By Justin Maffett
In February 2011, Abdul Rahman, then a longtime employee of an American food company operating in Afghanistan, was abducted, tortured, and held for 20 days at the bottom of a well by the Taliban, which had grown suspicious of Rahman’s ties to the United States.
After his abduction and eventual release, Rahman was granted asylum in the United States. Today he lives in West Haven, Conn. with his wife and two young children. He was placed here in 2014 with the help of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, better known as IRIS, a non-profit resettlement agency based in New Haven, affiliated with the Episcopal Migration Ministries.
Now a safe distance from the dangers of Afghanistan, Rahman is comfortable to reflect on his ordeal as a hostage of the Taliban seven years ago.
In early 2011, believing Rahman to be working with the American government and its military, armed men stopped Rahman’s car at gunpoint outside his home in Herat, Afghanistan, shot out his windows and forced him into a nearby Jeep where he was then blindfolded, bound, and gagged.
Rahman remembers little of what happened next or for how long he was unconscious before waking again.
“They seemed to give me a drug or something. After that I don’t know what happened,” he said over the phone. “I just found myself down [there]. I don’t know how many hours—one day, 10 hours, one hour, I don’t know about the time because I can’t open my eyes… I don’t know if it’s the nighttime or daytime.”
Rahman has been able to piece together parts of the ordeal thanks to neighbors who had witness his abduction. Too afraid to intervene, they had watched helplessly from the security of their own homes.
For 20 days the Taliban kept Rahman at the bottom of the well that he judges to have been around seven meters, or 22 feet, deep. The men closed the top but allowed for oxygen to come in. Periodically Rahman was removed from the well to another room where he was interrogated. There, his abductors accused him of working for the Americans.
“I told him this is not the American government. This is no American army,” Rahman said. “This is just an American business company. This is just a regular person like you, like me, like everybody.”
Unconvinced, his interrogators resorted to more desperate methods to force a confession. “They pushed cigarettes into my feet. They turned off the cigarette into my feet and into my back,” said Rahman. They also burned his hands, he added.
The interrogations always ended with him being offered a cup of hot tea, which Rahman figures contained a sedative because he couldn’t ever remember what would happen after. So the second time he refused.
“They told me, ‘you no drink this one and we kill you,’” Rahman recalled. This routine was repeated six or seven times, each time with a different person.
Rahman’s boss, joined by an official at the American consulate and the Afghan police, talked to his captors and informed them that Rahman was in fact not working with any entity of the American government. After 15 days, the Taliban called Rahman’s father demanding payment or they would kill him.
The Quest for Asylum
Rahman applied for a U.S. visa and when he landed on U.S. soil in 2014, he sought asylum. And with the help of his caseworker at IRIS, Rahman was able to petition for his wife and two kids— ages five and one—to join him in West Haven. In January 2018, he was reunited with his family at the Boston-Logan airport after four years of living apart.
Ann O’Brien, director of community engagement at IRIS, says the organization’s goal in resettling families like Rahman’s is to help them reach self-sufficiency once here in the United States.
“We are the boots on the ground,” said O’Brien. “There’s two things that refugees and asylees want: they want control over their own lives back and they want respect… So our goal is to get them self- sufficient, living peacefully and taking care of their families themselves as soon as possible.”
O’Brien explains that Integrated Refugee Immigrant Services tries to find employment for the families within six months. To achieve this, IRIS provides refugees and asylum seekers with a host of services that range from English classes, employment services like resume work-shopping and networking sessions, and assistance with accessing healthcare.
Rahman was one of 23,533 people granted asylum in the United States in 2014, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics. Of those, only 122 came from Afghanistan, according to DHS. Meanwhile, the three leading countries of nationality for asylum seekers that year were China (7,880), Egypt (2,879), and Syria (932).
DHS has yet to release the Annual Flow Report for FY 2017. But according to the most recent report from FY 2016, the United States had admitted only 103 asylees in that year, representing a slight retreat from FY 2014 admissions levels. The total number of individuals granted asylum that year also fell slightly to 20,455.
One major difference between 2014 and 2016, however, is in the leading countries of nationality. In 2016 those countries were China (4,484), El Salvador (2,157), and Guatemala (1,949).
A New Beginning
Once these asylum seekers reach American soil, life still isn’t easy. Marianne Scharf who runs a shelter specifically for male asylum seekers at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, says that for men like Rahman, resettlement in the United States can be particularly difficult as a result of the so-called “to touch a refugee” phenomenon.
Scharf explained that some people have romantic notions about the plight of refugees but cannot accept them as individuals. “People want to serve refugees and they want to advocate for refugees and they want to know refugees. People are sometimes disappointed when they see the real face of asylum, not just here but worldwide, are men of color… Afghani men coming across the ocean.”
Scharf, who has been working with refugees and asylum seekers for 15 years, believes that these desires to help “worthy” asylum seekers can add even further trauma to an already victimized population, particularly men of color.
“I think it’s unpalatable or it’s not sexy. It’s not a sweet-faced woman carrying her baby,” said Scharf. “And I think that’s another—aside from all these other hurdles—I think that’s the next level that makes it so difficult and is adding additional trauma on to this population.”
On the whole, Rahman is pleased with his resettlement in West Haven. Today, he drives his car for Uber, the ride-sharing company and is preparing for his eldest child to start school.
Asked what he thinks about America, Rahman said: “America is awesome. America is good. I’ve been to a lot of countries… Here there is no second [class] person. Everybody is same person. Everybody is same regular person. A lot of countries are not like this.”