Strolling the aisles at a Kohl’s department store near his home in Rochester, N.Y., Azizullah Sharifi spoke Pashto with his daughter Marwah as they picked through shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops for the summer. The father and daughter stopped to check their shopping cart, when a woman next to them muttered, “Speak [expletive] English” in a low growl. Once Sharifi realized she was talking to him, he quickly pushed his cart away without responding. But he wasn’t fast enough. Though she was only 7, Marwah recognized that the woman had “said something really bad.” “Just ignore her,” Sharifi told her. It was a drastic shift from the way he was treated in his home country of Afghanistan, where American service members, with whom he had worked closely, treated him with respect. Much of his experience in the United States has been positive, but sometimes, “you feel Islamophobia, the racism — not all people, but you can feel it,” Sharifi said.
Sharifi, who worked as an interpreter for American forces in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2014, is one of more than 48,600 Afghans who have been admitted to the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa (S.I.V.) program. Recognizing the incredible risks taken by Afghans like Sharifi who were helping the American-led coalition during the war, Congress passed a bill in 2009 to provide special visas to interpreters and civilians who had worked for at least one year — later changed to two years — for the American government and who could prove there were imminent threats on their lives. Similar legislation was enacted for Iraqi interpreters in 2008.
More than 17,000 Afghans who have applied for the S.I.V. over the years are still waiting for an answer from the State Department as their applications crawl through the grueling vetting process. About 1,240 applicants were rejected in the first three quarters of this fiscal year, mostly for insufficient proof of employment by an American company or failure to provide evidence of the“faithful and valuable service” to American forces that the special visa requires. When applicants appeal, their application is moved to the bottom of the list, but half the initial denials are overturned. For those who receive a visa, the move to the United States raises a new set of problems, like finding employment, housing and a community that makes them feel welcome. While the State Department’s United States Refugee Admissions Program gives refugees funding for the first 90 days after arrival, people have to rely on their own resourcefulness and on nonprofit organizations for help acclimating to a new country and culture that’s vastly different from the one they fled.
It took years for the State Department to approve the visa application that would grant Sharifi, his wife, Khaledah Akrami, and their three children legal residence in the United States. When they finally arrived in Sacramento, Calif., in 2014, Sharifi thought the hardest part was over, but American employers would not recognize his high school diploma or his college credits from a school in Uzbekistan. He also had to rely on public transportation and friends to get around because he did not have a driver’s license. Every task of daily life raised new questions about how it was done in the United States. A few weeks after they arrived, Akrami developed a cold and fever. Sharifi knew he was supposed to call 911 if he had an emergency, but he didn’t know what would happen after the call. “Will they send an ambulance, and soon you’ll get all the bills?” he said. “Small difficulties become big.” He decided against calling 911, choosing instead to walk to a hospital only to find that their insurance was not accepted and the cost of care was too high. They eventually found a pharmacist who offered an over-the-counter remedy. “It’s not only about finding an apartment and applying for social services and getting a green card,” Sharifi said. “It’s about learning to navigate the culture, the health care system, especially when you have children.”
In 2004, the war in Afghanistan still felt as if it would be ending soon. The American-led coalition had driven out the Taliban, and the country had a new constitution and its first democratically elected president. But the economy was struggling, and there were few jobs available, even for men with a college education. Sharifi, then 26 and living in Kabul, heard that the United States military was hiring interpreters to help with combat and logistics operations, and he applied, despite the risks. “In Afghanistan, there was no difference between the soldier and the interpreter,” Sharifi said. “The bullets from the Taliban weren’t only for Americans.”
Soon he was making $300 a month — and later as much as $800 a month — working for a Defense Department contractor called Mission Essential Personnel, a company that supplies interpreters and security services to the United States Army. He traveled with military convoys and worked on Camp Black Horse and Camp Alamo in Kabul. “Everything was good,” Sharifi said. “I didn’t have any life-threatening problems. I was going out, walking into the mountains. It was not uncommon to work for a foreign military.” Afghans and foreigners alike believed that effective democratic governance and stability was not far off.
Then in 2010, Sharifi received a warning from the Taliban. They threatened to take his property and kill him if he continued working for the Americans. Coming after several years of Taliban resurgence throughout Afghanistan, the threat alarmed Sharifi, and he decided he needed to get out of the country. He gathered reference letters from his employers, scanned copies of his security badges, outlined the threats that he and his family faced because of his job and submitted his application for the S.I.V. program. What followed were numerous emails from the State Department, in response to which Sharifi would have to track down and submit whatever documentation was missing and then wait for the application to be reviewed again.
Four years later, his visa was finally approved. Sharifi paid $2,500 for his wife and children to receive the required physicals, and they left Afghanistan for Sacramento. World Relief, a resettlement organization funded mostly by government contracts that works with local churches to provide refugee and immigration services, helped the Sharifis apply for Social Security cards, green cards, Medicaid, welfare and short-term housing. But Sharifi didn’t want to rely on government handouts. “I was not feeling good,” he said. “I was praying to God to help me get rid of this assistance.” Akrami, who did not speak English, quickly became depressed. She felt unsafe and worried about their family back in Afghanistan. Even going to the grocery store, where there was more variety than she had ever seen and where most of the brands were unrecognizable to her, was overwhelming. Akrami talked about returning to Afghanistan with the children, but Sharifi persuaded her to stay. After two months, they packed up the few belongings they had in Sacramento and weathered the cross-country train ride to Rochester, where cousins of Akrami’s had resettled within a larger community of Afghans.
While the move to Rochester helped the Sharifis feel more connected to a community that resembled home, others who settled in the area with little money struggled to adjust. Fazel Haidari, 28, came to Rochester from Afghanistan with his wife, Zufnoon, and their 6-month-old son in 2015. He had few local connections and found no employer that would recognize his business-administration degree from Kabul University. After about six months, the financial aid they were receiving from government programs was about to end, and Haidari had little in the way of prospects. It was only after he found No One Left Behind, a nonprofit organization mostly run by veterans and volunteers that helps Iraqi and Afghan interpreters settle in the United States, that he was able to find housing in an apartment complex where other Afghans lived. Ellen Smith, the Rochester chapter president of the organization, is something of a mother figure to the Afghan families settling into Rochester and nearby suburbs. In her basement, a makeshift commissary is stocked from floor to ceiling with donated dishware, towels, blankets and furniture that she gives to needy S.I.V. holders in Rochester. “We’re not going to let anyone fall through the cracks,” Smith said.
“In Afghanistan, we had a really big home, but nothing here,” Haidari said. “We’re starting over, one by one.” After getting him into an apartment, the group helped Haidari enroll in a vocational school to become an electrician, while he worked overnight as a machine operator at a factory for $12 an hour. He didn’t have any background to help him get a start as an electrician. “The only thing I had done was changed a couple of light bulbs,” Haidari said. He’s now an apprentice making $16 an hour. Though two of his younger brothers have also relocated to Rochester, his parents and four of his siblings are still back in Afghanistan. The eldest is stuck in the S.I.V. application backlog. “I feel really bad — he’s been working for the U.S. since 2007,” Haidari said. “It’s not fair. He should be here before me.”
New York is the sixth-largest state for S.I.V. resettlement. That includes 1,632 Afghans, according to the Refugee Admissions Program and the Refugee Processing Center. When a refugee first arrives in the country, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program provides money toward basic resettlement services — such as transportation and temporary housing — for up to three months, after which responsibility for newly arrived refugees is handed off to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. For the past decade, the total amount of funding that O.R.R. provides for S.I.V. arrivals has slowly declined, partly because of fewer refugees are being allowed into the United States. In addition, much of the O.R.R.’s funding is being reallocated away from foreign interests, like the S.I.V. program, to domestic needs, like caring for unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border. Government-funded resettlement organizations like World Relief have increasingly had to rely on nonprofit organizations to help with financial and social assistance programs when the benefits run out. Knowing how tight government benefits are, Ellen Smith tries to get families on a very strict budget right away once they connect with No One Left Behind. “With this budget, I know that they’ll survive their first year: getting a car, getting a job,” she said. “I have to be this taskmaster, because if they don’t stick to it, they won’t make it. They’ll run into financial difficulties.”
Along with job and educational placement, No One Left Behind provides families with first-month’s rent and a security deposit, which typically requires a co-signer: usually one of the more than 250 volunteers Smith has enlisted in Rochester. But finding employers willing to hire Afghans has proved difficult for Smith and those under her care. One potential employer interviewed several Afghans, some of whom had worked with the Army Corps of Engineers as civil engineers in Afghanistan. But the employer never made any offers. “They were concerned about ‘cultural differences,’ ” Smith said, her voice rising. “These guys have been hanging out with soldiers. What are you worried about? That they don’t eat pork? That they pray five times a day?” According to Smith, the company argued that hiring Afghans onto a staff full of military veterans “would be like asking an American World War II soldier to be work alongside a Japanese soldier,” Smith said. “That’s a terrible analogy.”
For Sharifi, the late nights at a Wegmans grocery store distribution warehouse and days spent on the phone working as a certified interpreter are starting to pay off. He recently bought his first house, a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom home in a quiet suburb south of Rochester. Even if he is invited out to dinner or drinks or to play pool in Rochester, Sharifi prefers the dim light of his sparsely decorated living room and a quiet dinner of beef korma with yellow rice with his family, in the house he has worked hard to provide for his wife and children. After the years of danger he faced working as an interpreter in Afghanistan, he said, “right now I just want to stay home.”
Next door, a house displays a Gold Star flag, typically used to signal that a family member died in combat. People in the neighbborhood like Lani Bauer, who moved to the neighborhood in 1973, said that Sharifi and his family have brought a sense of fellowship and camaraderie to the neighborhood that it was missing. They met when Sharifi and his son offered to help Bauer rake the leaves piling up in her yard. “He made a tremendous impression, a very great impression,” Bauer said. “He seemed naturally caring and concerned. That’s something you don’t encounter often. We’re supposed to be more open and welcoming. Isn’t that what the U.S. stands for? Or, at least, that’s what it stood for.”