(NEW YORK) — When he was away in the U.K. studying international development and economics, Khalis Noori always envisioned returning home to Afghanistan and using his education to better his country.
But as he was setting up his new office in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance, Taliban fighters were encircling Kabul. Before he could put his degrees to work, he was forced to burn them along with his laptop and photographs from his wedding — a desperate bid to destroy any material he feared could be used to brand him as a traitor.
“We were told not to leave the house,” Noori said of the frantic hours following the Taliban’s takeover and the American military’s hasty withdrawal. “We were so worried that I didn’t sleep for two nights.”
Still, Noori says he was one of the lucky ones. A friend from his time working as a cultural adviser for the U.S. armed forces was soon able to secure safe passage out of Afghanistan for him and his wife.
After a chaotic evacuation through Kabul’s airport, they journeyed on to Qatar, then Germany, and then a military base in central Virginia before landing in the Washington area where for most of the past year, they’ve been attempting to build a new home in place that bears little resemblance to the one they had to leave.
Many are still waiting for that evacuation.
Despite the Biden administration promising to prioritize their protection, thousands of Afghans vulnerable to retribution from the Taliban for working alongside American troops are caught in a bureaucratic pipeline.
As of last month, State Department officials say nearly 75,000 applicants were still waiting to learn if they would qualify for a special immigrant visa (SIV), meant to be a direct pathway to green card for Afghans who were employed by the U.S. government. More than 10,000 had cleared the onerous vetting process, but had yet to be relocated.
The State Department does not track SIV applicants’ whereabouts and while many have fled to other countries, multiple nongovernmental organizations estimate the majority are still stranded in Afghanistan.
Afghan refugees in the U.S. also face a complicated path forward.
Since the end of last August, 94,000 people who fled Afghanistan have made their way to American soil, according to the Department of Homeland Security. For the vast majority, it’s only a temporary haven. Admitted on a two-year humanitarian parole and provided with relocation services for a period of between 30 and 90 days, these newcomers are tasked with the expensive and daunting task of applying for permanent status while rebuilding their lives under a cloud of uncertainty.
Noori wasted no time in adjusting. Instead of pursuing international development, he now helps other new arrivals from Afghanistan get on their feet as the director of field operations for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), which he describes as “challenging, but rewarding.”
While his enthusiasm for his new country and new work is apparent, Noori says he and many of the people he is trying to help are still mourning what they lost.
“I prepared myself — equipped myself — to go back to Afghanistan and be a part of that dream world leaders and the international community promised Afghans — democracy, rule of law, human rights, women’s rights. We were encouraged to stand for those values, and that’s what we did,” he said. “Losing your country, losing your loved ones, losing your career — everything you have worked for all your life. Myself, I see how that has changed me.”
Mohammad Nabi says he saw that dream turn to dust over the duration of a layover in Doha, Qatar. After working for the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan for 15 years, he had begun to fear that the Taliban’s renewed strength posed a threat to him and his family. He made arrangements to leave Afghanistan with his wife and children, and together they boarded what would be the last commercial flight out of the country as he knew it. (ABC News is not using his real name at his request because he fears family members in Afghanistan could face retribution.)
“I saw on the news what happened in Kabul and it really shocked me because I had my family there — my parents are still there, my brothers and my sisters,” Nabi said.
He called home to say he planned to turn around to be with them, but they convinced him to travel on.
“That flight from Doha to D.C., I think those 13 or 14 hours were the most challenging hours of my life,” he said. “It was a very tough reality to deal with it. Everything that we worked hard for the last 20 years — everything a generation worked really, really hard to establish for themselves–it just vanished overnight.”
As a case manager for LIRS, Nabi says his most difficult work is trying reunite other fractured families, now a world apart.
“There are kids that are separated from their parents. There are wives that left their husbands and children back there. There are parents that left their kids,” he said. “The evacuation separated families so badly.”
“I had so many friends that they stayed back and didn’t get a chance to come that worked with the American government in Afghanistan. Some of them already had their visas, but they never got a chance to travel because everything happened overnight,” Nabi added. “They deserve to be here.”
Rasheed (who also asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution), who worked as a U.S. Army contractor beginning in 2005, did make it out. But his wife and three children did not.
After receiving threats from the Taliban, Rasheed said he fled, thinking his family would be close behind — and they were. On Aug. 14, 2021, they completed their SIV interviews at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, the final step in the lengthy process. The next day, the embassy shuttered.
Rasheed says he feels powerless. So far, even direct appeals to the State Department have been fruitless.
“They’re telling we are in the process, they’ll get the evacuation. But nothing is happening,” he said.
ABC News reached out to the State Department for comment. A spokesperson declined to comment on Rasheed’s family’s case due to privacy concerns, but said the department’s goal is to “issue visas to every eligible SIV applicant as quickly as possible, while maintaining national security as our highest priority.”
“We cannot estimate how long it will take to process all remaining SIV cases, partly because certain steps of the application process are applicant-controlled, as is certain action even within steps that are government-controlled,” they added.
For Afghans in the U.S. on humanitarian parole, congressional attempts to streamline their path to permanent residency have sputtered. Last Spring, Senate Republicans rejected legislation, citing security concerns. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a similar bill in both chambers of Congress, but it also faces an uphill climb.
Despite the legal limbo, life for Afghan refugees moves on, conforming to the unfamiliar rhythms of American society. As the new school year begins, Zakia Safi, another LIRS case manager, is primarily focused on helping Afghan children adapt to the classroom.
She says they learn quickly, taking to English and their new studies quickly, and that the high schoolers especially enjoy the camaraderie that comes from sharing a classroom.
“But it’s never going to be the same if your mom or sister isn’t here,” she adds.
Safi tries to fill the gaps, even accompanying pregnant mothers to the hospital so they don’t have to go through delivery alone.
“I’ve cut a couple of umbilical cords,” she laughs.
Beyond those newborns, Safi says she has seen other fresh starts that fill her with pride in the past year: refugees starting businesses, earning promotions and enrolling in college.
But many, wistful for the land they were forced to leave behind, say Afghanistan will always be home.
“If I ever get a chance to have my previous life back, I would love to take it,” said Nabi.
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