As an ethnic Hazara woman, who continues to face discrimination in Afghanistan, Karini said she faces challenges at every turn. After growing up in poverty in Ghazni province, Karini, 26, was about to complete her degree in economics from Kabul University when the Taliban took over.
“I had dreams in Afghanistan,” says Karini (photo above). “But those dreams are shattered, and now I have to build a new dream here.”
After a journey of several months – through Germany, Washington, DC and New Mexico – Karini landed in Washington State, where she has lived for eight months. When she arrived she was wearing only four sets of clothes, two books and the scars on her legs where the razor wire surrounding Kabul airport had dug into her skin.
In May 2022, the United States granted Afghan refugees Temporary Protected Status for 18 months – the same designation given to Ukrainians in March. This elevated status prevents refugees from being sent back to their home countries amid an ongoing crisis. As of February 2022, more than 74,000 Afghan nationals have been admitted to the United States since Kabul fell to the Taliban.
In Washington state, lawmakers have earmarked more than $19 million in 2023 for contracts with nonprofits to provide relocation services. Between September and February, the Port of Seattle and its partners alone welcomed more than 3,000 refugees from Afghanistan.
Karini is just one of many refugees that these resettlement efforts have helped. Upon arriving in Tacoma, Karini was in contact with the Refugee Women’s Alliance, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants in the Puget Sound area with employment, housing and mental health.
“Number 1 is housing,” says Mahnaz Eshetu, Executive Director of ReWA. “People want a roof over their heads. And to stay – to have stable housing – they need a job.
For small nonprofits, says Eshetu, it can be difficult to manage both fundraising and growth, but providing asylum seekers with housing and employment depends on an organization’s ability to to collect funds. These days, she says she works with a strong job market and there have been plenty of opportunities to connect refugees with employers.
Historically, Washington in general and Puget Sound in particular have accepted refugee populations, Eshetu says. The state ranked second nationally for the number of refugees admitted in 2020. Over the past 10 years, the state has also been the most popular destination for Ukrainian refugees, according to Bureau data. of Population, Refugees and Migration of the US Department of State. From October 2021 to May 2022, 263 Ukrainians have resettled in Washington – a number that is expected to increase if Ukrainians are granted humanitarian parole status and allowed to enter the country without visas.
In October, Governor Jay Inslee addressed newcomers from Afghanistan at Sea-Tac International Airport, saying he was “looking forward to seeing these new Washingtonians flourish.”
Currently, ReWA pays for Karini’s one-bedroom apartment in King County, but she works a packing job and funds her own English lessons. She says she hopes to be independent soon.
While housing and employment are keys to independence, Eshetu says initial care for asylum seekers must also consider their mental well-being. ReWA has several mental health counselors on staff to help refugees, and they strive to provide services in accessible languages.
“When people leave their country, it’s usually for fear of being executed or going to war — they’re traumatized,” Eshetu says of the refugees.
Karini says she didn’t leave her room for several days after arriving in Washington. Along with the frustrations of leaving her old life behind, she says she was deeply worried about her family, who still live in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
But she says it was her desire to help her family that convinced Karini to take a more active role in her life. Today, she provides money to her family back home and she hopes they will one day be able to join her in the United States.
“I said to myself, ‘If I sit alone in my house like this, what will happen to my family?’ “says Karini. “I can’t help them like that. That’s enough – I have to start and move on.
Today, Karini works with the Hazara Community of Washington, a non-profit organization working with Afghan refugees. She volunteers her time to help other women like her overcome personal mental health issues and sometimes domestic violence.
As for new immigrants from Afghanistan and Ukraine, Eshetu says resettlement agencies have been fortunate that many are highly educated. Eshetu says Afghan refugees, including Karini, worked with American troops and therefore adapted more quickly to life in the United States.
But this latest wave of refugees in the Puget Sound region is exceptional in that regard – many more refugees have to tackle the language barrier head-on.