ST. LOUIS — Moji Sidiqi was nine years old when she first came to the United States with her family. As a toddler, she would leave her home country of Afghanistan and move to not one, but two new countries.
When Sidiqi was 3 years old, her brother was burned in a fire that left him needing plastic surgery. With the help of the UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, Sidiqi and her family moved to Moscow and then, years later, St. Louis, Missouri. Resettling twice meant that her brother would have access to the care he needed.
She still remembers getting off the plane and walking to the gate.
“When that door opened that August, St. Louis humidity hit me,” she said.
More than two decades later, she is still here and her job is to help people not only resettle, but to build and preserve a community that doesn’t require them to forget who they are or where they came from.
“With it being the United States of America, the melting pot center of the world, it is essential that people feel welcome and that they can maintain their identity and that they can coexist amongst their own and the others,” said Sidiqi, who is now the Afghan Community Development Program manager at the International Institute of St. Louis.
The institute has helped refugees and immigrants settle in the St. Louis region for more than 100 years. The nonprofit, in partnership with other community organizations, has resettled more than 1,200 Afghan people since 2021.
Under Sidiqi’s program, the organization has also launched a community center, a chamber of commerce and a newspaper, all resources she said further help people settle into their new lives while remaining connected to their old ones.
“You’re not just tolerating new Americans. You’re embracing them, embracing who they are,” she said. “Immigrants and refugees revitalize every community that they resettle because they bring something different [and] it is that different thing that they bring that makes the new community a newer community — a more vibrant community.”
While more than 1.6 million Afghans have fled the country since 2021, the total number in neighboring countries is 8.2 million, underscoring the humanitarian crisis for one of the largest displaced groups in the world.
Nearly 90,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in the United States since mid-2021 through Operation Allies Welcome, according to the State Department.
This major resettlement effort followed a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, ending its military presence in the country after more than 20 years.
In August 2021, months after President Biden announced he would withdraw U.S. troops, the Taliban seized control of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. The dayslong withdrawal turned deadly when an attack by the Islamic State terrorist group killed 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members outside Kabul’s airport. More than two years later, the Pentagon’s Central Command is still investigating the withdrawal and how it devolved into violence.
Arrey Obenson of the International Institute of St. Louis recalled when he saw the first images of the events unfolding in Kabul, a day after the Taliban took over.
“At the time, we knew that we were going to start seeing Afghans, but we had no idea how that was going to happen or how that was going to be organized. Personally, I had just started in this role and things were a little quiet,” he said.
It would not stay quiet for long. Obenson and his team of 69 employees soon got word that they had a month to prepare for Afghan people traveling from countries all over the world to St. Louis to resettle.
Before 2021, the institute would typically get at least two weeks’ notice that people were coming. But the departure of U.S. forces meant, in some instances, staff only have a number of hours to prepare for arrivals. Across one week in November, the nonprofit saw 154 arrivals.
Still, Obenson said the community banded together to provide support.
“It was incredible that the community came out in support of the Afghans who we know are allies of the U.S. military for 20 years,” he said.
Nurturing a community
The International Institute launched its Afghan Community Center and Chamber of Commerce in February. The new space, located in a separate building, offers Afghans financial literacy training, which can include things like how to start a bank account and build credit. There’s also English courses, indoor soccer, and a coding program that takes in about 10 students at a time.
Through the center’s entrepreneurial initiative, the institute has already given out two $15,000 grants, which have allowed both recipients to launch businesses: including a production company and an auto repair shop. These kinds of resources can take a person from “a refugee to a pioneer,” Sidiqi said.
A new Afghan Journal, which launched a month before the new center, is also key to keeping people informed. The monthly newspaper is translated in both Dari and Pashto.
“These are essential stories. How can I identify with my roots if I don’t know anything? So that’s why that’s what the Afghan Journal serves — it tells the story of St. Louis and its possibilities,” Sidiqi said. “It tells the truth about what’s happening in Afghanistan, but it also talks about the power of what it can be.”
Within three to four months of arriving in the United States, Obenson said Afghans are able to pick up rent on their own. Resettled families are also given mobile phones and tablets for internet access.
“We know how challenging it is for people to come here with just the clothes on their back, who may not speak the same language,” he said. “We realized that for people to stay anywhere, they need a community and we felt that if we build a community, people will stay.”
But while the new initiatives have been helpful, the lack of affordable housing in the St. Louis area has posed a problem.“We had families stay in hotels for four months before we could get them in place, especially the larger families,” Obenson said.
St. Louis received an “F” in affordable housing in late 2021 for Black households, renters, and people with the lowest incomes, according to the Community Builders Network. The coalition comprises local nonprofits, institutions, government entities, among other groups that advocate for communities most impacted by disinvestment. On a nationwide scale, from that same year, nearly 1 in 6 households in the U.S. paid more than half of their income on housing, according to the Habitat for Humanity’s latest report.
This, however, is where the St. Louis community stepped up to help.
“We saw incredible queues of people bringing household items, clothes, furniture to support the Afghans,” Obenson said.
The institute saw so many donations that it had to contract additional help to process everything. The nonprofit also received a $1.6 million donation from the Pershing Charitable Trust to support the city’s Afghan arrivals.
Reuniting families is hard
While St. Louis groups work to resettle Afghans in the city, Laila Ayub is still working to reunite families across the country.
Ayub is an immigration attorney and co-director of Project ANAR, a legal advocacy group led by Afghan American women.
Over the last two years, she and her team have worked to help families navigate reunification and the U.S. immigration system as a whole — something she said isn’t always transparent.
Ayub pointed to data released this spring after the American Immigration Council and International Refugee Assistance Project filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Freedom of Information Act.
“There have been some numbers uncovered through FOIA requests, but there are still so many gaps in information,” she said.
The documents the USCIS released detailed how the U.S. made nearly $20 million from processing humanitarian parole applications. The agency also received nearly 44,800 applications, between Jan. 1, 2020 and April 6, 2022, where the person listed their country of citizenship as Afghanistan. Only 114 of those applications were approved within that time frame, the documents showed.
“These documents show the stark reality of Afghan nationals seeking humanitarian parole,” Raul Pinto, Senior Staff Attorney, American Immigration Council said in a statement after these new figures were released. “Records gathered thus far demonstrate that USCIS was woefully unprepared to process these applications and the agency implemented a prolonged pause in the adjudication process.”
Pinto also said the documents showed that USCIS scrapped plans to waive application fees that were an added financial burden on Afghan families arriving in the U.S.
“The delays caused by the agency’s failures have devastating, real-world consequences for families who face grave danger,” he added.
Humanitarian parole, by definition, allows someone from another country to enter the United States temporarily “due to an emergency and urgent humanitarian reason or significant public benefit. “
“There’s still so much we don’t know and the government has not been engaging with us on that issue, so it’s an ongoing thing for us to track our clients’ experiences and to seek more information so that we can continue to properly advocate for that group of people,” Ayub said.
The PBS NewHour reached out to USCIS for up-to-date figures, but did not receive a response. The NewsHour also asked the State Department how many Afghan people have been granted entry into the U.S. through pathways outside of humanitarian parole.
“Between July 1, 2021, and July 31, 2023, a total of 7,095 Afghan individuals have arrived in the U.S. under various refugee pathways,” a department spokesperson said in an email, adding the vast majority of Afghans have arrived through the U.S. government’s Priority 1 and Priority 2 programs, which sought to fast track visas for refugees “of special humanitarian concern.” “We do not publicly disclose the number of refugees in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) process,” the statement added.
While Ayub and her team are still helping people navigate the U.S. government’s rules around immigration, in recent months they have turned their sights to Afghans trying to get into the United States by way of the southern border — some of whom are detained, which she said poses a whole new challenge.
“There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to who ends up detained. We see people of all ages,” the Project ANAR co-founder said. “I have directly represented a teenager who was separated from her family. It’s young women, older women, men of all ages, and they are ending up in detention centers around the country regardless of where they cross the border,” she said.
It’s not uncommon anymore for her organization to get a request from someone who makes it across the border, or whose family is detained at least once a week, making the need for access to legal representation for Afghans that much more important.
“The fact that we’re seeing people coming across the border really shows that the government has not done enough, because people are only making that journey because they don’t have an accessible pathway,” she said. “That’s not an easy journey to make,” she said.
In St. Louis, the International Institute has worked to help reunite families as well. One of the biggest barriers is also one factor they can’t control — time. It’s a conversation that can sometimes involve tears with some families recounting how they had to decide which child to take with them.
“There’s a lot of pain involved in this. There are people whose husbands are back home, daughters back home, grandchildren, grandparents, newborns,” Sidiqi said.
Still, she and Obenson are committed to making St. Louis a place Afghan people can call home. The institute’s Afghan Support Program is touring the U.S. to encourage Afghans who’ve settled in other places — within and outside the country — to come to St. Louis. The group went to Albania in February and more recently visited U.S. cities like San Antonio and Houston.
“As a result of this program, we have begun to see what we call secondary migration — Afghans who came to the United States were designated to other communities and are now moving to St. Louis,” Obenson said. “So far they’ve seen more than 200 new arrivals.
Though much of the work has only just begun, Sidiqi said she’s hoping more U.S. communities answer the call to help make it all possible.
“Find out what you can do, but please don’t just read these stories and just be touched by them from afar,” she said. “Come and find your role in this. Let’s make magic happen together.”