Resettling Afghan refugees in WA: What’s different this time

People fleeing the Taliban now face a unique resettlement experience compared to previous waves of migrants.

Wali Khairzada, owner of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, slices beef for one of the many traditional Afghan dishes that his restaurant serves. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Wali Khairzada never intended to stay in the United States. 

He grew up in Kabul and moved to the U.S. for college, following in the footsteps of other family members who studied abroad. He planned to return home afterward, but circumstances changed as Afghanistan faced political and social upheaval in the 1970s. 

He left his studies at New York University, switching to a less expensive school in New Jersey and working as a dishwasher. He eventually made his way to Seattle, where he has lived since 1981. Khairzada, who knows firsthand what it’s like to leave a life back home, is donating a portion of funds from Kabul, his restaurant in Wallingford, to help those forced to leave Afghanistan and resettle in Washington. 

“Nobody in the world wants to leave their country,” he said. 

Individuals migrating across the globe after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August are getting resettlement help from groups like World Relief, the International Rescue Committee and Jewish Family Service. Leaders in these organizations have noticed distinct challenges during this wave of immigration because of Washington’s affordable housing crisis and the ongoing threat of COVID-19. 

One group helping with resettlement, the Afghan Health Initiative, will receive 10% of the proceeds from Khairzada’s restaurant for a period of time. 

Like Khairzada, people can donate money to help incoming refugees. Willing volunteers can also opt for other options, such as providing housing, building welcome kits, becoming cultural companions and buying back-to-school wish list items. 

Although he has lived in the U.S. for decades, Khairzada still misses his home. 

“A lot,” he said. “We lived in a golden age of Afghanistan.”

Owner Wali Khairzada of Kabul Restaurant speaks with one of his regular customers, Renée Hendricksen, at the to-go order window of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Owner Wali Khairzada of Kabul Restaurant speaks with one of his regular customers, Renée Hendricksen, at the to-go order window of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

A brief history lesson 

Afghanistan underwent a series of changes in the latter half of the 20th century, when it saw greater liberties for women, an abolishment of its monarchy and a growing emphasis on communism. In the late 1970s, turbulence boiled over in the country.

In 1978, a guerrilla movement formed in opposition to the USSR-supported administration. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan the next year to sustain communist power. Conflict ensued in the following years, drawing in global players like the U.S., which supplied arms to the guerrilla movement.

The Taliban gained traction by the 1990s. During this period, the militia required women be veiled and enforced Islamic law through public executions. The group’s recent resurgence has sparked panic and dread among people living in Afghanistan and from their friends and relatives in the United States.  

“The Taliban have promised amnesty to their opponents and sought to cast themselves as more moderate than when they ruled in the 1990s,” Axios reported on Aug. 20. “But reports of door-to-door searches and targeted killings, as well as this week's crackdown on protesters, have renewed fears the group will return to its brutal and repressive rule.” 

People who escaped are uneasy for their loved ones still in the country. That’s why Jewish Family Service of Seattle, one of the organizations helping in resettlement efforts, is more cautious and concerned when it comes to this group of refugees.  

“They and their family members that are left behind remain in danger,” said Kristin Winkel, the nonprofit’s acting CEO. “We’ve denied media requests to interview families.” 

The risk of relatives in Afghanistan facing retribution from the Taliban is too high, she said.

 

Yama Khairzada and his father Wali Khairzada, owner of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, discuss and prepare orders for customers. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Yama Khairzada and his father Wali Khairzada, owner of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, discuss and prepare orders for customers. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Stepping up to resettle refugees 

As events in Afghanistan unfolded, groups that have supported refugees for years sprang into action. 

Efforts by Jewish Family Service, founded in the late 19th century to help resettle immigrants and refugees, include meeting people at the airport and finding housing. The organization also wants to ensure refugees have household supplies, like clothing for children and bedding. 

“They come here with maybe one or two suitcases,” Winkel said. “And that’s it.” 

At the time of Crosscut’s conversation with Winkel, she reported that during the fiscal year ー which ends in September ー the organization had resettled 144 Afghans covered under special immigrant visas. More than 60 were resettled over the course of a few weeks in August.

One individual who moved from Afghanistan under a special immigrant visa has turned his attention to this wave of refugees. Mohammad Ajmal, who asked to be identified only by his first name for safety reasons, resettled in Washington in March 2020 with assistance from the International Rescue Committee, which responds to global humanitarian crises

Now he’s aiding others through the nonprofit’s Seattle branch. 

“It’s very joyful for me,” he said of his work with migrants and as part of a team that resettled him. 

Nicky Smith, executive director of the International Rescue Committee, appreciated having someone like Mohammad Ajmal on board in the push to resettle Afghan refugees. 

“People are just traumatized, they’re coming in with literally the clothes on their back,” Smith said. “They’ve got nothing. And then being able to look at Mohammad and say, ‘Oh, OK, you did it.’ ”

Notes from customers are seen on the wall of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood that specializes in traditional Afghan cuisine. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Notes from customers are seen on the wall of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood that specializes in traditional Afghan cuisine. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

What feels different this time

Washingtonians’ eagerness to support refugees is a longtime staple in the state, which developed a Vietnamese resettlement program in the 1970s. Gov. Jay Inslee addressed the state’s approach to migrants in an Aug. 26 letter to President Joe Biden. 

“Since 1975, Washington has welcomed nearly 150,000 refugees from 70 different countries,” Inslee said. “In the past decade, almost 5,000 of these refugees have hailed from Afghanistan.” 

The process of resettling refugees can involve a variety of tasks for the International Rescue Committee, from airport pickups to helping people access housing and employment. 

Smith pointed out a few distinct challenges impacting this resettlement push. One revolves around the difficulty identifying affordable housing, which Winkel of Jewish Family Service also noted. 

“We need to be better prepared when it comes to having housing, having affordable housing options for them,” Winkel said, noting that even the search for temporary housing has been a bigger lift. 

Washington ranked seventh in the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2021 Out of Reach report, which determined a person working at minimum wage in the state ($13.69) would need to work 70 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom home at fair-market rent.  

COVID-19 also plays a complicated role in the International Rescue Committee’s operations. 

“People have to quarantine when they come in,” Smith said. “We have to do a lot of stuff online now. There’s a lot more considerations about ー how do we do physical distancing with clients and staff?”

Washington recently doubled down on its COVID protocols amid rising COVID cases and hospitalizations in the state. People must mask indoors in public spaces regardless of vaccination status. 

Part of Mohammad Ajmal’s work with the International Rescue Committee has involved helping to set up COVID vaccine appointments. 

Less than 2% of Afghanistan’s population was fully vaccinated as of Aug. 20, according to Our World in Data. The U.S. government granted a waiver on pre-departure COVID testing for people coming in from Afghanistan, including Afghan special immigrant visa applicants. Arrivals have to get tested once they reach the first port of entry into the country and follow appropriate protocols if they test positive.

Making it to the U.S. may be only half the battle for some refugees.

Wali Khairzada, owner of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, pours walnuts into a blender as he prepares a dish. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Wali Khairzada, owner of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, pours walnuts into a blender as he prepares a dish. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Accessing services in Washington 

In his letter to Biden, Gov. Jay Inslee made a plea for all migrants to receive assistance. 

“While you consider all ways to rapidly airlift tens of thousands of people,” the governor said in the letter, “I hope that you work to ensure services are readily available without regard to visa status — including resettlement programming, work authorization and financial assistance — and to mitigate the imposition of costs or fees onto these vulnerable individuals.” 

Afghans with shared trauma and experiences could face varying levels of difficulty in their ability to access services, based on their visa status, according to Smith, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee. 

These families, Smith said, could potentially be living in the same apartment complexes or know one another. 

“What’s separating them in their refugee resettlement experience is that we’re easily able to provide services to one lot,” she said. “How does someone remain not bitter by that as a family, when they’re struggling to survive and live, and they can see another person getting something that they can’t have access to?” 

Yama Khairzada, chef Honza Kirba and owner Wali Khairzada watch a soccer game in the kitchen of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood during a lull in to-go order business. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Yama Khairzada, chef Honza Kirba and owner Wali Khairzada watch a soccer game in the kitchen of Kabul Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood during a lull in to-go order business. For eight weeks, Khairzada is giving 10% of his profits to Afghan Health Initiative, an organization that serves the Afghan immigrant and refugee population in Washington State. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

About the Authors & Contributors

Maleeha Syed

Maleeha Syed

Maleeha Syed is a staff reporter at Crosscut focusing on the various communities that make up Washington, writing with a focus on equity.