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An Afghan teen makes it to the U.S., but his family is left behind in Kabul

As Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021, a teenager got separated from his family at the airport and has been living on his own in the U.S.
Hokyoung Kim for NPR
As Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021, a teenager got separated from his family at the airport and has been living on his own in the U.S.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – It's midday at Goodwin House, an upscale retirement community outside Washington, D.C. Out front, a literal revolving door of residents and visitors. People move through the halls to the elevators, introducing their pets and picking up packages at the front desk.

Amid the shuffle is a lean young man dressed in black. He's polite but reserved, easily mistaken for a visiting family member. But he works the front desk. And his family is 8,000 miles away — in danger.

We'll call him BH. We're just using his initials because most of his relatives are still in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, and often forced to change addresses because they fear the new Taliban regime.

An uncle worked for the Afghan and U.S. militaries, making the whole family suspect. BH remembers the last time he saw them, 10 of them — parents, a grandmother, brothers, nephews and his uncle — clutching their documents and pressing through a desperate crowd at Kabul International Airport, trying to board planes as the Taliban swept into the city.

"Everyone was pushing each other and they didn't, you know, care about old people and children," he recalls. "Everyone was afraid." BH says he was scared, too.

In the crush of thousands of terrified Afghans, some were trampled to death. BH was separated from his family in the crowd and ended up at the gate. When he presented his documents to an American soldier, he was ushered through. The rest of his family was nowhere to be seen.

"I called them several times and no one was answering because there was a crowd and no one heard the phone ring," BH says.

That was August 2021. BH was 17 and all alone.

Into the West

He soon found himself on the floor of a massive C-130 aircraft packed with refugee families. He had only the clothes he wore and his papers. He was too tired to talk with anyone. The plane arrived in Doha, Qatar, the first leg of a flight to the U.S. There, he finally reached his mother on the phone back in Kabul.

"She was crying. That's the only thing she did," he remembers. "It was a dark day for me because I lost my whole family."

Next was a dizzying hopscotch across the world: Germany, where the refugees slept on cots in a massive airplane hangar. Washington Dulles Airport in Virginia, more cots inside a convention center. Then to an air force base in New Mexico for vetting and medical tests, spending two months with other Afghan refugees.

All told, nearly 80,000 Afghan refugees made it to the U.S.

"Everybody in the camp had a relative in the U.S. and they said 'Hey, come to California. It's a good place.' And I said 'I don't have any relatives here,' " BH says. "Then I found out about Virginia, it has a good education system. And that was my goal to achieve."

So BH flew back to Dulles Airport in Virginia. The State Department offered counseling help for jobs and education. And the refugees got three months of financial assistance. He got an apartment and enrolled at Alexandria City High School as a junior. He studied hard and worked, doing odd jobs, not able to socialize much.

When a teacher found out he lived alone and was financially strapped, the school staff reached out to Christ Church in Alexandria, a church founded in the 1700s whose parishioners included George Washington. The members have been trying to help the new Afghan refugees, thousands of whom have stayed in the Washington area. Many of the refugees were interpreters for the Americans in Afghanistan because the pay was good. But here, it's hard to find decent work. Some of the Afghans end up moving to the distant suburbs, where the rent is cheaper. But most of the money the church raises still goes to rental assistance.

Church staffer Whitney Mallory says the goal is to be a bridge between resettlement and self-sufficiency.

"The majority of people we work with have advanced degrees and careers," she says. "They find themselves at Target for $16 an hour. And the rent is $2,300 a month. And it's impossible to make those ends meet."

The church is helping more than 50 families, but BH stood out to them because he didn't have a family. Melanie Gray, the church's director of outreach and mission, met BH and was stunned by his situation.

"He needed financial help. Period," Gray says. "He's going to school full time. He's working full time. He described to me in the little time he has, he showers, eats and studies. So imagining him here alone, without a family — the burden I believe was extra heavy."

On top of that, Gray says BH was concerned for his family's safety back home — and that weighed heavily on him.

I mean, he has sent me pictures of a brother who's been stabbed. And when I see that, I can't imagine how you go to school the next day. And yet he does.

"I mean, he has sent me pictures of a brother who's been stabbed. And when I see that, I can't imagine how you go to school the next day. And yet he does."

"Hello, how can I help you?"

A bill in Congress called the Afghan Adjustment Act would speed permanent residency for the tens of thousands who were airlifted from Kabul International Airport. It has bipartisan support but it's languishing in Congress. Some Republicans argue that the Afghans who arrived here were not carefully vetted, a view dismissed by U.S. officials who point out that dozens of Afghans were not allowed into the U.S. when they lacked documentation or were suspected of crimes.

Still, a report by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security found that some Afghans who made it to the United States were not fully vetted, because of inaccurate or incomplete information supplied by the evacuees. But the new bill would include additional screening, and advocates say it mirrors a similar effort in the 1970s to help refugees settle permanently in the U.S. — those who arrived from Vietnam.

On paper, BH is luckier than most Afghans in the U.S. Thousands of them struggle with English and have only temporary work permits. BH's application for asylum was accepted and he's on his way to becoming a permanent resident. He needs one more credit to get his diploma and then he's planning to study computer programming at Northern Virginia Community College, paid for with a scholarship from his high school. He talks with his family frequently and sends them money when he can. He has a safe life in Virginia, going to school and working a decent job at Goodwin House's front desk, welcoming a community that has been so welcoming to him.

Pierre Shostal helped BH land the gig. He's a resident of Goodwin House, belongs to Christ Church and spent a career in foreign service. He knows a little bit of what BH is going through. His family is French and fled the Nazis during World War II when he was just 4. First a train to Spain, then a cargo ship to New York.

"My father was Jewish and he managed to come here, very luckily, in 1941," he says. "I think we must have gotten on the last boat."

But despite the kinship Shostal feels for BH, he can't imagine being here alone.

"It's an amazing story," Shostal says, "And I grieve for him, being without his family and having to leave his family behind. It's a terrible thing."

Surrounded by other families

BH walks to his studio apartment in Southern Towers, a massive complex just behind Goodwin House. It's home to many Afghans and other refugees who settled here years ago from Ethiopia and Eritrea. There's a cluster of families greeting each other outside the complex: a woman wearing a hijab, a man with a long tunic shirt. Kids ride around the parking lot on scooters.

"Today is Eid," he says. "Everyone is going to their relatives' house and hanging out with friends," he says. "It's a big celebration."

Scenes like this make it even harder to be away from his family. And even though Kabul is dangerous now, he misses it — the food, hanging out with his friends, playing soccer.

"We had a great country," he says, mourning what his life used to be like before the Taliban returned. "All the time I'm worrying about my family because they're in danger. They have no rights, no freedom of speech. Our Afghan girls can't go to school."

He weaves through the lobby without looking up, heading for the elevators. He rushes into the first one that opens and punches a button. The doors close on the sound of happy relatives, leaving us with only the hum of the elevator and the beep of the floors as we ascend to the 10th floor.

BH invites us into his tiny, quiet studio apartment and apologizes for the bags of laundry on the floor. The only decoration is a large photo of a beach with a sea stretching to misty mountains. He folds up his prayer rug and walks to a window, pulling up the shade to see an urban landscape of apartment buildings and highway.

He once lived in a seven-room home in Kabul with 10 relatives. The backyard had trees bearing apples and other fruits.

So what's it like to live alone now?

"It's no choice for me," he says, "and that's the thing, you know?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Bowman
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Lauren Hodges
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.