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A year after the war ended, some Afghans in the U.S. find the transition difficult


Tens of thousands of Afghans have moved to the U.S. since the U.S. pulled troops out of that country a year ago. And they got special immigration status because they'd helped American military and were considered to be at risk of being retaliated against under the new government. But advocates say the U.S. is just not doing enough, including helping women left behind. Steve Walsh with member station KPBS has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Inside the Esmaelzada’s home near San Diego, it's Spartan, almost nothing from their time in Afghanistan - not even photos.

MASOOMA ESMAELZADA: Yeah. This is a poster.

WALSH: Masooma Esmaelzada and her five sisters evacuated from Afghanistan a year ago. They were allowed just one backpack each. She's embarrassed that most of their belongings are furnished mainly by donations. Their father died a month before they left. With no male relative living with them, they were virtually trapped in their homes as the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

M ESMAELZADA: Something like a nightmare. Maybe for the people who are living in U.S., it looks like a movie, but for us, every minute was like a horror film. We didn't know what will happen next.

WALSH: Her family arrived in San Diego in January. Before they fled, she taught English literature at the local university. Occasionally, in the middle of the night now, Esmaelzada holds a virtual class for her former students because English has been removed from the curriculum, and women are often barred from class.

M ESMAELZADA: They had goals, dreams. But right now they say we do not know about our tomorrow. What should we do? They are really broken.

WALSH: She now works with La Maestra Community Health Centers, helping other recent arrivals. The transition to the U.S. is especially tough for Afghan women. Her father stressed education. One sister is a neurosurgeon. The other an architect, though many of the women Esmaelzada works with cannot read or write.

M ESMAELZADA: Some of the organization - when they help, they say that, OK, you have to start working, but how, when they do not have any knowledge, when they do not know the language, when they do not even have that self-confidence to work?

WALSH: In the hectic last days of the American presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. prioritized getting people out who worked with the U.S. And Devon Cone with Refugees International says the focus was on those who might qualify for special immigration visas or SIVs. Cone met with a group of female Afghan refugees evacuated to Albania who are waiting to be resettled. They were doctors, lawyers and advocates for women's rights. Most did not expect to come to America.

DEVON CONE: Because of the work that these women did, they were at risk by the Taliban, yet they didn't work for the U.S. government, so there really was no way and there's still very few ways for them to get to the U.S.

WALSH: Shawn VanDiver's group AfghanEvac formed to coordinate a range of vet groups who are working to get people out of Afghanistan. One year out, he's worried public attention is fading.

SHAWN VANDIVER: What's really important is that the world doesn't stop talking about this 'cause as soon as the world stops talking about it, that's when we're going to see the uptick. And what we saw when Ukraine kicked off was that there was an uptick in raids on houses and beatings.

WALSH: The group supports the recently introduced Afghan Adjustment Act, which would help Afghans caught in immigration limbo. Masooma Esmaelzada’s sister Gulsom Esmaelzada worked with USAID and not directly with Americans. But it was enough to get her family on the radar for their last-minute evacuation. Glad to be safe, she's also sad that she's now part of a brain drain forced by the Taliban.

GULSOM ESMAELZADA: It's made me sad, and it's just telling me that my education was useless when I cannot use it for my own people, for my country. So that's the thing that made me disappointed and hopeless.

WALSH: Without some other permanent solution, the sisters now have two years to make it through the backlogged immigration process.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.