‘Home is like jail’: Afghan soldier who helped the US weathers injuries, uncertainty in asylum bid

Jun 6, 2023, 10:51 PM | Updated: Jun 7, 2023, 6:50 am

HOUSTON (AP) — The April visit to a Houston clinic was just one of a never-ending assembly line of medical appointments January release from an immigration detention center.

The former Afghan soldier, called Wasi by family and friends, sat in a dental chair and conversed in Pashto with his older brother Sami as Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova” played in the background. It was a scene thousands of miles from the places he’d been the past two years.

After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, fear of retribution from the Taliban for sharing information with American soldiers while he was an intelligence officer drove Wasi Safi to flee to Brazil. The goal? Reaching the U.S. and applying for asylum.

He eventually made it after crossing 10 countries, but the journey came at a high cost. A brutal beating by police officers in Panama severely damaged his teeth and jaw and left him with permanent hearing loss.

Wasi Safi didn’t appear nervous during his visit to the San José Clinic, a facility that serves low income and uninsured individuals. But dentist Michael Wisnoski still reassured him, telling him it was going to be an “easy day.” He got two fillings but more complicated dental work loomed ahead.

Easy days for Wasi Safi have been few. His mind races with worry about his health. There’s also the uncertainty of whether he’ll be granted asylum. And he feels powerless to help his parents and other siblings, who have been threatened back in Afghanistan.

“I am scared for my life. I don’t know about my future. I don’t know what this government, what the United States (will) do with me,” Wasi Safi said.

It’s fear and frustration felt by other Afghans in the U.S. as well as by immigration activists, attorneys and others, who ask that those who were evacuated from Afghanistan receive permanent legal status and those left behind be given a path to safety.

“I do think that our government needs to take responsibility and figure out how to fix it, because these are people who helped us,” said Debbie Berman, an attorney with the Chicago-based law firm Jenner & Block that’s representing Afghans still trying to flee their country.

More than 88,500 Afghans who worked with American soldiers as translators and in other capacities since 2001 have arrived in the U.S. on military planes since the chaotic withdrawal, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Most were admitted under a program called humanitarian parole that grants them some legal status, including the ability to work.

However, many others were left behind and some, like Wasi Safi, made their way to the U.S. on their own — seeking the fulfillment of a promise of protection the U.S. made to its Afghan allies. It’s a promise many feel has been broken.

Wasi Safi’s monthslong journey on foot and by boat last year took him through raging rivers and dense jungle to the U.S.-Mexico border, where he was arrested in September and sent to a Texas detention center. With the help of lawyers and lawmakers, he was freed and reunited with his brother, who was a translator for the U.S. military and has lived in Houston since 2015.

Wasi Safi’s attorneys didn’t return calls or emails seeking comment on his asylum case.

His arrest at the border and the expedited removal order that remains in place likely complicate his asylum case, said Alex Miller, with the American Immigration Council, an advocacy group.

“It just is an incredible uphill battle,” said Miller.

Wasi Safi and other Afghans seeking legal status in the U.S. are doing so within an already backlogged immigration system.

“They’re just being added to this pile that the immigration judges are” handling, said Aleksandar Cuic, director of the Immigration Clinic at the School of Law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The Afghan Adjustment Act, a proposed law to streamline their immigration process, has stalled in Congress. As of the end of April, only about 8,100 applications for asylum or special visas for Afghans employed by the U.S. government had been approved, according to Homeland Security.

Wasi Safi was set to plead his case for asylum before an immigration judge in July. But that’s been delayed to December. The postponement was a gut punch for the Safi brothers.

“Every time I’m having a piece of hope, they somehow take the hope away from me,” said Sami Safi, 30.

Wasi Safi’s unresolved immigration status has meant he’s not authorized to work. It’s also left him afraid to leave his Houston home.

“Home is like jail for me. I hope they give me my paper (legal documentation) and I start my life,” Wasi Safi said.

If home is a cage, the Al-Noor Society of Greater Houston, a mosque in the city’s diverse Gulfton neighborhood, has provided some outside solace.

In the midst of Ramadan on a Friday in April, the mosque’s main prayer hall was filled with about 200 men and boys, some wearing Houston Astros jerseys or carrying bags emblazoned with the Texas flag.

“That’s why we come to mosque … asking God almighty to guide us, in the path of success, in the path of comfort,” Sami Safi said.

Zahoor Gire, Al Noor’s executive director, said the mosque is a place not just for prayer but a resource for many of the newly arrived from Afghanistan and other countries.

Community groups like Al Noor are the ones that help provide long-term support — including job training and activities for children — once the initial federal help ends, Gire said.

Ericka Pertierra, a local businesswoman who’s helped several Afghan families resettle in Houston, has taken on Wasi Safi’s case. Using her fundraising skills, Pertierra gathered money for his lawyers and persuaded doctors and dentists she knows to donate their services.

“They deserve it. They served our country,” Pertierra said of the brothers.

She’s trying to raise more money through a GoFundMe campaign for Wasi Safi’s long-term medical needs.

On May 23, Wasi Safi turned 27 years old. But eating birthday cake was out of the question due to pain from recent gum surgery.

“He says, ‘I’ll celebrate my birthday when I’m feeling better,’” Sami Safi said.


Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter:

National News

Associated Press

$1.04 billion Powerball jackpot tempts players to brave long odds

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An estimated $1.04 billion Powerball jackpot will be up for grabs Monday night, tempting players to spend a couple dollars on a longshot chance at instant riches. The prize is the world’s ninth-largest lottery prize behind earlier drawings of Powerball and Mega Millions, the other nearly nationwide lottery game. The […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

US expands probe into Ford engine failures to include two motors and nearly 709,000 vehicles

DETROIT (AP) — U.S. auto safety investigators have expanded a probe into Ford Motor Co. engine failures to include nearly 709,000 vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also said in documents posted Monday on its website that it upgraded the investigation to an engineering analysis, a step closer to a recall. The investigation now […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Car drives through fence at airport, briefly disrupting operations, officials say

A car crashed through a fence at Maine’s busiest airport, traveled on a service road alongside a runway and then was abandoned, causing a brief disruption, officials said. The episode unfolded Sunday morning at Portland International Jetport, when the abandoned sedan was spotted after it had crashed into a second fence in a secure area […]

2 hours ago

File - The Southern University Human Jukebox marching band warms up before the 2023 National Battle...

Associated Press

Federal student loan payments are starting again. Here’s what you need to know

Federal student loan borrowers will need to start making payments again this month after a three-year-plus pause due to the pandemic.

2 hours ago

FILE - Protesters shout before a speaking engagement by Ben Shapiro on the campus of the University...

Associated Press

Few Americans say conservatives can speak freely on college campuses, AP-NORC/UChicago poll shows

WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans view college campuses as far friendlier to liberals than to conservatives when it comes to free speech, with adults across the political spectrum seeing less tolerance for those on the right, according to a new poll. Overall, 47% of adults say liberals have “a lot” of freedom to express their views […]

11 hours ago

Fencer Kirsten Hawkes poses for a portrait at a fencing studio Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in San Dieg...

Associated Press

Forced kiss claim leads to ‘helplessness’ for accuser who turned to Olympics abuse-fighting agency

DENVER (AP) — When Kirsten Hawkes, a one-time elite fencer, reached out to her childhood coach for advice about starting her own fencing club, their meeting turned awkward right away. It began, she said, with an unwanted kiss on the lips when the two met at a bar during a fencing tournament in Minneapolis last […]

11 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife...

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

September is a busy month on the sports calendar and also holds a very special designation: Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

Ziply Fiber...

Dan Miller

The truth about Gigs, Gs and other internet marketing jargon

If you’re confused by internet technologies and marketing jargon, you’re not alone. Here's how you can make an informed decision.

Education families...

Education that meets the needs of students, families

Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) is a program of Omak School District that is a full-time online public school for students in grades K-12.

Emergency preparedness...

Emergency planning for the worst-case scenario

What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard an intruder in your kitchen? West Coast Armory North can help.

Innovative Education...

The Power of an Innovative Education

Parents and students in Washington state have the power to reimagine the K-12 educational experience through Insight School of Washington.

Medicare fraud...

If you’re on Medicare, you can help stop fraud!

Fraud costs Medicare an estimated $60 billion each year and ultimately raises the cost of health care for everyone.

‘Home is like jail’: Afghan soldier who helped the US weathers injuries, uncertainty in asylum bid