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NEW YORK – Last month as Rozita Gerhardt helped Afghan refugees complete their asylum applications, she thought of her mother, who years ago fled Iran, and how the paperwork is just the first step in what will be a lifelong process.
“It’s never something where my mom doesn’t miss home. Every day she wants to go back,” Gerhardt told Crux. “She’ll never again have that sense of home in the way that she grew up, and knowing that all of these people have yet to go through that process themselves; it’s going to be a process that they go through for their entire lives.”
Gerhardt is a third-year student at the Marquette University Law School, who along with 51 classmates, recently spent time at the Fort McCoy military base in Wisconsin working with Afghan refugees. Each student attended one of three sessions. The first two were December 14-17, and 20-22. The final one, which began on January 10, wraps up today.
Roughly 75,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in the U.S. since the military’s two-decade-long stay in Afghanistan ended in August, at which time the Taliban overthrew the government. Tens of thousands of the refugees have since been resettled into various communities nationwide.
Months later, however, thousands more remain in legal limbo at a handful of U.S. military bases.
The Marquette students were there to try and help expedite the process. Upon their arrival to the base, they were trained by immigration lawyers on how to work through the asylum applications with the refugees, many of whom didn’t speak English. From there they spent hours trying to make a dent in what was described as “quite extensive” paperwork for whoever they could help.
The density of the asylum application was one thing that stood out to the professors and students Crux spoke with that participated in the program. Michael O’Hear, a law professor at the university, described it as “very technically detailed,” and “quite onerous.” Josiah Jordan, a first-year law student at the university, said he was “shocked” by the volume.
“It shined a light on how difficult immigration law is because it’s difficult for law students, let alone people who don’t even speak English,” Gerhardt noted.
But what stood out to the participants more than the paperwork itself was the stories they heard from the refugees as they filled out page after page. They were stories of fear, violence, uncertainty, and sadness over what happened, and what lies ahead.
“They were stressing to me how much violence they experienced,” Jordan told Crux. “One of them looked me dead in the eyes, and I’ll never forget this moment, and he told me that from the time he was born violence is the only thing that he’s known.”
Another refugee told him he saw his brother get killed by a bomb. And another told him the story of the Taliban invading his workplace.
The woman O’Hear worked with felt it necessary to leave Afghanistan because she is a Shia Muslim, who have been persecuted by the Taliban, who are Sunni Muslim, in the past. He said it took her about a week to get on a flight at the Kabul airport.
“It’s just unbelievable to contemplate that kind of experience, how disorienting that must be to have a life in one place and then suddenly in a couple of days you’re totally uprooted and disconnected from anything you’ve known before in your life and plunked down into the middle of a foreign country surrounded by a completely new and unfamiliar culture,” O’Hear said.
Angela Schultz, the Marquette assistant dean for public service, worked with the same woman as O’Hear. She said the woman had 10 or 11 siblings, and only one other came to the United States. Three or four others were in a European country, while the rest of her siblings and her mom are still in Kabul without plans, or the ability, to leave.
“It was when I asked about how her mom is that tears started welling up in her face,” Schultz told Crux. “I think there’s a good chance for anybody in that situation that you may very well never see your mom again.”
The reality of leaving someone behind was a common theme. Gerhardt said of the at least ten Afghan refugees she worked with, they all left at least one person in Afghanistan “and to this day doesn’t know where they are or how they’re doing.”
Comparing that to her mother’s situation, Gerhardt said that’s the main difference. Her mother, she said, at least left on her own terms to pursue an education, while a lot of the Afghan refugees “didn’t have a choice,” and were forced to “escape violence and leave family members behind not knowing what’s happening to them.”
For the Afghan refugees at the U.S. military bases, their own futures in the U.S. are uncertain as well. There are some, like the woman Schultz and O’Hear worked with, that have plans to relocate to a new city with a host family and enroll in university. Others, meanwhile, still have a long way to go before their asylum application is even completed.
O’Hear said he’s unsure if the government’s resettlement efforts have taken too long considering the magnitude of the operation; though, he admitted if he were one of the Afghans that has been there going on five months, “certainly, I would be feeling extremely impatient.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg