One year ago Monday, Kabul, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Afghanistan citizens and others scrambled to the airport, desperate to get out.
The Taliban takeover ultimately prompted 80,000 refugees to flee to the United States, with more than 600 coming to Connecticut.
Today, there are two sides of life for many Afghan refugees in Connecticut. On the one hand, they are getting jobs, going to school, learning English, and settling into new homes. On the other hand, many are wracked with fear for family still back in Afghanistan.
That is the case for Nargis Safi, whose brother is in hiding from the Taliban.
“I'm always thinking about my family, that they are in Afghanistan,” she said.
Safi is one of 28 Afghan women in the “Sewing for Success” program, run by Connecticut Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, or CIRC. With precision, care and laughter, the women are stitching together new lives in Connecticut.
“I want to learn something, and I also want to have my kids learn something from here,” Safi said.
The program started in a basement this April. Now, the women set aside every Friday morning to meet at the Hartford Public Library along with their kids, who attend child care in the next room.
“Looking at the need of these women, to make friends to have community, get out of the house,” Michelle Walker, CIRC Director of Programs, said. “Our goal is to start selling the products that the women are making, for a second source of income for their families.”
For the families who fled in the wake of the Taliban takeover, refining skills, learning English and even doing a bit of dancing is all part of the resettling process.
But even though Safi escaped to Connecticut five months ago with her husband and three young kids, it has not led to inner peace.
“Taliban want to capture my brother, and now my family is not in their home. My family is now in danger in Afghanistan,” she said.
Safi said her brother worked for the Afghan Special Forces.
“He was a prison guard that was housing Taliban members,” Walker said. “Obviously, they released the Taliban members that were imprisoned, and they know exactly who he is. And so he's been on the run ever since.”
They say while he has been on the run, he missed the birth of his child. Safi has also been living in fear for his child.
“She will be crying each day,” Debora Zanella, CIRC volunteer coordinator, said. “He had escaped the Taliban and gone to Iran, and got caught and thrown into jail in Iran. Along the way, he was severely beaten. And then they finally let him go, and pushed him over the border into Afghanistan, and told the Taliban he was there.”
They say he is now in hiding at a safe house. Along with constant worry, his family is paying another price.
“They're saying they need 1,500 .U.S dollars each month to keep him in hiding,” Zanella said.
However, the cost of leaving hiding is too great.
“She'll show me pictures of his colleagues, her brother's colleagues and friends, dead,” Walker said. “The Taliban have got to them, and she'll say, ‘Look, this was his friend. And this is what happened.’ It's heartbreaking. As far as getting someone who is an active danger out of the country here, it’s so complicated.”
Walker said Safi is not alone in her situation.
“Everyone here has siblings and mothers and fathers and cousins and uncles and friends and loved ones that are still back in Afghanistan who are in danger,” she said.
CIRC’s efforts are now extending beyond a comforting welcome, as they push Connecticut lawmakers to help Afghans who haven’t yet escaped.
“It really needs to become a priority that we get out the remaining Afghans that are an active danger, because I don't want to see any more pictures of loved ones that are gone,” Walker said. “We really need to maintain our promise and help these people escape from the situation. We're leaving them to die.”
While Safi no longer faces danger head-on, her heart remains with her family, left behind.
“I feel safe, but I'm not happy here because of my family. They are in danger,” she said.
So many organizations across Connecticut have stepped up to welcome refugees from Afghanistan, and one of those at the forefront of resettling families is Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven.
“All of the wonderful families have begun making their new lives, thanks to an incredible outpouring of support continuing,” Ann O’Brien, IRIS director of community engagement, said. “Still, this time is very hard. They feel and hear from their family members that weren't as fortunate to get out.”
O’Brien said IRIS is pairing up Afghan evacuees with American cultural companions, and that they are fundraising for families that are still struggling financially. She said that the emotional toll of the situation in Afghanistan cannot be overstated.
“If you can imagine knowing that everyone that you know and love is in a situation where the government around them won't allow them to leave,” O’Brien said. “Many of the people that we resettled are not only working two or three jobs to put food on their own table. They're all sending money back home as well, to try to keep families fed back in Afghanistan.”
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