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Identity & Community

Pitt Volunteers Work To Help Afghan Civilians Apply For Asylum In The US

<strong>Sun., Aug. 15:</strong> Pakistani soldiers check the documents of stranded Afghan nationals wanting to return to Afghanistan at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman.
<strong>Sun., Aug. 15:</strong> Pakistani soldiers check the documents of stranded Afghan nationals wanting to return to Afghanistan at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman.

Pittsburgh has been designated as a resettlement city for people fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of American forces retreating from the country and the Taliban’s takeover of the capital, Kabul. Several local aid organizations are preparing to provide assistance to refugees, and volunteers at the University of Pittsburgh have mobilized to help Afghan civilians seek asylum in the U.S.

“We’re not a refugee settlement agency, we’re just providing one chain, in sort of the link that they need to apply for asylum. But it’s one of the most difficult hurdles for them to overcome,” said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an associate professor and director of Pitt’s Center for Governance and Markets. She spoke with WESA’s The Confluence.

Murtazashvili organized more than 40 student volunteers to help Afghan refugees get in contact with their former employers so they can apply for asylum.

The Biden administration recently expanded the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to include thousands of Afghan residents employed by the U.S. government or government-funded programs in Afghanistan, as well as Afghans employed by American media organizations or non-governmental organizations. But in order to qualify, they need a letter from their employer, which Murtazashvili said can be difficult to secure.

“That’s all we’re doing — providing, helping people connect to their former employers and get these letters of authorization so that they can apply for asylum. That’s just the first step,” she said.

Attempting to track down companies and organizations that no longer exist or have merged with other groups can further complicate the process.

Asylum seekers must also be in a “third country” and cannot apply while in their home country or while in the United States.

“The people who were at the airport that day that you saw those horrific scenes, are people who worked for the United States, who stood by the United States, who worked on many of our projects over the past 20 years,” said Murtazashvili.

Still others contact Murtazashvili and her volunteers looking for help applying for asylum only to find that they don’t qualify because despite working closely with the U.S., they were employed by the United Nations or the Afghan government. Murtazashvili said in these circumstances, the volunteers try to direct the refugees to other resources.

Murtazashvili estimated that over 100,000 people who worked for the U.S. government or U.S. aid projects in Afghanistan over the last 20 years could qualify for the expanded refugee program. More than 1,000 people have reached out to Pitt’s volunteers in the last two weeks alone. But Murtazashvili believes the U.S. is moving too slowly to help them.

“The program that the U.S. has set up is quite shameful, frankly,” she said, noting that the current system creates “enormous headaches and anguish for people who are in really difficult circumstances.” Murtazashvili said a less complicated system could benefit asylum-seekers.

“This isn’t going to stop any time soon,” she said.