Before the United States military left Afghanistan in August 2021 and the Taliban retook power, Farzana was a classical guitarist. There is footage of her in lively performance spaces, strumming in music groups with both men and women.
Afghanistan had thriving pop and traditional music scenes for the past 20 years. Now Afghan musicians are afraid to play music in public after Taliban soldiers have publicly burned instruments and murdered prominent folk singer Fawad Andarabi.
The Taliban takeover shocked Farzana and her siblings, whose last name is being withheld for their family’s safety. They had mostly known life during the American occupation: Yes, there were suicide bombings, but playing an instrument had never felt like a life-threatening pastime.
At Nyack College, a Christian and Missionary Alliance school in New York, music professors learned about Farzana’s plight when a colleague posted on Facebook about the dangers facing Afghan musicians. Nyack spent months making plans to evacuate her. In December, after walking past patrolling Taliban soldiers and traveling to Pakistan, Farzana arrived in the United States and stepped out into the Christmas lights of New York City. In February, her younger siblings, Ali and Mursal, also students, made it out too. Now the Muslim siblings are all enrolled at Nyack, which is covering their tuition, room, and board.
A music professor gave Mursal her coat when she arrived at the airport. Another bought the siblings bedding and dorm items. But they have not had an easy transition in the United States.
They sleep badly because they’re stressed about their future in the US and about their remaining family in Afghanistan. Their older sister, probably the most at risk in their family because she worked with NATO, had not made it out. Farzana left Afghanistan without her guitar. She is in a WhatsApp group where she receives news about other Afghan musicians who are in hiding, including a photo of one who was severely beaten and covered in bruises.
Farzana, who is soft-spoken, wishes she could have fought to defend her country like the Ukrainians she sees on the news. “I prefer the situation of Ukraine than the situation of Afghanistan,” she said. “I am very thankful that I am here. But I hate what is going on there. The situation is much worse than we know.”
One night during their first Ramadan in the US, Farzana and her sister Mursal were talking as they broke fast. Farzana shared that she had nightmares about forced marriage under the Taliban and thought about jihad al nikah, the practice where women are passed around as “wives” to multiple soldiers. What if she had to go back somehow? Would her sister who was left behind be able to keep moving from place to place and stay safe?
Mursal, trying to lighten that thought, joked that she slept badly because Farzana kept waking her up to do schoolwork and reminding her that “a 3.5 GPA is not easy! You will go back to Afghanistan!” Those are the grades they need for their scholarship at Nyack. Their brother, Ali, has struggled to adjust to a culture where men and women outside of family are often together. He misses his family, as well as his beloved cats that he left in Afghanistan.
Like many Afghans arriving in the US from a chaotic evacuation, the siblings don’t know what their future holds. Sometimes Farzana and Mursal walk from the Nyack dorm room they share in Jersey City to the waterfront along the Hudson River and look at the New York skyline. Farzana tells Mursal, “We have no one here, but we are in America.”
The evacuation of Afghans was the largest such operation since the Vietnam War; about 76,000 have settled in US communities in the past 12 months. American Christians across the political spectrum have welcomed Afghans, housed them, and provided a surge in donations to resettlement organizations. That’s notable given 2018 data from the Pew Research Center that showed only 25 percent of white evangelicals said the US had the responsibility to accept refugees into the country, the lowest number of any demographic.
World Relief, an evangelical refugee resettlement agency, saw a 1,500 percent increase in new donors during the Afghan evacuation last year compared to the same period the year before. In recent years, evangelical leaders have pushed for US presidents to raise the refugee resettlement numbers.
For evacuees like Farzana and her siblings, the embrace from Christians has altered the course of their lives. But the American welcome is not what it was for many earlier generations of evacuees.
The vast majority of Afghans who came to the United States over the past year were admitted through a program known as humanitarian parole, a tool America has used for decades to receive people fleeing conflict. It is not a pathway to citizenship and, for Afghans, parole status expires after two years, during which time evacuees may apply for residency or some other means of remaining in the country. The process can be expensive and is far from guaranteed.
Waves of migrants in the middle of the 20th century had more time and space. Tens of thousands of Cubans fleeing the Castro regime in the early 1960s were paroled indefinitely and received hundreds of dollars a month in cash assistance (adjusted for inflation).
After the US evacuation of Saigon in 1975, Congress allowed more than 100,000 Vietnamese evacuees to receive as much as 36 months of financial help—direct payments for housing and food, as well as language learning and job training and placement services.
Afghan evacuees receive similar benefits—but only for eight months, a limit that was imposed on refugee assistance in 1991. (It was recently upped to 12 months for anyone arriving in the US starting in October of last year, timing that excludes most Afghan evacuees.)
In many states, Afghan parolees do qualify for public programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But resettlement experts say refugees need more support—and they need it on an ongoing basis—to start a new life from scratch in a foreign culture while healing from the trauma of fleeing a war zone.
Farzana, Mursal, and Ali are examples of Afghans who are grateful for the embrace they have received thus far but who need longer-term, deeper community support than government assistance can provide.
At Nyack, professors prayed to get the siblings to the US. They pinged contacts at embassies, at the CIA, and in Congress. The college’s new president, Rajan Mathews, who had worked in Afghanistan in the early 2000s building the country’s cellular network, tried to use contacts there and in India.
The goal was to get them out on student visas, said music professor Tammy Lum. “It was very complicated.” She sees it as a miracle that they were able to help the siblings.
With student visas, the siblings are not eligible for the resettlement benefits traditional refugees or humanitarian parolees receive; they rely completely on individuals who are willing to help. Nyack’s professors, many of them immigrants themselves, have tried to be an example of how to survive in the expensive city.
Marta Będkowska-Reilly, a cellist, is the adjunct music professor at Nyack who initially started working a way out for Farzana. An immigrant from Poland, Będkowska-Reilly left a hard upbringing in a country where soldiers and tanks filled the streets and her family subsisted mostly on bread and onions.
She remembers being alone when she came to the United States, and she picked up Farzana at the airport when she arrived.
“It’s good to know one person, a friendly face,” Będkowska-Reilly said. “It’s important to have basic toiletries, but moral support is the most important.”
Lum, who immigrated from Hong Kong, took Farzana from the cellist’s house to the dorms. “It was a very powerful moment in my life,” Lum said. Her church in Hong Kong, which she still has a WhatsApp group with, gave to a GoFundMe for the siblings.
In normal resettlement, refugees are often prioritized through their US ties. With the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, many do not have US ties and are starting “right from scratch, moreso from a social sense than a material sense,” said Kat Kelley, senior director of migration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities.
But materially, the siblings were also starting over. They arrived with almost nothing because they didn’t want the Taliban to notice large suitcases that might reveal they were leaving for good.
At times, the siblings’ needs test even what the Nyack community is able to provide. Mursal had a toothache and didn’t know how to go to a dentist. Living at the dorms during spring and summer breaks, when the cafeteria was closed, the siblings had to figure out where to get food.
The sisters are the only ones at the school who wear headscarves. Będkowska-Reilly found a mosque for them within walking distance of their dorm, but Farzana went once and never wanted to go again because men and women were separated, and that reminded her of the Taliban.
Będkowska-Reilly asked if Farzana would be offended if she gave her a Bible, and Farzana said no. Będkowska-Reilly told her, “You can treat [it] as books of wisdom; you can read and see what God has for you.”
“I try to reach out to her,” Będkowska-Reilly said about Farzana. “She doesn’t want to overwhelm people with her problems and her worries. She’s aware we all have our lives and families and jobs. But I try to reach out to her. It’s great that she has housing, food, but it’s important how she feels inside.”
In March, three weeks after arriving in the United States, Mursal and Ali were sitting in a class in lower Manhattan on the history of world civilizations, learning about the industrial revolution. The class was mostly international students from places like Jamaica, Trinidad, and the Philippines. The professor of this class and the provost of the school, David Turk, said the school is returning to its “missions roots” by accepting students of diverse faiths. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, Nyack’s denomination, started in the 1880s when pastor A. B. Simpson left his Presbyterian church in New York City because it would not accept Italian immigrants.
In 1975, when 135,000 refugees arrived in the US from the Vietnam War, Evelyn and Grady Mangham, Nyack College graduates who were working for the denomination at the time, lobbied relentlessly to convince Alliance churches to assist the refugees. Evelyn Mangham would cold call churches from Nyack hallways to ask if they would take in a refugee family. As World Relief’s Matthew Soerens has documented, Alliance churches sponsored more than 10,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia that year.
Then Grady Mangham hatched a plan with World Relief, which at the time was largely focused overseas, to begin doing refugee resettlement work in the US. He led World Relief’s resettlement arm until 1987.
Turk, a longtime professor, remembers Vietnamese refugees coming to Nyack. Now he teaches Afghan refugees.
“I’m glad you’re here, but I’m sad that, once again, because Americans left a country, I have students in class,” he told the siblings.
Outside the window of the classroom, the Staten Island ferry chugged back and forth past the Statue of Liberty. Turk opened the class in prayer, thanking God for the roof over everyone’s heads, for friends, for salvation. Then he launched into a back-and-forth discussion with students about how the Industrial Revolution brought a change from village-based community cultures to money-centered culture. He talked about his wife’s family from Ukraine, who he said left their family to “come to New York and make money.”
Then Turk asked the class: Before the industrial revolution, what was a woman’s life like? Students shared back: They had lots of children, and no education.
“This is probably the greatest change of the industrial age: the role of women,” Turk said to the class. As Turk wrapped up, he mentioned that after spring break, they would discuss the industrialization of warfare.
Afterward, the siblings went to Turk’s office for a meeting, and Mathews, the president of Nyack, dropped by. Mursal mentioned how beautiful Afghanistan is, since Mathews spent time there, and he agreed. Then Mursal said, almost as a reminder to herself, “We can’t go to Afghanistan anymore.”
From the start of the historic Afghanistan evacuation, the US refugee apparatus, hollowed out by the Trump administration, was insufficient for the task.
Nine private resettlement agencies, most of them religious, contract with the State Department to place refugees in new communities, and they tried to quickly ramp up staff. With the surge of Afghan evacuees, the State Department has enlisted more private help with resettlement through a program it calls “sponsor circles,” where other vetted groups agree to commit to help particular families for 90 days.
Samaritan’s Purse, newly approved through the State Department to work as an institutional partner under Church World Service, is asking church sponsors of Afghans to commit to six months to a year. Catholic Charities, one of the nine US resettlement agencies, also wants long-term support for refugees, but it asks sponsors to work for three months and then hand the responsibilities off to someone else.
“You have folks 6, 8, 12 months from now, the honeymoon period is over, and it’s really exhausting to support families, and it’s okay to acknowledge that,” said Kelley at Catholic Charities. “Go in knowing what your capacity is. Whatever your capacity is, good, don’t overdo it. Because you want to sustain your capacity.”
Experts say refugees just need some time to adapt. In a 2009 study, researchers from the Georgetown University Law Center’s Human Rights Institute argued that refugees need at least 18 months of assistance that is more tailored to their needs than simply plugging them into welfare programs. The Biden administration introduced additional per capita payments to resettlement agencies to try to help with the journey to self-sufficiency.
The study compared Vietnamese refugees, who received 36 months of public assistance, with Iraqi refugees, who had less than eight months of resettlement assistance and were struggling with employment. By 2007, the median household income for Vietnamese Americans, most of whom entered as refugees from the Vietnam War, was $54,871, and only 3.2 percent were receiving cash public assistance.
The researchers argued that Iraqis arrived with professional experience and education degrees that were not usable in the United States and simply needed time and language and vocational training to find their feet.
Christian refugee experts say long-term social and emotional support is important, too. The US refugee program aims to have refugees become quickly self-sufficient, but “arguably it’s too quick,” Kelley said.
When government, communities, and resettlement agencies work together on behalf of evacuees, the impact can be dramatic.
Ahmad, whose last name is also being withheld, worked for the US government for years in Afghanistan. When district after district began falling to the Taliban in August 2021, Ahmad realized, given his role, that he needed to get out. As the work of 20 years crumbled, he felt like he was living a nightmare.
“It was a golden era for Afghanistan that will probably never repeat in history,” he said. “What happened was 100 percent preventable. We did not have to go through this.”
The US government arranged for his transportation to the airport on August 27, a few days before the last plane left. His family, including his seven-months-pregnant wife, crowded into a military aircraft with 400 people. The aircraft landed in Germany at Ramstein Air Base, where Ahmad saw thousands of other Afghans.
Ahmad could tell the staff at the US air base weren’t prepared for this situation. The first three nights, he and his family slept on the floor, but then they got cots, and then they got beds. Things gradually improved, although Ahmad worried about his wife giving birth in the camp.
In October, Ahmad and his family finally flew to the United States, staying at a military base in New Jersey while officials processed their paperwork. Ten days after arriving, his wife gave birth to their daughter, the first US citizen in the family. “She was taken care of very well,” he said about his wife.
With paperwork approved on December 17, they were resettled in Savannah, Georgia, a state where 1,700 Afghans have resettled. In May, he had his first Eid in the United States at the Islamic Center in Savannah with hundreds of other Muslims from the area.
“There’s peace of mind here,” Ahmad said. “I couldn’t pray, I couldn’t go to mosque in Afghanistan, in any Eid or any other Friday, because mosques were bombed.”
Inspiritus, a group connected with Lutheran Services in America, helped settle him and his family, but the group was short-staffed, according to Ahmad, with two case workers for more than 100 refugees. The resettlement groups couldn’t do orientation programs for everyone, including Ahmad and his family, because they were overwhelmed.
Despite that, “the people in Savannah jumped in,” he said, and they were “so supportive and so friendly” to Afghans. People in Savannah, including from local churches, brought his family food and groceries, gathered donations, and arranged medical appointments.
The guesthouse where his family was initially staying was far from grocery stores or the downtown area and his family had no car, so he relied on these “new friends” for rides. “They were in contact with us, with me, constantly,” he said.
His new friends helped him find an apartment. Once he got a social security number and a work permit, he got a new job with USAID where he will work remotely on Afghan humanitarian issues. He got a driver’s license, and he bought a car. He has applied for a green card.
Six months into his time in Savannah, he said, locals were still reaching out to check how he is doing. His wife and children were just starting to learn English, and his children were starting school. He recognized that he has avoided some of the stress other Afghans are going through because he has a job and, because he worked for the Americans in Afghanistan, he qualifies for what is called a special immigrant visa.
“It was not hard for me,” he says, partly because he is fluent in English. “Because of the support I received…I feel like I’m home. It was not an easy trip…but it got easier each day with the help and support I received from American friends.”
Farzana and her siblings were having a harder time, especially with loneliness and survivor’s guilt. In April, the siblings were celebrating their first Ramadan away from their parents, and they were doing it at a school where no one else they knew was fasting all day.
One night in April, they collected food on paper plates from the college cafeteria before it closed at 6:30 p.m.—orange sugary drinks, chicken cutlets, plain pasta, and pizza—and saved it for when they could break fast after the sun went down. The cafeteria would be closed by then.
Mursal began eating, and Farzana asked if she had prayed before she ate. Mursal protested that she had prayed quietly. She had been staying awake all night to study—that’s when she had energy after eating—and sleeping during the day.
The siblings have called their family daily since they got to America, even with bad internet connections in Afghanistan. But during the first two weeks of Ramadan, Farzana quit calling her mother because she felt that being apart during Ramadan was only increasing her mother’s anxiety.
Recently the Taliban had been restricting women from leaving home without a mahram, or a male relative. That meant the siblings’ mom, who used to exercise outside every day, could no longer go out. It also made travel more impossible for women.
The siblings talk regularly to their sister who is still in Afghanistan; she moves from place to place to try to avoid the Taliban. Many Afghans who needed evacuation the most, like Farzana’s sister, got left behind. Farzana is not worried about her parents: “I know they will not get killed by the Taliban because they are old and do nothing. But my sister…I am sad.”
Farzana doesn’t know of any others from her group of 300 musicians who got evacuated. She went to counseling recently, after waking up in pain and realizing it was psychological. Her sister said the counseling session didn’t seem to help.
The siblings’ immigration status is not assured: Once they finish their studies, they will need to find another way to remain in the United States. A lawyer is working with them to apply for asylum.
Będkowska-Reilly, the cellist who immigrated to the US, told Farzana that the siblings need to check with each other every day about how they
“It’s always overwhelming,” Będkowska-Reilly told Farzana. “Just take little steps, one at a time.”
Emily Belz is news writer at Christianity Today. She is based in New York.
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