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Former Afghan soldiers settle into their central Illinois relocation

Afghan Welcome Home Project.jpg
Afghan Welcome Home Project of Central Illinois
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Afghan Welcome Home Project of Central Illinois
The countries and cultures are very different for former Afghan soldiers evacuated to central Illinois.

Several evacuees from Afghanistan are settling into life in Bloomington-Normal. They are former soldiers who fought the Taliban, serving in the Khost Protection Force, a special unit in the Afghan army stationed in an eastern province bordering Pakistan.

Ilene Henderson of the Afghan Welcome Home Project in central Illinois sponsored the evacuees and has found jobs and apartments for them. A dozen or so are scattered around central Illinois in Arcola, Decatur, and the Twin Cities.

Three of them were interviewed by WGLT, though they don't want their names given. They all left families behind when they evacuated to Germany and then a U.S. military base in Wisconsin after the capital city of Kabul fell. They fear Taliban reprisals.

Speaking through a Pashtu interpreter, who also doesn't want his name out there, one of the men said the first words he has ever written were in the U.S.

“Since I'm illiterate, I don't know how to read nor write. But I was able to write my name in English. With the help of Ilene," said the first man.

Henderson said education in Afghanistan has been scattershot. In the last generation, the Russians invaded from 1979 to 1989. No schools. Then the Taliban waged civil war between 1989 and 1996, when they won control and kept it until 2001. Again, no schools until the U.S. presence began in the country. The relocated men are all in their 30s. And their youth fell into that period.

Henderson said writing a name is a first step, but the significance comes from where it was written.

“Both of them practiced very, very hard all night and finished up the next morning. And they successfully signed their Social Security cards,” said Henderson.

From such daily small victories eventually comes big progress, Henderson said.

“While it may seem a very insignificant feat to most, is actually a very important benchmark, because now they are fully legal to work and to be productive here in the United States,” said Henderson.

All the evacuees placed in central Illinois through the Welcome Home Project were in the same unit composed of about 300 soldiers. Henderson said the U.S. equivalent unit size is a battalion. A number of the evacuees went to that same processing center in Wisconsin.

Now, they're dispersing as they find new homes.

“Through bonding, we had with all our colleagues, we were sharing very good relations with each other. We all were friends, and it is very hard in the moment for us to be scattered. It takes more than three hours by airplane in order to reach one of our friends who was moved to a completely different state,” said a second former soldier.

When they hopped on one of the last U.S. flights out of Kabul, many of them had never traveled beyond their borders. Even the mundane elements of the journey have come as a surprise.

“The only thing which had shocked them the most at first was that while he was contacting his family back in Afghanistan, it was night while in the U.S. it was day,” said the interpreter.

"We all were friends, and it is very hard in the moment for us to be scattered."
Former Afghan soldier

They said they worry about their families. It's not just the distance, but the financial need their relatives face.

“My family is left back there, and obviously it distressed me a lot. My parents are very elderly. I have six sons and three daughters and my wife, left behind,” said the third evacuee.

The others shared similar accounts, each with large extended families of up to 30 people in several generations.

As the U.S. pulled out last year and the Afghan government fell, the men said they refused to surrender to the Taliban and disobeyed an order to turn over their weapons. They chose to destroy them instead, but knew they had to leave because to stay was to die.

“We had no other option. All we can do is to leave them (family members) a message, but we always talk about them,” said an evacuee.

The men have jobs at a Bloomington medical company. They need the work not only as a requirement to stay in the U.S., but also to send money back to their families in the hope someday they can bring them to America. Meanwhile, they're adjusting. The open fields of cropland in central Illinois are strange to them. Small single-family homes are unlike bigger houses back home that contain multiple generations. One of the men said he frequently faces small moments of culture shock.

“Back there in Afghanistan we had men controlling the traffic while in the U.S. there are traffic lights," said the second former soldier.

They said they'll get used to it. They'll make a life here.

“With all these happenings back in Afghanistan, the moment they stepped into America, they're trying their level best to catch up and be on the same page with other Americans,” said the interpreter.

There's uncertainty about that though. Unlike those who worked directly with the U.S. military or U.S. companies, these men don't have a guaranteed path to citizenship. Those employed by the U.S. or U.S. businesses are in the "special immigrant visa program."

Henderson said a good number of these people are here on "humanitarian parole status," meaning there's no guarantee they can stay longer than two years. Even though there's that uncertainty and things are completely different in central Illinois, the three former soldiers said the moment they landed they felt more relaxed and secure.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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