Torn Apart: Local efforts to help Afghan refugees are marked by both tears and triumph

It’s not just a single family that is navigating resettlement complexities on top of personal tragedy. The Catholic Multicultural Center estimates about 136 members of the Afghan community have resettled in the Madison area since 2010, and more will soon come.
Khalid Naseri sitting down
Photo by Paulius Musteikis
Khalid Naseri worked for the U.S. military in his home country of Afghanistan until it became too dangerous. Naseri, his wife and their two children safely relocated to Madison in 2017, but he is worried for his family members that remain in the Taliban-controlled country.

Khalid Naseri is used to tears.

For one thing, his mother calls from Afghanistan crying every day.

“She can’t stop her crying,” Naseri says, “[Telling me], ‘Please do something for your brothers. They will kill them [in front of] my eyes. They will come inside the house and they will kill. I don’t want to see that.’ ”

Naseri also sees things he doesn’t want to that are happening in the Taliban-controlled country, even now that he’s safe in Madison. He tries to shield his young children — a daughter in sixth grade and a son in fifth — from videos he sees coming out of Afghanistan.

He wants them to keep their respective dreams of being a doctor and pilot at the forefront of their minds, not imagery of the Taliban pulling people out of their homes in the middle of the night and shooting them in the head.

But to some extent, they know, he acknowledges.

“I’m very concerned about my family,” he says.

Naseri’s immediate family — his wife and two children — are with him in Madison, after they relocated for their own safety in 2017. Before that, while in Afghanistan, Naseri was employed making ID cards for the U.S. military. That put him on one side of a heavily drawn line, marking him as an “enemy” in the eyes of the Taliban, which has forcibly formed a new government in his homeland.

Tears that fall down the faces of Naseri and his family also represent another kind of tear, as in things that tear, or are torn — this war has torn his country and family apart. His parents, six brothers and four sisters remain in Afghanistan.

Having worked with the now-collapsed Afghan military, two of Naseri’s brothers have targets on their backs, he says. They’re in hiding, but Naseri doesn’t know how long that will keep them safe from the scrutiny of the Taliban, whose network runs deep through Afghan communities. With a dangerous new ruling faction in power, there’s no such thing as an empty threat. Naseri’s story is one full of heartbreak.

In late August, members of his family were killed in the airport suicide bombing in Kabul. Naseri prefers we don’t include further details.

At that time, the tears shed were his own. Just a day after the bombing, Naseri walked into a nondescript building on Madison’s south side. The Catholic Multicultural Center welcomed him with open arms at the time, just as they did in September when he shared his story there with us.

“When I came here the first time, I [was] crying,” Naseri says, surrounded by three CMC workers who have gone from being strangers to his biggest advocates.

Though based on Catholic values, the CMC draws no border lines when it comes to faith or nationality. Janice Beers, CMC’s immigration services coordinator, is Jewish. Nor is one’s ability to pay a factor. The CMC team is always busy helping clients from all over the world. But things have certainly gotten busier lately.

“The crisis in Afghanistan has significantly impacted our work,” Beers says.

Welcoming Refugees to Madison

It’s not just Naseri’s family that is navigating resettlement complexities on top of personal tragedy. Beers estimates about 136 members of the Afghan community have resettled in the Madison area since 2010, and more will soon come.

In September, Fort McCoy, located about 100 miles northwest of Madison, became a temporary home to 13,000 refugees. In this instance, “refugee” is being used as a blanket term describing the people who came from Afghanistan into the U.S. to escape persecution. Beers says its legal definition doesn’t apply to many of those in Fort McCoy, whose status is best described as “parolee,” which has different implications when it comes to immigration status and benefits. For the purpose of simplicity, we’ll refer to them as refugees, though the situation is complex and different for each individual. Steve Maurice, assistant director at CMC, guesses a fair number of people will be relocated in the Madison area with the help of organizations such as Jewish Social Services of Madison.

Madison is one of six Wisconsin cities where it is expected that 400 Afghan refugees will likely resettle throughout the state. The mayor’s office released a statement on Sept. 1 saying the mayor and Common Council leadership “would like to extend a warm welcome and reaffirm Madison’s commitment to treating refugees with dignity, care and respect.”

That welcoming spirit is already part of the state’s landscape. Not only did Fort McCoy temporarily house about 14,000 refugees from Cuba who fled during Fidel Castro’s rule in 1980, but Wisconsin is also home to one of the largest Hmong communities in the country after many immigrated from Vietnam and Laos — under threat of persecution for aiding the U.S. military — in the 1970s and ’80s following the Vietnam War. In the ’90s, hundreds of Somalis fled a civil war at home to resettle in Wisconsin’s Barron County.

In the current century amid the crisis in Syria, refugees have arrived in Wisconsin from Myanmar, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 2002 and 2016, nearly 14,000 refugees resettled in Wisconsin according to federal statistics, ranking Wisconsin near the middle for states that have taken in refugees.

Despite that precedent, not everyone was quick to welcome Afghan refugees in Wisconsin. Some state Republicans expressed concerns, including that vetting processes were not sufficient for those coming into Fort McCoy. In August 2021, Fort McCoy welcomed Republican lawmakers including Sen. Ron Johnson for a tour, which didn’t assuage his worries about screening. Rep. Patrick Testin wrote an open letter around the same time as that tour stating that the Biden administration hadn’t offered enough safeguards to properly vet refugees.

After a separate tour of Fort McCoy for state Democrats in September, lawmakers such as Rep. Ron Kind assured the public the vetting processes, including biometric screenings, were sufficient.

But for those who work hand-in-hand with refugees to escape tragic endings, whether or not to welcome refugees was never a question. For Beers, it’s even personal. She stumbled onto the work of resettlement around 1989. Four years later — just 10 days after her son was born — she resettled her own father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor. In that moment, the bigger picture of her work really hit home. “If it hadn’t been for a Ukrainian woman who saved his life and his mom’s and his sister’s, my son wouldn’t be alive,” she says.

Beers has been with CMC since 2017, overseeing the legal services it provides yearly to about 330 clients from more than 75 countries. In recent years, she became the first — and remains the only — nonattorney in Wisconsin accredited to provide legal defense in federal immigration court in Chicago.

“It’s very much a calling for me to reach out to others and give a voice to those who don’t have a voice,” says Beers, adding that CMC does its best to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps to serve refugees holistically. She’s especially proud that CMC’s immigration legal services program turns no one away. Client fees are low, covering only about a quarter of program costs, and an inability to pay is not a barrier to their services.

“I didn’t have too much money for an immigration attorney,” said Naseri in September, back in that Park Street building one week after the Kabul suicide bombing. Before he knew about CMC, he didn’t know where to turn. He found another local organization, Open Doors for Refugees, which helps people with apartment setups, translation, English lessons, transportation, child care and employment. It was Open Doors that connected Naseri with CMC. CMC Immigration Staff Attorney Carmel Capati remembers vividly the first day she met Naseri.

“Of course, he was just devastated for the family members he just lost there,” says Capati, a first-generation immigrant whose parents moved from the Philippines. “Khalid was so distraught. It was very difficult for him to express [himself].”

The violent deaths, the overwhelming fear, even the homesick feeling for a place that wants you dead: Naseri’s experience isn’t Capati’s experience, but both she and Beers feel it all the same. “We all cry together,” Capati says. “We’re all crying, trying to figure out how to help them.”

For them, resettlement feels like an ethical duty. A humanitarian duty.

“How we treat those on the outside is a measure of what we are as a culture,” Capati says. “I like to think we are treating our immigrants and refugees like true neighbors and family, which they really are.”

Increasing Need for Services

For Naseri, help is getting his family members out of Afghanistan — as many as he can. Steep costs are another barrier. The government charges $575 per humanitarian parole application.

“I am not able to open [an application] for each one because it’s too much money,” Naseri says.

So he’s starting with his two brothers most at risk and his youngest brother.

“My brother, he is 12,” Naseri says. “I worry constantly about him. There’s no school, nothing in Afghanistan.”

Abdullah, Khalid and Sadaf Naseri

Khalid Naseri and his children are now living safely in the United States. Twelve-year-old Abdullah Naseri (left) has dreams of being a pilot. Fourteen-year-old Sadaf Naseri hopes to become a doctor. (Photo by Paulius Musteikis)

The CMC can help with certain parts of the process, but not the application fee. The organization can screen clients for government fee waiver eligibility and connect clients with people who complete document translations at a low cost; to date, they’ve never had a waiver fee application denied. They also have a budget for interpreters.

“We are looking at each case individually, trying to see any potential immigration legal remedies for each situation, but it’s very complex,” Beers says.

Beers made it clear immigration processes could and would likely change in the coming months. At that point in September, however, the focus was on getting family members abroad to apply for humanitarian parole through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, despite long waits. As of December, Beers said the federal government had received close to 30,000 applications and was currently training more employees to sift through 500-1000 applications per day. “I think there’s only been 100 approvals so far because of tremendous backlog,” she says. But once the legal hurdles are successfully overcome, an even larger barrier looms.

“The problem is that even if they are conditionally approved for humanitarian parole, they would need to get out of Afghanistan and into a third country before they would be able to complete the processing and come to the United States,” Beers explains.

That means crossing the borders of Afghanistan, where there is no longer a U.S. embassy to complete the process.

Given the circumstances, Beers says it’s no surprise they’re seeing an increased need from those with family members in Afghanistan.

“This is really unprecedented,” Beers says.

It’s something she’s never done before, but is becoming more commonplace with the novel and evolving circumstances. In September, the CMC helped about 10 clients with 25 humanitarian parole applications. In October, Beers says they had 30 active applications in various stages. Within just a week in late October the CMC received requests to file an additional 15 applications. At the time, Beers anticipated the ongoing need for immigration legal services to increase by 25% to 30%.

But Beers says the CMC is more focused on the stories than the numbers. One client whose father was a high-ranking officer in the Afghan military shared that his cousin, cousin’s wife and their 14-month-old baby were injured in a car bombing. Another client fled Afghanistan after nearly being kidnapped by the Taliban for giving polio vaccines to children. Another family of seven is hiding in a tent city in Pakistan with nothing but their ID documents and scarce belongings, while yet another woman’s fiancé was shot in the ankle for trying to stop Taliban forces from attacking protesters.

Their stories can’t all fit within these pages, but they certainly take up space in Capati’s and Beers’ minds well outside of working hours.

“We are also up nights worrying about family members abroad and also what it means for our community members here like Khalid,” Beers says. “It definitely impacts us, but it’s not about us. It’s about the community, and we put our hearts into it.”

They also know that more stories will come.

“We’re trying to gear up and prepare for that,” says CMC’s Maurice, explaining that this includes setting up English language classes and developing culturally appropriate food offerings. “We’re working on getting those things ready now.”

Beers, an avid runner, can’t help but see the coming weeks, months — even years — as an ultramarathon. But when chaos began unfolding in Afghanistan — images of a packed airport and Afghans desperate to flee only started painting a picture of the dire situation in late August — it was more like a full-on sprint.

Like Something From a Movie

Of all the falling tears that stories like Naseri’s have produced, some have been happy ones.

“We sat together in my office crying for some time,” says Beers about a moment of great relief for another one of her clients.

Raz [who insisted his last name be withheld for his safety] is an Afghan who came to Madison with a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, in 2015. He’d worked alongside U.S. Marines as an interpreter, and he used to call those men his brothers.

“We’ve been going into combat and saving each other’s lives,” Raz said back in August, before the official deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops on Sept. 11, 2021.

His connection to the U.S. Marines would put a bounty on his head in Afghanistan, but he’d found safety in Madison in 2015, and help from CMC. The immigration process is long and complicated, however, so his wife and young son were forced to stay behind.

After the Taliban took over in August 2021, Raz couldn’t emphasize enough just how much danger his wife and son, then 3 years old, were suddenly in.

“Their [lives were] really, really, really at high risk,” Raz says. “I was just hopeless. I was like, ‘OK, I cannot be alive anymore if they kill my son, my innocent son, [and] innocent wife.’ ”

He went back to CMC for help. As with so many refugees, they told him his case was complex. “I came to understand that this case in particular was going to take something more than expertise in immigration legal work,” Beers says.

It was a shot in the dark: She posted a CMC Facebook post aimed at no one in particular, but it made its mark. Megan McDermott, a University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School lecturer, came across the call for help and connected Beers with Anil D’Souza, a Facebook friend she’d never met in person.

D’Souza, a veteran, had made connections with fellow veterans who were undertaking operations to guide at-risk Afghans through obstacles to get them to the airport and out of the country. He forged a friendship with Joe Saboe, who started Team America, a national volunteer organization of service members and veterans that formed hastily to help with the evacuation. D’Souza says nearly 200 people were now part of the organization, working to get people out of Afghanistan before the end of August. He estimates Team America guided between 550 and 600 people to the airport.

“This was really kind of an effort that kind of sprung from the ground,” D’Souza says.

The grounds it sprung from do not make for easy travel. Afghans needed to make it to Kabul first, then navigate dangerous Taliban checkpoints and crowds.

If you can picture that, now imagine traveling with a 3-year-old boy.

“I got personally attached to the case,” D’Souza says.

So much so he asked Saboe of Team America for help. Through pure luck, coincidence and a whole lot of coordination between unlikely forces, the operation to get Raz’s wife and child out of Afghanistan and into safety began.

Team America taught Raz’s wife hand and arm signals so she could be identified at the right gate. She and her son had to pass through sewage to get to the checkpoint.

“That was more than waist-high while carrying her kid to get through it to get to a place where she wouldn’t get caught up in a massive crowd trying to get out,” D’Souza says.

D’Souza’s friends on the ground said that what they saw around the airport was “like an exaggerated mosh pit” at a concert.

“She had the risk of being trampled,” he says.

D’Souza credits members of Team America — he is now part of the advisory board — with the hard work of guiding Raz’s family to safety. While Team America members worked remotely by sending texts to guide them to the proper checkpoints, and Raz’s wife and child waded through putrid water and evaded the Taliban, D’Souza stayed up most of the night following along from his home in suburban Chicago.

Back in Wisconsin, so did Beers and McDermott with Raz — his story felt like their own.

“It was very, very emotional,” Beers says.

At one point, Raz’s wife lost her phone, and it would have been easy for him to lose all hope.

But finally, they made it to the checkpoint with help from Raz’s wife’s brother, who still had his phone.

That’s when the tears began flowing in Beers’ office.

“Before that I thought I would never see my wife and son again,” Raz says. “It was unbelievable, and I was really happy.”

They got a happy ending.

D’Souza says Raz’s life story feels like a movie. “There are elements of it that feel that way sometimes. … It’s kind of crazy,” D’Souza says.

But something that seems like it could only play out on-screen is real life for Raz and so many in Afghanistan.

Refugee 4

Janice Beers at the Catholic Multicultural Center (Photo by Paulius Musteikis)

From Sprint to Ultramarathon

While D’Souza was more than happy when Raz’s family made it out of Afghanistan safely, he wishes that were the case for every family.

“I was amazed [and] really impressed with what a bunch of citizens who mostly didn’t know each other were able to do quickly and effectively,” he says. “Also realizing, gosh, this has kind of a ‘Sophie’s Choice on Noah’s Ark’ feel to it. Mixed emotions of, man, we’re kind of picking and choosing survivors by chance.”

Still, they’ll take the chance and fight for as many people as they can.

D’Souza says Team America is working on ways to help those still in Afghanistan, though he notes that one of the biggest challenges is getting people out of the country so they can come to the U.S. on humanitarian parole. Team America is working with the government on the best way to address the situation going forward.

“The way Americans have worked together, not asking what our politics are, is a promising thing,” D’Souza says.

Raz has now settled into a new life in Texas with his wife and son. (Though he says he loved Madison, they left in September for Raz’s new job as a truck driver and to escape Wisconsin’s winters.)

“It feels safe here. We feel safe, and that’s a really good thing,” Raz says. “We love it. We live together. We are having our normal life right now, which is really good.”

Still, there are barriers to overcome. Raz wants to get his wife health insurance, but that wasn’t possible before with her immigration status; now it’s available but “incredibly expensive.” He worries other refugees will face similar barriers, like getting food share benefits. But as of October, Beers says some public health benefits will be available for incoming refugees. Those granted humanitarian parole may be eligible for federal benefits such as Medicaid and food assistance, along with help with employment, cash assistance and English language training.

Beers says these reasons and others are why there will be an increase in demand for the CMC’s comprehensive, long-term services. But it’s worth it, Beers says: They are human, and no borders or dividing lines can change the fact that refugees are our neighbors.

“When you’re an immigrant, you are at a loss. You’re in a new country. You have to rely on others for much of what you’re able to do until you really get your feet under you,” the CMC’s assistant director Maurice says. “Serving others and welcoming the stranger is a big part of the Catholic philosophy.”

“Welcoming the stranger is a Jewish value as well,” Beers adds. “We as a staff are symbolic of communities coming together to help our immigrant neighbors.”

Naseri now considers himself an immigrant, too, so he can help other Afghans adjust in the U.S. He knows exactly what it’s like to be torn from everything you know and love.

Despite his remaining fears for his family in Afghanistan, Naseri looks forward to a better future for both himself and his children. In moments when he could get lost in the darkness, he focuses on beacons of hope.

“I’m happy in my life,” he says. “I’m lucky because I’m here.”

Madalyn O’Neill is an award-winning journalist currently in Milwaukee, previously working as a news reporter in La Crosse and her birthplace, Madison.