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Their family was ripped apart at the Kabul airport. Nearly 3 years later their greatest wish has come true

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In late April, Albina Roman and her daughter landed at Los Angeles International Airport and saw the rest of their family for the first time in nearly three years.

In the terminal, 8-year-old Muhsenat ran toward her father, shaky cell phone video captured by Ahmad Roman shows. Albina and Ahmad’s youngest son, who was barely walking when he was separated from his mother in Kabul, was now 4.

“Mama!” Rahman shouted.

“They are in my hug now,” Albina Roman told CNN of the moment – after so much anxiety and heartache – she, her husband and both her sons were finally together again.

“I just cry a lot,” she went on, “and all the pain come out.”

The Roman family had separated among the throngs at the Kabul airport in August 2021, during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal days before the Taliban reclaimed control of Afghanistan. They had momentarily lost sight of their older son, Uzair – so his parents, with Muhsenat holding her mom’s hand, had split up to look for him.

By the time he was found, Albina and her daughter had been pushed beyond the airport gates, unable to get back in. They stayed behind, while the two boys boarded a crowded cargo plane with their father – who had worked for the Afghan government and so feared for his family’s safety under the new regime – and headed to the United States.

For the next 32 months, Ahmad would struggle – first as a humanitarian parolee under U.S. immigration rules, then after being granted indefinite asylum – to navigate a nebulous bureaucracy, working to bring his wife and daughter to the United States. All the while, Albina and Muhsenat faced a new life under the radical extremist group and tried to stay in touch with Ahmad and the boys from half a world away.

“I see my kids on camera,” the mother told CNN early last year from Afghanistan, “but I cannot touch them.”

‘You don’t have the freedom’

As a woman and a young girl suddenly living under the Taliban, Albina and Muhsenat stayed indoors as much as possible.

“You’re a human, and you’re a woman, and you don’t have the freedom in a country,” the matriarch said. “You cannot study because you’re a girl. You cannot go to the park, because you’re a girl. You cannot work. It’s so hard.

“Think about those women who don’t have anyone to help them – like, they don’t have husbands, or maybe they don’t have fathers or brothers to work and bring them food or money,” she continued. “So, how could they handle?”

Albina did not take Muhsenat to the park, since there were no parks for girls. They only frequented a restaurant for women, where all service staff were female. Muhsenat went to third grade in Kabul; she only would have been allowed to continue until sixth.

Albina developed severe anxiety, she said: “I didn’t go outside for months. Because (the Taliban) took girls … Because they say, ‘Oh, your hijab is not good.’”

She covered her face for an on-camera interview for fear being recognized could cause trouble for her relatives back in Afghanistan; Albina’s father and brothers had worked for the U.S. government for many years, she said: one as a driver transporting appliances onto the base, one as a kitchen manager, another as a security guard.

Amid the U.S. withdrawal, they too had been on a plane headed to the US. But when they realized Albina had gotten stuck behind the airport gates with Muhsenat, they got off the plane to stay.

Having male family members who could chaperone the mother and daughter out of the house was crucial to Albina and Muhsenat’s survival these past years, said Albina, who could not go anywhere without one of them. Even a trip to the bank with her brother seemed to rouse suspicion from Taliban authorities, who repeatedly asked to check their IDs and questioned the pair’s relationship, she said.

Every few months during the first year after they were separated, Taliban officials would come by to check documents and ask for whom the family had worked in the past. After each of those visits, Albina and her kin would move out, worried they’d be singled out.

She had a constant fear someone was following her whenever she was out.

The Roman children sitting together before the US withdrew from Afghanistan. (Courtesy Roman family / CNN Newsource)

A complex and befuddling process

All that time, Ahmad – with incredible persistence – was working in Los Angeles with an attorney, as well as U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas and the refugee aid organization Miry’s List, to bring his wife and daughter to him and the boys, the family explained to CNN.

Under his initial humanitarian parole status, Ahmad used the U.S. State Department’s new form DS-4317 to apply in early 2023 for Albina and Muhsenat to join him in the United States, he said. Then around that same time – after his own asylum application was approved – he applied on their behalf via the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ form I-730.

Mom’s and daughter’s ability to leave their native country also was an issue. Ahmad at one point upgraded the internet speed in his Los Angeles apartment after friends in Afghanistan tipped him off that an online portal for passport applications soon would open; after several nights of trying – the portal spontaneously closing and reopening – he managed to get them passports, he said.

Still, Ahmad struggled with a dearth of updates on how the U.S. applications were progressing, if at all, he told CNN. No matter how often he’d ask a case worker about his petitions, he would get very little information about the process or any expected timeline.

Delays, it turned out, had been plaguing the Citizenship and Immigration Services’ asylum application process. The government in the 18 months after the U.S. withdrawal had adjudicated only about 1,800 asylum applications from separated Afghan families, many of them pending well past Congress’ standard 150-day deadline, according to the law firm of Kirkland and Ellis LLP and the National Immigrant Justice Center, which sued in April 2023 over the delays.

It took until last July for Ahmad’s I-730 petition to be approved, just ahead of the lawsuit’s settlement in September. But even then, Ahmad’s family got little information on a timeline for next steps.

So, the former Afghanistan government worker reached out to Cárdenas.

‘Please … follow up all left-behind people’

The congressman’s office helped expedite a consular appointment for Albina and Muhsenat, Ahmad said. Even with that boost, though, it wasn’t until early April that mom and daughter, with Albina’s brother as chaperone, traveled to Pakistan for a U.S. embassy interview, ushering in their arrival later that month at Los Angeles’ main airport.

Indeed, by late May – eight months after the federal court settlement – the U.S. government had cleared more than 90 per cent of the backlog of overdue asylum applications, adjudicating more than 18,000 under Operation Allies Welcome, the plaintiffs said in a statement.

Even with his own family reunited, though, Ahmad’s bureaucratic headaches over getting Albina and Muhsenat to America hadn’t ended – a reflection, perhaps, of the bureaucratic and diplomatic complexities some Afghan families still face as the U.S. withdrawal’s third anniversary approaches.

The State Department, weeks after Albina and Muhsenat got to the US, sent Ahmad an email following up on his DS-4317 petition and asking to schedule an interview as part of that process to try to bring his wife to the United States, according to the message he shared with CNN.

While it didn’t affect his own case, the email left Ahmad irked on behalf of Afghan families still in limbo.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “I have this message to the U.S. government to please go and follow up all left-behind people who work at, who help U.S. government in Afghanistan, … they are in danger. They don’t have food. They don’t have safety.”

For its part, the non-profit Women for Afghan Women has seen little success with the State Department’s DS-4317 reunification process for humanitarian parolees, its senior immigration attorney Sanam Ghandehari told CNN. None of the 60 families it represents has been reunited through that avenue, while the Citizenship and Immigration Services I-730 process has helped half its eligible clients. Eight unaccompanied minors it represents have yet to be reunited with relatives, she added.

The State Department in response stressed President Joe Biden and his administration “have made it clear that our commitment to our Afghan allies is enduring,” an agency spokesperson said, noting the U.S. government has resettled more than 140,000 Afghans – including hundreds of unaccompanied minors – since August 2021. “We continue to fulfill our special obligation to the brave Afghans who stood side-by-side with our military service members, aid workers, and diplomats for two decades.”

Citizenship and Immigration Services, meanwhile, “adjudicates each Form I-730 asylee relative petition fairly, efficiently and humanely on a case-by-case basis to determine if it meets all standards and eligibility criteria required under applicable laws, regulations and policies,” its spokesperson told CNN.

“The agency is committed to breaking down barriers in the immigration system, supporting Afghan nationals in the United States, promoting policies and procedures that strengthen family reunification efforts, and upholding America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity and respect for all we serve.”

‘I feel safe and feel so free’

Now in Los Angeles, Albina goes to the store on her own, without any anxiety or fear.

“I feel safe and feel so free in here,” she said. “No one to watch me, no one to follow me, like say, … ‘Where are you going? What are you doing here? Why you came alone here?’”

Still, she agonizes about her relatives in Afghanistan, she said – and feels some obligation for their continuing to live under Taliban rule.

“And still, I’m worried about this. I just, I feel so bad that: Oh my god, because of me, they stay in Afghanistan,” she told CNN.

“They’re left in Afghanistan, and I come here.”

The Romans now have moved into a two-bedroom apartment that fits all five of them. Their new struggles are now similar to anyone else’s in Los Angeles: trying to afford the high cost of living. Ahmad works part-time for Miry’s List and also drives for Uber.

Ahmad Roman sends an update that he’s finally seen his daughter for the first time in almost three years. (Courtesy Christine Yoon / CNN Newsource)

But challenges like these seem surmountable now that they’re together.

Here in California, Muhsenat – who turned 9 earlier this month – is free to kick a soccer ball around in the park with her brothers, her mom said.

And she’s already enrolled for the fall semester at the same elementary school as her older brother, Uzair. After that, of course, she’ll be free to continue on to middle school, high school and beyond – perhaps to dental school, her latest aspiration.

“She can do anything,” Ahmad said of his daughter. “She can study, she can be journalist, a doctor, anything. And in Afghanistan, that was impossible.”  

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