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Afghans are still making the dangerous trek to the U.S. via Mexico to escape Taliban


This month marks two years since the Taliban seized control of Kabul as American military aircraft evacuated Afghans desperate to flee. Tens of thousands made their way to the United States. Some are still coming. And some pass through other countries along the way, even risking their lives as they cross the border from Mexico. NPR's Tom Bowman has the story of one family.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Who is this little one?

SHAFI AMANI: Yes, Yousra. This is my daughter.

BOWMAN: This is Yousra.

Shafi Amani holds his 3-year-old daughter Yousra outside the Casey Clinic in Alexandria, Va. She has a tumble of curls, large brown eyes that roll back at times. Her legs are limp like a rag doll's. She can't walk or speak or chew food. A feeding tube pokes out of her stomach.


BOWMAN: Amani carries his daughter into their small apartment just down the street inside a cluster of red brick buildings. Yousra was a healthy toddler when she and her family fled Afghanistan more than a year ago, taking a dirt road overland to Pakistan. That's where things got worse.

AMANI: When we were there, my daughter was - her fever goes up. And we didn't understand at the beginning it's a stroke. After some tests, doctors told me this was a stroke.

BOWMAN: Amani got some medicine for his daughter but decided to leave once more, getting a tourist visa for Mexico.

AMANI: I thought Mexico is best place for me.

BOWMAN: Arriving in Mexico City with his wife and daughter, they learned it wasn't enough for Yousra.

AMANI: Mexico was not a safe place for me because it was very difficult.

BOWMAN: It was difficult because he didn't speak Spanish, and there was a lack of medical care during their six-month stay.

AMANI: There was no assistance for my daughter. She needs some treatment, medication, doctors and these things.

BOWMAN: He made a drastic choice. The family would be smuggled into the United States. In Mexicali, he found a contact who directed him to a hotel and a secretive woman who would help - $200 for each person.

AMANI: When we crossed the border, believe on me that was the day - the hardest decision for me because for my daughter and for my wife and part for my life.

BOWMAN: Two men then showed up and took them to a border wall nearly 30 feet tall and fashioned a kind of harness. Amani and his wife Frista just watched.

AMANI: In the wall, they put something like a rope. And after that, they told us, come - first, my wife.

BOWMAN: So they pulled your wife first.

AMANI: Yeah, first she - after that, me and my daughter.

BOWMAN: You held on to your daughter.

AMANI: Yeah, yeah.

BOWMAN: They were now inside the United States just as the sun was setting, standing on a long stretch of deserted road. In front of them was the New River, one of the most polluted in the nation, teeming with industrial and farm runoff. They got ready to cross.

AMANI: We don't know what will happen, how much this water will be the deep.

BOWMAN: Suddenly they could see headlights coming down the road. It was a U.S. border patrol, and an officer waved them away from the river.

AMANI: Twenty feet away, he told me, stand up your hand. And do you have anything? I told him no. And we come, and we sit in the car. And after that we went to the immigration camp.

BOWMAN: Amani never planned to come to the United States, even after the Taliban took over.

AMANI: Because they told us, everything is normal. Stay in Kabul.

BOWMAN: He's 33 now and was a building contractor working on Afghan army camps. Amani was afraid the government work would get him in trouble. He joined those who escaped to Pakistan and then went on to Mexico. And there was plenty of company. The Department of Homeland Security says in the past two years, more than 2,500 Afghans have made the trip and crossed into the U.S. But that illegal route means they could be turned away unless they can prove imminent danger or a medical emergency. U.S. immigration officials could quickly see there was a medical emergency with Yousra.

AMANI: When they told us, we are transferring your daughter - believe on me as a father. And after that I understand, they are human, and they will assist us. They will help us.

BOWMAN: After a month of treatment at a San Diego children's hospital, he decided to head to northern Virginia, where there's a large Afghan community.

AMANI: They told us, we contact with Children's National Hospital in D.C. After that, we will give the paper and your documents, and you will go.

BOWMAN: That's where the family met Dr. Karen Smith, a onetime Army nurse turned pediatrician at Children's.

KAREN SMITH: She is a beautiful little girl that is suffering from a metabolic disorder. And with that, she's weak. She's unable to kind of move a lot for herself, unable to eat. But also knowing that, I'll say there's such great hope if we manage that well.

BOWMAN: And what's the prognosis?

SMITH: So if it's managed well and early on, the prognosis can be very good of a very functional, you know, active individual. But she will have delays, mostly motor. She may have in learning. But what's beautiful, you know, about the child's brain - it's still growing and kind of making new cells.

BOWMAN: Smith and others, including nonprofit groups, faith-based groups like Christ Church in Alexandria, have helped the family settle in. She cosigned for his apartment, which is financed by donations that run out in October. Friends provided dishes, silverware, a couch. The chaotic evacuation from Kabul airport two years ago, Smith says, hit her hard. She spent more than two decades as an Army nurse. Her husband did combat tours in Iraq as a Green Beret.

SMITH: Frustration. It's just frustration, sadness. And, again, I think what the Army kind of puts into you is, you know, we're one family. We're a team. And when you're in a foreign country that they're supporting you, helping you stay safe, you don't leave your comrade behind.

BOWMAN: Afghans who arrived some two years ago in the American airlift got three months of government assistance, Medicaid, a work permit. Amani got none of that because he came here illegally. Back in April, he filed an application for asylum, a status that would allow him to work.

YURIKA COOPER: Right now he has no Social Security number. So that plus a work permit - a work permit would be great.

BOWMAN: Yurika Cooper, Amani's immigration lawyer, says even though he has an expedited process, Amani is still waiting for approval. She says with the backlog in asylum cases with the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, it's uncertain how long it will take. Amani hopes to be granted asylum and become self-sufficient before too long. He plans to become a mechanic one day. And his wife - she dreams of becoming a doctor. But English classes will come first.

AMANI: Today I'm happy. I'm happy in the United States.

FRISTA: (Non-English language spoken).

AMANI: (Non-English language spoken).

BOWMAN: Amani hands Yousra off to his wife and cuddles their second child, a chubby 6-month-old with alert eyes.

AMANI: Her name is Iqra. Iqra mean read.

BOWMAN: Read. Her name is in defiance of a Taliban regime, he says, in its opposition to educating girls.

AMANI: Taliban closed the doors of school, and therefore I put her name Iqra.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Alexandria, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASEGO SONG, "YOU NEVER VISIT ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.