As a child he fled Afghanistan. Now he begs the US to give his family refuge. – To the world

Zabi vividly remembers the hunger and thirst he felt after spending two days without food or water in the Malaysian jungle. He still remembers how he slept on the streets of an Indonesian city and the dark detention center for migrants where he was held for months.

After Zabi escaped from war-torn Afghanistan at the age of 13 in 2015, he embarked on a year-long odyssey through three countries without his family. Eventually he ended up in a home for migrant children in Indonesia, where he lived for over three years.

The United States, the only country with a refugee program for unaccompanied children, accepted Zabi in 2019. He quickly learned English and graduated from a US high school. In August, Zabi began his freshman semester at Western Michigan University.

Zabi graduated from Michigan high school in the spring of 2021, two years after arriving in the United States as an unaccompanied refugee child.


“I was so lucky. I could not believe it. It was a dream, ”Zabi, now 20, told CBS News. “People have lost their hope and I have lost my hope to leave Indonesia.”

His own refugee journey has come to an end. His American dream has only just begun. But Zabi is now desperately trying to help his mother and four siblings, who recently fled Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and fled to neighboring Pakistan.

When the Taliban retook Afghanistan that summer, the US evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans, including those who helped the American forces, family members of US citizens and residents, and others believed to be at risk. We are currently working on it relocate more than 70,000 of them in churches in the United States

But countless vulnerable Afghans with US connections – including Zabi’s family – have not been evacuated and are now stranded in Afghanistan or neighboring countries desperately looking for a way to be relocated to America.

This includes family members of Afghans in the US; those who have assisted the American armed forces and for whom specific immigrant visa applications are pending; and other high-risk groups, including journalists and members of the LGBTQ community.

Since July, Afghans have received over 28,000 applications abroad Parole, a process that allows visa-free immigrants to enter the United States on humanitarian grounds, government sources said. The US typically receives fewer than 2,000 parole requests per year.

The State Department has also received 10,700 transfers for a special refugee designation the Biden administration, created in August to relocate Afghans who worked for the US, US-funded projects, and US-based organizations, including news agencies.

Afghans who want to enter the US legally must leave Afghanistan to deal with American consular officers in third countries – a requirement that the State Department has admitted is “extremely difficult” for many.

“A Flickering Light”

Zabi said he now understands his family’s decision to leave Afghanistan seven years ago. “Nobody leaves their 13-year-old and sends them on a boat alone to travel to the other side of the ocean unless the water is safer than the land,” he said.

Zabi kept in touch with his family. But, in order not to worry his family, he said he had failed to tell them about many of the difficult experiences he went through during his years in Southeast Asia.

He did not tell them about his arrest at an airport in Kuala Lumpur, nor did he mention that he reached Indonesia on a boat after he was persecuted by the Malaysian authorities. He did not tell them that he slept in front of an immigration office in Pekanbaru, Indonesia for two weeks.

After reaching Indonesia by boat in 2015, Zabi (right) and other refugee boys slept on the street for two weeks.


Zabi also did not mention his transfer to an adult migrant detention center, where he recalls that he was not allowed to go outside for three months. “I’ve always lied and lied and said that I’m fine, everything is fine,” he recalled.

After eight months in the detention center, Zabi was transferred to a placement facility for refugee children in Medan, Indonesia. The accommodation was less restrictive than the detention center, but Zabi said he was only allowed to leave for a few hours during the week.

“Refugees are not allowed to go to school,” he stated. “I wasn’t allowed to work.”

Years of staying at the shelter had a profound impact on Zabi and the other boys’ mental health, he said. Zabi remembered waking up one morning to see the lifeless body of another refugee boy who had hanged himself.

“We were friends,” he said. “We took care of each other.”

In 2016, Zabi (right) and other refugee boys were transported from Pekanbaru to accommodation for migrant minors in Medan, another Indonesian city.


The detention, Zabi said, was compounded by ongoing concerns about his family’s safety. In late 2018, he said he lost all contact with his family for a month after Jaghori, their home district, was attacked by Taliban fighters and forced them to flee to Kabul.

Zabi found solace by playing soccer, learning English through YouTube and Facebook videos, and interpreting for other Afghan refugees. “If I hadn’t done that, I would have been mentally ill,” he said. “I couldn’t have survived.”

In 2018, Zabi was told that the US had decided to relocate him – news he described as “a flickering light at the end” of a “long tunnel”. After more than a year of interviews, paperwork, medical exams, and vaccinations, Zabi arrived in Michigan in June 2019.

Zabi came through to the USA a little known program who resettle refugee children stranded in third countries without their parents and place them in nursing homes and group homes in the USA.

After the relocation of 749 unaccompanied refugee minors in the last three years of Obama’s presidency, the US took in 373 of these children between 2017 and 2020. In fiscal year 2021, only one unaccompanied refugee child came to the United States through the program, the State Department said.

“Family Comes First”

When the US-backed Afghan government collapsed in August, Zabi attended his orientation course at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He was overwhelmed.

After all, studying at an American university seemed like a pipe dream as he traversed Southeast Asia as a young teenager. Within two years, Zabi had learned English, graduated from Michigan high school, and received a full-ride college scholarship.

But Zabi could only think of his mother and siblings, whom he could not reach for several days. When he did, Zabi learned that his family had fled to the border with Pakistan.

“I’ve been through so much mentally,” he said. “At some point I thought that I couldn’t do that.”

To help his family come to Pakistan, Zabi sold his car, which he was able to buy after working full-time at a factory in Ada, Michigan while still high school.

His mother, three sisters and younger brother – two of whom are minors – are now in Quetta, Pakistan. Zabi believes they could be harmed if they return to Afghanistan and is looking for ways to get them to the US

In August, Zabi began his freshman at Western Michigan University studying political science.

Zabi helped his family register with the United Nations Refugee Agency, which sends cases to the United States. However, your resettlement through the US refugee program could take over a year as cases typically take between 12 and 18 months to process.

He’s also recently filed for humanitarian parole that could allow his family to get to the US faster. But the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has approved just over 100 of the applications it received from Afghans overseas, according to the agency.

In order to put his mother and siblings on probation, Zabi would also have to prove that he can support them financially here. But Zabi is now a full-time student and unemployed. “I don’t have these resources,” he said.

“He’s had things with him all his life and he worked so hard to be here and yet other people are still a priority in his life,” said Tori Grant, Zabi’s case manager at Bethanien Christian ministries, the group that relocated him. “I think that shows how compassionate he is.”

Zabi has considered giving up his studies – and his scholarship – in order to go back to work full-time. He admits that the possibility scares him. He knows how much he endured and how hard he worked to get to this point.

But Zabi also knows what it means to have to leave your home country. He knows what it feels like to be a refugee in a foreign country. And for him, supporting his family is a clear priority, even if he has to postpone his American dream.

“I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t,” he said. “Family comes first.”


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