Culture shock

Afghan families face culture shock and uncertainty over immigration status as they resettle in Wisconsin

Sher Khan and his family arrived at Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin in early September.

They were among some 120,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan in August 2021 as the US military retreated and the Taliban, an armed Islamist group, took control of the country.

Many of those evacuees ended up at U.S. military bases like Fort McCoy, where they completed immigration paperwork, met health requirements and awaited resettlement placement with one of nine refugee resettlement agencies in the United States

When Khan arrived, Fort McCoy was approaching its peak evacuee count of nearly 13,000. Now the number of people at the base has dropped to less than 3,000 people, and base officials expect that that everyone be relocated by mid-February.

Khan said his family was due to leave in early January for their new home in Massachusetts, but their trip was canceled after someone at their barracks tested positive for COVID-19. When speaking with WPR on January 12, Khan said they were looking forward to a new travel date and the chance to return to more normal life.

On January 13, they finally made the trip to Massachusetts.

But Khan and other Afghan refugees know that getting to their new homes in Wisconsin and across the country is just the first of many challenges they will face as they establish their new lives.

“When we arrived here, we lost control of almost everything”

Khan grew up in a rural village in Afghanistan before moving to the country’s capital to study literature at Kabul University. After graduating, he worked as a radio news anchor, wrote for several local newspapers, and translated English books into Pashto, one of Afghanistan’s two official languages.

In 2020, Khan began working for a company linked to the US government. That connection proved invaluable when her company helped find a place for her family when the United States evacuated its allies in August.

Khan said he never imagined leaving his home in Kabul. But his job made him a target for the Taliban and he felt his children would have few educational opportunities under the group’s rule.

“Anyone who doesn’t think like them is an enemy of the Taliban. Just because you live in Kabul, you can get killed for that,” Khan said. “There is no hope for the future for the people.”

A few months later, Khan said it was not easy leaving his life in Afghanistan. Especially as he and his wife face the reality of starting all over again.

“I was middle class. Because I had a job, I had a house, I had family and friends, relatives and connections with people who were kind of in power. But when we got here we lost control of almost everything,” Khan said. noted. “I know I survived. It’s a big deal to survive. But still, as a human being, my instinct is to help others. My instinct is to make a difference.”

After working several jobs in Afghanistan, Khan spends most of his time at the base reading books or watching movies. He can’t wait to start applying for journalism jobs and hopes to one day work for Voice of America, an American news and information service headquartered in Washington, D.C., which provides international programming in languages ​​such as Pashto.

He said the hardest part of his journey was going from a home and space for his three young children in Afghanistan to living with several other families in one of the military base barracks where there is little privacy.

“People from different backgrounds have come here. Sometimes it’s noisy inside, sometimes we don’t get along well because, for example, one person may be listening to music and another may be intending to read a book. So it gets messy sometimes,” he said.

As he plans to finally settle into his new home in Massachusetts, Khan said he’s most worried about getting through the first few months and the culture shock that will inevitably come with living in a new country. And he added that his family wouldn’t be the only ones who needed time to adjust to the culture shock.

“I may speak English, that’s understandable. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I know everything about the culture. That’s why some people, including me, can behave strangely,” Khan said. “It’s not easy. But I think the generous support of community members can make this transition from one life to another easier.”

A new home in Wisconsin

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This culture shock is something Matiullah Matie and her family are still navigating a month after arriving in their new home in Wausau. Matie said there are a lot of new systems to learn, like American traffic lights.

When Matie arrived at Wausau airport last month with his wife and six children, a crowd of people including local officials and religious leaders were there to greet them.

“I told them, ‘It’s like my wedding night.’ I don’t feel like I got out of Afghanistan,” he said. “So Americans are a loyal people, especially Wausau is really beautiful.”

Matie is from Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan, a town he says Afghans call “little America”. He was a tribal leader and worked for the US Marines from 2009 to 2014, helping hire workers for local infrastructure projects.

Matie said he hoped one day he could come to America. He was eligible to apply for a special immigration visa in 2011, but decided to stay in his home country at the time. His feelings changed when the Taliban took control of Lashkar Gah and the rest of Helmand province in early August.

“I was in Kabul with my family when they killed my brother’s daughter, and they burned down my house (in Lashkar Gah). I knew they didn’t want me alive,” Matie said.

Even though his work with the US military made him a target for the Taliban, Matie said he doesn’t regret it. He calls Afghanistan and the US ‘two hands of one body’ and said his parents always encouraged him to help US troops because of their past help during the Cold War era .

When the Taliban arrived in Kabul last August, Matie said he moved around, spending each night with different friends. Her family flew out shortly after the capital collapsed, but their journey was still difficult even after leaving Afghanistan. Matie said living in crowded conditions with other evacuees at Fort Pickett in Virginia was difficult for her family and many tears were shed as they left their home.

Now Matie and her family live in a small two-story house within walking distance of a bus stop and a grocery store. He enjoys spending time getting to know the people of Wausau, visiting them or welcoming them to his new home for tea. He hopes to open his own business in Wausau, either related to his previous job in distribution or in a small restaurant. He is looking for potential investors or a grant to help him get started.

The path to permanent residence

Matie said his biggest worry for the future is the uncertainty that still surrounds his immigration status. He said it took much longer than expected for the federal government to finalize his Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, and give him a clear path to a green card or citizenship.

“It’s not just difficult for me or a problem for me, it’s the problem for all of us. Especially for those who don’t speak English, they’re like blind,” Matie said.

Grant Sovern is a Madison immigration attorney and serves on the board of the Community Immigration Law Center, which helps Afghan refugees in Wisconsin navigate the immigration process.

He said it’s especially complicated for people accepted into the US on parole status, which isn’t frequently used but allows a person to stay in the country for two years and get a permit. of work.

“Everyone assumes they’re refugees, they can come to the United States and they can stay as refugees. But that’s not the case at all,” Sovern said. “They are two years old and if nothing else changes, they have to leave.”

Based on his experience working with Afghans at Fort McCoy, Sovern estimates that only 30 or 40 percent of people are eligible for an SIV. Another small percentage of people are eligible for special designations created for Afghans through the US refugee admissions program called Priority 1 and Priority 2.

But Sovern estimates that 50-60% of people will need to seek asylum in the United States. This process is usually done while the applicant is out of the country, and Afghans will likely have to prove they are at risk of persecution if they return home. the country.

Like Matie, Sher Khan said he applied for an SIV because of his work on US-funded projects. He hopes the visa will get him a green card, or permanent residency, much faster than people seeking asylum.

Sovern said Congress has the option to pass legislation to create an easier path to permanent residency for Afghan evacuees. But he thinks that’s unlikely given how controversial immigration issues have become in the United States.

Matie said he still hopes policymakers in his new country will take action, especially local and state officials.

“They should kindly send concerns about these kinds of difficulties to the departments that can change sections of the law, which have the power to change the law. Then it will be easy for me,” Matie said.

He said having a green card would allow him to travel one day and give him more security as he works to rebuild his life.

This story is part of a PBS Wisconsin/WPR WisContext collaboration, using reports, research, and community expertise to provide insight and insight into issues affecting Wisconsin.