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Muhammad Nishat, an Afghan man who worked with the United States government, looked out from his 9th-floor apartment in Kabul on August 15 and saw people running in the streets, military vehicles, and Taliban fighters. He could hear cries and gunshots.
“Everything changed dramatically,” Nishat said. “We lost 20 years of achievements suddenly—in a week.” (Nishat is a nickname; he asked to keep his full name private to protect family members still in Afghanistan.)
Nishat, 40, had heard rumblings of unrest spreading throughout the region, but he said he never imagined the Taliban could take Kabul, too. Just the day before, Nishat went to work for a meeting with officials from the U.S. Department of State. He had been working on a U.S.-funded project to clear landmines in Afghanistan.
The team, who is working to clear about 30 percent of the landmines hidden in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan, decided they would continue work, despite some rumblings of unrest. But the following morning, the Taliban advanced to the presidential palace in the capital city to begin its second regime.
Nishat, his wife, and eight children hid in their apartment for two days while they planned and packed for their escape. Nishat has six sons and two daughters. His oldest is 17; his youngest was just 7 months old at the time.
Nishat had been employed by a humanitarian project and regularly came into contact with American military officials through his job. That gave him reason—and immigration documents—to leave. Americans, government officials, diplomats, were all targets of the Taliban, and so were the Afghans that worked with them.
On the morning of August 17, Nishat said his family joined a 20,000-person exodus heading toward the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, hoping they could get on a U.S. military plane.
Once they arrived, Nishat’s family made their way through the airport, surrounded by thousands of other people heading in the same direction. The 20-minute walk ended up taking six hours. The journey got even slower from there on out, until Nishat and his family landed in Minnesota 44 days later.
Nishat told me his story on October 15 at a Potbelly Sandwich Shop. He wore a black winter jacket over a plain gray shalwar kameez, a traditional combination of a long shirt and baggy pants. He spoke with such a sense of urgency that he managed to recount his last two months in just 40 minutes.
Nishat spoke with me in English: He’d learned English in school growing up—though not in class, he said. In high school, he used to deliver the cricket commentary over a loudspeaker. He wanted to give the commentary in English, so he worked on perfecting his pronunciation. While Nishat never became a sportscaster, his language skills became crucial in his work with the U.S.
Almost 100 Afghans like Nishat have since arrived in Minnesota after fleeing their homes in August. The state has pledged to resettle more than 500 Afghans in the coming weeks. As the state evaluates its capacity for how many more people it can accept, resettlement agencies are trying to push for an additional 400 people.
In the meantime, Nishat and other arrivals have been spending the last few weeks trying to find some sort of normalcy at a Twin Cities hotel.
‘They’re coming to a country that’s a different world. Everything is new.’
I met Nishat through Marina Mohsin, an Afghan American who lives in Prior Lake, while she mobilized with the local Afghan community to get resources ready for the new arrivals in collaboration with nonprofit organizations and state agencies. Now a refugee case manager with Hennepin County, Mohsin visits newly arrived Afghan families when they first arrive in Minnesota.
She’d been doing this work as a volunteer for the last month anyway. Oftentimes, she’s the first Afghan face they see since landing in the United States.
“It’s tough because they’re coming to a country that’s a different world. Everything is new,” she said.
Nishat and his family lived in a busy apartment building in the heart of Kabul. He lived near a park, a restaurant, and a few pharmacies. Now, Nishat, his wife, and their eight children have been living in two separate hotel rooms. Much of the hotel currently serves as transitional housing for Afghan families. Sahan Journal agreed not to disclose the name or location of the hotel to protect the people living there.
Five national resettlement agencies with local affiliates are working with the state’s new Afghan population: Arrive Ministries, the Minnesota Council of Churches, International Institute in Saint Paul, Lutheran Social Services in St. Cloud, and Catholic Charities in Rochester. Caseworkers at the resettlement agencies manage housing, legal issues, employment, and school services.
Families spend, at most, about 21 days at the hotel, while their caseworker tries to find them housing. From there, families can enroll their kids in the local school district and start looking for jobs.
Rachele King, the refugee coordinator at the state Department of Human Services, said she’s been coordinating the efforts of state agencies with community groups. She described the response to the emergency arrivals of Afghans in Minnesota as a community response more than a governmental one.
Here are some ways you can help Afghan refugees in Minnesota now
GiveMN, a nonprofit fundraising organization, is accepting donations to support state agencies and community organizations coordinating the state’s resettlement efforts. Donations will be used to cover housing costs, meals, legal services, and resource coordination for new Afghan arrivals.
Hennepin County has started an Amazon Wishlist to collect donations for Afghan families. Some of the items to purchase include winter clothing, toys, religious items, kitchen supplies, and baby supplies.
The state hosts weekly community roundtable meetings over Zoom, where community groups and state workers discuss the needs of the new Afghan community. Multiple task forces are coordinating a comprehensive resettlement process, King said.
“What we have wanted to do is pull people together, assets that are available in our community, and help connect the dots,” King said. “This is elevating what is happening, what is needed, and people are stepping up.”
More than 55,000 Afghans are still in the early stages of the resettlement process, living at eight military bases across the country as they wait for immigration officials to assign them a final destination.
King laid out the official process an Afghan refugee experiences toward finding a permanent residence in the U.S.
After evacuating Afghanistan, the U.S. The Department of State takes them to what’s called a “lily pad country”—that is, a neighboring country welcoming evacuees. Once they’re vetted in the lily pad country, they fly to another base in the United States, where immigration officials process their documents.
Here, refugees go through health screenings and get necessary vaccinations. Twenty-one days after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, refugees can take another flight to their final destination. For more than 95 people so far, that destination has been Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport.
That process may sound fairly orderly. In practice, it has proved lengthier and tedious.
In August, images of thousands of people surrounding outbound flights, some gripping onto the body and wheels, circulated on the internet. A bombing later that month at the airport would kill at least 60 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.
Nishat, who said he relied on the U.S. military for getting his family evacuated, spent about three days at the airport.
Nishat remembered people frantically showing their documents to pass through the checkpoints: green cards, passports, Afghan identification cards. The paperwork turned out to be imperative: Nishat recalled seeing passport holders move through the checkpoint while family members without documents—brothers, uncles, and others—got turned away.
Nishat’s family, as well as the family of a friend, gave up on trying to pursue passage through the main gate of the airport, where a majority of the crowd anxiously flooded doorways. Instead, they walked another three hours to a “military gate” a friend had called him about.
After waiting two nights at the alternate gate, U.S. Army officers roused Nishat and his family in the middle of the night and moved them to another camp in the airport. Organizing the crowds of people proved a struggle.
“When they were opening the gate, people were just running,” Nishat said. “And they said, We can’t open until you manage the lines.”
On August 20, Nishat met a surgeon for the U.S. Army. The surgeon checked out each of Nishat’s kids, who refused to eat the food distributed by army officers. Nishat showed the surgeon his passport and green card and explained his situation. After seeing Nishat’s large family, particularly his 7-month-old, the surgeon tried to get the family moved through the crowd quickly.
“But when he would get close to the gate, everyone was running,” Nishat said. “So he told me, Please be a little bit patient. I’ll try to find the safest way to get out for you and your family.”
Nishat and some others decided to just arrange the crowd into lines themselves. Eventually, Nishat said about 200 U.S. citizens, green card holders, and visa holders separated from the rest of the crowd. But here again, some people had to leave behind relatives who lacked the necessary documents. The people turned away at the airport had no choice but to return home and wait, under a Taliban-controlled government, for some future evacuation effort.
Amidst the chaos, his family lost a few of the 10 small pieces of luggage they’d quickly packed before leaving. Still, Nishat counts himself as one of the lucky ones. By 3 a.m. on August 20, the U.S. Army escorted his family onto a plane to Qatar. About 600 people sat on the floor of the plane with their luggage, Nishat said. The U.S. Army handed out food. Nishat himself finally managed to find a moment’s rest. His kids slept through the three-and-a-half-hour flight.
After landing, the evacuees moved to another military camp in Qatar. There, Nishat found a friend who’d separated from him at the airport in Kabul. After three days, they boarded yet another flight, this time to Germany.
“In Germany, we stayed for three hours on the airplane. We didn’t come out,” Nishat said. “They said, Some people have no documents so it’s not good to go out from the plane.”
Next stop: Washington D.C. They arrived on August 25. After 10 days, Nishat said he and his family could finally take a shower.
After a few days of additional vetting, the family moved to one of the U.S. military bases housing Afghan evacuees in Virginia.
“They sorted everything over there at the camp,” Nishat said. “There was good food, good accommodations. My kids were playing and they were very happy. There were more than 4,000 people in that camp.”
After they got vaccinated, Nishat and his family received a final destination: Minnesota. They had a layover in New York for three hours, and landed in Minnesota on September 30.
“When we arrived there was a really good medical team. They gave a warm welcome to us. Everyone was so nice, treating us like brothers and sisters,” Nishat said. “When my kids saw these people they were really excited—because it was not like a military base.”
Resettling in Minnesota
According to King, the refugee coordinator, the state’s Afghan evacuee response team activates as soon as they find out someone is landing at the airport: “Day or night.” Volunteer coordinators help the new arrivals navigate the airport. Vendors at the airport have donated food and snacks. Volunteer medical professionals also meet the arrivals in a separate room at the airport to do a health assessment.
Then, the Afghans head immediately to a hotel.
“The reason for setting up the hotel is because this is very different from other resettlement efforts,” King said. “It is very different because of the pace of resettlement—which makes it really hard, in good times even, to be able to have those permanent places set up when they arrive.”
King said the hotel corridors hum with Department of Human Services staff, volunteers from the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, immigration attorneys, mental health professionals, and caseworkers from refugee resettlement agencies. County employees from the area also come to the hotel to help people fill out forms for cash, medical, and food assistance applications. There are also two donation rooms, one of them filled specifically with winter wear.
The hotel residents receive three meals, snacks, and green tea throughout the day. A lot of the food has been donated by local nonprofit groups like Feeding Our Future.
Although the hotel is a temporary accommodation, finding permanent housing remains a work in progress, King said.
“We’ve already had several families that have moved out,” King said. “We’re trying to transition people out as soon as possible. Some people have only been there a few days. Some people have already been there for a couple of weeks.”
The resettlement agencies receive federal funds to cover housing costs through the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program.
In an ideal world, King added that hotel stays wouldn’t surpass three weeks. But King said the hotel will remain an option for families struggling to find permanent housing. (The arrivals need to manage this feat in a challenging housing market: The average vacancy rate in the Twin Cities metro area is about 4 percent.)
Nishat’s family of 10 has been living out of two hotel rooms for more than three weeks now. He said that his caseworker is having trouble finding a three-bedroom house or apartment that will accommodate his family. Landlords have been unwilling to lease to Nishat because he doesn’t have an income source yet, Nishat said. In the meantime, he’s been attending tenants’ rights workshops hosted at the hotel.
“The agency will sort out these things to find a house for us,” Nishat said. But a week after I spoke to Nishat at Potbelly, he expressed frustration that the resettlement agency still hasn’t found housing yet.
Still, Nishat said his family has made more progress than some other evacuees: “What I’m hearing from other people at other camps, there’s a little bit of difficulty for them,” Nishat said. “The U.S. Army is trying to sort out everything as soon as possible for them, but they’re also trying to provide good services for a lot of people.”
In Nishat’s free time, he hangs out with the other Afghans at the hotel. Sometimes they go on outings to places like Minnehaha Falls. Because he’s fluent in English, he’s been translating for other Afghans in the hotel. He also spends time teaching his kids English, but he’s worried about how long they’ve been away from school.
“Now we’re just waiting for the resettlement agency,” Nishat said. “We need a house. We need a car, furniture, clothes. And it’s not just me, everyone that came has the same problem.”