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He escaped Afghanistan as a child. Now he's imploring the U.S. to grant his family refuge.

Afghan refugee asks U.S. to grant family refuge
Former Afghan child refugee implores U.S. to grant his family refuge 07:07

Zabi vividly remembers the hunger and thirst he felt after going two days without food and water in the Malaysian jungle. He still recalls sleeping on the streets of an Indonesian city, as well as the grim migrant detention site where he was held for months.

After escaping war-torn Afghanistan as a 13-year-old in 2015, Zabi embarked on a years-long odyssey across three countries without his family. He eventually ended up in a shelter for migrant children in Indonesia where he lived for more than three years.

The U.S., the only country with a refugee program for unaccompanied children, took in Zabi in 2019. He quickly learned English and graduated from a U.S. high school. In August, Zabi started his freshman year at Western Michigan University.

Zabi graduated from a Michigan high school in the spring of 2021, two years after arriving in the U.S. as an unaccompanied refugee child. Zabi

"I was so lucky. I couldn't believe it. It was a dream," Zabi, now 20 years old, told CBS News. "People lost their hope and I lost my hope of getting out of Indonesia."

His own refugee journey is over. His American dream has just begun. But Zabi now finds himself desperately trying to help his mother and four siblings, who recently fled Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, becoming refugees in neighboring Pakistan.

As the Taliban reconquered Afghanistan this summer, the U.S. evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans, including those who aided American forces, family members of U.S. citizens and residents and others deemed to be in danger. It is currently working to resettle more than 70,000 of them in communities across the U.S.

But countless at-risk Afghans with U.S. ties — including Zabi's family — were not evacuated and are now stranded in Afghanistan or neighboring countries desperately looking for a way to be resettled in America. 

They include family members of Afghans in the U.S.; those who assisted American forces and have pending special immigrant visa requests; and other at-risk groups, including journalists and members of the LGBTQ community.

Since July, Afghans overseas have filed over 28,000 applications for parole, a process that allows immigrants without visas to enter the U.S. on humanitarian grounds, according to government figures. The U.S. typically receives fewer than 2,000 parole requests per year.

The State Department has also received 10,700 referrals for a special refugee designation the Biden administration created in August to resettle Afghans who worked for the U.S., American-funded projects and U.S.-based organizations, including news outlets.

But Afghans hoping to come to the U.S. under these legal pathways have to leave Afghanistan to undergo processing with American consular officials in third countries — a requirement the State Department conceded is "extremely difficult" for many.

"A flickering light"

Zabi said he now understands his family's decision to have him leave Afghanistan seven years ago. "Nobody leaves their child, a 13-year-old, and sends them on a boat alone to travel to the other side of the ocean if the water is not safer than the land," he said.

Zabi remained in communication with his family. But to avoid worrying family members, he said he refrained from telling them about many of the difficult experiences he endured throughout his years in southeast Asia.

He did not tell them about being detained at an airport in Kuala Lumpur or mention that he reached Indonesia on a boat after being chased by Malaysian authorities. He did not tell them he slept outside an immigration office in Pekanbaru, Indonesia, for two weeks.

After reaching Indonesia by boat in 2015, Zabi, right, and other refugee boys slept on the streets for two weeks. Zabi

Zabi also did not mention his transfer to an adult migrant detention center, where he remembers not being allowed to go outside for three months. "I kept lying and lying, and saying that I'm fine, everything is good," he recalled.

After eight months at the detention center, Zabi was transferred to a housing facility for refugee children in Medan, Indonesia. The shelter was less restrictive than the detention site, but Zabi said he was only allowed to leave for a few hours during the weekdays.

"Refugees are not allowed to go to school," he noted. "I was not allowed to work."

Spending years at the shelter had a profound mental health impact on Zabi and the other boys, he said. Zabi remembered waking up one morning and seeing the lifeless body of another refugee boy who had hanged himself. 

"We were friends," he said. "We cared about one another."

In 2016, Zabi, right, and other refugee boys were transported from Pekanbaru to a shelter for migrant minors in Medan, another Indonesian city.  Zabi

The confinement, Zabi said, was exacerbated by persistent concerns over his family's safety. In late 2018, he said he lost all contact with his family for a month after Jaghori, their home district, was attacked by Taliban militants, forcing them to flee to Kabul.

Zabi found some solace by playing soccer, learning English through YouTube and Facebook videos and interpreting for other Afghan refugees. "If I didn't do any of that, I would have been mentally sick," he said. "I would have not been able to survive."

In 2018, Zabi was notified the U.S. had chosen to resettle him — news he described as "a flickering light at the very end" of a "long tunnel." After more than a year of interviews, paperwork, medical checks and vaccinations, Zabi arrived in Michigan in June 2019.

Zabi came to the U.S. through a little-known program that resettles refugee children stranded in third countries without their parents and places them in foster and group homes in the U.S. He was one of the few unaccompanied refugee minors admitted during the Trump administration, which made dramatic cuts to refugee admissions. 

After resettling 749 unaccompanied refugee minors in the last three years of the Obama presidency, the U.S. received 373 of these children between 2017 and 2020. In fiscal year 2021, just one unaccompanied refugee child arrived in the U.S. via the program, the State Department said.

"Family comes first"

When the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed in August, Zabi was attending his orientation at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He was overwhelmed.

After all, studying at an American university seemed like a pipe dream when he was traversing southeast Asia as a young teenager. In two years, Zabi had learned English, graduated from a Michigan high school and earned a full-ride college scholarship.

But Zabi could only think about his mother and siblings, whom he was not able to contact for several days. When he did, Zabi learned his family had fled to the border with Pakistan. 

"I was going through so much mentally," he said. "At some point, I thought that I can't do it."

To help his family find a way into Pakistan, Zabi sold his car, which he had been able to buy after working a full-time factory job in Ada, Michigan, while still in high school. 

His mother, three sisters and younger brother — two of whom are minors — are now in Quetta, Pakistan. Zabi believes they could be harmed if they return to Afghanistan and has been exploring ways to bring them to the U.S.

In August, Zabi started his freshman year at Western Michigan University, where he's studying political science.

Zabi helped his family register with the United Nations refugee agency, which refers cases to the U.S. But their resettlement through the U.S. refugee program could drag on for more than a year, as cases typically take between 12 and 18 months to process.

He also recently submitted requests for humanitarian parole, which could allow his family to come to the U.S. faster. But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has approved just over 100 of the requests it has received from Afghans overseas, according to agency data.

To bring his mother and siblings under the parole process, Zabi would also need to prove he will be able to financially support them here. But Zabi is now a full-time student and unemployed. "I don't have those resources," he said.

"His whole life he's had things happening to him and he's worked so hard to be here and yet other people are still taking a priority in his life," said Tori Grant, Zabi's case manager at Bethany Christian Services, the group that resettled him. "I think that shows how compassionate he is."

Zabi has contemplated foregoing his studies — and his scholarship — to go back to work full time. He admits the possibility scares him. He knows how much he endured, and how hard he worked, to get to this point.

But Zabi also knows what it is to be forced to leave your homeland. He knows how it feels to be a refugee in a foreign country. And for him, helping his family is the clear priority, even if it entails deferring his American dream.

"I would not forgive myself if I don't," he said. "Family comes first."

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