Do Afghans Forced to Flee After Working for the US Receive Fair Compensation?

Reshad and his family / Photo courtesy of Reshad

BY MIRA SEYAL

 

Reshad was driving home from work in late 2016 when an SUV blocked him off in the middle of the road in Afghanistan. Four armed, masked men jumped out.

“I was completely paralyzed in that moment … thinking what’s going to happen to me? I was thinking about my kids and family – what’s going to happen to them?” he recalled from his new workplace in Queens, New York.

One of the four men said to Reshad, “I don’t know why we are leaving you alive but there won’t be a second time… You know what we are talking about.” With that, the attackers took Reshad’s laptop and phone and drove away with his car.

The men, who were likely Taliban affiliates according to Reshad, were talking about his work for the U.S. government (Reshad’s full name is omitted to protect him and his family).

The U.S. military has been heavily involved in Afghanistan since 2001. In May 2012, President Obama signed the legally-binding Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America, which called for U.S. involvement in, “supporting Afghanistan’s long-term economic and social development.”

Because they were living in a war-torn country, plagued by lack of opportunity, “many Afghans were initially hopeful” regarding a U.S. presence, according to Stephen Biddle, who in 2009, served as a member of the U.S. initial strategic team in Kabul.

Reshad landed a job with the U.S. government as a quality control manager. His job required him to travel around remote areas in Afghanistan and oversee the quality of U.S. development projects. Although the job allowed him to support his family financially, it risked attracting Taliban attention.

Although U.S. military members were heavily armed and shielded by protective gear, Reshad recalled that Afghans working for the U.S. government received no such protection.

“I didn’t have any other option,” said Reshad about working for the U.S. government. This was the only option has saw to provide for his family.

Then the anonymous callers began threatening him and his family.

The SIV program was authorized as a part of the Afghan Allies protection Act of 2009. It designates 14,500 visas for individuals who have been employed by the U.S. government for a minimum of two years and who are fleeing violence as a consequence of their U.S. employment.

Although Reshad had been eligible for the SIV program for a while, he did not take the opportunity for as long as he could. For him, coming to the U.S. at 30 years old meant leaving behind everything he built in his homeland. After he was attacked by the Taliban however, he felt he had no choice.

Reshad fit each requirement for the SIV program and nonetheless, waited 18 months for a visa despite being under direct threat from the Taliban.

The U.S. offers SIV travel loans but Reshad was told this process would take about two months, which was not an option for him when his family’s lives were at stake. Thus, he was forced to sell everything he owned in order to buy his family of four’s plane tickets to the U.S.

“When you come here [to the U.S.] you are called alien…We are humans… People’s lives are in danger and that’s why we leave everything behind.”

Since arriving, Reshad has received minimal assistance from the government and has had a hard time financially supporting his family.

He was given $300 a month for three months in order to pay rent. The monthly rent for the apartment in which he was resettled to is $2000. According to Reshad, he has paid much more to the U.S. in taxes and social security, than he has received in financial assistance.

Local volunteers provided him with necessities such as furniture, food, and guidance on how to navigate New York. According to Kathie O’Callaghan, the president and founder of Hearts and Homes for Refugees, the bulk of both financial and integrative assistance for SIV holders comes from NGOs. The government in other words, puts the duty of compensating SIV holders, who’s lives were put at stake because of their service to the U.S. government, on the shoulders of local volunteers.

Despite having a BA from Kabul Polytechnic University, Reshad has found it difficult to compete with job applicants educated in the U.S. He hopes to go to graduate school in order to land a better paying job in civil engineering, his area of expertise, but fears that tuition costs make that an unreachable dream.

Although, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, most SIV holders speak English and 87 percent of the 3,000 participants have completed secondary education or higher, 60 percent are unemployed 90 days after arriving to the U.S. That percentage rises to 85 for non-English speakers.

High costs of living, employment discrimination, and language barriers are common challenges for SIV holders. Despite these hurdles, Reshad “didn’t want to be on welfare or take government assistance. My job was to support my family.”

Ultimately, Reshad’s hope is to return to his family and his homeland. “The little things I remember about my home were this kindness, this connection, this closeness of family members and friends. We were living in a community. I miss those things.”


MIRA SEYAL is a master’s student of Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. She is currently working on her thesis, which looks at how art activists on the U.S.-Mexico border use art installations to define the rights claims of refugees and asylum seekers.

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