One Afghan Family’s Journey to Safety in Texas

From Kabul to Austin

Siawash Osian with his mother, Zubaida Osyan (photo by Benton Graham)

As the Taliban advanced throughout Afghan­istan in the summer of 2021, Siawash Osian had more pressing concerns. A bout of COVID-19 had swept through his family's 12-member household. It took a toll on his father, who grew progressively ill from the virus and passed away in June 2021. "He died in my arms," Osian said.

His father, Abdul Asyan (Siawash chose to spell their last name differently in Eng­lish), was a supreme court judge in Afghanistan, meaning he had made many enemies among the Taliban. Osian, one of nearly 1,000 Afghans to find refuge in Austin since October 2021, is acutely aware of the cruelty his family endured under Taliban rule in the 1990s. They targeted and beat his father, Osian said. The family eventually fled to Pakistan for 18 months before the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001.

Back in Afghanistan, Osian worked in IT, running a business that set up internet services for the U.S. Special Forces. He said the work was so secretive that he's only now starting to tell people what his company actually did. His collaboration with the U.S. military, along with his father's role in sentencing Taliban leaders, made the family a clear target. Shortly after the Taliban took Kabul in 2021, he got a call from one of his contractors. "My supervisor, he told me that you need to get out of there because the Taliban, they find out that you were helping us. They're going to cut your head," Osian said. Not yet done mourning his father's passing, Osian and his family realized they would have to flee the country.

When asked how he and his family got to Austin, Osian pulled out his phone, scanning a series of dates on his calendar. On August 25, 2021, 10 days after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, his family left the country. "It was hard to get into the airport," he said. A contact instructed him to go to the airport's gate. When the family arrived, they spotted a group of Taliban guarding the gate. They could maybe evade them, but his mother was in a wheelchair. Getting into the airport through that route was out of the question, so the contact told them to use a back entrance. They needed to cross a canal to get there, so they discarded the wheelchair. Osian's brother hoisted his mother onto his shoulders and lumbered through the water.

After leaving Afghanistan, they moved from military base to military base: 14 days in the blistering Qatar heat, 33 days living under a giant tent with 200 people in Ger­many, and three months without setting foot outside of Fort Pickett in Virginia. The family finally arrived in Austin on Jan. 2, 2022.

Austin has played a noteworthy role in resettling Afghans. Refugee Services of Texas' Austin office resettled 964 Afghans from October 2021 through September 2022 – the largest number of its six locations. The Austin-based Global Impact Initiative recently partnered with Cap Metro in an effort to hire refugees for front-line jobs, and UT's Center for Middle Eastern Studies' Refugee Student Mentor Program pairs UT and Austin ISD students. And there are many more examples.

“Everybody was equally terrified of going home.”   – Bobby Painter, American Gateways legal director

Local legal nonprofits like American Gate­ways guide resettled folks through the immigration process. Bobby Painter, Ameri­can Gateways' legal director, said the nonprofit first started seeing Afghans showing up in Central Texas around November 2021 – a little over two months after Kabul fell to the Taliban. Refugee Services of Texas contacted the legal team and others for help. American Gateways' clients included the more common cases of folks who had affiliation with the U.S. government, such as translators for the Marines or contractors for the State Department. There were also more unique cases, like a Fulbright scholar already living in the U.S. and a man who managed to get admitted to the U.S. despite having no affiliation with our government. But they all shared one common sentiment: "Everybody was equally terrified of going home," Painter said.

Most Afghans who evacuated following the Taliban takeover have a parole status, which typically comes with a work permit good for two years. For more permanent status, they can apply for special immigrant visas – largely for those who worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan – or asylum. Painter noted that the asylum process has been uncharacteristically fast for the Afghan population. "As part of the budget reconciliation bill that Congress passed last October, there were provisions in there that required [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] to process these applications on an expedited basis. So the targets were [that] everybody who applied for asylum, who was part of the evacuee cohort, would be scheduled for an asylum interview within 45 days of applying, which is extremely fast," Painter said. And USCIS has largely kept to its goal of making a decision within 180 days, he added.

Not only have cases been notably fast, they've also been notably successful. The grant rate for the Houston USCIS asylum office – where American Gateways works – typically sits around 10%, but the Afghan cases have been closer to 90%, Painter said.

But asylum seekers still in Afghan­istan are often relying on grants of humanitarian parole, which have always been much harder to get, and the situation has gotten worse, Painter said. An investigation by Reveal found that one year after the evacuation, USCIS had only processed 8,000 of the 66,000 humanitarian parole applications it had received. And of those processed, only 123 had been approved.

Osian didn't take any chances when it came to the complex web of U.S. immigration. Following advice from Refugee Ser­vices of Texas, he applied for both asylum and a special immigrant visa. His interview for asylum was Nov. 23 in the Houston office, so now he awaits their decision.

He lives in Pflugerville with his mother, brother, sister, and her two children. The six-person household feels small compared to his 12-person household in Kabul, but the family has settled into a routine. Osian works in sales and marketing at a hotel in the Domain, his two siblings work at Applied Materials, and his mother, Zubaida Osyan, finds familiar ingredients at the Afghan Halal Market on North Lamar.

There are advantages to life in Austin. Osian noted that driving is easier because people follow traffic signals. His niece Saharnaz said school has been easier too. But they've quickly come to understand the flawed U.S. health care system. Zubaida hasn't found help for her knee pain. Osian's sister had a toothache keeping her up at night, but they couldn't schedule a dentist for four months.

And tapping into Austin's growing Afghan community is difficult. "There is an Afghan community, of course, but the life system here in the U.S. is totally different," Osian said. "Everybody's busy. You can't even find time to see your own family. I see my brother and sister on weekends."

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