After escaping the Taliban, hundreds of Afghans languish in Albania in protracted US visa process

After escaping the Taliban hundreds of Afghans languish in Albania scaled | ltc-a

For hundreds of others like him, it’s an emotional roller coaster. Some try to find work and live with a semblance of normality, but concern and fear for families back home permeate their days, even as they welcome Albania.

They are confident, despite the prolonged bureaucracy, and look forward to a new life.

In Shengjin, a town on the Adriatic coast about 70 kilometers (45 miles) northwest of the Albanian capital of Tirana where hundreds of Afghans have found temporary refuge, Mashoof often takes long walks by the sea. He got a job in a shopping centre, an hour away by bus.

The walks ward off panic attacks that he has forgotten – or ‘crazy fear’ for his family in the western province of Herat.

« I was saved, … and now I have to start my new life in America, » he said, « But when? »

The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021 as US and NATO troops were in the final weeks of their withdrawal from the country after two decades of war and as the US-backed Afghan government and military crumbled.

Despite initial promises of a more moderate rule, they soon began imposing restrictions on women and girls, excluding them from public spaces and most jobs, and banning education for girls beyond the sixth grade.

The measures dated back to Afghanistan’s previous Taliban government in the late 1990s, when they also enforced their strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia. The harsh edicts have provoked an international outcry against the already ostracized Taliban, whose administration has not been officially recognized by the United Nations or the international community.

As the Taliban pursued an increasingly hardline line, a severe economic downturn ensued, despite efforts by aid agencies to help large swathes of the impoverished nation.

In the days of the chaotic withdrawal, Washington had decided to welcome all those who had worked for the US government and American troops or for US-based media organizations and non-governmental groups to Afghanistan. But over time, the complicated process of issuing visas for Afghans who prove they are at risk of persecution has dragged on.

More than 3,200 Afghans have stayed in Albanian resort towns along the Adriatic Sea. A NATO member, Albania first agreed to host fleeing Afghans for a year before they moved to settle permanently in the United States, then pledged to hold them longer if their visas were delayed.

There are already an estimated 76,000 Afghans in the United States, where even congressional efforts to permanently resolve their immigrant status have stalled.

A senior Albanian government official told the Associated Press that authorities in Tirana would not be against holding Afghans for a longer period in the Balkan country, if they can find work. The official did not elaborate and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.

Last year, a small group of Afghans in Shengjin staged a protest, demanding Washington speed up the process of their relocation. Some women and children held posters that read: « We are forgotten. »

« I don’t have the guts to protest because of the delay, » Mashoof said. « There is nothing I can do. »

Fazil Mohammad Shahab, a senior football federation official in Afghanistan, arrived in Albania in November 2021. Unlike many of the thousands of tourists who visit Shengjin and other Albanian resorts, he doesn’t see the pristine coastline as an untouched paradise.

« For me, it’s a place of waiting, » she said.

On a sunny day earlier this month in Shengjin, Afghan women holding scarves huddled in small groups as their children played on the grass. Afghan couples strolled along the beach or sat at a nearby café.

Farishta Oustovar, TV journalist and former Afghan national volleyball player, arrived in Albania in September 2021. Within two months she found work: first in a hotel, then in a shoe factory and finally in a nursery.

« I need to feel that I can have a normal life, » the 23-year-old said, despite concerns for her family in Herat.

A popular TV presenter and comedian, 30-year-old Qasim Taban has resumed making funny YouTube clips from Shengjin. He says he finds strength in humor and is hopeful friends and fans back home can see the videos.

« We, here in Albania, and also the Afghans in Afghanistan have to laugh, » he said.