SAN DIEGO – The Afghan man was attending a conference in California as part of his job for a U.S.-government funded project in Afghanistan when the Taliban sent a written death threat to his home, forcing him to make a heart-wrenching decision: He would not return to his wife and two young sons and instead would seek asylum and try to bring them to the United States.
Two years later, Mohammad said he regrets leaving them, and wished he had never worked for the U.S. government given the price he has paid.
As Mohammad tried to get visas for his family, his wife collapsed in 2020 and died of a heart attack while the Taliban threatened them. Mohammad, who lives in California, has been fighting ever since to be reunited with his sons, who are now 9 and 11, and are moving from house-to-house, living in hiding with their grandmother and uncle, he said. He asked that only his first name be used to protect them.
On Thursday, the International Refugee Assistance Project, whose lawyers are working on his behalf, filed a lawsuit in a federal court in San Francisco against Secretary of State Antony Blinken, alleging the administration failed in its legal obligations under the Afghan Allies Protection Act to help his family despite his work for the U.S. government during the 20-year war there.
“The only thing that I want is just one hug" from my kids, Mohammad said.
Mohammad said he has repeatedly asked the U.S. government for help. He contacted the State Department in August after bullets pierced the home where his sons were hiding before the Taliban took control of the country. He asked for his children to be evacuated as the U.S. military conducted one of the largest airlifts in history, but they were left behind.
A State Department spokesperson said in an email to The Associated Press that it does not comment on pending litigation.
Mohammad communicates daily with his sons either through calls or texts.
His youngest has broken down crying, asking, “Dad, are they going to kill me?”
“What can I say?” Mohammad asks.
He sent another letter to the State Department on Sept. 9 asking that his sons be granted humanitarian parole, but again he said he got no response. He also contacted his California lawmakers.
Mohammad was approved for a special immigrant visa in January and applied the next month for his sons, requesting that their visa applications be expedited because they are in “imminent danger.” Their applications are still pending.
The lawsuit states that “removing his children from Afghanistan, where they are in daily peril, and reuniting them with their only remaining parent is essential to their survival and wellbeing.”
“At this point the government has known since mid-August at minimum that these kids are alone and in serious danger, and they didn't take any action to protect them," said lawyer Alexandra Zaretsky of the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project.
Zaretsky said Mohammad is one of thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan and were forced to leave behind close family members to be able to get to safety. Many are still fighting to be reunited with them. The administration has provided no figures for how many special immigrant visa applicants and their family members are still stuck in Afghanistan a month after the U.S. withdrew its troops, and it has yet to take substantial action to protect them, according to the lawsuit.
Mohammad said he wants his sons to know that his work in promoting women's rights in Afghanistan for a program funded by the U.S. government was worth it, even if many of those advances may vanish under the new Taliban government.
He said he also wants them to see “because of my loyal service to the United States,” they have the chance to come to a good country like the U.S. where “your future is guaranteed" and they can get a "good education and other rights that human beings should have."
He tries to encourage them not to give up, though he is losing faith in his words.
“I'm giving them hope whenever I am talking to them, but I’m also thinking, ‘But is this even possible? Are they ever going to be reunited with me here?'" he said.
This story has been updated to correct the last name of the U.S. secretary of state. He is Antony Blinken, not Bilken.