Hundreds of Colorado volunteers race against the clock to help Afghan refugees stay here

Time is low, stress is high and the system is broken, volunteers say.
10 min. read
Shahnaz Hussaini and Abdul Mohedi walk into a Northglenn mosque where an asylum clinic has been set up for resettled Afghans like them. June 4, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Even before western militaries pulled out of Afghanistan last autumn, Abdul Basir Mohedi could see the life he built with Shahnaz Hussaini, his wife, was ending. They knew advancing Taliban forces would recognize them on sight as Hazaras, an ethnicity that’s been subject to mass killings by the militant group. If they found out who Mohedi was, the son of a political leader who opposed the Taliban and was slain by them in the late ’90s, the couple could wind up dead.

By the time they made it to Kabul in August, hoping to leave their country, Taliban forces had already taken the capital city. A man with a gun stopped them as they tried to reach the airport.

“He said, ‘Hey, I know you’re Hazara. I’d never let you go to the airport.’ He put the gun on my wife’s head,” Mohedi remembered, speaking softly in his new apartment in Aurora. “When the Talib recognized that she was pregnant, he tried to kick with his foot on her stomach to kill the baby. I tried to put myself between the Talib and my wife. Finally the Talibs started beating me, and they beat me very badly. I almost died.”

Abdul Mohedi sits in his family's new apartment in Aurora. June 21, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Mohedi and Hussaini survived the encounter, pushed through dense crowds towards the airport, convinced guards to let them through, then traveled to Qatar, Germany, Philadelphia and finally New Jersey where they waited on a military base until they were relocated to Colorado. Hussaini gave birth to their son, healthy baby Anil, after they arrived in the U.S.

Though many people are still hoping to leave Afghanistan, most who did come to America are not home-free. At least 76,000 Afghans fled to the U.S. after the Taliban’s takeover, but about 60 percent do not qualify for a special visa created for people who helped western forces in their 20-year war in the region.

It means tens of thousands, including Mohedi and Hussaini, must ask for asylum within one year of their resettlement to live and work legally in the U.S. If not for a humongous volunteer effort to help people get their documents in order, many resettled Afghans might miss this crucial window. Still, there may be more to do than there is help or spare time, and the clock is ticking.

An ad-hoc legal clinic sprouted out of enormous need.

Tracy Harper spends most days poring over spreadsheets and taking calls with colleagues or Afghans who’ve arrived in Colorado in the last year. Every few weeks, her organizing culminates in a makeshift legal clinic set up in a metro-area mosque or nonprofit building. Dozens of volunteers, most who are not immigration attorneys like her, help as many as 25 families simultaneously fill out asylum applications. She supervises and checks completed paperwork before anything is submitted.

Her world is chaotic, and she’s beginning to feel the weight of all the difficult stories she hears on the job. She used to listen to NPR or call her parents as she drove home from work, but both have lost their power to help transition to family life.

“Sometimes I go home and I have a beer as strong as I can get, to just sort of help my brain to settle into: okay, you’re at home now. Asylum is not part of your daily life, right? Like, you are not fleeing the Taliban,” she said. “Really, I think the hardest thing is the emotional toll of having so many people relying on my success. If I am not able to pull this off, there isn’t anyone else to step into my shoes.”

Immigration attorney Tracy Harper tries to work out how to serve 25 families at an ad-hoc asylum clinic after some translators didn't show up as expected. June 4, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Harper has worked in immigration since 2013, when she graduated law school and began volunteering with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network. In 2014, the U.S. saw a surge of unaccompanied minors at its southern border and she was thrust into the complicated, often tragic realities of America’s immigration system. Then, last year, she joined an Association of Legal Administrators email list that focused on Afghans’ impending arrival.

“We were getting like 500 emails a day going through that listserv, people desperately trying to help people get out of Afghanistan. Just reading those, I could see that that was that there was no system – or if there was a system, it was not being implemented,” she said. “I expected the U.S. to do more.”

Without an official process ensuring Afghan refugees could secure pathways to residency, Harper realized someone would have to step up. She started talking with colleagues and made calls to groups like the Colorado Lawyers Committee, probing to see if there could be a grassroots solution. When someone suggested filling out applications in big groups, dozens of people all at once, she worried that attorneys and volunteers would be stretched too thin to do the job right.

“I was like, no. No way, no way. These are all of the reasons that this is not gonna work. We can’t do this. There’s no way. we can’t,” she said. “And then, eventually, they wore me down.”

Abdul Mohedi (left) and Shahnaz Hussaini, his wife, work with volunteers to fill out asylum applications at a legal clinic set up at a Northglenn mosque. June 4, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

When she started talking about a legal clinic, Harper said she expected it would have to serve as many as 1,000 Afghans who arrived in Colorado. The number shrunk by the time she secured grant funding and a home for the project with Catholic Charities, since resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee and African Community Center arranged to handle their own caseloads. Still, helping everyone would take a huge effort.

While she and her team have proven this speed-dating model is possible, she’s still crossing her fingers that everything will be OK.

At a recent clinic, Harper scrambled to get each Afghan family situated. When a translator didn’t show up as expected, she rushed to consolidate groups and ensure people were taken care of. Time is of the essence, and sending someone home without a completed application means pushing someone else further down the line.

Shahnaz Hussaini, who was a military attorney before she was forced to flee Afghanistan, fills out paperwork while she cradles her son, Anil, at an asylum clinic set up at a Northglenn mosque. June 4, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Many families like Mohedis, who left Afghanistan right when U.S. troops cleared out last August, are coming up on their one-year filing deadline. While Harper said the federal government will probably allow late applications, and that there may be other avenues for legal status, she’d rather not take any chances. For now, she said it’s unlikely that anyone denied asylum would be sent back to Afghanistan, but she can imagine worst-case scenarios where some become chronically undocumented or are deported to a third country.

“We’re just – we’re just going. We’re just moving forward,” she said. “We’re gonna do our best, but we’re probably not gonna get to everybody.”

Advocates are still hoping for a federal solution. In the meantime, tons of volunteers have showed up to fill the void.

As Harper worked feverishly to keep a June asylum workshop on schedule, a small army was on hand to help. Connie Talmage, executive director of the Colorado Lawyers Committee, said she’d mustered about 100 volunteers. Some were corporate or tax attorneys, others had zero experience with law. Everyone, she said, was moved to donate their time.

“I think people feel very strongly for the people in Afghanistan and what they have been through, and the fact that there’s something they can do to help, even if it’s coming and making copies and printing documents. You feel like you’re making a difference,” she said. “It’s that simple.”

Poornima Ramesh, a University of Colorado Boulder undergrad, was one of them.

“My family are immigrants, so immigration is a very personal thing for me,” she said as families began to stream into the Northglenn mosque. “Knowing that a lot of immigrants face a lot of hurdles throughout the process, and the U.S. government doesn’t really do a lot to mitigate those hurdles, being able to help is something I’m very passionate about.”

Connie Talmage, executive director of the Colorado Lawyers Committee, waits to greet clients and volunteers at an asylum clinic for resettled Afghans set up at a Northglenn mosque. June 4, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The idea that the federal government could have done more was a common sentiment at the event, and one founded in more than frustration.

Harper said an “Afghan Adjustment Act” has been discussed for the better part of 2022, a law that would allow resettled Afghans to immediately apply for green cards and bypass the complexities of the asylum process. It would also spare them from retelling the horrors that drove them here, since they wouldn’t have to prove they left home out of fear. There was a moment in May when such a measure might have been included in a bill providing military assistance to Ukraine, but lawmakers scrapped it before the aid package passed.

She also said the mess nonprofits are left to deal with demonstrates broader dysfunctions in our immigration system. While Americans are very supportive of resettlement from Afghanistan and Ukraine, she said, they’re indifferent – or hostile – to people from places like Haiti or El Salvador who are similarly desperate.

“People with money get more than people without money. People who are white get more than people who are not white,” she told us. “That just is the way of our – of everything. Which I hate.”

Tracy Harper (right) directs a small army of volunteers as they set up an asylum clinic for resettled Afghans at a Northglenn mosque. June 4, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

While Harper said she’s still hoping Congress will extend help to Afghans, she said she’s not expecting much. In the meantime, her makeshift clinics will move as many people onto the right track as possible.

Another regular volunteer: Abdul Mohedi, who’s been translating for families while he works through his own asylum claim. Both he and his wife worked on humanitarian projects before they left home, and he said it was important that they support their countrymen now.

And though Mohedi said he’s grateful that America has taken him in, he’s desperately hoping his new country will not forget those still left behind.

“We are thankful for the U.S. government and the U.S. people. They’re great people. Right now we’re not thinking about ourselves,” he said. “We have everything here. We have security, we have peace, we have jobs, we have income. We are living here physically. But mentally, our minds, our thinking is in Afghanistan. We are thinking about our families, our friends.”

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