Ali Salahi is one of an estimated 60,000 people of Afghan descent who live in the Bay Area. His father, Rasul Salahi, fled Afghanistan in the 1980s during the Soviet Union’s invasion and opened Rasul Oriental Rugs on Grand Avenue in 1996, the same year that the Taliban first took power in Afghanistan. Although Oakland became the family’s home, Salahi said that part of their identity remains in Afghanistan.
“What I believe to be the consensus of the Afghan diaspora is that we’re all deeply invested in what’s happening in Afghanistan” Salahi said, “and I think in some sense, a lot of us haven’t fully left, even those like myself who have never been.”
Salahi said the last couple of weeks have been especially heartbreaking for his family as relatives still in Afghanistan relay personal accounts of the fear gripping Kabul and other parts of the country as the Taliban regains control.
The family checks in daily with relatives in Afghanistan via messaging apps. According to Salahi, both his mother and father’s family are safe, but frightened. “They’re shutting their doors and haven’t left their home for days now,” Salahi said. “They’ve overnight lost the right to vote, to a free press, to free speech.”
Tens of thousands of Afghans have been scrambling to evacuate the country since the beginning of August, and U.S airlifts out of the main international airport in Kabul have been bottlenecked. Currently, about 28,000 Afghans have fled, and more than 17,000 are planning to resettle in the U.S through the Special Immigrant Visa Program, or SIV.
The Taliban’s return to power raises concerns about human rights violations
The Taliban took control of the capital city of Kabul on Sunday, Aug. 15, less than two weeks after President Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal of all U.S troops stationed in Afghanistan. Prior to Biden taking office, the Trump administration signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in February of last year, agreeing to withdraw all U.S troops from the country by May 2021. On April 11, Biden announced plans to remove all military presence before Sept. 11.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul on Aug. 15, recently resurfacing in the United Arab Emirates. Ghani’s abrupt departure led thousands of Kabul residents to rush to Hamid Karzai International Airport to flee the country; The United States and other foreign nations also began a process of evacuating their embassy personnel.
Taliban forces quickly seized Kandahar and Herat on Aug. 12, the second- and third-largest cities in Afghanistan, respectively.
When the Taliban last governed Afghanistan (1996–2001), women and girls were forbidden to work or attend school. There is concern that this history will be repeated, despite recent claims by Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen that the group has changed since it was last in power and that under their new government, girls will be allowed to study.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission released a report in July that detailed recent human rights violations, including restrictions on women’s rights, in Taliban-controlled regions. The commission reported that women could not access health services or work without a male guardian. The United Nations also reported in July that a record number of Afghan women and children were killed or wounded in the first half of 2021.
The Taliban has displaced some Afghans from their home regions and targeted specific ethnic groups, according to AIHRC reports. From June 22 to July 25, the Taliban forced 400 Badakhshani families out of their homes from Bagh-e-Sherkat in Kunduz province, “then set fire to their homes and plundered their belongings,” the report stated. A displaced man from the area told the AIHRC that the Taliban only killed those who were of the Tajik ethnic group.
Afghan journalists have also expressed concerns about restrictions of media freedom under the Taliban. Many journalists are attempting to flee the country, and some fear that the country’s media landscape could vanish altogether.
Ali Salihi’s family, who are still in Afghanistan, have relayed stories that echo the news headlines. His father Rasul’s home city of Mazar-i-Sharif was captured on Aug. 14, a day before the fall of Kabul. “We reject any kind of propaganda from the Taliban that things have changed, and we expect things to get a lot worse,” Ali Salahi said.
Bay Area organizations are helping Afghan refugees resettle
Two nonprofit organizations — Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay, based in Berkeley, and the International Rescue Committee, based in Oakland — are currently leading Afghan refugee resettlement efforts in the East Bay. They are among nine organizations contracted with the U.S. State Department to oversee refugee resettlement. JFCS East Bay pledged on Aug. 12 to resettle more than 60 Afghan refugees in the Bay Area. The IRC launched their Afghan Soft Landing Fund and set a goal of raising $150,000 to provide refugees with housing assistance.
JFCS East Bay’s refugee resettlement program offers an array of services including legal and housing assistance, help with school enrollment, medical and mental health services, and linkage to other local resources.
JFCS East Bay has resettled 40 Afghans in the past month, according to Holly Taines White, the organization’s senior director of development and community engagement. JCFS is currently assisting refugees via the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program, which was established by Congress in 2009 to provide protection to Afghans involved in U.S. missions as translators and interpreters. According to the IRC, thousands of Afghans are eligible for the program, though many have struggled to obtain visas. Although JFCS was already resettling Afghan refugees through the program, Taines White said the crisis in Afghanistan accelerated the timeline.
“During a normal resettlement process we might be notified about a family several weeks before they’re even scheduled to get on an airplane,” Taines White said. “We know who’s coming, we know how many people are coming, and we have the opportunity to work with their friends or family to help secure housing.”
Currently, Afghans coming to the U.S. via the SIV program are arriving at a military airport in Fort Lee, Virginia. Federal officials are “calling resettlement agencies and saying, ‘Can you take this family, can you take that family,’ and then they will get here a couple days later,” said Taines White. “So now it’s a much faster process.”
JFCS East Bay is currently waiting for 54 individuals to arrive from Fort Lee. They also accepted 25 other refugees who are still in Afghanistan. According to Taines White, these numbers are likely to change daily because “we are getting calls every day, then travel arrangements keep getting adjusted,” she said.
Asked whether JFCS East Bay has set resettlement goals beyond August, Taines White said she’s not sure. “I don’t think anyone has gotten that far yet,” she said. “In all honesty, I don’t think the State Department knows because the situation is so fluid and chaotic right now. We haven’t gotten that far yet.”
Mental health services are needed by many refugees
While resettlement agencies like JFCS work to get refugees situated in their new environments, they are also thinking about the mental health toll that comes from surviving decades of violence. “There is a grieving process that happens when you witness war,” Fouzia Azizi, director of refugee services for JFCS East Bay, said. “The folks that we get in the next two to three weeks will be coming with anxiety, fear for themselves, and fear for their families.”
JFCS employs a mental health clinician and case managers who work with incoming refugees to recognize mental health problems and connect clients to local services.
Azizi, who left Afghanistan in 1994, vividly recalls what the resettlement process was like. “When I remember those days, I think of the chaos in the street. I saw dead bodies in the street. It took years for us to come out of those nightmares,” Azizi said. “What we are witnessing now is a flashback to what we experienced.”
Others with experience providing mental health services to refugee communities are also stepping up. The Oakland-based nonprofit Center For Empowering Refugees and Immigrants is planning to hire a therapist or case manager who will specifically work with incoming Afghan refugees, the organization’s director, Mona Afary, said.
The new Afghan-centered service is still being planned, and CERI will be looking for someone who can speak Dari and Pashto, two of the main languages spoken by Afghans. Afary, a psychologist who has experience working with Afghan refugees, will also be providing direct support.
CERI offers mental health services such as clinical counseling and group therapy specifically for Oakland’s Cambodian, Burmese, and Vietnamese populations, but Afary feels it’s necessary to jumpstart this program to support the needs of Afghan refugees. “A lot of them need food, housing, childcare, doctors,” Afary said, “At the same time, while those things are being addressed, we have to take care of their trauma.”
Dr. Hyojin Im, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work, said mental health agencies will need to consider the needs of Afghan families who immigrated decades ago, such as the Salahis, in addition to new arrivals. “People are connected to their country deeply, and people who have been here for years are still traumatized,” said Im.
Im has worked with refugees in her native country of Korea and worked with the Center for Victims of Torture to develop culturally relevant screening techniques for trauma among newly resettled Somali and Burmese refugees in Minnesota.
“As a professional who knows that mental health concepts and treatment ideas are so stigmatized in these communities, I think people have trouble reaching out,” Im said. “My biggest fear is that we will see a massive scale of re-traumatization of those who are currently resettling and those who have already resettled in the U.S.”
Afghans draw on empathy to help one another through the crisis
Salahi said his family has been preoccupied with what their relatives in Afghanistan are going through. “I’ve thought a lot about how to center those in Afghanistan and I think there’s been a concerted effort by the diaspora to do that.”
Salahi does, however, recognize the emotional toll that comes from closely following these events. “Generational trauma almost feels insufficient to describe a country that’s been at war for almost 40 years, so I don’t think there’s been a lot of immediate prioritizing or processing of what kind of effect this has [on us],” Salahi said.
The current crisis in Afghanistan follows a long series of painful events, from the Soviet invasion and war from 1979 to 1989 and the Taliban’s first rule from 1996 to 2001, to the nearly 20 years of U.S. military occupation that began in 2001.
Although Salahi and his family are worried about their relatives and don’t foresee an end to conflict, he remains hopeful because of the resiliency of the Afghan diaspora.
“Someone much smarter than me once said something along the lines of, ‘Our people in Afghanistan have gone through the depths of powerlessness,’” Salahi said, “and I think as a result, there is a capacity for empathy [in our culture]. If you talk to people who know Afghans, the one thing you’ll hear is that we’re extremely hospitable.”
Salahi grew up around an “eclectic hodgepodge group of family friends” that his parents made while living in the East Bay and recalls how his parents would often invite people over for dinner. “I think that hospitality will help Afghan refugees because I think people are often scared when they hear about Afghan refugees coming to their town, but that is far from the truth,” he said.
“Again, our people have faced the depths of powerlessness and hopelessness, and I think as a result we have a huge capacity for empathy and humanitarian causes.”