In August 2021, as U.S. and NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the U.S. evacuated more than 82,000 people, including U.S. citizens and other vulnerable Afghans. Some evacuees came to the mountains of Western North Carolina, escaping certain persecution and death by the Taliban.
When nonprofit Pisgah Legal Services (PLS) learned in March that these asylum-seekers did not have legal help to navigate the complex U.S. Asylum process, they responded and reached out to CFWNC for emergency funding. CFWNC met Pisgah Legal’s request for legal assistance and translation fees first with a Janirve Sudden and Urgent Needs Grant for $10,000, then another Proactive Human Services Grant of $78,600.
Asylum is the only path to lawful permanent status for many Afghan evacuees, and they must apply within one year of arriving in the U.S. PLS staff and volunteers have been working furiously to give dozens of asylum-seekers a chance at the safety and security of permanent U.S. residency.
PLS Immigration Attorney Jacob Oakes says, “There are other programs like ours across the country that wanted to help but couldn’t because of the significant cost of translation services. Nobody in this part of the country speaks the languages most common in Afghanistan, Dari and Pashto. This funding enabled us to take on this project and engage translators to make this truly life-saving legal work possible.”
One client we’ll call “Naji” worked as a dentist in Afghanistan before joining the U.S.-backed Khost Protection Force. He says he always wanted to join the U.S. Army, despite the danger, because he thought it was the best way to help his country. It didn’t take long for word to reach the Taliban. “My elder brother and my father-in-law were told that I would not be spared. In August 2021, I started to receive calls from unknown numbers telling me ‘Your time is up.’”
Naji, his wife and children, ages 2 and 4, were lucky. They made it onto one of the planes bound for the United States last August. But sadly, there is no going back. “After I fled Afghanistan, the Taliban visited my parents and still call my brothers and ask about me,” said Naji. “I fear that if I were to return to Afghanistan, my family and I would not survive a day.”
PLS staffer Katie Russell Miller, who coordinates dozens of volunteer attorneys, says, “These cases are exceptionally challenging because of the grave danger these clients and their families are in and because of language and cultural barriers. One client’s family is literally receiving handwritten letters from the Taliban, delivered to their house in Afghanistan, threatening to kill him and hurt his family members. Our clients have tremendous fear for the families they had to leave behind, many of whom are hiding in Afghanistan because of threats against them.”
She says, “We were compelled to take action and are so grateful that The Community Foundation also recognized the importance of this asylum work. Together we can protect these vulnerable Afghans, many of whom risked everything for our country, and give them a path to live and work here permanently. For our clients whose wives and children remain in danger in Afghanistan, securing asylum is the first step in a long process of applying to bring their families here to reunite and find safety.”
PLS has provided legal assistance to 53 Afghan newcomers in our community and expects to help 40 evacuees complete applications and navigate their asylum interviews in Arlington, VA. One year after asylum is approved, PLS will help these clients apply for “Green Cards” which will give them lawful permanent residency.
by Evie Sandlin White
By the numbers
• Pisgah Legal Services (PLS) is WNC’s primary provider of free immigration law assistance.
• PLS is helping 40 Afghan clients (total of 62 people in households) secure permanent immigration status – asylum or Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) status.
• PLS will file asylum applications for 38 Afghan clients (total of 60 people).
• PLS has provided legal information, advice and/or representation to 53 Afghan clients (92 people in households).
• 34 volunteer attorneys in Asheville, Highlands, Raleigh, Charlotte and Washington, DC, are working to complete asylum applications.
• 37 volunteer attorneys, primarily in Washington, DC, will represent PLS clients at their asylum interviews in Arlington, VA, over the next few months.
• Dozens of non-attorney volunteers have been involved, acting as “legal assistants” to intake clients, gather client documents, provide transportation and perform administrative work for this labor-intensive effort.
• PLS has engaged interpreters and translators for hundreds of hours of assistance in communicating with Afghan clients.