Dozens of California students may be stranded in Afghanistan


Sawsan Morrar and Jason Pohl

The Sacramento Bee

Nine-year-old Nada and her 15-year-old sister, Sabrina, traveled to Afghanistan in July to be with their father in his final days living with terminal cancer. The two girls, students at Encina High and Dyer-Kelly Elementary in Arden Arcade, were with him when he died July 27.

Now, two weeks since Taliban leaders took control of Kabul and chaotic scenes of an airport evacuation spread around the world, the girls’ 21-year-old sister in Sacramento is struggling to bring them and their mother home.

“This morning they were crying,” their sister Behshta said in an interview Friday. “They want to go back to school.”

The mother and girls have been staying at a family member’s home in Kabul, unable to get to the airport and safely back to Sacramento. Behshta tries to speak to her two young sisters and mother by phone, letting them know she will try to help them return safely. Like many others around Sacramento, though, she’s struggling to make progress.

The Bee is not publishing the family’s last name to protect their identities out of concern for their safety in Afghanistan.

“I am worried, and they need help,” Behshta said.

Home to more than 1,400 students who are Afghan refugees, San Juan Unified School District school district officials know there are Sacramento-area kids stranded in Afghanistan. The district pulled attendance records and identified about 150 students who might be affected by the turmoil — an almost certain overcount that might also include students who simply transferred to another district.

“We are trying to determine why these students haven’t been at school,” Raj Rai, a spokeswoman with the district, wrote this week. “Anecdotally we have heard that some may be in Afghanistan, but we do not have a concrete number at this point.”

Rai said students from Mira Loma High School are among those attempting to return.

It’s unclear exactly what their path back to California might be. Dozens of students from San Diego County were also in Afghanistan in recent days and have gradually been evacuated back to the U.S. An untold number remain missing.

That kind of startling realization of unknowns has become increasingly frequent as the U.S. withdraws forces from an increasingly chaotic situation — one with repercussions from the walls outside the airport in Kabul to the classrooms in Sacramento.

English teacher helping Afghan families

Behshta, who has been tending to her other two teenage sisters alone, says she has no indication of when her family will be able to leave Afghanistan. She said she hopes to be able to bring her brothers and their families to the U.S. when they do.

Thousands of Sacramento-area Afghans, like Behshta, have grown increasingly worried about the loved ones they left behind as the Taliban takes hold. Many of them have been here for years, coming to the U.S. on Special Immigrant Visas after working as translators or interpreters or employed by the U.S. military.

Joshua Stinson, a Mira Loma High School English teacher, helped organize an information session Wednesday teaching Afghan students and their families how to fill out paperwork and request information to bring their family members to the United States.

Nearly 100 students, parents and San Juan Unified staff attended the session. Dozens of them asked questions about their mothers, fathers and siblings — all who stayed behind when they chose to come to the U.S.

Humaira Hanif, 21, wiped tears at the session as she asked how to bring her mother, who is in hiding in Kabul, to the U.S. Hanif and her sister, a student at Mira Loma, hope to help their mother apply for asylum.

After Stinson’s talk concluded, several young teens approached a Sacramento Bee reporter asking how to bring their mothers and fathers to the U.S. — an indication as to how many families were torn apart when Afghan refugees came to the U.S years earlier. One woman asked how to apply for asylum for her sister, a TV journalist living in Kabul.

Stinson listed the many ways students can help their families apply: if they are discriminated against based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, or if their careers in journalism or elsewhere put them at risk in their home country. Students who are already legal residents can also wait to become citizens, and at the age of 21, sponsor relatives.

“That takes years,” some students responded.

Teens pulled out their phones to take photos of the names and numbers of California senators and representatives.

“I will mail the letters to them myself,” Stinson said. “I do this all the time.”

“San Juan Unified stands with our Afghan community and all those whose loved ones are currently in Afghanistan,” Rai wrote. “We sincerely hope for their speedy and safe return back to the U.S. and back to our school communities. We stand ready to support them in whatever way that we can.”

‘Children at different schools’

Evacuation flights on Thursday ferried approximately 12,500 people from Kabul, the White House said Friday — about 1,000 people fewer than Wednesday, the day before a bombing at the airport killed more than 170 people, including 13 service members. Roughly 105,000 people have been evacuated in the past two weeks, officials said.

An untold number of those people will likely be resettled in Sacramento.

The Sacramento region has long been one of the largest destinations for special visa holders. One out of every nine Afghan natives living in the U.S. resides in the Sacramento region. About 9,700 Afghan people live in the county, more than any other county in the U.S., according to census data. Another 2,000 live in Yolo, Sutter, Placer or El Dorado counties.

For weeks, people fleeing Afghanistan with SIVs have been landing at Sacramento International Airport, a family or two at a time.

“We’ve been told to expect in the area a couple thousand SIVs in the coming months,” Melanie Flood, spokeswoman for the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, said Friday.

It’s unclear how many distinct family units that might include, though many arrivals have large families and multiple young children. Those arriving in Sacramento must have a direct family tie to the region — a change made earlier this month in response to concerns about housing availability in the region.

“It’s temporary. And it’s just because of the housing crisis,” Flood said.

Most families have been staying in hotels or short-term rentals, Flood said. Those accommodations have also reportedly been in short supply, partly due to wildfires in the region forcing people from their homes in the foothills.

Some resettlement agencies have been finding out just hours ahead of time that they’d be receiving people later in the day, setting in motion a scramble to find last-minute accommodations.

“They’re also facing the likely possibility that they will have different children at different schools,” Flood said. “You can imagine just trying to shuttle your children to different areas of the county to go to school.”

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