Afghan soldier weathers wounds and uncertainty surrounding US asylum claim

HOUSTON (AP) — April’s visit to a Houston clinic was just one of endless medical appointments Abdul Wasi Safi has had since his January release from an immigration detention center.

The former Afghan soldier, called Wasi by family and friends, sat in a dental chair and conversed in Pashto with his older brother Sami as Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova” played in the background. It was a scene thousands of miles from where he had been for the past two years.

After the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, fear of retaliation from the Taliban for sharing information with American soldiers while serving as an intelligence officer caused Wasi Safi to flee to Brazil. The goal? Reach the United States and seek asylum.

He finally made it after traveling through 10 countries, but the journey was expensive. A brutal beating by police officers in Panama severely damaged his teeth and jaw and left him with permanent hearing loss.

Wasi Safi didn’t seem nervous during his visit to the San Jose Clinic, a facility that serves low-income and uninsured people. But dentist Michael Wisnoski still reassured him that it was going to be an “easy day”. He had two fillings, but more complicated dental work awaited him.

Easy days for Wasi Safi have been rare. Her mind raced with concern for her health. There is also uncertainty as to whether he will be granted asylum. And he feels powerless to help his parents and other siblings, who have been threatened in Afghanistan.

“I’m scared for my life. I don’t know for my future. I don’t know what this government, what the United States (is going to) do with me,” Wasi Safi said.

It is the fear and frustration felt by other Afghans in the United States as well as immigration activists, lawyers and others, who demand that those who have been evacuated from Afghanistan be given legal status. permanent and that those who remain receive a path to safety.

“I think our government needs to take responsibility and figure out how to fix it because these are the people who have helped us,” said Debbie Berman, an attorney with the Chicago-based law firm Jenner & Block, which represents Afghans. who are still trying to flee their country.

More than 88,500 Afghans who have worked with US soldiers as translators and in other capacities since 2001 have arrived in the United States on military aircraft since the chaotic withdrawal, according to the US Department of Homeland Security. Most were admitted under a program called humanitarian parole which grants them some legal status, including the ability to work.

However, many others were left behind and some, like Wasi Safi, traveled alone to the United States – seeking to honor a promise of protection the United States had made to its Afghan allies. It is a promise that many believe has been broken.

Wasi Safi’s long journey by foot and boat last year took him through raging rivers and dense jungle to the US-Mexico border, where he was arrested in September and sent to a detention center. Texas detention. With the help of lawyers and lawmakers, he was released and reunited with his brother, who was a translator for the US military and has lived in Houston since 2015.

Wasi Safi’s lawyers did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment on his asylum case.

His arrest at the border and the expedited removal order that remains in place likely complicates his asylum case, said Alex Miller of the American Immigration Council, an advocacy group.

“It’s just an amazing battle,” Miller said.

Wasi Safi and other Afghans seeking legal status in the United States are doing so under an already lagging immigration system.

“They’ve just been added to this pile that immigration judges are managing,” said Aleksandar Cuic, director of the immigration clinic at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland. .

The Afghan Adjustment Act, a proposed law aimed at streamlining their immigration process, has stalled in Congress. By the end of April, only about 8,100 requests for asylum or special visas for Afghans employed by the US government had been approved, according to Homeland Security.

Wasi Safi was due to plead his asylum claim before an immigration judge in July. But that was postponed to December. The postponement was a blow to the Safi brothers.

“Every time I have a little bit of hope, they kind of take that hope away from me,” said 30-year-old Sami Safi.

Wasi Safi’s unresolved immigration status means he is not allowed to work. It also scared him to leave his Houston home.

“Home is like a prison. I hope they will give me my paper (legal documentation) and I will start my life,” Wasi Safi said.

If the house is a cage, the Al-Noor Society of Greater Houston, a mosque in the diverse neighborhood of Gulfton, has provided outside solace.

In the middle of Ramadan on a Friday in April, the mosque’s main prayer hall was packed with about 200 men and boys, some wearing Houston Astros jerseys or carrying bags emblazoned with the Texas flag.

“This is why we come to the mosque…asking Almighty God to guide us, to the path of success, to the path of comfort,” Sami Safi said.

Zahoor Gire, executive director of Al Noor, said the mosque is not just a place of prayer, but a resource for many newcomers from Afghanistan and other countries.

Community groups like Al Noor are the ones helping provide long-term support — including job training and activities for children — after initial federal assistance ends, Gire said.

Ericka Pertierra, a local businesswoman who has helped several Afghan families resettle in Houston, took on Wasi Safi’s case. Using her fundraising skills, Pertierra raised money for her lawyers and persuaded doctors and dentists she knows to donate their services.

“They deserve it. They served our country,” Pertierra said of the brothers.

She is trying to raise more money through a GoFundMe campaign for Wasi Safi’s long-term medical needs.

On May 23, Wasi Safi turned 27. But eating birthday cake was out of the question due to pain from recent gum surgery.

“He says, ‘I’ll celebrate my birthday when I feel better,'” Sami Safi said.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: twitter.com/juanlozano70

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