Six months after arriving in metro Atlanta, an Afghan family starts a new life

Roughly 1,500 Afghans have arrived in Atlanta since last fall, after the Taliban took over Kabul. This is how one family is making a new home here.

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Atlanta Afghan refugees
Sanaa, Musawir, Yasser, and Husna, outside their apartment in Stone Mountain

Photograph by Alyssa Pointer

It’s Saturday morning in March in the Mohammed family’s four-bedroom apartment in Stone Mountain. Sun streams through the balcony window, lighting up the sparse furniture. The smell of cumin floats from the kitchen into the living room. On the dining table, a centerpiece is adorned with yellow lights for Nowruz, the holiday marking the arrival of spring. An Afghan flag hangs on the wall behind it.

Ten kids are home, including 19-year-old Ikram, who’s finally awake when his siblings are—something that happens only on weekends since he started working nights at a meat-processing plant. Complementing the festive atmosphere, six of the Mohammeds’ daughters are dressed in brightly colored shalwar kameez—long tunics with loose-fitting pants.

I haven’t seen the kids since they started school a few weeks earlier, and I’m excited to catch up. The children’s mother, Habeeba, offers a can of mango juice while 17-year-old Storeea disappears into her bedroom, emerging a moment later with a notebook. She opens it, proudly showing off page after page of neatly written English sentences. She also shares a sheet of paper with a table of subjects and corresponding grades—all A’s, except for English. “She’s learning English, but still she can’t speak it. I don’t go to school but I can speak,” Ikram jokes. They both laugh. “She knows English,” he says, pointing to his seven-year-old sister, Husna, whose golden brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She looks up at me, smiling.

Their father, Yusuf, has gone to the grocery store to buy halal meat and rice to prepare for Ramadan, the holy month, which is just days away. Today, he’s accompanied by an Afghan friend with a car—a welcome break from the grocery runs he and Ikram usually make by bike. In the kitchen, two pots simmer on the stove—one a chicken dish with tomatoes and onion, the other spinach with cumin, turmeric, and other spices. The family’s life in Stone Mountain began just weeks ago. But today, they’re the ones hosting a lunch to welcome new neighbors: Another Afghan family just moved into a neighboring apartment building.

Atlanta Afghan refugees

Photograph by Alyssa Pointer

I’ve been visiting the family since November, shortly after they landed in Atlanta. On this early-spring morning, though, something feels different: After an epic journey spanning three continents, five cities, and multiple makeshift living arrangements, it finally feels like the Mohammeds have arrived at their destination. Their life here is underway, despite whatever obstacles still lie ahead.

• • •

The family’s passage to the U.S. started soon after the Taliban took over Kabul, in August 2021. As the U.S. withdrawal became a chaotic scramble, tens of thousands of Afghans—especially those who’d worked with the U.S. government during its long war and occupation—sought a way out. They were desperate to leave a country that had suffered so much in two decades of fighting: at least 170,000 dead and many more injured. The Mohammeds had been living in an eight-bedroom house in Kunar, a small province bordering Pakistan in the mountainous northeastern part of the country, and the site of some of the most intense fighting during the war. Yusuf worked as a plumber with a U.S. contractor, a job he’d held for over 15 years. On August 14, the Taliban took control of Asadabad, the provincial capital. His job put him and his entire family in danger, especially those still living in Afghanistan. They remain anxious about it, which is why they’ve chosen not to use their real names for this story.

By the end of August, the Biden administration had launched Operation Allies Welcome, an effort to resettle Afghans whom, like the Mohammeds, the U.S. deemed vulnerable. The U.S. and coalition partners airlifted over 120,000 people out of the country, among them almost 70,000 Afghans who’d eventually be admitted to the U.S. under humanitarian parole, a designation granted for “urgent humanitarian reasons” or “significant public benefit.”

Fleeing Kunar, the family made their way to Kabul, where they boarded a military plane to Doha, Qatar. From there, they were transferred to a U.S. military base in Germany, where they stayed for 14 days, then got on another plane and flew to yet another military base—this time, Fort Lee in Virginia. They lived there for two months. When they arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta in October, it was with nothing, as their luggage had gotten lost in transit. (Their belongings were eventually found and returned—six months later.)

The roughly 1,500 Afghans who’ve arrived in Atlanta since last fall mark a substantial increase in the metro’s small Afghan population. Familiar comforts are sparse: The only Afghan grocery in the area is Kabul Market off Lawrenceville Highway, known for its freshly baked Afghan bread. Since the beginning of Operation Allies Welcome, Georgia hasn’t been a top destination like Virginia, Texas, or California—but Atlanta itself has been among the top 10 cities for Afghan resettlement, and the only major one in the Southeast.

The crisis didn’t end once Afghans arrived on U.S. shores. It just shifted location, said Justin Howell, executive director of the International Rescue Committee–Atlanta. As he watched events unfold overseas, Howell knew the impact would be felt here but was still surprised by the intensity of the evacuation. “I didn’t expect that it would require myself and other colleagues to deploy to military bases to help with evacuation efforts on U.S. soil,” Howell told me, “nor that we would see more families in our office seeking assistance and services in a five-month period as we had seen in the previous two and a half years.”

After they pass a security clearance and are connected with a local refugee agency, new arrivals receive support for at least 90 days in accessing everything from housing to employment to English education. In Atlanta, that agency is either the IRC, New American Pathways, Inspiritus, or Catholic Charities Atlanta—all part of the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program. Since September, these organizations have scrambled to support the refugees arriving here. It’s been a challenge, owing not just to the volume of people landing in such a short time but also to the pandemic, the city’s affordable housing crisis, and the gutting of the organizations’ budgets during the Trump administration, when historically low levels of refugee admissions led to a drop in funding for support services.

Normally, Howell told me, the refugee resettlement program is “a pipeline of people and families arriving in a certain amount of time. You get anywhere between six and eight weeks’ advance notice of their arrival.” That wasn’t the case with the Afghan evacuees who started showing up in September; Howell’s organization sometimes had only 48 hours’ warning—and sometimes even less—that a family was coming. “Even in the best of times, it’s really hard for anyone to secure an apartment with a 48-hour timeline,” he said.

This meant that the majority of Afghans were placed first in temporary housing, either Airbnbs or extended-stay hotels. Agencies quickly had to raise extra funds to cover these unexpected costs. For some families, the wait for permanent housing was a few weeks. But for large families like the Mohammeds, who needed an affordable home with at least four bedrooms, it could be months.

When I first met the family, they were living in an extended-stay hotel sandwiched between I-85 and a run-down shopping mall in Gwinnett County. Aside from Ikram, the family spoke virtually no English and couldn’t get around; they didn’t have drivers licenses or means of transportation. Work and school were difficult until they had a permanent address. For almost four months, the kids filled their days with reading the Quran, watching TV, and walking around the parking lot with other families at the hotel. Occasionally, Ikram or his dad would cross the road to buy food from the closest place within walking distance, an East Asian market. The market didn’t sell halal meat, so they ate a lot of vegetables, Ikram told me. There actually was a halal butcher just an eight-minute drive away—but with limited English, it was hard to use Google Maps to help them navigate their way there, and they had no car and no one to drive them. Connecting with Atlanta outside their immediate surroundings seemed almost impossible. Ikram said their IRC caseworker had been hard to reach. “He’s busy,” Ikram told me over and over as I got to know the family.

Atlanta Afghan refugees
Everyone keeps busy: Six of the Mohammed children attend an international school in Decatur, while the two youngest go to a nearby elementary school. In the evenings, the kids study at an Islamic school in Clarkston.

Photograph by Alyssa Pointer

He was. The baseline expectation for caseworkers, Howell said, is that they visit the family they’re assigned to within 48 hours of the family’s arrival, then again in 30 days. The caseworker also helps get documents in order and health screenings completed. A team of resettlement agency staff and local organizations—from the nonprofit support group Ethaar to the Afghan American Alliance of Georgia to faith groups—often fill in gaps. But, for individual families, successfully navigating that web of support, or being connected with relevant assistance, can come down to a mixture of luck and their own resourcefulness.

Howell said that the organization typically aims for each caseworker to handle about 50 clients at a given time. With the surge in arrivals in such a short window of time, the workload increased, and IRC-Atlanta had to hire and train additional staff. The challenge, Howell said, was beefing up capacity while also responding to the unprecedented needs of the moment. He compared it to “trying to build a plane while we’re in the air. It would have been ideal for the resources to be in place to be able to hire people before this surge of arrival. But that wasn’t the situation we were faced with.”

• • •

In February, I received a WhatsApp message from Ikram after the Mohammeds were finally placed into their apartment in Stone Mountain. “Hello my home address,” he wrote, and sent me a pin drop with his location. When I came to visit, their home was quiet—a stark contrast to the times I had visited them at the hotel and the children would crowd around me, showing off their A-B-C and 1-2-3 skills. Now, eight of them were at school. Ikram and his two-year-old brother, Musawir, were at home with their mom. (Two other grown children—the Mohammeds have 12 kids altogether—stayed behind in Afghanistan, though the family is trying to arrange for their travel to the U.S.) Musawir circled my legs, lugging around an Arabic workbook. Two large donated sofas sat in an L shape in the living room, and Habeeba placed a plate of cut apples, oranges, and bananas on the coffee table.

These days, there’s rarely a spare moment during the week. Every night around 9, a bus picks up Ikram and other Afghans living in the apartment complex and shuttles them to the Cargill meat-processing warehouse in Gainesville, an arrangement the IRC helped set up. Alongside workers from around the world, Ikram stands in an assembly line for eight hours, with breaks at midnight and 3 a.m. The nights are long, and the warehouse is cold (“I wear two or three jackets”), and by the time he gets home at 7 in the morning, his hands hurt from handling the meat and placing it into packages. “Sometimes, my hands don’t work,” he told me, as he flexed and bent his fingers. He sleeps during the day, waking up only to pray. He wishes he could make it to the virtual English class at 10 a.m. that he used to attend, but he’s too tired.

The switch to nocturnal life hasn’t been easy, but the pay is $16 an hour. Yusuf, the father, also makes $16 an hour, working four days a week at a plastics company from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. It’s a 40-minute bike ride away, which isn’t easy—especially along Memorial Drive in the middle of the night—but Yusuf hopes that soon he’ll be able to save enough to buy a car. The U.S. State Department provides money per each Afghan evacuee, but it runs out quickly—housing, food, other necessities—and agencies encourage folks to be financially independent as quickly as possible. “I want to work because my family is big,” Ikram said. “I want them to go to school.”

During the week, the school-age children are on a similarly tight schedule. Six of them have been attending the International Community School in Decatur, and the two youngest are at a nearby elementary school. In the evenings, they board a bus with other Afghan children in the neighborhood to go to an Islamic school in Clarkston, where they study until 9 p.m. and then are driven back home. They wake up the next morning and do it all again, five days a week.

Atlanta Afghan refugees
The Mohammed family was photographed in April during Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day.

Photograph by Alyssa Pointer

Atlanta Afghan refugees
Yasser, Mudassir, Husna, Sanaa, and Musawir observe iftar—the breaking of the fast at sunset.

Photograph by Alyssa Pointer

A few weeks after moving into the Stone Mountain apartment, 11-year-old Yassir fell on his arm at the playground. He was in obvious pain, and Ikram knew he needed to take his brother to the hospital. But he still didn’t have a car, or a drivers license, and he said that he couldn’t get in touch with his caseworker. “It’s a very hard day,” Ikram recalled, visibly distressed. Ikram ended up calling an Afghan man in Clarkston whom the family had met during their days in the extended-stay. He drove Ikram and Yassir to the hospital, where they learned Yassir had broken his arm and would have to wear a cast for several weeks. Not long after, Ikram got a call from someone who introduced themselves as the family’s new caseworker, also with the IRC. “The new caseworker called me and said, Can I help you?” Ikram said. “This is a good caseworker.”

Life has slowly gotten smoother for the Mohammeds, but it’s hard to ignore news from Afghanistan. Since the Taliban takeover, the economy has all but collapsed, and the UN has warned that the country is on the brink of mass starvation due to a shortage of jobs, increased prices, and a banking system in disarray. The news Ikram has been hearing from family members has echoed the headlines. His elder sister back in Kunar hasn’t eaten in three days, he says. Ikram says she and her five children have been living off green tea alone. When he gets his paycheck, the first thing he plans on doing is going to the bank and sending the money to Afghanistan. “Money is not important,” he told me. “My sister’s life is important.” But first, of course, he’ll have to set up a bank account.

As of March, Howell said, his organization is no longer scrambling like it was last fall. The majority of those who had been expected to arrive from Afghanistan have arrived, and more than 90 percent of the families IRC-Atlanta has supported are in permanent housing. The focus has shifted to two things: immigration status and financial independence. Many of the Afghans who’ve arrived since September could have been out of legal status as soon as August. To that effect, the Department of Homeland Security granted temporary protected status to Afghan nationals in the U.S., protecting them from deportation for 18 months. The time is needed: Establishing long-term legal residency, whether applying for a special immigrant visa or for asylum, is a process that involves a lot of paperwork and, ideally, an immigration lawyer to help people navigate the system. But there aren’t enough immigration lawyers in Georgia to support everyone, Howell says, so the resettlement agencies are working together to help Afghans learn how to file their own asylum cases.

Then, of course, there are the more routine but equally vital tasks of resettlement: supporting newly arrived families with finding jobs, setting up bank accounts, and figuring out basics, like how to use Zelle to pay a landlord. What’s pulled the Mohammeds through the awkward transition is the fact that, throughout the process, there have been Afghan families all around them—families who understand what it’s like to leave your home at the drop of a hat, in a country 7,500 miles away, where your ancestors have lived for centuries. They’ve encountered those families at military bases, at the extended-stay hotel, and now in the Stone Mountain apartment complex. Habeeba has a close friend in Virginia she talks to via video call, and one of Yusuf’s sisters lives in Texas. And the increasing diversity of Georgia, especially DeKalb County, means the kids get to go to school with other Afghan children, whose experiences aren’t that different from theirs.

As I prepared to leave their apartment that Saturday in March, three members of a local church appeared at the door. They introduced themselves and said they had set up a table with free clothes and food in the parking lot. One of them asked Ikram if he was from Afghanistan. He nodded. “I’m glad you got out of there,” she said. “It’s better for you here.” Ikram glanced at me, a bemused look on his face. The church members spotted Yassir, their eyes moving toward his broken arm. They asked if they could pray for him. They placed their hands on his cast and prayed to Jesus for his healing.

Yusuf returned from the grocery store. I made my way down the stairs of the apartment building and passed the church members, who were helping haul up the packages of rice, flour, meat, and soft drinks that Yusuf had brought home in preparation for iftar—the evening meal during Ramadan when Muslims break their fast. In the parking lot, neighborhood children gathered around the tables of free food and clothing. A young Afghan man wandered over to the parking space in front of the Mohammeds’ apartment unit, a toddler trailing him. Yusuf stood in the warm sun, chatting with his new neighbor.

This article appears in our June 2022 issue.

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