Afghan household arrives in Houston with newborns as questions come up about entry to advantages

Safia was holding her newborn baby girl wrapped in a pink blanket when she and her husband entered their new Houston apartment after a month-long trip from Afghanistan.

The family came via Qatar and Italy to Fort Bliss – where the five-day-old Ajwa was born – and are the first evacuated Afghan family to come to Houston under “humanitarian probation” through the refugee agency Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. Hundreds more families are expected in the coming months who will not receive the same benefits and support as traditional refugees. 

At noon on Monday, Atiqullah, 37, and Safia, 32, arrived at their new home with eyes heavy with exhaustion. Her four older children, ages 4 to 7, wandered in confused, wearing fluffy pajama bottoms.

Ajwa was born in a local hospital while the family was being treated at Fort Bliss. Unlike the rest of her family, she is an American citizen.

“I am quite happy that she is fine, everything is fine with her and she is healthy,” said the girl’s father, Atiqullah, “I am really happy that my daughter was (not) born on the plane. “

Speaking in Pashto through an interpreter provided by Interfaith Ministries, he asked that his family’s first name be used only for security reasons. His mother and brothers are still in danger in Afghanistan.

He said he was grateful that his wife could be in the hospital for delivery. The family has spent the past month in less than ideal conditions and fled their homeland after the Taliban came to power. Atiqullah said he must leave the country immediately after working with the US military as a member of Afghan special forces for a decade.

He said he and his family left their Jalalabad home and traveled to Kabul in an armored convoy, knowing they could be arrested or killed if the Taliban stopped them. He said he was scared but kept telling his family that once they got to the US everything would be fine. When they arrived at Kabul airport, he used his military contacts to get to the airport gates and take an evacuation flight. His family was flown to a camp in Qatar, then to another in Italy, and then to Fort Bliss.

After jumping from camp to camp for several weeks, they were appointed to a refugee agency, Interfaith Ministries. The agency was notified on Saturday afternoon and in less than 48 hours the family’s new apartment was secured and filled with essentials such as toothbrushes, pots and pans and duvets provided by individual donors.

In a way, Atiqullah’s family came to Houston like any other refugee family. A clerk from a refugee aid organization drove the family with some basic equipment to their partially furnished apartment and showed them around. In the coming days and weeks, the agency will offer the family health checkups, English classes, cultural orientation and other services.

But Atiqullah’s family is not classified as refugees, nor does it come with special immigrant visas protecting Afghans and Iraqis who have helped the US military.

His family is here under a special name called “humanitarian parole”. This enabled them to be quickly evacuated from Afghanistan and brought to the United States. But it also puts family members – and tens of thousands like them – in a more vulnerable position than their counterparts for refugees and special immigrant visa holders.

Although laid-off workers like Atiqullah will at some point have the opportunity to work legally, many do not come with a work permit or the opportunity to obtain one quickly, which could delay their path to self-employment by several months.

The family is likely to be excluded from many public benefits, such as meal tickets and cash benefits. They may be eligible for some form of public health care, but the family clerk Nar Baraili admitted it will take time to find out exactly what they qualify for and what they don’t.

“It will be a learning phase for me. Also for the next family to come, ”said Baraili.

In Houston, refugee organizations such as Interfaith Ministries cover much of the running costs of housing, medical care, English classes, and other support for Afghan probation officers. Although they received some money from the State Department to offset the cost – $ 1,225 per probation service – Interfaith Ministries estimates the additional cost to the organization at about $ 2,780 per person to provide services for a period of six months.

When refugees are resettled, these additional costs are borne by the federal government.

Interfaith Ministries expects to relocate around 1,000 Afghan probation officers and has launched a fundraising campaign to raise $ 1 million to offset the cost.

Houston refugee organizations expect to pick up around 3,000 Afghan layoffs by the end of March, more than three times the total number of refugees from all countries relocated to the state of Texas in 2020.

The Atiqullah family, like other probation officers, is facing pending immigration proceedings. If they want a path to long-term residency, their mere humanitarian parole must be updated. It is still unclear how exactly these immigration cases will be handled; Currently, refugee authorities expect those released on parole to apply for asylum, a complicated legal process that can take several years.

President Joe Biden and some members of Congress hope to allocate more funds to support arriving Afghan families. The White House has asked Congress to allocate $ 6.4 billion to assist Afghan evacuees, including funding to provide paroled Afghans with “public health screenings and vaccinations, along with full resettlement resources and a way to start a prosperous new life here.” “.

In early September, a coalition of US Democratic and Republican officials introduced the WELCOMED Act, which would grant Afghan probation officers the same benefits as other refugees.

Despite limited access to services, Interfaith Ministries expects families like Atiqullah’s to be self-sufficient within six months, which is typical of the refugees they serve. Afghans and other refugees have a proven track record of hard work and upward mobility when they have the tools to succeed. Refugee organizations hope that with community donations they can provide these tools without the usual robust federal aid.

Although Atiqullah does not have any knowledge of English, he hopes to learn quickly and enroll his children in school. He would love to go to school and become a mechanic himself or work in another job that allows him to come home in the evening so he can spend time with his family at night.

Outside, as he talked about his future in Houston, rain pelted the puddles that formed on his first-floor porch. When asked whether he was worried about the approaching tropical storm, he was unimpressed.

“I fought (near) the Taliban,” joked Atiqullah. He’s not worried about a little rain.

elizabeth.trovall@chron.com

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