By Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register
Yasamin Ibrahimi was the breadwinner of her family in Kabul, working for the government’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs, before the United States military withdrew from Afghanistan.
Ibrahimi said she and her family had a nice life before the Taliban took over the city, with a beautiful three-bedroom home that had a balcony adorned in colorful flowers.
When the family fled in August 2021, fearing for their lives, they took nothing with them. They didn’t even have shoes on their feet.
In the extended-stay hotel in Urbandale where the family now lives, Ibrahimi’s oldest daughter, Muqadas, 14, helped translate for her mother. She said her mother had to flee because her job advocating for women made her a target for the Taliban.
“My mother’s name was on their list. And if they find the person on the list, they will kill them,” Muqadas said.
Ibrahimi’s husband remains in hiding in Afghanistan. So does her 15-year-old son, who got lost during the days of chaos at Kabul’s airport, where people desperate to flee thronged the gates and climbed atop aircraft, seeking any means to leave the country.
“We are alone here, and no one is helping us,” Ibrahimi, 40, said through her daughter and an interpreter.
She said the Fort McCoy U.S. Army base in Wisconsin, where she lived for five months after the evacuation, was better than their secluded life in the hotel. At least there, she and her three children had two to three meals a day, she said.
None of Ibrahimi’s children is in school. She said the family received $500 in a Wells Fargo bank account after their first two weeks in Iowa. They were given English classes and received food assistance, but she said that’s the extent of help they’ve gotten from their resettlement agency, the Des Moines field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Ibrahimi said the first thing the family’s caseworker told her was that in America, nobody cares about them.
She said the man never helped with food or transportation. He offered a rental house, she said, but got angry at her when she asked to see it first to make sure it was safe for her children. Rather than let her do so, she said, he took away the key.
Her complaints echo those of other Afghan new arrivals about central Iowa resettlement agencies, which have acknowledged being overwhelmed by the arrival of hundreds of refugees after years of much smaller caseloads.
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Kerri True-Funk, the director of USCRI in Des Moines, maintains that her caseworkers care deeply for their clients, are respectful, considerate, and work hard to provide basic needs and core services.
But resettling Afghans hasn’t been easy. Resettlement agencies like USCRI felt bombarded when Afghan refugees began arriving in Iowa; agencies lacked capacity or resources because during the Trump administration, the refugee resettlement infrastructure was gutted, True-Funk said.
“The ability to respond to everyone in a timely manner, we just don’t have that capacity. Especially when people were arriving in such huge numbers,” True-Funk said.
“My goal Is that the family have their needs taken care of. Food, shelter, medical care. Those basic needs, our goal was to get those (as) quickly as possible. But just the rate of arrivals with a small team, it was swimming upstream. And at times it felt like we were swimming upstream with rocks thrown at us.”
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And, like other agencies, USCRI has had great difficulty in finding the Afghans affordable housing with flexible, cooperative landlords. Miscommunication between resettlement agencies and other volunteers has caused difficulties, too, True-Funk said.
Meanwhile, Ibrahimi said she is desperate to leave the hotel and to reunite her family members now in the U.S. and Afghanistan. She wants to get her driver’s license, to work.
But she said she can’t without help,
“Every night, I cry,” she said.
Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.