have just begun a collaborative quilt project with the women,” she said. “The plan is to create a queen-size quilt which will be raffled — the goal is to raise money for the women’s green card applications.”

Anne Vilen was initially a volunteer for Afghans resettled by Catholic Charities, another resettlement agency serving Afghans in Western North Carolina. She started helping out in December 2021, by driving an Afghan man to the mosque once a week. Within a few weeks, “it became clear that the needs were much greater than that,” she said. “He lost his housing suddenly, needed a place to live and also a job. 

“Caseworkers usually find jobs and housing and handle medical appointments,” Vilen said. “But there’s so much need and fewer caseworkers.” 

Since 2021, her volunteer work has allowed her to provide personal assistance with resettlement to six Afghan men. 

“I feel strongly that greater diversity is a good thing, and I want to do this volunteer work,” she said. “For many volunteers, it’s been a transformative experience, and I think of these young men like my own sons.”

To continue to provide support, DeMarcus said, Lutheran Services Carolinas is likely to refer Afghans to services for additional support for longer. 

“After the 90-days resettlement program, depending on the client’s needs, we could refer them to other additional programs to help them with things like finding a job or other needs,” she said. Additional support is available for up to five years after their arrival to the U.S., according to NCDHHS. 

While Shaiq’s asylum case was approved in March, many in the U.S. are still in a legal limbo, awaiting approvals in a backlogged immigration system.

Afghans who arrive in the U.S. come in four different kinds of immigration statuses: humanitarian parole, special immigrant visa, parolees with pending applications for special immigrant visa status or refugee status. Each status has different benefits.

Afghans who come to the U.S. under humanitarian parole are in the U.S. temporarily under this status and are eligible for fewer public benefit programs and assistance. They would need to seek permanent resident status and citizenship, either in the U.S. or elsewhere. 

Afghans who entered the country on humanitarian parole and have pending applications for a special immigrant visa have access to more federal assistance for the longer term and are treated as visa holders. Those who arrive under recognized refugee status are also eligible for more federal, state and local benefits, similar to the visa holders and U.S. citizens. 

In North Carolina, a vast majority of Afghans who arrived since August 2021, were humanitarian parolees, according to NCDHHS.

Humanitarian parole is temporary, and to remain permanently in the U.S, Afghans have to seek another legal status, according to Jacob Oakes, a staff attorney with Pisgah Legal Services, serving Afghan clients and other underserved populations in Western North Carolina. 

“They basically had two years to figure it out to apply for another permanent status,” Oakes said. “The U.S. designated Afghanistan as a country for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, and so Afghan citizens who were here prior to a certain date were eligible to apply for another separate immigration remedy to remain in the U.S.”

But not everyone is eligible, and only those who have worked with the U.S. government or contractors are eligible for an SIV, he said. “There’s problems with the SIV petition backlogs, erroneous denial, inability to prove your affiliation with the U.S. government, because by nature many folks were working discreetly and a lot of different problems,” Oakes said. “So, for folks who had trouble with their SIV or who simply were ineligible for anything else, the only option is asylum.”

Oakes said he has been helping many Afghans in Western North Carolina apply for asylum and be designated as refugees.

Congress recognized the need for Afghans to be able to seek permanent status and enacted a law in the fall of 2021 to expedite the processing of Afghan asylum seekers because of the backlogs.

“Asylum seekers may have to wait five years for their interviews, but under this law, interviews were required in 45 days, and the law demanded the government to adjudicate those applications within 150 days,” said Oakes. “But the government has failed miserably to comply with this law.”

Many Afghans have been waiting a long time for their cases to be approved, he said. To date, Pisgah Legal Services has had 11 asylum approvals for Afghans, with more than 40 asylum applications pending, according to Oakes. Fewer than 5,000 of the more than 83,000 Afghans who resettled in the United States have successfully secured permanent immigration status for themselves and their families.

Permanently resettling

Shamaila Shaiq posed with some of her artwork at her home in Leicester on Aug. 2. Shaiq first started creating artwork while awaiting her resettlement assignment at Fort Dix, N.J. Photo: Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

While Shaiq will be permanently resettling in the United States and seeking her green card, she said she still faces other challenges in pursuit of her master’s in business analytics and in adjusting to life in a different culture.

Most U.S. universities require international students to submit an attested transcript with their applications. Shaiq applied to N.C. State University but was rejected because she did not meet the transcript requirements, she said. She also contacted transcript evaluation agencies to meet the requirement, but the agencies said they couldn’t offer their services to Afghan universities.

Shaiq said it’s hard for Afghan students to meet these requirements, since former students are unable to connect with the administration to access official documents from their institutions, in her case, Kabul University.

“This is my biggest barrier,” she said. “I’m looking for a university that can facilitate me in my unique situation.” Shaiq said she isn’t giving up on her goal and hopes a university will be understanding of her lack of access to official documents from Afghanistan and admit her. She aims to start her own business after completing her Master of Business Administration and wants to serve the women in her country, as she was doing before the Taliban takeover.

“I’m working and hoping to save for my education,” she said. Shaiq also supports her family back home and sends $200-$300 a month, or approximately 17,000 to 25,000 Afghanis, the official currency of Afghanistan.

Shaiq mostly keeps to herself since many of the Afghan women who migrated to the greater Asheville area have their own families to take care of. “They might have their own goals, but they are different from mine,” she said.

She continues to enjoy sketching and painting, a skill she developed when she was living at Fort Dix, N.J., awaiting resettlement, she said. Shaiq said one of her friends is holding an exhibition in Asheville in August, and some of her paintings will be on display. 

While Shaiq recognizes the ways in which she has adapted and changed, she said it’s important to her to hold onto her religious and cultural identity. Sometimes she finds it challenging because she feels she is treated differently because of her appearance, she said.

“At work we have all kinds of guests, and sometimes they don’t want to talk to me, and I don’t know why,” she said. “I’m the only person who wears a scarf, but I have colleagues who support me and tell me to let them know if I feel uncomfortable,” she said.

Shaiq said that she feels as if she has grown a lot from the person she was before she left her homeland.

“I don’t feel scared of living on my own anymore because I have gone through many issues,” Shaiq said. “In the past, I would never have thought that I would be able to handle all of this on my own, but now I’m doing it.” 

Former U.S. government policies left resettlement agencies cash strapped. Now, they’re gradually rebuilding their capacity with the availability of more funds under the Biden administration. 

Afghan refugee resettlement in North Carolina has created ongoing challenges and relies on volunteer help, which many believe isn’t sustainable. Yet, it highlights the need for teamwork among the federal, state, and local governments, resettlement groups, and the public to make resettlement work.

Resources

To learn how you can support resettlement efforts or to volunteer you can get in touch with the following local agencies in North Carolina:

Click here to learn more about the challenges Afghan refugees face.

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Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Send an email to [email protected].

This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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