Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Midsouth Afghan Refugee Family Watches, Fears for Those Left Behind

Katie Riordan
Noor and Seeta Habib in their Bartlett apartment.

From their modest apartment in Bartlett, Seeta Habib and her husband Noor watched in disbelief as the news unraveled from their home country earlier this month.

The images — throngs of people overrunning Kabul’s airport, desperate to flee new rule under the Taliban — left them feeling helpless.  

“We got sick actually,” says Seeta, a 33-year-old pregnant mother. “We got a bad headache because it’s affecting you emotionally especially when you’re out of the country and you cannot do anything.”

The couple and three of their young children arrived in the Memphis area last October under what’s called a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV. The program allows for Afghan nationals who helped the U.S. government with its war effort to resettle here. Before the fall of Kabul on August 15, federal officials said some 20,000 SIV applications were pending approval.

The Habibs' own experience securing a visa was a multi-year saga.

Both worked as interpreters and journalists for media teams run by the U.S. military and the International Security Assistance Force for many years.

Noor says he felt a sense of responsibility to support the mission, but it later came with great personal risk.

“We didn’t know that these work and activities [would] make problems in the future for ourselves,” he says.

Problems in the form of reprisals from the Taliban. As security deteriorated over the years, Noor was forced to take extra precautions. He’d take alternate routes to work, use different cars and regularly switch his wardrobe.

While working for the security force, Seeta received a death threat, prompting her to change cities and wear the full body-covering burka outside of the office.

“They wrote a letter that they will stop my father’s car. First they will kill my father, and then they will kill me,” she recalls.

Fearful things would just get worse, the couple applied for visas in 2014. They didn’t hear anything about their status for three years. It’s a process widely criticized as overly bureaucratic.

In 2017, they were called in for their interview. It went well but then once again, silence.

Eventually, they moved on, dismissing the visa as nothing more than a pipe dream.

“After the interview, we gave up,” Seeta says.

But then two years later, they received notice to complete a final step—a medical examination. Except now, there was another wrinkle. The five-year-old application didn’t include their newest daughter, an infant.

They faced a heartbreaking decision: let their visas expire, perhaps delaying their departure indefinitely or come back for their daughter after her paperwork was approved. Seeta’s sister convinced them to leave the baby with her.

“You can imagine, as a mother, it was a difficult time for me,” Seeta says, tearing up. “Every night I was crying.”

Finally, the whole family was reunited three months after Noor and Seeta first landed in Memphis.

The pair say they feel welcome here with stable lives.

“We are happy at least our children can go to school without any problem,” Noor says.

He does night shifts at an Amazon warehouse. It’s difficult work he says, but he’s happy to be able to support the family.

Seeta works for the Shelby County government and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurial leadership at Union University.

But they’re also preoccupied with concerns for their home country. They say loved ones still waiting on visas will be forced to flee to Pakistan or Iran if the U.S. doesn’t come through. Staying in Afghanistan is just too dangerous, Noor says, dismissing assurances from the Taliban that they will not punish American allies.

“By helping them, it will save their life,” he says.

With the door for evacuations closing—potentially by the end of the month if the Biden administration adheres to its withdrawal deadline—he says it would be wrong to abandon Afghans who made sacrifices for the U.S.

“We took this risk at first to help our people, to help the [inter]national security force,” he says. “Without us they are doing nothing. We are translating for them, we are providing information for them.”

Seeta adds, “We stood with [the] United States, and now it’s time they stand with us.”

The local refugee resettlement agency, World Relief, says at a least two more Afghan families will be arriving in Memphis in the coming weeks. The organization is accepting monetary donations and gently used furniture such as tables, beds and sofas to help welcome new arrivals.

Katie is a freelance contributor to WKNO. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org