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One year later Afghan refugees in Michigan finding jobs, still seek asylum

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Afghan refugee Mohammad Amin Haidary: ““If they make us go back to Afghanistan, they would be killing us.” (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)
  • One year after 1,800 Afghan refugees settled in Michigan, they are still seeking asylum protection  
  • Resettlement organizations say most Afghans who are able to work have found jobs 
  • The business community has been largely supportive of their role in the economy

GRAND RAPIDS — Nearly a year after he fled Afghanistan, Mohammad Amin Haidary still lives in two worlds.

There’s the new life he’s trying to build in Grand Rapids, as he beamed with pride after landing a job as project engineer with a local landscaping and land survey firm.

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But then there are those he left behind — a brother, his parents and other relatives who didn’t make it out after the fall of the Afghan government one year ago on Monday. They’re never far from his mind.

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“Yes, I’m worried. It’s a very hard situation to describe in words,” he told Bridge Michigan, as he waited for a downtown bus after work.

Like the roughly 1,800 other Afghan refugees settled in Michigan, Haidary is pinning his hopes on federal approval of his application for asylum — a lengthy and complex process that could offer a path to citizenship.

And like other Afghan refugees in Michigan and across the nation, Haidary said a return to his troubled homeland would be a nightmare. 

“If they make us go back to Afghanistan, they would be killing us,” Haidary said, referring to the hardline Taliban regime now in control of the country, notable for revenge killings and stripping away female rights to education and work granted under the previous government. 

One year after their relocation to Michigan, organizations that work with Afghan refugees say they are doing well, on balance.  

In recent weeks, pro bono immigration lawyers across the state scrambled to assist Afghan refugees in completing the lengthy asylum application form that is the first step toward being granted asylum. The deadline for completing their form had been set for a year from their arrival in the United States, but has since been extended for another year.

While they await a hearing of their cases, most resettled Afghan refugees who are able to work have found jobs.

“We’re not having a hard time finding them jobs,” said Susan Kragt of Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services, a nonprofit social service agency that has settled about 275 Afghan refugee asylum seekers in West Michigan since the fall of the Afghan government.

“A lot of them are factory jobs. Some of them are interested in driving trucks,” she said.

An official with Samaritas, a Detroit-based nonprofit social service agency which has settled more than 500 Afghan refugees in southeast and west Michigan, offered a similar report. 

“More than 80 percent who are employable are in full-time jobs,” Mihaela Mitrofan told Bridge.

That includes dozens of refugees who found work at a metro Detroit auto parts plant, while others found jobs in construction or in Detroit’s parks and recreation department.

The business community has been supportive, arguing that immigrants can fill a vital role in a Michigan labor force short of workers in everything from construction to agriculture to manufacturing.

An official with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce said there’s considerable evidence that immigrants — if given an opportunity — are a boon for the local economy, especially when employers are struggling to fill job vacancies.

Chamber Vice President Andy Johnston pointed to a 2018 study of foreign-born residents in Kent County that underscored their contributions.

“The takeaway is clear — new Americans don’t take jobs, they create jobs. They don’t take taxpayer dollars, they help contribute more taxpayer dollars,” Johnston said.

The study — compiled by the New American Economy, a New York City-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization — found that foreign-born Kent County households earned $1.3 billion in 2016, while paying $219 million in federal taxes and $102 million in state local taxes. It also found that 26 percent of immigrants in Kent County received Medicare or Medicaid, compared to 31 percent of U.S. born county residents.

Nonetheless, anti-immigration groups like the Washington D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) contend that immigrants, especially refugees, are a drain on the U.S. economy.

In 2018, FAIR released a study that asserted that resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers cost U.S. federal taxpayers approximately $1.8 billion a year and $8.8 billion over five years. It said that amounted to $15,900 per refugee a year, or nearly $80,000 over their first five years in America.

The FAIR study was contradicted by a 2017 draft report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which found refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the previous decade than they cost, through the payment of federal, state and local taxes. The White House — in keeping with anti-immigrant statements by then-President Donald Trump — rejected the agency report, saying its conclusions were politically motivated, and it was never released.

The University of Notre Dame released a report the same year that estimated that over the course of 20 years, U.S. refugees paid an average of $122,000 in taxes versus $100,000 in resettlement and social program costs — a net benefit of more than $21,000 per refugee.

Under U.S. immigration law, Haidary and other Afghan refugees seeking asylum in Michigan  must prove to immigration authorities they have a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home country due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Refugees who fought alongside the U.S. are at greatest peril, as are the  families they left behind. 

The refugees’ cases will be decided by federal immigration judges in Detroit over the coming months.

“It can be hard, because judges have different ways of interpreting asylum law,” said Kragt of Bethany Christian Services. 

She said she fears some refugees could be denied asylum if they trip up on any detail of their reasons for fleeing Afghanistan.

“They are having to face the worst time of their lives and not get it wrong or they will be deported,” Kragt said. 

At the same time, refugees continue to give frightening accounts about what they endured as they sought to flee their country.  Some lost relatives who died in the chaos. Families were split  — parents from children, brother from brother — as some made it out, as others were left behind.

“Traumatic doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Kragt said.

Kragt said the recent flood of news tied to the one-year anniversary of the fall of Afghanistan is only rekindling those memories.

“It can be triggering for them. We are working with our staff to do what we can in terms of mental health support. This is going to be a hard time of year,” she said.

Haidary, 25, said he earned a four-year college civil engineering degree in 2020 — about a year before his life in Afghanistan disintegrated. Employed as a construction project engineer, he was preparing to go to a work site one day that August, when he received a message from one of his two older brothers.

“He said you need to come home right away. Everything has changed.”

Days later, Haidary and his brother were amidst a mob scene at Kabul International Airport.

“There were like 5,000 or 6,000 people, all trying to go through one gate. There was gunshot after gunshot after gunshot,” he recalled.

On that August 21 — five days before a suicide bomber at the airport killed 13 U.S. troops and as many as 170 civilians — an aircraft carrying Haidary and his brother lifted off from the airport, landing a few days later at a U.S. military base in New Jersey. In January, they arrived in Grand Rapids.

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But his parents, oldest brother and other relatives were unable to escape. Because of his brother’s ties to the former Afghan government, he said, his brother fears for his life.

“Every night he has to move from one place to another place,” he said.

Home for now is a cramped two-room Grand Rapids apartment that Haidary shares with his brother and two other Afghan refugees. He boards a 7:20 a.m. bus each day to his job, trying to look ahead and not back.

“I know that I have a big opportunity here,” he said. “I want to say how much I appreciate that.”

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