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Afghan Refugees Risked Their Lives but are Frustrated by Resettlement in US

by Malcolm Garcia

Mohammad Naseer Yasini sat alone in a North Kansas City apartment and recalled life under the Taliban.

Mohammad Naseer Yasini, his 6-month-old daughter, Mehria Yasini, and Mohammad Haroon Naimi are living in North Kansas City. (KEITH MYERS | The Kansas City Star) At that time, he never imagined he would one day work for American soldiers.

He was young, still a boy then, but his memories remain clear. It was a stressful time in Afghanistan, he said. Few people had jobs or other opportunities. He smiled a little ruefully.

"Something like my life here," said Yasini, 29. "When I have a job, I'll say then I am happy."

Yasini arrived in Kansas City last month and is one of the hundreds of Iraqis and Afghans who move to the United States on a special immigrant visa after serving alongside American troops in their home countries. The visa was created specifically for those whose lives have been threatened because of their work for U.S. forces.

But many of these refugees do not feel special. They arrive here reliant on nonprofit social service agencies and become ensnared in the red tape of securing federal resettlement assistance for housing, employment and health care. They often find they cannot resume the professional careers they once held or had planned in their native countries.

What federal resettlement benefits they do receive expire in six months for Afghans and eight months for Iraqis, a small time frame to start a new life in a new country that they had risked their lives for, said Bob Carey, vice president for resettlement and migration policy for the International Rescue Committee.

"They are essentially dumped here," Carey said. "They are not getting shot or killed, but they are not getting the resources they need. It's comparable to American veterans not receiving the services they need. We're not serving well those who suffered on behalf of the United States."

A special visa applicant must have worked directly with U.S. armed forces as a translator for a period of at least 12 months, have obtained a favorable recommendation from a general or a commissioned officer, and have cleared a background check and screening required on a case-by-case basis.

At least 264 interpreters serving troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were killed from 2003 to 2008 - targeted by militias, assassins and kidnappers. The seriously wounded add up to 403.

According to the State Department, 500 special immigrant visas for interpreters are available this fiscal year. Since 2006, when the special visa for interpreters was created, 1,735 applications have been approved.

In Kansas City, Jewish Vocational Services has resettled 26 Afghans since 2000 and 412 Iraqis since 1997. In recent years, more and more of these refugees have worked for U.S. armed forces.

"Some of the problems they have when they get here are usually around a delay in getting their documents," said Jewish Vocational Services employment coordinator Abdul Bakar. "Their expectations are so high, especially with well-qualified people, that they get frustrated. They tell me: ‘For this we sacrificed against our own people?' "

Yasini, 29, grew up in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and studied law. After a U.S.-led military coalition entered Kabul in 2001, Yasini continued his studies but also applied to be an interpreter for the U.S. Army. He was hired and stationed at the Kabul Military Training Center, where the new Afghan National Army trained. He worked as an interpreter from 2003 to 2008, and his pay averaged between $350 and $420 a month.

As the security situation began to deteriorate in the face of a revitalized Taliban insurgency, Yasini decided to leave.
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