Hamid Stanikzai sits at his north Federal Way apartment, tea and a spread of refreshments set out, his kids waiting patiently and playing games on a tablet.
It’s a quiet moment of domestic tranquility for the family, earned after more than a year of waiting. They finally reunited this winter after Stanikzai left their home country, Afghanistan, which fell two years ago to the Taliban.
The family is adjusting to life in the U.S. well. They’re building community at mosque. Stanikzai landed a job last month as a manager at Khalij Market, an Afghan business in Kent. His wife is starting English as a Second Language classes at Highline College. And their children — ages 8, 5 and 4 — are asking constantly when they can start school.
It’s quite a change of pace from the life they lived just two years ago in Afghanistan.
After completing his education in Kabul, the country’s capital, Stanikzai built his career in procurement, taking a job in 2017 with the Afghanistan government’s National Procurement Authority. Stanikzai, also the local president of Rotarian International in Afghanistan, was highly civically involved in his home country. He worked as a peace ambassador for the Global Prosperity and Peace Initiative in 2018, among other ambassadorship work.
“I was in a good situation with my family, and we (had) good relationships with the people and there was no kind of restriction,” he said, though the political situation meant “that every morning, you are facing lots of suicide bomb attacks … and there were roadside bombs.”
At that point, he said, “we knew that the government will collapse.” It was a matter of when.
Journey to the U.S.
Rotary — the international service organization in which Stanikzai was heavily involved — facilitated a visit for him to the U.S. in May 2021, inviting Stanikzai for fundraising efforts on a tourist visa. It soon dawned on Stanikzai that returning would be a challenge. By that spring, the U.S. had already begun withdrawing troops as a Taliban offensive took city after city in Afghanistan.
“The security situation in Afghanistan was (becoming) really bad,” Stanikzai said.
He made the decision to stay in the U.S., apply for asylum and begin seeking immigrant status in the U.S. in June that year.
As the weeks passed by, Stanikzai hoped to reunite with his family, but that soon became impossible. By August, Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, was captured by the Taliban. The former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan government collapsed, and the Taliban re-established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, taking de-facto control over the country.
Navigating life in the states as an alien resident who could not legally work or get a social security ID, Stanikzai grappled with the difficulty of leaving his family behind in Afghanistan, where it is “the man’s authority to keep the family,” he said.
But his civic and international activist work, like his ambassadorship and Rotarian involvement, shut the door on him returning to the now-Taliban-controlled country.
“There was no way to go back to Afghanistan,” Stanikzai said.
In the meantime, Stanikzai focused on what he could do: Supporting his family as he could, seeking asylum, and paving the way to bring his wife and children here.
Stanikzai sent his family to live with his mother in September for their safety. Video calls — which let Stanikzai see his family’s faces and vice versa — were a chance to reconnect in the meantime, but he decided to decline many of them. Those moments would be too painful. He didn’t want his kids to see him when he “could not hug them,” and he knew their mother was there for them in the meantime.
“It would be difficult for them (to) have good communication,” he said. “Most of the time, I decided to have less communication with them. … I said, ‘I’m not listening to you guys.’ Because if I go with a close communication, it might be difficult for them.”
U.S. asylum seekers, like Stanikzai, often face a harsh wait.
Refugees — those who flee their home nation for fear of persecution and request resident status here — can receive three months of resettlement assistance, which can soften the blow. But asylum seekers — people who come to the U.S. or its borders directly to plead their case — don’t get that service. Nor are they eligible for Medicaid or health insurance, and they cannot legally work for their first six months in the U.S.
The end result is that many asylum seekers “are living on the streets” while seeking a home here with their families, said Heather Brandt, program manager for Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSNW) asylum assistance, which serves more than 950 clients, and refugee health promotion program, serving more than 130 clients.
Housing is “always the biggest issue” for refugees, asylees and other migrants that Lutheran helps, she said.
“There’s just not enough housing to go around,” Brandt said. “(And) shelters are all full. That’s a really big challenge for our refugee clients.”
Nonprofits like LCSNW, which operates locally, often step in to fill the gap.
Stanikzai’s asylum request was granted Nov. 1, a relatively rapid four-month turnaround from his application. The fall of the former Afghanistan government likely sped up that process, said Ghulamfarooq Noorzai, Stanikzai’s case manager at LCSNW , as the former government was on good terms with the U.S.
“When the government collapsed, he was one of the first people (to) apply for asylum,” Noorzai said. “The biggest supporting thing for his asylum was the collapsing government. Otherwise, the majority of these Afghans would never get the approval. After … the Taliban, it made it very easy for asylum seekers to get approval from the USCIS.”
It’s “remarkable,” Brandt said. “People wait years. I’ve seen people wait eight to 10 years to find out whether they’ve been granted asylum. That whole time, they’re not eligible for benefits or anything like that.”
With asylum in hand, Stanikzai applied in December 2021 to bring his family over. Their visas were approved and issued a little over a year later, Jan. 24, 2023.
Visas in hand, his family still needed a lift — so LCSNW worked with Miles4Migrants, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to purchase tickets for them while they waited in Islamabad, Pakistan. The organization uses donated frequent flyer miles and credit cart points to help reunite migrants and asylum seekers.
“We contacted them as soon as we found out that his family received visas, and then were able to get them tickets, through them, to come here,” Brandt said.
Adjusting to a new life
Stanikzai’s family arrived in mid-February 2023, and LCSNW helped them find their current home in north Federal Way — completing a reunion that took less than two years from start to finish.
“That was amazing,” Stanikzai said. “It was not believable for other people … That help of the Lutheran community, I will never forget.”
LCSNW has helped enroll the kids in school and helped the family apply for food, cash, rental and other kinds of assistance.
Noorzai is happy to report that the family no longer needs much from LCSNW .
“At this time, they are (standing) on their own feet,” he said. “(Hamid) is a good educated person, and he’s running all of those things by himself. (They are) one of the clients that I was very happy with.”
And Stanikzai has dreams to pursue in the U.S., like getting a master’s degree in public administration while supporting his wife and children. In the short term, the family is waiting to apply for their green card, Noorzai said. Stanikzai’s workplace, just north of Highline College, is a mere 10-minute drive away.
Early on, Stanikzai encountered a quintessentially American moment of blending cultures.
Two young, polite, well-dressed men visited the family’s apartment to share their religious views with Stanikzai. The men discussed the similarities between their beliefs and the respect they had for the differences, he said.
“They were my (friends) and … whenever they come, they at least for 20 minutes are waiting and talking with me,” Stanikzai said.
While he said not all of his Afghani countrymen might agree, Stanikzai embraced a decidedly pluralist view of religion and society.
“I believe in humanity,” Stanikzai said. “Nothing else. There is no border among us. There is no religion, there is no race. … Only humanity is the meaning of the world.”
In Afghanistan, it was ordinary to have lots of guests, to be highly social in the community, Stanikzai said. In the U.S., their family has had to build those relationships again.
“I have visited lots of countries, and I have familiarity with the culture of the United States,” he said. “But my family, they are facing the culture shock because they have never been out of the country. … In Afghanistan, whenever you go out in the in the road, you will say hi to everyone.”
But he takes an optimistic, positive view of his opportunities here: “This is the land of opportunities. There is no restriction for you … If you cannot speak English, you can (still) work here. … We have schools, support and settlement organizations, food stamps, WIC, insurance. … If you want to start a new business, they’ll give you lessons in two days.”
Overall, to be reunited with his family after only one and a half years is “unbelievable,” Stanikzai said. “It’s very rare. … I don’t think I have ever seen anyone do that.”
Yes, the family will visit Afghanistan to see relatives, when and if possible. But his future is in Washington, Stanikzai said.
“I have decided … that my three kids, they will be the future of this country and the future of Afghanistan,” he said. “They will study a lot here … I don’t care about their work, their money, only that they are focusing on their lessons and their future.”
Though his family could return, Stanikzai is barred from going back for five years due to his applying for and receiving asylum.
“Now, Seattle is my hometown,” he said. “Whenever I (travel) during my stay here, I can not stay more than two days out of the state to be honest. We are familiar with the people, we are familiar with the culture, we are familiar with this community.”