When the U.S. started its military withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago, Zarlasht was on her way to work at the Afghan Human Rights Commission in Kabul when she got a call with the news.
”It was really one of the darkest days of our lives,” said Zarlasht, who asked GBH News to only use her first name to protect family members, including her sister, who remain in Afghanistan. “I still remember every single moment that we spent there knowing that, that the whole country’s collapsed to the enemy.”
Zarlasht got out and eventually settled in Malden with the help of Catholic Charities Boston. She is one of well over 2,000 Afghan evacuees who have resettled in Massachusetts over the past two years.
They deal with uncertainty and the knowledge that their immigration status under humanitarian parole expires this year, and they’ll only be able to renew for another unless something changes.
The stop-gap immigration policy has earned the ire of politicians and refugee resettlement groups. Many evacuees worked in Afghanistan with the American military or promoting democracy in humanitarian groups — roles that make them targets for retribution under the Taliban.
“It’s not a viable solution at all. This is a joke, to say you’re gonna apply for a one-year extension after you risked your life for our country and you’re promised you’d have a place to live here permanently?” said Mass. Congressman Seth Moulton, who served four tours as a U.S. Marine in Iraq.
Moulton has sponsored the bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide work permits and a pathway to citizenship. That would be a significant expansion from the status quo under which only some evacuees can legally work. The bill would also make it easier for 300,000 Afghans still living under Taliban rule to apply for special immigrant visas. The legislation is currently stalled by Senate Republicans.
The International Institute of New England has resettled 435 evacuees in Massachusetts. Jeff Thielman, the institute's president, said the legal uncertainty of extended humanitarian parole is “the greatest challenge,” and they’re supporting the Afghan Adjustment Act.
In the meantime, evacuees in Massachusetts are being supported by groups of private residents, known as welcome circles. WelcomeNST is one of the organizations shepherding the process of vetting over 400 evacuees and matching them with circles.
"They never disappoint because fundamentally it's driven by love. These people come to really care for and love these families," said Elizabeth Davis-Edwards, CEO of WelcomeNST.
Dabeeri Emad and her family arrived here through a refugee resettlement program. Emad, who is 34, worked for a U.S. organization training Afghan women to be journalists when she left with her husband and three children in 2021. GBH News is using a pseudonym for Dabeeri because she fears persecution of her relatives in Afghanistan.
Her female family members who remained behind and had careers are no longer allowed to work. “Now they’re all at home and they’re in terrible conditions,” she said.
A caseworker from the International Institute of New England took Emad's family to their first temporary home in New Bedford in November 2021. They settled into their lives, got help from IINE in applying for benefits, and she and her husband were both working within six months.
Emad still lives in New Bedford and is now a case manager for IINE. Her children, who are between five and 13, are settled into a routine and are enrolled in school.
“They go to the schools and they love the place, but sometimes they still ask, Mom, do you remember what happened?” she said.
Many Afghans have accepted they won't be able to return to their former lives, even as they've created new ones. When Zarlasht and her parents first arrived in Massachusetts in 2021, Catholic Charities Boston connected her to a career coach from Jewish Vocational Services. She then landed a job with Catholic Charities Boston as a paralegal.
Back in Afghanistan, Zarlasht was also a member of the country's national women's basketball team. Neither of her former jobs exist. The human rights commission is shuttered “forever” and women are no longer allowed to play basketball. Some former team members were evacuated, but around 10 remain, often asking her for a way out.
“They keep hiding themselves. A lot of athletes, they have been killed. They are disappeared,” she said.