For thousands of refugees displaced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is home now

A family photo shows Balqes Jassem with her late husband, Abdul Ameer Alwan, and their daughter, Aman Alwan, at home in Richardson, Tex. The older Alwan was an Iraqi painter who passed away in 2015. The family came to the United States as Iraqi refugees in 2007.
A family photo shows Balqes Jassem with her late husband, Abdul Ameer Alwan, and their daughter, Aman Alwan, at home in Richardson, Tex. The older Alwan was an Iraqi painter who passed away in 2015. The family came to the United States as Iraqi refugees in 2007.

NEW AMERICANS

From the outside, Farhad Yousafzai is living the American Dream.

Seven years after he fled Afghanistan for the United States with his wife, their daughter and six suitcases, Yousafzai has achieved success in his adopted home.

He runs his own insurance business in Sacramento, employing several Afghan immigrants. His daughter just started ninth grade and speaks better English than he does. Just last month, Yousafzai closed on a five-bedroom home.

“A dream come true, especially for an immigrant,” he said.

But lately, all he can think about is betrayal.

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Thousands of Afghans, including many of Yousafzai’s relatives, tried to flee Afghanistan in the last weeks of August, after the Taliban seized control amid the U.S. withdrawal. Millions more had already left over the past 20 years, their lives long ago upended by the war on terror.

Yousafzai, 42, was one of them. He escaped Afghanistan in 2013 because his job as a coordinator for U.S.-funded development projects had turned him and his family into a target. Of the long and failed war, he said: “We lost thousands of innocent Afghans, thousands of innocent women, children and American soldiers — all their lives for nothing.”

Farhad Yousafzai in his Sacramento home.
Farhad Yousafzai in his Sacramento home. (Max Whittaker for The Washington Post)

Roughly 5.9 million Afghans and 9.2 million Iraqis have left their homes since the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively, the two longest-running wars in U.S. history.

About a quarter-million of those displaced landed in the United States as refugees or special-status immigrants, granted visas because they served the U.S. war mission. Thousands more have arrived in recent weeks, evacuated amid the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, and the Taliban’s seizure of power.

They have arrived over the past two decades as individuals and in waves, settling in California and Texas, New York and Indiana; in large cities and suburbs, small towns and state capitals.

Though many have flourished, their lives are colored by a certain ambivalence. Their journeys to the land of opportunity were spurred by tragedy and loss, propelled by the wars launched by the United States in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

COMING TO AMERICA

‘If there was no war, we never would have come’

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Over the past two decades, Iraqis have settled in the Dallas suburbs, opening stores and restaurants like the Al Baghdady Bakery and Café in Richardson, which dishes up juicy lamb kebabs and delicate cream-stuffed pastries. Life here is fundamentally different from what Tememe and others knew growing up. But he and other Iraqi Americans have found here a sense of community in their new home. (Photos by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Before the war, Omar al-Tememe was part of Baghdad’s upper-middle class, running a company that sold construction supplies.

Then, America invaded, buoyed by false intelligence that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. Though Hussein’s regime fell quickly, the U.S. occupation destabilized the country and led to a bloody insurgency and sectarian civil war that persists today.

Traveling back and forth to Jordan — essential to Tememe’s business — grew increasingly dangerous amid the violence. One morning, gunfire struck the car Tememe’s family was riding in on their way back to Baghdad, killing their hired driver and causing a crash that killed Tememe’s 7-year-old daughter, Shams.

Tememe’s wife was hospitalized for a week with critical injuries. While he waited for her recovery, Tememe received an anonymous letter: Divorce your wife, it said, because she is a Sunni and you are a Shiite.

It was the last straw. As soon as they had buried Shams, the family fled Iraq.

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“If our country was safe and there was no war, we never would have come to America,” Tememe said recently from a couch in his Plano, Tex., living room, Shams’s small face smiling from a frame on the mantle.

He has experienced tremendous success in the years since his arrival. He has moved beyond the trauma and poverty of a refugee to become a real estate agent and the owner of a palatial home in the Dallas suburbs. But nothing compensates for Shams. Nearly 15 years later, her memory makes him cry.

Omar al-Tememe, a real estate agent, shows a house in Little Elm, Tex.
Omar al-Tememe, a real estate agent, shows a house in Little Elm, Tex. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

For Yousafzai, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan — and the fall of the Taliban — created opportunity, at least at first.

As the United States settled in for its decades-long occupation, Yousafzai, then 23, traveled from his home near the Pakistani border to Kabul. Soon, he was working for international aid organizations, including USAID, as a translator and development officer.

Yousafzai enjoyed his job. The money was good, and the work was interesting.

But the Taliban never went away. And corruption pervaded Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government, which included former warlords. As security deteriorated, those who worked within the new system — particularly Afghans like Yousafzai, who worked for the Americans — became the prime targets of insurgent violence.

“We are the people they can target the most easily,” Yousafzai said. “If you Google my name, you will find all of the contracts that I issued. You will find how much body armor, how many things that I supplied, that I purchased [for USAID projects].”

In 2013, the United States granted Yousafzai’s family special immigrant visas, reserved for Afghans who helped the U.S. war mission. The U.S. government said last month it has resettled about 75,000 Afghans this way since the U.S. invasion. But as many as 80,000 people who qualify for the visas remain.

Dozens of Yousafzai’s relatives were among those left behind.

[How to help Afghan refugees and those trapped during the Taliban takeover]

He managed to get his mother, brothers and their families on one of the last commercial flights out of Kabul on Aug. 13; now they are stranded in Turkey. His sisters, nieces and nephews are home in Afghanistan, their attempts to evacuate failed.

SETTLING IN

‘If you can get through the first six months, you can make it here’

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The Sacramento area has become a hub for Afghan immigrants like Yousafzai and his daughter, Amina. Over the past few years, mosques and Afghan-owned businesses like the Shinwari Market and Restaurant have sprung up to serve this growing community. (Photos by Max Whittaker for The Washington Post)

As an Iraqi refugee landing at the Dallas airport in 2008, Tememe wasn’t sure what he’d find.

He pictured a Hollywood version of Texas with cows and cowboys; instead he peered out the car window on that first drive from the airport at twisting highway overpasses and strip malls.

He remembers the cockroaches in his first apartment, the crime in the neighborhood, and the helplessness — not knowing how to get a driver’s license or open a bank account, or where to buy groceries. He struggled to understand the English around him, totally unlike the formal British grammar from his school days.

“When people arrive in Dallas, I tell them: ‘If you can get through the first six months, you can make it here,' ” Tememe said. “The hardest time is the first six months, when we learn how to settle in and understand the community.”

In Dallas, Tememe’s family joined a growing community of Iraqis displaced by the American invasion. Twenty years ago, before the start of America’s war on terror, there were approximately 90,000 Iraqi-born people in the United States, according to the U.S. census. By 2019, that population had nearly tripled.

Many of those new refugees clustered in hubs like the Dallas metro area, where resettlement agencies were active, and where jobs and low rents were in good supply.

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“In 2007 and 2008, we were receiving, like, five Iraqi families each week,” said Aisha Waheed, a Texas native and the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant, who opened a Dallas nonprofit in 2007 to help new refugees.

“Their trauma was so fresh,” she said, recalling families who told her of fleeing Iraq on foot and weathering months or years in refugee camps. “When they landed here, you could tell how exhausted they were.”

In Garland, Tex., friends gather for a weekly coffee using cups their host brought from Iraq.
In Garland, Tex., friends gather for a weekly coffee using cups their host brought from Iraq. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

New arrivals here tend to be placed first in clusters, in affordable apartment complexes spread across the city’s northeast neighborhoods.

“I used to introduce one family to another in the same complex, and they became friends,” Waheed said. Older families would drive newer families to the grocery store and other errands. “And it was so nice to see, if there was a wedding, the whole Iraqi community got together,” she said.

Many, like Tememe, came from high-status jobs and lost everything in the war. “If I told an Iraqi person, the next best thing is you go work at Walmart, he felt insulted: ‘But I’m a dentist.’ We had to explain, it’s a different type of process here,” Waheed said.

Success came with time.

Iraqis who found initial work as mechanics have since opened car dealerships. A man who learned how to make pizza in Iraq eventually opened a pizza restaurant here. A little boy, whom Waheed remembers suffering severe anxiety over the violence he witnessed in Iraq, will soon head to dental school.

“Now we see that generation of children getting college degrees when they didn’t even know a word of English,” she said.

Dallas suburbs like Richardson and Plano might look different had there been no U.S. invasion, no Iraq War. How many Iraqi real estate agents, like Tememe, would there be? Or Iraqi-owned barbershops? Would local bakeries bother selling Iraqi samoon bread? Would there be an Iraqi community association?

“Every family who came here has a story,” said Tememe, referring to the hardship they have lived through.

“But Iraqis work very hard,” he added.

Salah Hassan, on right, greets a friend outside his restaurant in Richardson, Tex.
Salah Hassan, on right, greets a friend outside his restaurant in Richardson, Tex. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The Afghans, too, have transformed local communities. Before 2001, about 45,000 Afghan immigrants lived in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But that number has also tripled since the beginning of the war.

More than three-quarters of the Afghans resettled in the United States since 2001 have arrived with special immigrant visas.

The Washington, D.C., metro area has been the top destination for these newer Afghan refugees, according to Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Sacramento, with a population of a half-million people, is No. 2.

Hundreds of those evacuated from Afghanistan last month have been funneled toward these communities on the East and West coasts, where resettlement groups and volunteers have launched into action to help.

In Sacramento, where Yousafzai lives, the emergence of a new Little Kabul was already well underway.

“In this building, we have the insurance agency completely [staffed by] Afghans. We have a travel agency, completely [staffed by] Afghans. We have an attorney’s office — Afghans. We have tax preparers upstairs — Afghans. We have real estate — all Afghans. And we have a family resettlement agency — 90 percent of the staff is Afghans,” Yousafzai said earlier this summer, standing outside the office block that houses his insurance agency.

In the shopping center across the street is Nisar Malyarzoy’s Afghan Fashion store, where customers can purchase finery for weddings. There’s also Najibullah Shinwari’s Shinwari Market and Restaurant, and a cellphone accessory-and-repair shop run by an Afghan couple. And there are new mosques, too.

“Even if you go to the Wells Fargo, you will see five or six Afghan staff over there. If you go to Bank of America, you will see Afghans over there,” Yousafzai said.

THE NEW NORMAL

‘The old country will not come back to what it was before’

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In Sacramento, Afghan immigrants watched the Taliban takeover with a mix of fear and dread. Anisa Noori, seen kneeling in her apartment, feared for her husband’s safety after Kabul fell. She and her four children came to the United States on special immigrant visas in 2017. But her husband, a physician, stayed behind in Kabul because he was not granted a visa. After days of uncertainty, Noori’s husband managed to board an evacuation flight to Qatar. The couple’s son, Massiullah Ahmadzai, pictured with his young neighbor, said his father arrived in the United States on Sept. 5. “I’m really happy,” he said. (Photos by Max Whittaker for The Washington Post)

A few months before the Taliban takeover, an insurgent attack injured Yousafzai’s nephews; his sister and her family abandoned their farm and moved to the nearby city of Jalalabad, to escape the extremists who had come to know about Yousafzai’s work with the Americans, he said.

“My sister had a very nice life in the village,” he said. Now they have no jobs, and no cows and vegetables from their own farm.

“I’m now one person supporting families in three different locations — my sisters in Afghanistan, my brothers and mom in Turkey, and myself, my wife and my daughter in California,” he said. “I don’t know how I will pay my mortgage.”

The anxiety had been growing precipitously over the past year. Every Friday at the mosque, the imam would ask congregants to think about the latest souls lost in violence and lawlessness, as the U.S. withdrawal neared.

But aren’t Afghanistan’s internal politics Afghanistan’s problem, a U.S. radio reporter asked Yousafzai several weeks before the U.S. withdrawal.

“No, hold on,” Yousafzai said bitterly. “If it’s an internal issue, what have you been doing for the past 20 years over there?”

Yousafzai picks mint for his tea at his Sacramento office.
Yousafzai picks mint for his tea at his Sacramento office. (Max Whittaker for The Washington Post)

Tememe still sometimes feels like an outsider in the United States. In business environments, other Americans direct their queries to his lighter-skinned wife, assuming she’s American, even though he’s the real estate agent. His clients tend to be fellow immigrants and minorities because, he thinks, White Texans hear his accent or see his name and go with someone else.

But when he went back to Iraq for a visit in 2013, he felt like an outsider there, too. Iraq had changed, he thought; its people hardened with war. His friendliness struck people as suspicious. “Where are you from?” strangers asked.

Tememe chats with his oldest son, Hamza Ibrahim, 22, at work in Plano, Tex.
Tememe chats with his oldest son, Hamza Ibrahim, 22, at work in Plano, Tex. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Despite this, Tememe has grown to love Texas. He feels pride for his adopted state.

He votes Republican, even though he knows Republican President George W. Bush — who now lives 14 miles away — launched America into Iraq, and Republican President Donald Trump sought to ban Muslims. He doesn’t like everything about the party, he said, but he appreciates the conservative values and commitment to family.

Tememe’s four boys, meanwhile, grapple with a different sense of belonging. They are now more comfortable in English than in Arabic. His youngest son, Ali, was born here and has never known Iraq. His oldest, Hamza, is an up-and-coming real estate agent just like his dad.

Hamza, 22, was a toddler when terrorists hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 20 years ago. He was 5 when the United States invaded Iraq, 6 when his sister was killed and his family fled the country.

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When Hamza thinks of 9/11, he thinks of seventh grade in suburban Dallas, when his football coaches played a video about the terrorist attack on an anniversary.

One of the coaches pulled 13-year-old Hamza aside. “And he was like, ‘That’s what your people did,’ ” he said. “That was the first time he met me. I was just like, okay, and I kind of walked off.” He tried to take it as a joke.

Tememe catches up with friends at the Sultan Cafe as they gather to play dominoes in Richardson, Tex.
Tememe catches up with friends at the Sultan Cafe as they gather to play dominoes in Richardson, Tex. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

He tries to brush off the occasional racism — so determinedly that he doesn’t even like to call it that.

When other kids at school would say things like “you’re going to bomb this, bomb that,” it really wasn’t a big deal, he says now. They were just joking. He and his younger brother Ibrahim always tried to “kind of laugh it off,” he said. What else could they do? “I think we were able to handle it better than most kids that came here” from Iraq.

LOOKING BACK

‘We lost everything’

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“Coming here at a young age and still trying to learn Arabic, but learning English at the same time — it feels like I’m not Arab enough, and I’m not American enough,” said Aman Alwan, 18, seen through the picture window talking with her mother. She was born nine days before the United States invaded Iraq and came in 2007 to Dallas, now dotted with barber shops, restaurants and groceries that cater to Iraqis and other Arab-Americans. A visit to Baghdad in 2018 was depressing, Alwan said. “There’s this little highway that you drive down, and there’s this fence with all these pictures of people who have died. And it’s so long.” (Photos by Salwan Georges for The Washington Post)

This summer, Tememe flew with his family from the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to meet relatives in Turkey — Iraq remains too dangerous for a family reunion.

At the airport, there is a corridor devoted to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Thanks for sacrificing yourselves & your time to bring freedom to this beautiful country,” someone wrote in May of this year on a banner where visitors can leave messages. “Thank you to all who have served. Bless those who sacrificed their lives so I could be free,” someone else wrote.

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Beside the banner is a row of mounted portraits of U.S. service members, with placards noting where they had died.

There is no placard for Shams. There is no placard for Yousafzai’s former colleagues, or for the names read out each week at his Sacramento mosque. He doesn’t expect to see any placards for his countrymen and women who died in the Kabul airport attack, alongside 13 U.S. service members.

“If we start telling the stories of the sacrifices or the loss,” Yousafzai said, “it would fill the books.”

Yousafzai prays in his Sacramento office.
Yousafzai prays in his Sacramento office. (Max Whittaker for the Washington Post)
About this story
Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Additional editing by Amanda Erickson, Susan Doyle and Ann Gerhart. Videos by Zoeann Murphy and Whitney Shefte. Design and Development by Leo Dominguez
Abigail Hauslohner is a roving national correspondent, writing on subjects ranging from racial justice to Islam, immigration, the coronavirus pandemic and political extremism. She covered the Middle East as a foreign correspondent from 2007 to 2014, and served as the Post's Cairo bureau chief.