Muhammad Nishat, 40, worked for a humanitarian project in Afghanistan clearing landmines around the country. In August, he fled his home with his wife and eight children after the Taliban took over. “Everything changed dramatically,” he said. “We lost 20 years of achievements suddenly—in a week.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Under former President Donald Trump, the United States admitted a record low number of refugees. 

I was hired by Sahan Journal to cover immigration policy through a local lens in 2020, as Trump was running for reelection. Much of that reporting involved diving into refugee resettlement caps, which is the number a president sets for how many refugees will be allowed into the country in a given fiscal year. As dry and bureaucratic as the numbers game can be, it didn’t take long for me to discover just how important a number could be to refugees and the fragile systems that support them. 

Immediately after Joe Biden was sworn in as president in January, he began unraveling the deep damage done to immigration by Trump. While reporting on the reforms, it felt like every other story I was writing (and reading) started with “President Joe Biden ends” or “Biden administration reverses…” While the headlines seemed exciting, my sources in Minnesota—who include elected officials, refugee community advocates, immigration attorneys, and business owners—held their breaths. It would take longer than a news cycle to repair the entire refugee resettlement infrastructure.

That is, until it didn’t take very long at all. 

While I was reporting on refugees from across the world this year, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August changed everything. Afghans—and their families—who worked for the United States government, the former Afghan government, or human rights organizations crowded at the airport in Kabul hoping to get a seat on an evacuation flight. Many were unable to escape. Those who got out flew to the United States and awaited processing at military bases before they began resettling in cities across the country. For context, we’re talking about a system that hadn’t resettled a single Afghan refugee in Minnesota in the year prior, and only four Afghan refugees in the last decade. 

Earlier this year, one of my sources told me she hoped Biden’s immigration promises weren’t just “sparkly flowers,” but it felt like it at times. After following the emergency Afghan placement process in Minnesota and witnessing the connections grow between government agencies and community groups, I saw how much hard work goes into making lofty promises a reality.

A glimmer of hope for some Minnesota immigrant families: Biden dramatically raises cap on refugee admissions.

Biden announced in February he would set a cap of 125,000 refugee admissions for the first full fiscal year of his term, which started in October. Until then, Biden promised to accept 62,500 refugees compared to Trump’s outgoing cap of a mere 15,000. Refugee resettlement workers, who are responsible for all aspects of case management for refugees, expressed hope that an increase in admissions would lead to family reunification. 

At the same time, they had concerns remaining from the Trump administration. Resettlement agencies receive federal funding based on how many arrivals they facilitate in a year. Because arrivals were down, agencies across the country struggled. Some closed altogether. If the country says it’s ready for an influx of refugees, resettlement agencies need the federal government to commit to more sustainable funding, too.

President Biden’s flip-flop on refugees creates confusion for Minnesota families. We asked an immigration expert what happened to Biden’s campaign promises—and what’s next.

Sustainability is really important here, because the number of refugees across the world is always changing. Since the cap in the U.S. also changes yearly, resettlement agencies are left in limbo and, more importantly, so is the fate of their clients.

Three months after Biden said the nation would accept more refugees this year, he backtracked. For part of a day, it seemed impossible for the administration to support an additional 50,000 refugees. Then, in May, the Biden administration re-committed to its original cap increase. But by October, the United States had resettled just 11,411 refugees.

Nasreen Sajady, a member of the Afghan Cultural Society in Minnesota, led efforts to mobilize the Afghan community when the Taliban took over in August. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

‘This was exactly what happened in Saigon’: Afghans in Minnesota describe stranded family members, condemn U.S. failures

Amidst the flip-flops typical in Washington D.C., conflicts that force people to become refugees persisted throughout the world. 

After a 20-year military engagement in Afghanistan, the Taliban retook the country as the United States withdrew its final troops in August. As the military left a country once again in turmoil, they brought 124,000 people with them in one of the largest humanitarian airlift evacuations in history.

Afghans in Minnesota described to me the severity of what was happening on the ground in Kabul, but they spoke cautiously for fear of family members who were trying to evacuate. And while the Afghan community in Minnesota is small, that would soon change. One agency was meeting more than a dozen Afghans at the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport over the first few days of the evacuation. Since then, 541 Afghans have come to Minnesota.

More than 75 Afghan refugees will be arriving in Minnesota over the next week. Here’s how you can help these families right now.

When I first started reporting on Afghanistan, we started getting a lot more emails asking: How can I help? 

At first, I had to really scavenge the local social media scene to find ways for our readers to help. But it didn’t take long for donation pages, supply drives, and events to pop up. The majority of these initiatives were Afghan-led. But as the community mobilized, so did the state government.

Jamila Sadozai and her son Yamah Sadozai pose for a portrait inside their family restaurant, Ariana’s Kabob & Gyro Bistro, in St. Louis Park, Minnesota on Aug 24th, 2021. The restaurant ran a fundraiser for Afghan refugees. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The 44-day journey that changed Muhammad Nishat’s life

Over the next few months, I attended virtual community roundtable meetings every Tuesday where government agencies, resettlement workers, Afghan community members, and other volunteers found ways to support one another and create a streamlined resettlement process for incoming Afghan refugees. I recognized a lot of the faces on the call from my previous reporting.

But that meant nothing if I could not see the actual impact for Afghan refugees. After months of relationship building, I was introduced to Muhammad Nishat at a Potbelly Sandwich Shop. In 40 minutes, he walked me through the 44 days it took to flee his home country and land in Minnesota. Nishat also offered a glimpse into what the state’s resettlement process now looks like. His family of 10 moved into a new house in November marking the first stage of their new life in Minnesota.

As the Afghan community in Minnesota doubles, the state is going to have to find ways to help them find housing, jobs, healthcare, and school support. Fortunately, refugee resettlement agencies have decades of experience facilitating this kind of transition. But the emergency evacuation uncovered a new potential in Minnesota.

As the only reporter on the community roundtable calls, I spent months listening closely to figure out how this whole streamlined process would work. The one-sentence version of my now-21-page document of notes from these meetings: This new process is faster, more expansive, and community-oriented than the system I had been reporting on for a year. As the Biden administration considers its next move in rebuilding the refugee resettlement infrastructure, it might learn a few things in Minnesota.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.