After a year in San Antonio, Afghan refugees face daily challenges and an uncertain future

Bilal and his wife Sediqi have a distant gaze as they talk about the losses they have suffered over the past year. The couple – both amputees – fled their home in Kabul last August as the Taliban swept through the city. They now live in San Antonio.

“Physically, I am there. But mentally – believe me – I’m here,” Bilal said.

In Afghanistan, Bilal worked for a human rights organization funded by the US Embassy that enabled young women to play sports. A polio survivor, he was also a Paralympic athlete in wheelchair basketball. Sediqi has worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross for prosthetics and orthotics.

They have requested that their surnames not be released as they fear reprisals against their family members who are still in Afghanistan.

The Taliban froze the couple’s assets in the bank, so they landed in the United States with just the clothes on their backs. Now they are haunted by the dangers their families still face.

“I lost my mother, and we just left our parents behind and came here,” Sediqi said. “I think we are still in shock. But day by day we want to recover.”

To qualify for their apartment in San Antonio, they had to pay six months’ rent in advance because Bilal had no work history. The amount exceeded what Bilal called his “welcome money” – a three-month benefit package that Congress passed in October to help Afghan evacuees get back on their feet.

“I thought, ‘This amount is very large,'” he said. “But when I heard about the rent, the process…so I decided to get some help from GoFundMe.”

Bilal works two jobs to support the family: a full-time position in a refugee services group and part-time as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

“It’s really difficult because I have a disabled leg. So standing for more than three or four or five hours really hurts. But there is no other option for me right now. I have family in Afghanistan who also need our support.

It was also difficult to pay for medical care. Bilal said they could not afford health insurance. Medicaid benefits are limited in Texas. While a federal refugee program covers some basic medical needs, it doesn’t always cover things like mental health counseling, dental care and new prostheses – and many providers won’t accept it.

Refugee Services Center

Margaret Costantino, director of the Center for Refugee Services in San Antonio, organizes donations for Afghan refugees with volunteers (TK).

As a result, the couple rely on a free refugee clinic for most of their medical needs. Community organizations and private specialists sometimes also make donations for their care.

Many Afghan refugees struggle with these kinds of problems and even worse.

“Some of these people have blast wounds, amputations, bullets that are still in their bodies, broken bones that never heal properly. If they don’t get Medicaid, they’re literally out in the cold,” said Margaret Costantino, director of the Center for Refugee Services in San Antonio, which has a large Afghan population.

When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan last year, it granted some evacuees humanitarian parole status, a temporary visa that allows them to live and work in the United States for two years. But after that, their options are limited. They do not receive full refugee resettlement benefits from the government until they have applied for and been granted asylum. As part of this process, they must endure long waits and individually justify their need for protection.

Costantino said that because Afghans on humanitarian parole are essentially stateless, it is difficult for them to put down roots. Many are approaching immigration and work permit deadlines, and it is unclear how long they will be able to stay here.

“So that they can work, they pay taxes, they go to school, they pay their rent, but the future for them is still quite murky,” Costantino said.

A bill currently before Congress would give green cards to more than 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers and give them the chance to obtain citizenship down the line.

Although Bilal and Sediqi are losing sleep over their future and loved ones being left behind, there is one major bright spot: their 4-month-old daughter, Mahsa, whose name means “moon” in Persian.

“I think when she was born, she was really our hope,” Sediqi said. “When we saw her, we just forgot everything that happened.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.

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