Afghan refugees find ‘different world’ in Charlotte — and a new set of challenges | Charlotte Observer

BY DJ SIMMONS AND WILL WRIGHT

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Americans watched the Afghan government fall from afar. But for Bahroz Mohmand, the moment marked the high-stakes culmination of a plan two years in the making to relocate his family.

“Because of me my whole family — my brothers, my sisters, my parents, my in-laws — most of them were at risk,” said Mohmand, who worked as a translator for U.S. Special Forces. “Working for the army in Afghanistan was not easy. You’re basically putting your family and their life in jeopardy by working for them.”

Now, safely in Charlotte, Mohmand fears for his family’s future. Their work permits are set to expire in 2023, and the uncertainty of that leaves him wondering what will happen.

“If their work permits expire, they’re, of course, not going to let them work anymore, and then they’ll have no income and (will) be put on the street,” he said.

Tahira Askira, Mohmand’s niece, recalled the tense days in Afghanistan before she was evacuated last year.

Askira said she was out grabbing groceries with her mother and sister when they heard the Taliban took over the country. Soon, the day descended into chaos. “People were shouting,” she said. “Everybody was looking for a way to get back home.”

Askira was fearful. She heard from adults what life was like under Taliban rule. For two days, they were stuck at home as Taliban fighters surveyed the streets, looking for people.

Mohmand feared the worst. Through his job as a translator, he was given a pathway to citizenship and emigrated to America in 2012 through the Special Immigration Visa program for Afghans.

The program, however, didn’t guarantee their families similar avenues. And interpreters’ jobs often placed targets on their backs, as well as their families, Mohmand said.

Mohmand also garnered a higher profile after being invited to the White House in 2018 for a Medal of Honor ceremony for a soldier he worked with. During the ceremony, he was individually recognized by then-President Donald Trump.

While the moment was one of his proudest, it also placed his family directly in danger.

As Askira fled the airport with her family, all she was able to grab was a backpack full of a few belongings. Meanwhile, Mohmand stayed on the phone with the family and used Google Maps from his home in Charlotte to help them navigate to and through the Kabul airport. Askira spent almost two nights sleeping outside the airport before they were able to get inside.

“I was running the operation basically,” Mohmand recalled. “I was telling them where to go.”

Now in America, they face hurdles applying for asylum.

GETTING SETTLED

Rebekah Niblock, a staff attorney at Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, said applying for asylum is one of the more complex areas of immigration law.

Refugee resettlement centers such as the Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency contacted the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy to assist the influx of Afghan families. The center soon undertook the task of creating a program to link Afghan families to pro-bono attorneys who could help them with their asylum cases.

For Niblock, the case with Mohmand’s family is even more personal. Her father, a builder in Concord, has helped to house members of Mohmand’s family and is Askira’s neighbor.

”I feel the family is meant to be here,” Niblock said.

Niblock said a bill in Congress called the Afghan Adjustment Act could be key in helping these families have a direct path to citizenship. The bipartisan legislation was introduced in Congress in August and would allow Afghans with temporary status to apply for lawful permanent residence.

“There’s precedent for the bill,” Niblock said. “If you think about the Vietnamese coming to our shores, we passed similar legislation to allow them to have more of a direct path to residency and citizenship status.”

Asylum cases could take years, Niblock said. Currently a special provision allows Afghan refugees to have their cases heard within 45 days of filing.

“But that means you need to have everything ready,” Niblock said. “That entails a detailed statement, corroborating evidence, sitting down the client and asking very difficult and traumatizing questions.”

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‘Break that vicious cycle. Lessons as public defender key to Toussaint Romain’s new role

BY LAUREN LINDSTROM

Charlotte NC-As Toussaint Romain settles into his role as Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s new chief executive, the clients he represented for a decade as a criminal public defender are never far from his mind. When clients used to walk into his office, he could anticipate all the economic and civil matters that might have led them to his door. A past eviction, revoked driver’s license or unresolved immigration issue often lingered in a client’s history, threatening their economic stability.

Romain joined the nonprofit legal firm and advocacy organization in mid-May as its new CEO, a role he was drawn to as a way to tackle these upstream legal issues that often trap low-income people in cycles of poverty and thwart economic mobility. “Folks are desperate. They have criminal records, can’t get jobs, don’t have housing,” he said.

Romain, who was most recently deputy general counsel for Appalachian State University and spent a decade as a public defender in Mecklenburg County, said returning to Charlotte for this role continues the work he’s fought for his entire career — providing essential access to legal representation and resources for vulnerable residents to achieve upward mobility. “We’re really trying to break that vicious cycle by providing the resources, legal information and legal advice” that people need, he said.

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‘The least we can do.’ Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy hosts asylum application clinic

Charlotte NC-The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s offices in east Charlotte were filled with lawyers and immigrants working together to file asylum applications on Saturday.

After people enter the country and are detained at the border, they generally have one year to file for asylum through an I-589 form. Though people can file the applications themselves without the aid of an attorney, legal assistance drastically improves their chances for success in immigration court.//accepted

This weekend’s clinic is the first of its kind in North Carolina, CCLA immigration attorney Rebekah Niblock said, though similar clinics have been held throughout the country.

Though the clinic’s participants won’t be legally represented by the CCLA in court, it’s a way for the agency, overburdened with requests, to expand its reach and serve more clients without having to turn anyone away.

“We can’t accept everyone,” Niblock said. “But the least we can do is help them get their applications out.”

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Thousands of immigrants seek asylum in Charlotte court. Nearly all will lose.

Charlotte N.C.- “Stand up and raise your right hand,” Judge William Riggs said.

He looks expectantly at a Central American man in front of him, who’s wearing headphones to listen to the Spanish interpreter to the left of Riggs. Before she finishes translating, Riggs raises his own right hand to demonstrate the action.

After the man takes an oath, a baby, in the wooden benches designated for observers, starts whining. The mother bounces her knees up and down, attempting to soothe the child.

The immigrant’s lawyer explains his claim, and at one point, Riggs rests his chin in his hand.

It’s about 9 a.m., and this is the first of dozens of asylum cases he’ll hear that day. Once the lawyers finish, he either assigns a later individual hearing or orders the respondent removed from the country.

All of this takes place in Charlotte’s immigration court, located in a mundane office building in east Charlotte. There isn’t a sign outside to identify it, and once inside, you have to take a rickety elevator to the fourth floor — just three floors above an immigration law firm.

That’s where anyone in the Carolinas has to go to claim asylum, and its four judges are some of the strictest in the country.


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