GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The images from a year ago were striking and distressing: Desperate Afghans crowded the airport in Kabul and climbed on a taxiing U.S. aircraft, trying to evacuate as their country swiftly fell to the Taliban amid the exit of American troops.

Asad Dorrani lived the nightmare.

“I would call it a disaster,” Dorrani said. “Not knowing what’s happening and your whole country falls in two weeks.”

Asad Dorrani fled from Afghanistan shortly before the U.S. withdrew last year and ended up in West Michigan. (Aug. 30, 2022)
Asad Dorrani fled Afghanistan shortly before the U.S. withdrew last year and ended up in West Michigan. (Aug. 30, 2022)

The 21-year-old was among the estimated 2.6 million Afghans who sought refuge in other countries ahead of the completion of the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 30, 2021. His journey ended in Grand Rapids, where he works for Samaritas, the settlement agency that brought him here.

He, his mother and his brother are safe. His father stayed behind.

“He’s trying to hide, not communicate with people a lot and keep hiding and changing the place he lives,” Dorrani said.

Over 1,000 refugees were expected to settle in Michigan in the year since the fall of Afghanistan, many of them in West Michigan.

“I wish I could say things have improved by a lot,” Freshta Tori Jan said.

She knows the struggles well, escaping as a teenager from her Afghan homeland. The author and advocate for Afghan refugees said resettlement efforts have only gone so far. She said many of those who fled the Taliban came here with degrees and an eagerness to work but have run into roadblocks after aid programs ran their course.

“I think that’s probably where the biggest concern is. You can’t just let someone who has never been on this side of the world to start navigating a whole country and system on their own,” Tori Jan said.

Some 250 refugees have resettled in West Michigan through Samaritas. Its New Americans Program Manager Chris Cavanaugh says there is no quick fix to employment problems.

“But we have a lot of engaged employers in our area that have hired a lot of people and have been happy to do so and hopefully working a long with them, we’ll identify new opportunities,” Cavanaugh said.

There are other challenges. Along with providing the basics, like housing and employment, Samaritas has also worked to get the refugees asylum status with the government, but the process is difficult. The closest federal court hearing asylum cases is in Chicago and refugees must go there for proceedings. Legislation dubbed the Afghan Adjustment Act was introduced in Congress earlier this month to streamline the process.

“Which would provide a clear pathway for residency for the Afghan allies that have come here,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s been introduced and we’re hoping that we can see some movement in the next month or two months, going into the fall.”

The bill has bipartisan support in the Senate, where it has been referred to the Judiciary Committee but has not yet had a hearing.

Despite all of the hurdles, Asad Dorrani remains optimistic about his future. One of his plans for the future is serving the country that took him in.

“I have been thinking of maybe in the long term joining the Army as a National Guard or as a reserve,” Dorrani said. “And I also want to start my own business.”