Afghan Refugees Navigate Legal, Cultural Challenges in Unfamiliar Land

The man dubbed a leader of newly arriving Afghan refugees in Wausau, Wisconsin, was profiled in the local media as a U.S. ally and someone who had been persecuted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. He had plans to open a restaurant to give his new community a taste of Afghan cuisine.

But less than two months after settling into a rented apartment with his wife and six children, the refugee was arrested on charges of sexual assault in the fourth degree.

The unidentified victim, according to Wausau police department, was a woman who was helping the family’s resettlement.

Although he has been released on a signature bond, the 40-year-old has not spoken about the criminal charge against him and did not respond to VOA questions. As with all defendants in U.S. courts, he is presumed innocent until convicted.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have been evacuated to the U.S. since the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government last August because of fears they could be targeted by the Taliban.

Aid agencies say many of the newly arrived refugees face primarily housing and employment challenges as they resettle in communities across the U.S.

Some also experience cultural shock as they navigate through the intricacies of life in America.

“[We are] aware that there are cases of Afghan evacuees allegedly committing acts of interpersonal violence,” Emily Gilkinson told VOA. She is a spokeswoman for the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), which has helped the resettlement of some 6,000 Afghan refugees in Wisconsin and other states.

Three aid agencies involved in the resettlement of Afghan refugees in the U.S. said they have no records of such incidents. VOA found public reports of four Afghan refugees allegedly arrested on violence and sexual assault charges since September 2021.

Cultural education

Resettlement programs are funded by the U.S. government and one key requirement is cultural orientation.

“We provide robust cultural orientation classes to newly arrived refugees,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS).

Classes take 30 to 60 minutes and deal with health care, employment, personal finance, transportation, safety, education and other topics.

“The curriculum and process of delivering cultural orientation is something that ECDC continues to improve in order to better prepare newcomers for success in American society,” said Gilkinson.

One Afghan refugee in Wisconsin who asked to remain anonymous said his cultural orientation classes were short and mostly dealt with hypothetical situations.

“I think practical learning can be more important. Some of us will need cultural advising even after we settle in our new homes,” he said.

Resettlement agencies say they will continue to assist refugees in finding jobs and learning the necessary skills and knowledge to thrive in their new life in the U.S.

Hate crimes

Refugees and aid agencies applaud what they call a generous influx of support for the newly arrived Afghans from individuals and groups all over the country.

“I’ve never seen as generous and kind people as the Americans,” said Attaullah Rahmani, an Afghan refugee.

But the Afghan refugees are arriving in the U.S. at a time when the FBI is reporting a surge of racially inspired hate crimes, especially against people of Asian origin.

Although there is no aggregated data about instances of hate crimes involving Afghan refugees, there are isolated reports.

In late January, the FBI started investigating an alleged hate crime incident involving two Afghan refugees in Owensboro, Kentucky, local media reported.

In another incident, stickers with the message “Afghan refugee hunting permit” were seen at a university campus in Michigan last year.

Two refugees who spent about two months at Ford Dix in New Jersey as their resettlement cases were processed said they received lectures on racial and religious sensitivities in the U.S.

“They showed us signs which represent white supremacy and said we should avoid those people,” Ahmad Mohib, one of the refugees told VOA.

Domestic violence

Isolated incidents of domestic violence were first reported in refugee processing centers at U.S. military bases.

Afghanistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which prohibits and criminalizes gender-based violence, in 2003. In 2009, Afghanistan also enacted a law on elimination of violence against women. However, human rights organization say violence against Afghan women remains prevalent and the Afghan justice system often fails female victims.

“Domestic violence happens in every community,” said Naheed Samadi Bahram, U.S. director for Women for Afghan Women, a nongovernmental organization advocating for the rights of Afghan women and girls. She told VOA that interpersonal relations among the refugees are particularly strained because of the traumas they have experienced.

Other resettlement agencies have also tracked extreme stress and trauma among the Afghan refugees.

“The impact of losing the only home you’ve ever known, of leaving family behind, cannot be overstated,” said LIRS’s Vignarajah.

Bahram said her organization has offered awareness to some refugees about the consequences of domestic violence here in the U.S., which is different than how it’s dealt with in Afghanistan.

“Our main problem is language,” said Tamana Kohistani, who resettled in Virginia with her husband and three children in December. “Not knowing English here is like we don’t know anything and we can’t say anything as well.”