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Two Afghans reflect on finding refuge in Vermont, two years after U.S. withdrawal

A photo of a woman in a head scarf and loose white clothing sitting on a bench with ornate brick behind her.
Yalda, pictured here at university, studied to become a doctor in Afghanistan. She is now hoping to get a job as a medical assistant at UVM Medical Center.

It’s been just over two years since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of people fled, including to Vermont.

More than 300 Afghan refugees and humanitarian parolees live in Vermont today. While most arrived in the first year after the Taliban took over, more continue to move to the state, drawn by its welcoming reputation.

Two Afghans recently shared their stories with Vermont Edition: Yalda, a 27-year-old doctor, who arrived in Colchester a few months ago, and Asad, who found temporary refuge with a host family in St. Albans this spring.

Portions of Yalda's and Asad's conversation with Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak are included below. They've been edited and condensed for clarity.


Yalda: It's pretty similar for every refugee when you left the country... the pathways are different, I know, but the feeling is the same. You feel desperate every day of your life, you miss your country. And you face a lot of challenges. You built already a life, and you made a life in your country, but then you must redo it. So it's difficult.

Mikaela Lefrak: Tell us about your life in Afghanistan?

Yalda: I had a very good life. I was born in a very well-educated family in Parwan Province, which is a northern province of Afghanistan. Then we move to Kabul and continue my education there. And then, with a lot of difficulties, I get into the medical school, and I finished it with a very good grade. Then for Afghan girl, you usually go for studying when you come to home, you do your homework and also the home chores, and you will help your mom, and then you'll have fun and family gathering on the weekends. We had a very good life.

A photo of a woman in a white doctor's jacket, facemask, hair net and stethoscope in a hallway on stairs.
Yalda studied medicine in Afghanistan, and she hopes to practice here in the U.S.

I did six year in medical school and then one year in a hospital, I worked practically. And the last day that I finished my practical work, just I was at the hospital and then there was shooting everywhere. And then I say, "What's happening? What's going on?" and then I hear that people say, "Taliban is coming. Taliban came."

And then everyone went out of the hospital and then we saw everyone was in a hurry. Everyone was wanting to just escape. And then the people who had shop, they just closed the shops. It was a very messy, messy situation. Everyone wants to go to home.

Mikaela Lefrak: When you heard that the Taliban was coming, you saw this scene of chaos. Was your first thought that you too needed to figure out a way to get out, or did you think you and your family would be OK?

Yalda: Well, it's difficult to say. Just before Taliban came, two or three days we moved from our house, because I lived all of my life with my aunt, which was a senior judge in Afghanistan. So there was too danger facing for us. Just all the prisoners who were just free, and then the other was the Taliban.

And then day by day, like, from one month before Taliban came, in one month, every day, we saw the news and they say, "Oh, Taliban took over this province, and the other day, this province or this." And then one day, my uncle called my aunt, say "Just leave home, because everyone know you're home."

So we left the home to one place which was our new apartment that my uncle had. We were there, and at that point I left the hospital, it wasn't very certain that I will leave the country or no, just — I was thinking that I want to home. And when I went home, and there was my uncle, my aunts, my cousins, who are all girls that — they were so afraid of Taliban.

And then after that, we received an email from [IAWJ] that they say you can lift and by this paper, you can go to the airport, and then you will be here maybe in one or two days.

Mikaela Lefrak: The IAWJ — that's the International Association of Women Judges. Ok. And I should also note for our listeners, your aunt, Judge Anisa Rasooli, is a very, very prominent and history-making judge in Afghanistan. She's been called the "Ruth Bader Ginsburg" of judges in Afghanistan.

Yalda: Yes, she is. And then she had some connection with this [IAWJ], and she had a friend, Patricia Whalen, who helped us a lot during this transition to make this transition smoother for us. Yes, we had some connection. And because we lived with my aunt, that's why we had to left the country.

More from Vermont Edition: 'We Have No Guarantees': One Vermonter's Effort To Help Women Judges Flee Afghanistan

Mikaela Lefrak: And when you left, you didn't come to the United States.

Yalda: It was very, like, unusual situation, was very difficult to get into airport... we get bypasses from the Pakistani embassy, we get into the airport. There we were supposed to take maybe a military airplane, a U.S. military airplane. But by a misunderstanding or I don't know — it's just luck or fortune — we just got the wrong plane, we got a Polish plane — Polish army airplane...

Then it takes a long time, almost it takes two year for us in Poland. At first it was good, it was good experience. We were like tourists, we just explore and have fun and these things. But then, as our lawyers told us, you can't attend Polish classes or you don't have to start a job here. So it will have a bad effect on your case, on your application here in the United States.

So that's why we were all the time at home. And recently after almost two year, we were so desperate, so tired of doing nothing, just being at home all the day... then we got our P-1 visa and we came here.

Mikaela Lefrak: And when you came to the United States, you came straight to Vermont?

Yalda: Yes, we came straight to Vermont, because, you know, when you left your country, you want to have a good life. You want to make a good life. So if you want to have a good life, in my point of view, you should have a good profession. Or you should continue your professional life, or you should start it.

Then we had some friends from Vermont, they worked for us a lot and they say, "OK, come here, there's hospital, there are some opportunities for studying, for working." That's why we choose to be here, because of studying. As I said before, my family is all well-educated. We valued education. For us, the education is the first and then other things.

Now, yes, it's a very, like, compared to the very big cities or very big states, it's a small state. But we are happy. because here is a lot of very good universities, hospitals, which I'm interested to work in, to start working there.

Mikaela Lefrak: Right, you're a doctor, you want to get back to work.

Yalda: I was a doctor, I was a physician. But in here, I should redo it. I don't know. I'm just still trying to figure out what things are really going here. How.

Whenever people say, "What's your most favorite or good experience in Vermont?" I say, people here are so nice.

More from Vermont Public: Afghan artists recreate murals from their homeland in Brattleboro


Asad: Before the Taliban, I had a good life. I had a private business. Beside that I was teaching part-time in a private university as well. And my wife, she was going to her university. And we had hope there — we had a plan.

Mikaela Lefrak: In August 2021, Asad and his wife had a young son, a toddler, and his wife was also eight months pregnant with their second when the Taliban took over. Asad's former colleagues from his work with the U.S. and other multinational organizations, they emailed him saying, "Go to the airport." But you've seen those pictures of the massive crowds desperately trying to get on planes. Asad knew it wouldn't be safe.

Asad: I saw the rush in the crowded area of the airport. It was too risky for me. We stayed at home, but every night we were not going to sleep. We were thinking that it is the end of life or world. Yeah. We can't imagine — it was a dark, dark time in my life.

Mikaela Lefrak: His former colleagues assured him they'd evacuate his family somehow. So Asad stayed in hiding. And a month later, his wife gave birth to their second son. But no evacuation help ever materialized. So when their baby was about six weeks old, they made the difficult decision to flee — to Pakistan.

Asad: From Pakistan, we tried to apply for several embassies for humanitarian visa. Then finally we came to Spain in February 2022. Yeah, actually in Spain, we were being kept in a, in just in a village. It was so close to the France, so every people was speaking Catalan, it was not a Spanish even. And then for example, supermarket at the hotel and the people was not speaking English. It was a hard time for us in Spain as well.

Mikaela Lefrak: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Spain. Asad desperately wanted to get his family to the U.S. So they traveled to Mexico to come in the same way millions of people from Central and South America do. Asad struggles to talk about what his family experienced during that journey.

Asad: It was not easy, even I can't — I can't say how hard a time we had. Because it reminds me of bad memories of my life. We don't have any other option.

Mikaela Lefrak: In the U.S., Asad thought his asylum case would be fast-tracked because of his work with the U.S. government in Afghanistan. But that's not how it worked. He got a court date for his asylum case — in 2025. In the meantime, he had to find a place for his family to live. He searched around on the internet. And there he learned about Vermont.

Asad: Then I found that Vermont is a good place. And I had a friend over there, Wazir Hashimi, he told me, "Yeah, I will be happy, more than happy if you come here, then we can help you."

Mikaela Lefrak: And Wazir is the head of the Vermont Afghan Alliancehere, or one of the co-founders. So you got in contact with him and he said, "Vermont is a good place for Afghans, we can provide support." Where were you living when you were here?

Asad: We have got a host family. They were in St. Albans, their names was Andy and also Heidi Crossman. They were kind people. I feel so, so lucky to have them as a best friend until now. And I have never met anyone this much supportive and kind. They provided me a place to live, foods and clothes and cash assistance, they was providing and they have got an English course for my wife. And while my wife, she was studying English, Heidi, she was so kind taking care of my kids while my wife was studying.

I love St Albans because it was a nice place. It was so quiet and also they provided two bicycles, which my wife, she was — loved that riding that bicycle. And then the evening time or some free times we were going together, riding bicycles. It was so sweet memories there that I have .

More from Vermont Public: Afghan refugees find housing, education and friendship on Brattleboro's SIT campus

Mikaela Lefrak: That must have been so special after everything that you went through.

Asad: Yeah, bicycle ride together, having ice creams together, they have taken me into other near cities. They are so, so, so nice. So kind. Like there's no word to appreciated them.

Mikaela Lefrak: They stayed in St. Albans from April through May of this year. As sweet as the respite was, it couldn't last. They weren't able to find long-term housing in the area. And his wife was very lonely. So Asad contacted another friend, this time in Maryland. And they moved again.

Asad: To see if there is more opportunities — regarding work opportunities. And also here, my wife can speak with other Afghans — she should not feel homesick.

Mikaela Lefrak: They're waiting to hear if their older son, who's 5 now, can start public school. As for Asad, he wants to work, but he doesn't have authorization yet. So he spends his days playing with his kids outside. And the family relies on donations from friends and aid organizations. They're trying to take it easy. He and his wife are still dealing with post-traumatic stress.

Asad: During the night we cannot sleep so good. Sometimes in the middle of the night, we can wake up. And still we have to work so much hard. For the future, I can see where a bright future for my kids. I wish them — they grow up in this society and they should be educated in this environment, and they should not have the experience which I have.

Mikaela Lefrak: And lastly Asad, what are your conversations like with your family back home in Afghanistan? How are they doing and what do you tell them about your life in Maryland?

Asad: For them we are saying that we are good, we are safe now. Don't worry about us. Especially for my mom. I always when I'm talking with her — I'm telling, one day I will call you that will take you here as well. I hope that I can get my paperwork as soon as possible, because I have a good background and I can — I can be a good citizens in this country.

How Vermonters can support Afghans

According to advocates, some of the most pressing issues facing Afghans who have fled their country for the U.S. include a backlog in processing paperwork for asylum claims and special immigrant visas.

What can Vermonters do?

Broadcast at noon Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or check us out on Instagram.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.