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Government, Politics & Issues

With Homeland In Chaos, Afghans In St. Louis Wait And Worry

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Sayed Mahdi Haidari
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Sayed Mahdi Haidari of Fenton is hoping for good news about his sister's husband, an Afghan Police Force officer whom Taliban forces abducted last week.

The ongoing chaos in Afghanistan, where Taliban forces have retaken many cities following the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed government, has some local Afghans worried about the safety of their loved ones overseas.

The International Institute of St. Louis is preparing to potentially resettle more refugees from Afghanistan whom the Taliban may target for retribution because of their work supporting the U.S. military effort there.

Among those who are worried about their relatives is Sayed Mahdi Haidari, a banker who immigrated to the U.S. in 2017 after eight years working with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, where he supervised more than 100 interpreters spread across the country. He now lives in Fenton with his wife and 7-year-old daughter.

His sister’s husband, who worked for the Afghan National Police, was abducted Friday by the Taliban, Haidari said. The family doesn’t know his current whereabouts.

“Physically I’m here, and I’m working, but mentally my mind is not here because I’m really worried about them,” said Haidari, whose brother and two sisters live in Afghanistan. Another brother also relocated in the U.S. and now lives in the St. Louis region.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen to him,” Haidari said of his brother-in-law. “Is he alive or is he not alive? Are the Taliban letting him go back home? What’s going to happen?”

Even if his brother-in-law returns safely, Haidari said, his sister’s family will need to flee Afghanistan to avoid persecution. Haidari is particularly concerned that the Taliban will discover his U.S.-based phone number, or that of another U.S.-based relative, in his brother-in-law’s phone. Taliban forces would view American connections as suspicious, he said.

Before deciding to leave his homeland, Haidari tried to keep his work with the U.S. military a secret and moved repeatedly when his neighbors discovered his profession.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis Mayor Tishuara Jones issued a joint statement Tuesday, declaring that the region is ready to welcome “at least” 1,000 Afghans who secure Special Immigrant Visas. Congress created the visa category in 2009 for Iraqis and Afghans who worked as interpreters for U.S. military forces in their countries.

“[W]e will work with our community partners to support any additional migration to the region by Afghan families and friends to help with reunification efforts,” Page and Jones said in the statement.

St. Louis is among the cities that the federal government has identified as potential locations for people entering the country with the special visas.

The International Institute has resettled 626 Afghans in the St. Louis region since 2010, and the pace is increasing. Nearly half of those refugees arrived since 2018. More than 80% obtained Special Immigration Visas.

As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in recent weeks during the drawdown of U.S. forces, more Afghans who are in the U.S. on temporary visas have reached out to the International Institute for help making their status permanent. The agency has seen 15 such “walk-ins” in the past three weeks, and President & CEO Arrey Obenson said he expects that number to double shortly.

“We have been working to build capacity, anticipating that there would be a steady flow of Afghans over an extended period of time,” Obenson said. But the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country has spurred his organization to speed up its efforts.

“What creates a lot more uncertainty is that we are going to see a wave rather than a steady flow,” Obenson said. “What that means is that we need to accelerate our efforts locally to be able to have the capacity if that wave comes.”

The International Institute is trying to secure housing for incoming Afghan refugees and plans to hire five new staff members to increase its capacity to relocate people.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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