Georgia welcoming hundreds of Afghan evacuees

Affordable housing and legal services among newcomers’ top needs
Mohammad, a former member of the Afghan special forces who also worked as a translator for the U.S. military, sorts through recommendation letters he collected from American soldiers and government officials. He and his family have resettled in Decatur. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Mohammad, a former member of the Afghan special forces who also worked as a translator for the U.S. military, sorts through recommendation letters he collected from American soldiers and government officials. He and his family have resettled in Decatur. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Mohammad’s special forces unit refused to surrender when the Taliban swiftly overran Afghanistan amid the U.S. military’s withdrawal. Instead, he and his fellow soldiers retreated more than 200 miles from their base in eastern Afghanistan to Kabul. They battled the Taliban much of the way, losing several comrades in firefights.

When they finally arrived in the capital, they were assigned to guard the gates to the airport, which were being mobbed by tens of thousands of fleeing civilians. Mohammad, who asked that only his first name be published to protect family still in Afghanistan, is haunted by the desperate scenes that played out there. His memories of those events rob him of sleep today.

He eventually boarded an evacuation flight in Kabul with his wife and four young children. They are among more than 74,000 Afghan evacuees who have arrived in the United States this year, including more than 750 who have moved to Georgia. In all, about 1,700 are expected to resettle here by mid-February.

Atlanta-area humanitarian organizations are simultaneously working to hire more staff and scale up while finding the newcomers homes, jobs, medical care and legal services.

Mohammad, a former interpreter who worked with U.S. troops, underscored that many evacuees like him risked their lives helping the American government in Afghanistan.

“They did a lot of things for their country and even for the United States. Now their lives are in danger,” Mohammad, 35, said during an interview at Inspiritus, the local resettlement organization that is helping him here. “Bear with these people. And, please, if you see these people, help them, if they need your help.”

Mohammad, who asked that his full name not be published to protect family still in Afghanistan, said of fellow Afghan evacuees: “Bear with these people. And, please, if you see these people, help them, if they need your help.” Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Welcoming the newcomers

China Myrick has dozens of grocery lists memorized, each containing food preferences from around the world. A resettlement assistant for New American Pathways, Myrick recently shopped at Clarkston Thriftown for a family of five arriving from Afghanistan. Myrick filled her cart with bags of basmati rice, tomatoes, green tea, kidney beans and other Afghan kitchen staples.

“I really enjoy this,” Myrick said. “I am able to provide people with the things that they need.”

China Myrick of New American Pathways, right, checks out with cashier Martha Brown, left, at Clarkston Thriftown. Myrick was shopping for a family of five arriving from Afghanistan (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

There is a high demand for more workers like Myrick, according to Atlanta-area resettlement agencies. Those organizations suffered greatly during the Trump administration’s efforts to drastically cut the numbers of refugees coming here.

In 2019, for example, World Relief, a Christian humanitarian agency, announced it was suspending its federally funded resettlement program in Georgia after 40 years of continual service here. Other agencies in the state shed jobs as they lost substantial funding. Now they are racing to hire more workers to keep up with all the Afghan arrivals.

Inspiritus, the resettlement agency, is seeking to fill six positions in Georgia for case workers, employment specialists and others.

“Over the course of four years, we were barely surviving just trying to keep the lights on. And a lot of people who have expertise to do this work moved on because they had to,” said Becca Butcher, associate director of Inspiritus’ refugee services. “We brought back the people we could and now we are training a whole new round of individuals to do this work.”

The International Rescue Committee in Atlanta has hired about 30 news workers in the last two and a half months. It probably has at least that many positions still open, said Justin Howell, who leads the organization.

“It’s a challenge to hire and train and on-board while you are also trying to serve people,” Howell said. “We are very much looking at this less like traditional refugee resettlement services and more like an emergency response operation.”

Meanwhile, the IRC and Inspiritus are searching for homes for the new arrivals. Their efforts come as Georgia experiences a shortage of nearly 200,000 rental homes affordable and available for extremely low-income people, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. At the same time, rents have risen sharply across the Atlanta region.

The IRC has spent more than $250,000 since Oct. 1 on placing some evacuees in hotels and other short-term rentals while it searches for permanent homes.

Resettlement workers sometimes have just two or three days to prepare for the new arrivals, said Safia Jama, a resettlement and resource navigation manger with New American Pathways.

“We are here to support them and help provide all of their needs,” Jama said.

The Welcome Co-Op, an organization that specializes in finding affordable housing for refugees, is also helping.

“We get a lot of no’s for sure,” said John Arnold, Welcome Co-Op’s senior housing manager. “But thankfully we have partners that we have been working with for decades.”

A team of three people from Welcome Co-Op recently put together furniture in a two-bedroom apartment in Clarkston for a family of five from Afghanistan. The family is expected to pay about $1,000 a month for the place. As the crew worked, some people who had been resettled by the IRC two weeks earlier popped in, hoping to greet their new neighbors. A woman who escaped Afghanistan with her daughter and husband said in Farsi that she was grateful to the resettlement agencies.

“They helped a lot, especially the IRC,” said the woman, who did not want to give her name because of safety concerns. “The American people have been so kind to the Afghans. We are very happy.”

Members of the Welcome Co-Op prepare an apartment for a family of Afghan refugees. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘This is the life’

This is not Mohammad’s first time as a refugee. He was born in eastern Afghanistan, where his father worked as a shopkeeper and his mother was a homemaker. They fled to Pakistan when the Soviet Union invaded their homeland and chose to remain there when the Taliban took power after the Soviets withdrew. Once America invaded in 2001, Mohammad’s family finally felt safe enough to return.

Mohammad learned English while studying in Pakistan. At 19, he wanted to help stabilize his country, so he began working as an interpreter for American troops, a job he held for many years. Glowing letters of recommendation from American military officers and the U.S. State Department say he participated in many high-risk missions and received death threats for helping them. He survived close calls in firefights with the Taliban, including rocket-propelled grenade and improvised explosive attacks.

As the Obama administration began pulling troops out of Afghanistan, Mohammad decided to join the Afghan military and became an officer and team leader with its special forces. During a harrowing mission in 2018, he witnessed Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz bravely repel an ambush and shield fellow U.S. troops as they were evacuating a wounded ally to a rescue helicopter in eastern Afghanistan. Celiz, who was mortally wounded during the battle, posthumously received the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony this month.

As the Taliban retook the country in August, U.S. troops urged Mohammad and his men to retreat to Kabul and be evacuated through the airport. Normally bustling, Kabul appeared like a ghost town when Mohammad and his men arrived. People hid in their homes. The streets were empty.

“It was a like a scary movie show,” he said.

Later, he saw tens of thousands of fleeing civilians crowding the gates to Kabul’s airport. The U.S. military assigned Mohammad and his men to guard those gates until it was their time to fly out. During their seven days on duty there, they didn’t sleep much and lost their voices. One of the soldiers in Mohammad’s unit was killed and four others injured in a firefight with the Taliban.

Mohammad dwells on what he witnessed there. He cannot shake the memory of a married couple who showed up at the gate he was guarding one day. Carrying an infant, the couple was seeking to board an evacuation flight. U.S. troops suspected the identification papers the husband was carrying did not belong to him. They told Mohammad to turn the couple away. The husband pleaded with Mohammad.

“He said, ‘Please, just look at my baby. Let me in. Let me in.’ I looked at that kid and the kid was dead,” said Mohammad, who suspects the baby suffocated in the thick crowds of fleeing civilians.

Hundreds of people gathered, some holding documents, near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 26.  (AP Photo/Wali Sabawoon)

Credit: Wali Sabawoon

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Credit: Wali Sabawoon

Mohammad paid smugglers to get his own wife and children safely to the airport, where they briefly lived in a cargo container. He remembers crying along with fellow passengers as they lifted off on their flight to Qatar. He still agonizes over whether he could have done more to help his country.

“Whatever I did in those 20 years, it was not enough,” he said. “I think I did everything. But still there is guilt in my heart.”

The day after Mohammad flew out of Kabul, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. troops and many Afghan civilians at a gate he once guarded.

From Qatar, Mohammad’s family flew to Germany, where he slept for 18 hours straight. Eventually, they arrived at Camp Atterbury in Indiana. They lived there for weeks before landing in Atlanta Nov. 1.

Since their arrival, Mohammad said, Americans have graciously and repeatedly offered to help his family. His two daughters enjoy their Atlanta-area public school. His 10-year-old son recently asked why it was so quiet in their Decatur apartment complex. In contrast, Mohammad said, they heard explosions in Afghanistan every day.

With his children happily playing nearby, Mohammad sat in his sparsely furnished living room, reflecting on his family’s harrowing journey to America. His late parents, he said, had it harder than him when they fled to Pakistan during the Soviet invasion.

“When they left Afghanistan, there was nothing. Nobody supported them. They built themselves up on their own,” he said.

And in America?

“Everybody is supportive,” he said. “This is the life.”

Mohammad, an evacuee who arrived in Atlanta last month from Afghanistan, said of America: “Everybody is supportive." He added: “This is the life.” Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Paradise Afshar is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Report for America are partnering to raise funds to place multilingual journalists on the staff in The AJC newsroom to improve our coverage of these communities. We hope you’ll help us by donating to this initiative.