Resettled in Virginia, Afghan journalists struggle with underemployment

Mirwais Harooni on assignment with Reuters near Jalalabad for a story in 2017 on the Afghan Army's need for more troops to fight the Taliban. Photo courtesy of Harooni.

NAZIR AFZALI SITS IN A PUBLIC LIBRARY in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s wearing a dark winter jacket and a day’s worth of stubble on his face. Afzali plugs a tiny thumb drive into the computer in front of him, shuffles through dozens of video files, and plays one: He’s in his home country of Afghanistan, it’s 2016, and he’s arranged an interview with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai for journalists with the international news outlet France 24. In his office, Karzai proudly shows them framed photographs of him shaking hands with world leaders: President George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, Jacques Chirac. Then, on camera, Afzali quietly asks Karzai where is his picture of President Barack Obama, who Karzai had a bitter falling out with in the last years of his administration. “It’s here or there somewhere,” says Karzai in the video, dismissively waving his hand in every direction.

Back in the public library in Charlottesville, Afzali smiles. “There was no picture of Obama,” he says softly.

For his whole adult life, 34-year old Afzali has worked as a journalist, a fixer, and a translator for news organizations that travel to report on war-torn Afghanistan. He’s been shot at, evaded capture, and dodged suicide bombings. And now, he’s one of at least seven Afghan journalists who over the past year have moved to Charlottesville through the US refugee resettlement program, only to take low-wage jobs stocking shelves or unloading trucks at Walmart, cleaning rooms or washing dishes at hotels—or, as in Afzali’s case, working as a safety officer at the University of Virginia. “I really miss the media work,” says Afzali. “It is, from childhood, my dream job. I’m optimistic that one day I will join this profession again.” Despite near-fluent English proficiency, none of these Afghan journalists has found work in their field, and their frustration is mounting as, just months after arriving, they struggle to pay rent and bills, find reliable transportation, and support their families.

Throughout the day, Afzali continuously checks his phone for news alerts from his homeland. Lately it hasn’t been good: “Twin blasts in Afghan capital kill at least 26, including nine journalists,” “Kabul voter centre suicide attack kills 57,” “Taliban kill 2 Afghan police, capture 6 troops.” The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the deaths of at least 57 journalists and media workers in Afghanistan since 2001, when the US military invaded the country. The ensuing war and the daily challenges of local news operations blurred the lines between journalism and government-supported media.

ICYMI: Afghanistan’s murdered journalists, in the words of the people who knew them

At some point over the past 15 years, each of these Afghan journalists worked for a media company that promoted the US military or its allies, such as the Afghanistan National Security Forces, the International Security Assistance Force, or NATO. Those jobs opened the door for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) from the US State Department, allowing them to immigrate to America with their families as lawful residents. Since 2008, more than 60,000 people from Iraq and Afghanistan have resettled in the US using SIVs, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

The Afghan journalists in Charlottesville say it takes an average of two years for a SIV application to be approved. Once it has, they can go through one of the nine refugee resettlement agencies to actually come to the states—for Charlottesville, it’s the International Rescue Committee (IRC). But SIVs, as they’re called, are very different from refugees in many regards, not least of which is their steadily higher levels of education. According to a report by the GAO, about 90 percent of Afghan SIVs have completed high school or higher, whereas only about 38 percent of Afghan refugees have finished the same schooling. It’s that level of achievement, in part, that’s led them to expect more from life in the US.

 

Harooni says he pays $1,050 a month in rent, $110 for electricity, $50 for a phone, and $200 a month for other expenses. Walmart would pay $12.70/hour for 32 hours of work each week, he says. After taxes, it’s almost exactly how much he needs to survive.

 

IN 2004, MIRWAIS HAROONI got his BA in journalism from Kabul University. For seven years, he conducted research and reported news stories for Thomson Reuters in Afghanistan, risking his life on many occasions. In February, he moved with his wife and three children to an apartment complex in Charlottesville where more than 100 families live, many of them refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Recently, Harooni, 40, got a notice from the rental office that he’d be charged a $25 late fee if he didn’t pay next month’s rent on time. He says he got a job at a hotel that’s opening in town, but it keeps pushing back its launch date, and he’s scared his family might be evicted. So he applied at Walmart and is waiting to hear back.

Harooni says he pays $1,050 a month in rent, $110 for electricity, $50 for a phone, and $200 a month for other expenses. Walmart would pay $12.70/hour for 32 hours of work each week, he says. After taxes, it’s almost exactly how much he needs to survive. “What should I do?” he asks, gesturing to Mohammad Akbari, his friend and fellow journalist. “If I ask money from him, he doesn’t have it.” Harooni says he emailed the IRC, and they put him in touch with someone who may be able to help. But he’s been in the US now for just about three months, and the IRC is required to get everyone, whether refugee or SIV, a stable job and to be as self-sufficient as possible within 90 days. After that, the IRC’s main source of federal funding for each person dries up. After their first 90 days in the US, about 60 percent of all SIVs were unemployed and about 94 percent were still receiving food assistance, according to a GAO study released in February that studied about 13,000 SIV’s in California, Texas and Virginia between 2011 to 2017.

Several years ago, to address the ongoing needs of SIVs and refugees in Charlottesville, former elementary school teacher Kari Miller started a nonprofit called International Neighbors. The all-volunteer group helps hundreds of families with things like English language tutoring, after-school activities for kids, navigating social services for parents, and getting driver’s licenses. Jennifer Thompson chairs the nonprofit’s Brighter Beginnings program, which provides families with winter jackets, bicycles, computers and living room rugs. She’s worked closely with this group of Afghan journalists and their families and says that, sure, their frustration comes from the low skilled work they’re required to do. But it’s exacerbated when they’re relegated to jobs that are tucked away from the community—stockers, dishwashers, housekeepers. The isolation creates a divide between them and the community, says Thompson. “People are shocked when we tell them just how many refugees are here,” she says. “People stay in their circles, and the jobs a lot of them have are not where they can be seen, like the back of Walmart and overnight housekeeping jobs. Local Charlottesville residents aren’t going to see those folks.”

Thompson says there’s a much larger issue at play in Charlottesville too: the cost of living is incredibly high. “I am perplexed at why Charlottesville is considered a good place to resettle because from what I understand a city needs to have good public transportation, affordable housing, and job opportunities,” says Thompson. “And those are the three big requests for help from us that we get.”

According to a 2015 report sponsored by the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, a family of one parent and two kids needs to earn $35,000 a year to live independent of social services. But, the report found, 25 percent of families in the city make less than that. However, the median area income for a 4-person family in Charlottesville is $89,600, and the cost of living for food, transportation, childcare and life’s other necessities is comparable. What’s more, the city’s unemployment rate is 2.9 percent—significantly lower than both the state and national rates. This means that most people have jobs in Charlottesville, but they just don’t earn the living wage it takes to survive.

So families get two or three low-wage jobs, they rarely see their children, and the cycle of poverty begins, says Thompson. “When are you going to work on your freelance article when you’re working two jobs and have a family to take care of?”

What’s more, she says, is that this group is often dealing with untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “We’ve had people go back to their home countries from Charlottesville because they can’t make it here or it’s too hard,” says Thompson. “I think that’s quite a statement.”

 

HARRIET KUHR HAS BEEN WITH THE IRC for more than a dozen years now, and has served as the executive director of the Charlottesville office for the last 8 years. They push SIV’s and refugees to get jobs right away, Kuhr says, so they can start establishing themselves in America and begin to have an income stream to pay for immediate basic expenses. “Getting a professional job takes longer,” she says. In part that’s because employers want to see an American work history and American references on a resume. Those starter jobs will help provide that, she says.

And from there, Kuhr says, the IRC wants to work with SIV’s and refugees on what they call the “career ladder,” or an individualized career advancement program. They try to find the SIV’s and refugees a local peer professional network that they can tap into, and they look at all options, whether it’s going back to a community college or university, or embarking on a new workforce development training program, or even slogging through the arduous re-credentialing process if they want to stay in the same field. And they’ve had some luck. One SIV from Iraq, for example, was an emergency room doctor, says Kuhr, and they were able to get him a job on an ambulance crew. Now he’s working his way up through the certification process to become a US emergency medical technician.  

“We’re not about just getting the first jobs for people and walking away,” says Kuhr. “Our goal is to help people fully integrate and be successful in the US. And we do very much want to continue working with all of our clients to help them continue laddering up and moving up, and really securing their future here and economic independence and not just barely paying the rent, but really becoming successful.”

But there’s a catch. The SIV or refugee will often need to be the one to initiate that level of career development programming from the IRC. And unfortunately, Kuhr says, that first experience with the IRC—where they stress the need to get that first low-wage job—ends up driving people away from the long-term career process and then, life takes over. “They’re frustrated,” says Kuhr. “We’re also frustrated because we place them in those first jobs, and then they’re mad at us and walk away and we never see them again. We wish they would come back to us so we could continue working with them, but a lot of times they don’t and that’s something we need to work on. We’re talking a lot here about doing a better job with outreach.”

 

The first thing that they injected in our minds was that our documents, certificates and diplomas from Afghanistan doesn’t have any value here.

 

ON A RECENT WEEKDAY MORNING, Harooni walked over to Akbari’s apartment, just a stone’s throw away in the same complex. Akbari was outside cleaning a new white Toyota Prius; he says he borrowed money from 11 friends to buy the car. He’s 50 years old, the oldest of the group, and in Afghanistan he owned a grocery store, was a personal fitness instructor, a champion body builder, and taught hundreds of students sports education at the Technic Academy in Kabul. His arms are the size of American footballs. Shortly after the war began, in 2003, Akbari started working for NATO-supported radio and television stations in Afghanistan. About a year ago, he resettled to Charlottesville with his wife and six children. For months he off-loaded trucks at Walmart, but he quit recently and started working as a Lyft driver.

Before coming to America, the Afghan journalists say they were only given a book entitled “Welcome to America,” which explained in 16 chapters things like how to buy a car, rent an apartment, apply to college, and basics of the English language. When they arrived in the US, the IRC gave them a class on cultural orientation and another on how to get a job, they say. They’re thankful for the help, but they want more. They want to go back to school, to teach and lecture to American students on how to be a war reporter. (If you take a picture of an attack in Afghanistan with your cell phone, says Harooni, you may get shot, because security forces may think you’re an insurgent on a reconnaissance mission.)

Recently Thompson, the International Neighbors volunteer, told her friend who runs the local radio station WTJU about some of the Afghan journalists and he suggested they start a podcast aimed at Afghans in Virginia. It’s a perfect fit for their situation, says Thompson. “You don’t have a time constraint, you don’t have to record or air it at a certain time, and there’s no real schedule other than your own,” she says. “And the station can support that, they can help record it, they can provide a platform.” The station head said the project is “in development” and that he needs to meet again with the journalists.

At one point Akbari goes upstairs and retrieves a folder filled with dozens of laminated documents. “The first thing that they injected in our minds was that our documents, certificates and diplomas from Afghanistan doesn’t have any value here,” he says. He spreads them out over his living room rug. One is from the editor in chief of Radio Sada-E-Azadi 88.5 FM. It states: “Mr. Akbari has demonstrated a travel to the most dangerous scenes and his work and cooperation in this field has been recognized and awarded by the [Ministry of Defense].”

At least 36 people were killed in Kabul recently in a pair of suicide bombings near NATO headquarters and the US Embassy. The second explosion was triggered by a bomber posing as a journalist amid a crowd of first responders and reporters—nine real journalists were killed, some of them good friends of Harooni’s. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Akbari says he’s grateful for the safety in America, but he wishes the US military and government would support his family more now, like they do with returning US veterans. Perhaps they could cover his housing costs while his family adjusts, while he improves his English, finds a journalism job, or goes back to school. Akbari asks, “If there were Afghan forces in your country and helping people here, and finally they withdraw their forces and you were one of the people who worked with them, and you come under pressure from your own government and you have to leave and go to Afghanistan, and suddenly you arrive in Afghanistan and they offer you a housekeeping job, how would you feel?”

ICYMI: The thorny ethics of embedding with do-gooders

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the manufacturer of the Prius. CJR regrets the error.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jordy Yager is a journalist based in the Charlottesville, Virginia, area who focuses on issues of equity. A congressional correspondent in Washington DC for six years, he's been freelancing for the past four years, winning multiple first-place national awards for his work.