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Afghans who helped U.S. troops struggle to resettle in Rochester

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Noelle E. C. Evans | WXXI News
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Walid Omid Habibi (left), Ellen Smith (center), and Noor Sediqi (right) stand outside of Keeping Our Promise on St. Paul Street on July 30, weeks before the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan.

For five years, as a seemingly never-ending war continued to ravage his country, Noor Sediqi worked as a translator helping U.S. troops in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Some days, Sediqi would translate at meetings. Other days, the stakes were higher when he went on missions with the U.S. Army.

In June, as the war's end finally came into view, Sediqi, 34, was evacuated from Afghanistan through a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), along with his wife and children. They're now resettling in Rochester, but his parents and his six younger siblings are in Kabul.

The move -- and that separation from loved ones -- has been hard on everyone, he said.

“Culturally everything (here) was, is, difficult for us,” Sediqi said. “My kids were getting up in the middle of the night and they were calling my parents, my brothers.”

Sediqi is one of many Afghans who helped U.S. troops in Afghanistan and are now making Rochester their new home, but while they’ve managed to escape persecution by the Taliban, their future here is caught in limbo. 

Since his arrival, Congress passed two bills in late July that expanded eligibility for SIV applicants and helped to streamline the process to evacuate.

While it was welcome news for advocates like Ellen Smith, she said it came far too late and left out another key aspect of the equation: resettlement.

“It's just a challenge for these families to get them housed,” said Smith, executive director of Keeping Our Promise, an organization that works with wartime allies. “I'm not sure how we're going to handle this.”

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Credit provided by Noor Sediqi
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A U.S. Army soldier presents Noor Sediqi with an Award of Appreciation.

Housing

The housing market in Rochester is hot with low stock and high demand. Today, some houses are being sold at more than twice the price they did 10 years ago, but the social service benefits that SIVs and refugees are entitled to, which would pay for housing, haven’t been adjusted during that same timeframe.

In New York state, a family of four could receive a maximum of $931 in temporary assistance to cover rent, and it’s been that way for at least 15 years according to a spokesperson with Monroe County.

That temporary assistance covered less than 50% of housing costs in 2020, compared with 75% in 1996, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that analyzes federal and state fiscal issues.

Lisa Hoyt, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Family Center, the primary resettlement agency in the Rochester area, said housing challenges are universal across the country.

“Right now, everybody is facing the same problem, both lack of housing and affordability,” she said.

Despite this, Hoyt’s more optimistic than Smith that incoming Afghans will have a place to live.

“We can find what we would consider to be clean, affordable, safe in the sense that the house is without any lead. However ... the neighborhood might not be as safe as one would want,” Hoyt said. 

“Do I think that there’s housing out there? Yes, I do. Do I think that the folks that are coming will want to stay in those places? Probably not,” she said.

Support services

Housing is just the first and most immediate hurdle for Afghans who manage to evacuate.

Walid Habibi, who came to the U.S. in February with his father, is still acclimating.

“I think resettlement is a complicated process,” Habibi said. “It’s not easy. It's not only apartments, a house, furniture, it’s not only this.”

Adjusting to the culture, getting help with paperwork, and getting access to mental and emotional support services are just as important, Habibi said.

“Our (U.S.) veterans serve in Afghanistan and Iraq for nine-month tours,” Smith said. “I’ve got (Afghan) guys with four to six years of combat experience and I know that weighs heavy on them.”

On top of all that, Habibi said access to higher education is a major barrier. 

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Credit provided by Walid Omid Habibi
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Walid Omid Habibi (center) served as a translator to the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

Education

Habibi already has a master's degree in political science from Kateb University in Kabul, but he’s unsure whether it will bear any clout here. 

“Degrees do not transfer easily -- not just in New York state, but in general, and I don’t think there are enough resources in those institutions and colleges (to do that),” Hoyt said.

A State University of New York school would be an obvious choice, but both he and Sediqi would have to wait until next year before they’d be eligible to apply as New Yorkers.

That waiting period is something that states like California and Colorado have eliminated by changing state laws in order to waive the residency requirement for refugees and SIVs.

Making that happen here would help both people like Sediqi and Habibi and the local economy thrive, Smith said.

“We’re dealing with civil engineers, and accountants, people who have trades experience and it’s just really important to try to recognize the skills these families bring,” Smith said.

Despite the obstacles, Sediqi said he’s been grateful to make Rochester his home. But he can’t rest until he can guarantee that the rest of his family has safe harbor.

“I’m always thinking about them,” Sediqi said. “What’s going to happen to my family over there? I survived, my kids survived, but what about the others?”

The fear is even more palpable now that the Taliban have said they will not be allowing any more Afghans to reach Kabul airport to evacuate.