From Afghanistan to Rochester: Refugees start new lives with no regrets
Fighting the Taliban cost these Afghan refugees everything. Here are their stories and their recollections of those final days in Afghanistan.
ROCHESTER — Israel Habibi was the first to arrive for an afternoon meetup with his fellow Afghan refugees outside the Rochester apartment complex he now calls home.
A year ago, Habibi was aboard one of the last U.S. planes to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, before Taliban forces overtook the country.
Habibi’s job was to help ensure the planes departed safely before he eventually took off safely himself. He was a member of a military unit serving the U.S.-aligned Afghan government. Habibi and other members of his unit were assigned to secure the airport as more than 120,000 Americans and people in Afghanistan who had assisted U.S. forces left the country in during the month of August 2021 alone.
In Rochester, Habibi is one of a dozen former military or government officials living in the apartment complex north of downtown Rochester.
Jawid Sediqi, who worked logistics at a military supply depot in Afghanistan, fittingly organized the meeting. Some of their wives, clad in burqas, took children to the park or talked with each other.
None of the men nor their families knew each other in Afghanistan. After living as neighbors in Minnesota the last eight months, they’ve become friends. At least once a week, they play "football" – soccer – go swimming or have coffee together.
They agree their short time in Minnesota has been pleasant.
“We’ve found Rochester, especially the people, very helpful and very peaceful,” said Farshad Osmani through Sediqi, who translated his statement to English. “It’s a very good and not crowded city.”
According to officials with Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota, the organization that stepped up to sponsor arrivals from Afghanistan in partnership with state and federal refugee organizations, the transition has gone well. At least one family member of all but two families has found employment. All have stable housing.
Listen to Israel Habibi's account of the bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan:
Listen to Jawid Sediqi's translation of Habibi's account of airport bombing in Kabul:
After the U.S. military evacuated Afghan allies to military bases in the U.S., sponsor organizations across the country stepped up to offer their services to relocate into communities across the U.S.
Overall, 1,314 people from Afghanistan have relocated to Minnesota. Of them, 1,292 people came through Operation Allies Welcome with a Humanitarian Parole Status, and 22 people came with Refugee Status or Special Immigrant Visa Status.
People granted humanitarian parole can temporarily live and, for refugees from Afghanistan, work in the U.S. The process requires a sponsor for the parolees such as Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota.
Most of the refugees coming to Minnesota relocated to the Twin Cities metro area. However, 87 people have settled in Greater Minnesota. The approximately two dozen Afghan families in Rochester began arriving in early November 2021 .
“It’s been as smooth a transition as you could hope for given the circumstances,” said John Meyers, Catholic Charities' director of refugee resettlement.
The Afghan refugees gathered outside their apartment complex said they were glad to be where they are and have been treated well. They also said some promises, made by federal, state and local officials, have been left unfulfilled.
“We kept our jobs secret”
All said they have family members who remained in Afghanistan and may be in danger if Taliban officials learn of their family members’ association with U.S. allies.
They were told family members would be a second-tier priority for refugee status to come to the U.S. None of the men heard word about any plans to bring family members to the U.S., they said.
Sediqi and the other refugees said they know where their families are and can help U.S. officials locate them.
“We know where they went,” said Abbas Yari, who said his siblings are still in Afghanistan.
Some people worked hard to protect family members from the Taliban while working with the U.S. in Afghanistan, Sediqi said.
“A lot of us, we kept our jobs secret,” said Sediqi, adding that over five of the years he spent working on a U.S. military supply depot, he never visited his home town.
Promises by U.S. officials to help bring their family members to the U.S. was a factor in their decision to leave Afghanistan, Sediqi added.
Yari said he wasn’t sure how long his family members would be safe from possible Taliban reprisal for associating with someone who helped U.S. forces there.
Getting around is a test
Another hurdle for refugees is getting a driver's license. The test isn’t translated into Dari, a common version of the Persian language widely used in Afghanistan or other languages widely used there.
Sediqi said few Afghans arrivals have gotten help and are told when asking about taking the driving test it was their responsibility to find an interpreter.
For those who don’t drive, learning the local transit system and its limits has been a challenge.
Learning that bus routes outside of downtown run once per hour was a hard lesson during the winter months, Osmani said.
“Last year, we missed a lot of appointments because of this,” he said.
The limited hours the Rochester Public Transit runs has also created difficulties, Sediqi and others added.
Some of the refugees have resorted to using a rideshare app to get to or from work.
“That is too expensive,” Sediqi said.
In the warmer months, most get around by bicycle. When the group met for the afternoon meetup, nine of them arrived by bike.
Some stores and places in town are also not accepting the refugees’ emergency employment authorization card as an official identification, which has created unnecessary barriers for doing things such as sending money back to family members in Afghanistan, they said.
One big concern the refugees have is how long they might be able to remain in the U.S. The humanitarian parole status is temporary. Some of the men said they were promised a fast-tracked green card. Others said they were told they needed to hire an attorney to apply for asylum. Osmani and Moeen Shah Muhammadi said they were told their state government or sponsor organization would help them take care of that process.
“Here, they said it’s not their responsibility.” Osmani said.
A couple of the Rochester refugees said they went ahead and retained legal counsel, but most said they couldn’t afford to do that.
Farhad Omari said he has been trying to contact his case worker at Catholic Charities for clarification about his legal status and whether he needed an attorney to apply for asylum.
“They don’t return my calls,” Omari said.
“We had to sacrifice”
The refugees said they chose to fight against the Taliban because it was the right thing to do.
“This was our responsibility,” Habibi said. “We had to work for our country; we had to do that and we had to sacrifice.”
None expect to return to their home country as long as the Taliban is in control.
Sediqi said outside forces helped speed up the country’s destabilization. The country was well equipped with one of the best armed forces in the region. Neighboring countries had plenty to gain to oust the civilian government and disrupt a country whose people saw a rapid rise in their standard of living.
A member of one the “zero forces,” units whose designation start with zero, Israel Habibi worked directly with U.S. forces in military operations.
His final assignment was to provide security with his unit at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as U.S. forces and their allies withdrew from Afghanistan. Habibi was on duty Aug. 26, 2021, when a suicide bomber killed at least 183 people at the airport, including 170 Afghan civilians and 13 members of the U.S. military.
Habibi said he doesn’t regret helping the U.S. fight against the Taliban forces.
“This was our responsibility,” he said through translation by fellow Afghan refugee Jawid Sediqi. “We knew the U.S. would not be supporting us forever; we tried to create a system.”
From what he saw, that system failed from the top down, he said. Higher ranking military officials lost their resolve and will to fight early as the Taliban made a push to reclaim the country as the U.S. began to withdraw.
“This was from the high officials,” Habibi said. “The people, the people in the military, wanted to fight for their country.”
Moeen Shah Muhammadi
Days before he was able to leave Afghanistan, Moeen Shah Muhammadi was shot in the leg by Taliban forces.
Living in Rochester, he received treatment for his injury at Mayo Clinic.
A member of one of Afghanistan’s “zero forces” which worked directly with U.S. forces in combat operations, Muhammadi knew his life was on the line as the Taliban pushed to retake Afghanistan.
He agrees with fellow refugee Israel Habibi that people in Afghanistan had established an independent government after ousting the Taliban and was disappointed to see authorities from the top down cave to Taliban pressure.
“The whole system has been spoiled, ruined in a matter of days” he said through translation by fellow Afghan refugee Jawid Sediqi.
As Abbas Yari was trying to make his way to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, he was kidnapped and briefly held by Taliban forces.
So he learned after the fact: Armed men stopped and boarded the bus he was on as it approached the airport and military compound. They collected and checked all the passengers’ identifications. Check points were common as thousands of people tried to flee the Taliban, so Yari, like most of the other passengers, thought little of the encounter at first, he said.
The men then ordered the driver to drive to a remote area behind the airport where they sat for hours.
“We were there until 1 o’clock at night,” he said.
People at the front of the bus overheard what turned out to be negotiations with the men who were looking for either people wanted by the Taliban or quick cash from Afghan and U.S. officials.
Yari said he still doesn’t know some of the details behind the incident.
“It was a close call,” he said. “That’s all.”
Jawid Sediqi worked in a major supply depot in Kabul. He oversaw a team that helped make sure U.S. and Afghan forces had the equipment they needed where they needed it.
He has a picture on his phone of himself leading a tour of the supply depot to a visiting U.S. envoy that included a U.S. general.
Sediqi continues to coordinate logistics for a community of Afghan refugees who have resettled in Rochester. He helps translate English to Dari and other Persian dialects and vice versa. He helps other Afghan arrivals navigate the transit system and helps coordinate volunteers who offer to assist the new arrivals.
Working with U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed civilian government put Sediqi’s extended family at risk so he kept his posting a secret, he said.
“When I started working with U.S. forces, I was not able to go to my home town for five years,” he said.