Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. It's good to have you with us. There was breaking news on Friday morning of dozens killed and many more injured after an explosion at a Shia Mosque in Kandahar. This comes just one week after a deadly suicide bombing at a different Shia Mosque in Kunduz. It's a reminder of the agonizing conditions facing the people of Afghanistan since the US ended our 20-year presence in the country.
More than 200,000 refugees have fled Afghanistan in recent months and approximately 55,000 have relocated to the US since mid-August. According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 40% are eligible for special immigrant visas because of the work they did aiding US efforts in Afghanistan. For other evacuees, it's unclear what their legal status will be. Many entered the country not as traditional refugees but instead under a temporary legal process. That means many of these refugees currently do not have a direct pathway to permanent residency.
For more on this, I spoke with Naheed Samadi-Bahram, Women for Afghan Women's US Country Director. We started by talking about how she's doing.
Naheed Samadi-Bahram: It has been one of the darkest time of my life. I am 40 years old and I have lived my entire life through the four decades of war in the country but I have never felt this hopeless and helpless in my life. It's not actually the story of me but every single Afghan anywhere in the world right now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What makes this moment feel so much more hopeless?
Naheed Samadi-Bahram: I think everything around that I think no Afghan anywhere in the world thought that after 20 years of hard work spending trillions of dollar, thousands of life lost we will go back to where we were 20 years ago. This is really heartbreaking for all of us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to talk a little bit about your own experience of resettling in the US in 2006. What was that process like for you, with whom did you work, and how were you received?
Naheed Samadi-Bahram: When I came to United state I did not come as a refugee. I got married and I came here. My husband was an Afghan American. My experience was very different here in the US. Where I was a refugee in Pakistan, my mother died because of a bomb explosion in Kabul when I was 10 years old in 1990 and we had to flee the country and go to Pakistan and we were refugees for 15 years there.
When I came to United State, my experience was very different than what other people are experiencing right now. I was not refugee but I have also had left my family, my friends, my country, and came to a new place. I felt very isolated. I felt very alone and the reason why I am here today is because I wanted to look into an organization that worked with the Afghan community. I found out Women for Afghan Women the only one in the East Coast. I went and I offered volunteering and it has only been six months that I was in the state. I was very homesick, very homesick and that's where I found a home away from home with this community here in the US.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me about the work that Women for Afghan Women does in the US and particularly in New York.
Naheed Samadi-Bahram: We have educational programs that provides English as a second language classes for women and we have preparation for citizenship test classes as well as preparation for getting your driving permit test. Every year, we have between 80 to 200 students through our educational programs. Majority of them are Afghan but we also have non-Afghan students.
We have a youth leadership program under our education umbrella that have girls and boys leadership program. Our focus is on youth leadership and welcoming these kids, majority of them are immigrants or a few first generation. Welcoming them to United State but also teaching them some of the culture and customs that are very different from Afghanistan through the leadership program. Also working with them on their leadership skills.
We have another program that's youth rising program that those are youth ages 16 to 20 year old and we work on college and career readiness. Majority of these girls who go to college are the very first to go to college in United State or in anywhere. We work to make sure that they understand the system, they understand how to apply for colleges, and making sure that they do not drop out of school just because there is no one to guide them to get into the next step.
This was all our educational program and then we have legal services. We have immigration attorneys who serve the community with immigration legal needs. We also have case management that we provide casework to family members who need anything from, for example, snap housing, Medicaid, Medicare, from that to also any other need that a woman or a family has. Obviously, majority of our work also is with the victims and survivors of domestic violence. We do a lot of education around sexual assault, dating, violence, and domestic violence. We also work with individuals who are survivors of violence.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Obviously you've been doing this work, the organization's been doing this work for many years, but again if we go back to what we were speaking of in the beginning how this moment feels different. How has the work changed over the past few months since the US left Afghanistan?
Naheed Samadi-Bahram: I'm sure you know that we are the largest women right organization inside of Afghanistan. We have over 1200 staff who are still in Afghanistan. When things change in Afghanistan our entire focus was how can we get our high-risk staff to safety. Beside that work of getting people out for safety, which unfortunately we were unsuccessful to get anyone out through the emergency evacuation, but our work here also tripled because the community has gone through a lot. Any of us here has family back home including myself. We still have family. We still have friends. We still have relatives that we are panicking about their safety.
Our work tripled. Everybody would've called asking, "How can I get my family out? How can I help people there?" We have hired a full-time immigration attorney to be just working with the community on those cases especially those who need on humanitarian-- they need to apply for humanitarian parole or those who want to do family reunification and do family petitions. We also have seen a lot of issues with mental health because this situation brought back a lot of trauma to many Afghans. Now we are in process of hiring a full-time mental health counselor who will be available, not only for people who are here, but also for the refugees that we will be welcoming in the next few weeks.
We are working with Partner Organization to make sure that we get enough pro bono attorneys and mental health counselor who understand the language and can be of service for the community.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate your point about the need for mental health, the need for social support even the language you used of finding a home away from home after having left so much. I'm also wondering what other kinds of direct services and supplies are necessary particularly for people who are coming as refugees? Things that maybe folks haven't necessarily thought about in terms of the kinds of needs that these women and their families have.
Naheed Samadi-Bahram: I want to mention to all our listeners that Afghans who have left during this emergency evacuation did not bring a thing with them. They might only have a small seven to eight-pound backpack with them and they didn't even have access to their bank accounts when they left. The banks were frozen when they were leaving Afghanistan and people has nothing. They're starting from zero right now and they need anything and everything.
Our organization with a group of volunteers raised money to purchase new clothing for these people because we heard of stories that people haven't changed clothes for over a month and they go take shower when they were in Qatar and they would sit in the sun to make their clothes dry. We packed for 750 individuals clothing, undergarment, shoes, socks, and a full set for adults, and youths, and children and they're all ready to go when the families arrive at JFK.
We work with the port authority at JFK to welcome the families who will be arriving in New York. We also have set their holding space where refugees will be welcome first. Their first experience of meeting landing on the American land, we made it culturally come and made sure that it's a warm place so that people can feel welcome. We also have worked with port authority. They needed interpreters and translators, so we got them over 200 translators and interpreters who are available and on standby that when the planes arrive here and we will be willing to meet them and make sure that to do the process for them as easy as possible.
Within that group of 200 individuals, we have attorneys, doctors, nurses, psychologists, therapists, as well as a public school teacher. That way if there is a need for any of these professionals, we will be able to provide that. We also will be providing warm meals and hot tea and coffee through an Afghan business who partner with us, who will be bringing the coffee truck and lunch trucks by the airport where, when the families arrive will be receiving warm [unintelligible 00:11:27] meal as well has hot tea and coffee.
The organization received funding from Airbnb and Uber. We will be able to provide temporary housing for families. A family can stay for almost a month at a place until we find them a permanent home. We also will be able to provide them transportation for their appointments as many of them obviously when they come now they do not have that. We are also will be able to work with them in job placement. The organization, because we are the only one in East Coast providing all these direct services, have been working now in partnership with refugee resettlement organizations, to make sure that the gap that they have between their services and the refugees' needs will be felt by Women for Afghan Women.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you talk about these incredible and absolutely crucial wraparound services I live in North Carolina and I have been involved with charitable organizations that are trying to assist with Afghan resettlement in recent months. I have noticed a level of outpouring of community support. It's very different than when we were working with the same organizations with Syrian refugees. Finding, in that context, so often we were battling against a community sentiment that wanted to expel Syrian refugees. It did not want Syrians in our community. Much more open to the question of the experiences of Afghan refugees, I'm wondering if you have seen something similar, or if your experience has been different on that point?
Naheed Samadi-Bahram: I think I have seen exactly what you have been experiencing and seeing it. I think the situation in Afghanistan for many Americans, including myself, I think we feel responsible in some way, of what mess has been created in Afghanistan, unfortunately. I think that is one of the reasons the ones who feel responsible, the ones who feel that this should have never happened there, we have had so much achievement. We should do something now to make to this.
I have talked to thousands of Americans in the past couple of months and every single person have been saying this, "I'm sorry, for what's happening." I know it's not an individual's mistake. It's not one or the other's mistake but I think a lot of Americans feel that way about Afghanistan right now. Especially I'm sure you have seen the outpouring support of the veterans getting their interpreters and translators out of Afghanistan because they feel responsible. They have been doing anything to make sure to get them out because feel that, "They work for us and we put their life at risk now. It's our responsibility to get those people out of Afghanistan." That's why they have been so unified, so strategically working and fundraising and getting people out of Afghanistan.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Naheed Samadi-Bahram, Women for Afghan Women's US Country Director. Thank you for joining us today.
Naheed Samadi-Bahram: Thank you so much for having me again.
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