‘Mental torture for us’: A year after fleeing Afghanistan, refugees in Chicago anguish over unclear future

Since last August, about 2,500 Afghans have resettled in Illinois. Many face huge hurdles in finding jobs, difficulty resolving their immigration status and uncertainty that some fear will have a long-term impact on their health.

SHARE ‘Mental torture for us’: A year after fleeing Afghanistan, refugees in Chicago anguish over unclear future
Siam Pasarly, who fled Afghanistan in August last year and is in the U.S. on a humanitarian parole visa, often comes home from his day job to work on his book or record videos for his channel, where he shares tips about entrepreneurship, he said.

Siam Pasarly, who fled Afghanistan in August 2021, is living in Chicago, having come to the United States on a humanitarian parole visa. The Taliban has killed his friends, he said. “This is mental torture to us. … That we are facing [an] unclear future.”

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

During emotional phone calls, Siam Pasarly tries to explain to his daughter why he can’t just buy her a plane ticket to reunite their Afghan family.

A year ago, Pasarly fled his homeland, fearing he might be killed as the Taliban seized power. Pasarly, 32, had worked with the U.S.-allied government in Afghanistan before it was ousted, and some of his friends were killed.

His wife and their children remain in hiding. But he has since settled into a studio apartment in Chicago. Still, his immigration status remains murky. He was temporarily allowed into the United States, given humanitarian parole. And he has applied for a special immigrant visa and asylum, which could provide a pathway to permanently remain in the country.

Still, Pasarly says, “This is mental torture to us. Mental torture that we are facing an unclear future.”

Since last August — when the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, sparking a humanitarian crisis — about 2,500 Afghans have resettled in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. More than 79,000 Afghans have relocated across the country.

In Afghanistan, many of them had worked in some capacity with the U.S. military, according to the State Department.

But some Afghans, like Pasarly, have not found stability. They worry that their undetermined immigration status might lead to them being deported, and others are still trying to find work that’s comparable to what they did in Afghanistan. Many feel anxiety and depression over having left relatives behind during their chaotic departures.

Elmida Kulovic, the refugee resettlement program director for Catholic Charities, says she’s worried about the long-term mental health effects for Afghans separated from extended family.

“In the beginning, you don’t have time to focus on anything, to think about your feelings or emotions,” Kulovic says. “You just need to focus on existence. I know that people are really, really concerned about their loved ones.”

A 40-year-old man who fled Afghanistan last fall says he has learned how to ride the CTA, get around using Google maps and carry groceries back to his apartment. But he’s also having difficulty sleeping, experiencing panic attacks and trying to navigate America’s health care system to improve his physical and mental well-being.

“Day life is more focused here,” says the man, who asked not to be identified. “Night is more focused on Afghanistan because, when night starts, the day starts in Afghanistan, and I’m receiving ... bad news. That bad news keeps me awake and makes me very, very sad.”

A 40-year-old Afghan refugee who didn’t want to be named says he is experiencing panic attacks and trying to navigate America’s health care system.

A 40-year-old Afghan refugee who doesn’t want to be named says he is experiencing panic attacks since fleeing his country last fall.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Another refugee, named Liza, who fled Afghanistan in December, says she feels safe in Chicago but still finds herself crying at night — especially when she comes across videos online from Afghanistan. Most of her family remains there, and she does not want her full name to be published because she worked for an organization funded by the United States.

“I can smile, I can feel happy,” she says of living in Chicago. “Then, I realize that my family still lives there, so I feel unhappy.”

Sima Quraishi, the executive director of the Muslim Women Resource Center, says family reunification remains one of the biggest issues for refugees. She says those who have sought help from her office since last August still regularly come by to check for any progress on their relatives’ applications for visas or refugee status to help get them out of Afghanistan.

“It’s really heartbreaking for them to just keep on coming and we don’t have an answer for them because we don’t have an answer from the government,” she says.

Liza, Pasarly and the 40-year-old man arrived in Chicago around February, part of a wave of Afghan refugees who were relocated in Illinois earlier this year. All three entered the country after receiving humanitarian parole, which allows someone to live in the U.S. for a temporary period of time because of a compelling emergency, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Others entered the country with special immigrant visas — which provide lawful permanent residency for those who worked closely with the U.S. military — or through the direct access refugee program for those who worked with U.S. contractors or U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations, according to Michael Turansick of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Turansick says the lawyers association and other Immigration advocates pushing for Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would create a pathway for Afghans to gain permanent residency — commonly known as green cards. Though some of the programs, such as the special immigrant visas, already allow Afghans to obtain residency, the act would prevent their applications from getting stuck in backlogs, he says.

“I had big dreams in Afghanistan, so I studied a lot in my country, and I wanted to become the president, but that dream has gone and died,” Liza says. “But now, I don’t want to give up. I want to continue and show — to the Taliban and every [person] that [doesn’t] allow women to follow their dreams — I want to show them that we can do it.”

“The Afghan Adjustment Act will take these individuals, almost all of whom were going to qualify either for [special immigrant visa] status or asylum, pull them out of those extensively backlogged processes and put them in a track that will actually [be] better managed than if they were all left to do it based upon their own individual qualifications,” Turansick says.

The legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this month but has not come up for a vote.

Though their future here remains uncertain, Liza and the 40-year-old man separately say they want to find work in the communication and journalism fields they worked in when they lived in Afghanistan.

The man says he hasn’t found full-time work because of health problems. There are many entry-level jobs, he says, but it’s been harder trying to get interviews for white-collar positions.

Liza works serving food at a senior building, and she wants to continue her studies. She had started a journalism graduate program just before the Taliban took over.

“I had big dreams in Afghanistan, so I studied a lot in my country, and I wanted to become the president, but that dream has gone and died,” Liza says. “But now, I don’t want to give up. I want to continue and show — to the Taliban and every [person] that [doesn’t] allow women to follow their dreams — I want to show them that we can do it.”

In Afghanistan, her relatives who are women and had professional careers now must stay home and aren’t allowed to work, according to Liza.

The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan happened as U.S. resettlement agencies recovered from years of cutbacks to refugee programs.

Pasarly, who arrived in February, says even he felt the demand that came with the influx of refugees. He relocated to Chicago after connecting with the Muslim Women Resource Center. Pasarly started volunteering at the center, and he was later hired there.

His apartment turned into an informal resource center for arriving Afghans, and he would sometimes stay up until midnight fielding requests. He helped organize three job fairs for newly arrived Afghans within the past year. Now, he tries to keep those requests to his working hours.

Siam Pasarly, who fled Afghanistan in August last year and is in the U.S. on a humanitarian parole visa, often comes home from his day job to work on his book or record videos for his channel, where he shares tips about entrepreneurship, he said. The Taliban has killed his friends, he said. “This is mental torture to us. … That we are facing [an] unclear future,” he said.

Afghan refugee Siam Pasarly often comes home from his day job to work on his book or record videos on entrepreneurship, as well as doing research into how to bring his family to live with him in Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

He tries to keep busy by writing books he wants to publish or researching ways to bring his wife and children to Chicago.

“I believe in luck,” Pasarly says. “Wish me good luck.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust

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