Drew James, a veteran who was was among the U.S. Army’s first 10,000 soldiers with boots on the ground in Afghanistan, at the VFW Post 2100 on Friday in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Drew James, a veteran who was was among the U.S. Army’s first 10,000 soldiers with boots on the ground in Afghanistan, at the VFW Post 2100 on Friday in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Out of war-ending chaos comes a wave of new Americans

A newly arrived Afghan immigrant and U.S. veterans of the war there are anxiously watching developments.

LYNNWOOD — Irshad Hamidi is getting a phone call.

He has been dealing with a lot of surprises lately.

“I wish it’s a good one, come on,” Hamidi says into his phone Tuesday afternoon outside a Lynnwood apartment complex.

The next words out of his mouth are, “Whoa, whoa.” An apartment has opened in the building where he’s been staying with his cousin since arriving Aug. 5 from Kabul, Afghanistan. It could be perfect for Hamidi, his wife and his new baby boy.

It’s good news, he says after hanging up with the apartment manager.

Hamidi’s experience is one that will likely play out for thousands of Afghans in the coming months. They must try to start from square one, finding new jobs and new homes in a new nation, while fearing for the livelihood of family still stuck in their homeland.

Over 4,500 special immigrant visa holders have come to Washington since 2014, said Sarah Peterson, chief of the state Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance. That’s over one-fifth of all people resettled in the state through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in that time span.

From October 2020 to July 2021, Washington welcomed 348 Afghan immigrants, Peterson said. Only a few states, like California, Texas and Virginia, received more migrants from the country. And in the first two weeks of August, 160 people from Afghanistan resettled in the state. Of those, about 22 came to Snohomish County.

Going forward, if the federal government brings roughly 1,750 people per week from Afghanistan, 140 of those would likely come to Washington, Peterson added.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but it would seem something big is developing here,” said Greg Hope, director of the Diocese of Olympia’s Refugee Resettlement Office.

Van Dinh-Kuno, executive director of the Everett Community College-based Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest, said her organization has helped resettle over 20 Afghan families in Snohomish County in the past year.

“We could receive more people in … short order,” she said, adding she had never heard of Afghan families coming to Snohomish County before 2020.

To apply for the special immigrant visa, individuals from Afghanistan must work with the U.S. government for at least one year and experience persecution due to this connection. The resettlement process includes a health screening and multiple interviews.

That’s how Hamidi was able to come to Lynnwood.

‘All this work’

Will Lennon was packing up his house at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when he saw the news on television. It was Sept. 11, 2001.

His platoon was set for a six-month deployment to the Mediterranean. Instead, they sailed to Egypt for desert training, then to Pakistan in late November. They flew into southern Afghanistan early that December. He helped to establish a base there and provided security in Kandahar over about 2½ months.

Everyone in his unit who went to Afghanistan came home, Lennon said.

“Not everybody was as fortunate,” he said.

Drew James wears a band on his arm with the name of fellow veteran and friend Evan W. O’neil, who died in Afghanistan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Drew James wears a band on his arm with the name of fellow veteran and friend Evan W. O’neil, who died in Afghanistan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Lennon, now 52, retired from the Marine Corps in 2008. He lives in Snohomish now.

Drew James, who lives nearby in the Machias area, was among the U.S. Army’s first 10,000 soldiers with boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

By Oct. 1, 2001, he arrived in Uzbekistan. After he landed in Afghanistan, his unit provided security at Bagram Airfield.

The mission was simple, he said.

“It was go and destroy the Taliban and al-Qaeda right out of the get-go,” he said. “It was us getting revenge for America.”

James’s first tour ended in April 2002. He was back in Afghanistan in July 2003. Part of that tour was teaching the Afghan National Army how to fight.

The move to get American military forces out of Afghanistan was long overdue, James said. If he were in charge, James would have brought the troops home after Osama bin Laden was killed. That was a decade ago.

He left the military in 2008. The conflict had expanded into a global war on terror. It was an “unwinnable war,” James said.

Once U.S. forces left, a Taliban offensive was bound to happen, he said.

“With us not there having the air power, the superiority of everything that the military has, they’d just get overrun,” he said Wednesday. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

Lennon feels frustrated. Afghanistan has never been far from his mind. He has known people deployed there over the past 20 years. What happened in the past week hasn’t surprised him.

James said he has largely unplugged from the news, but he did see the footage of a C-17 — based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord — with Afghans clinging to the side as it took off. He said the hardest part of all is knowing Afghans who helped American forces during the war are endangered, while he’s safe here because of their help.

Meanwhile, he said, veterans of the war must feel the same way soldiers in Vietnam felt when they came back. It’s a feeling that “we did all this work for nothing.” That’s not true, James said.

“There’s a lot of different Afghanistan vets that have resentment because we all lost people that we knew, that we served with, and it’s tough for us,” he said. “That aspect of it is really tough because now we’re looking at it as, ‘They died for nothing.’ But they didn’t. Those that perished over there died protecting us.”

The failure, instead, is one of leadership, he said.

James sympathizes with the Afghans who came of age in a country at war.

Hamidi was one of them.

Will Lennon greets an Afghan child during his tour in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. (Contributed photo)

Will Lennon greets an Afghan child during his tour in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. (Contributed photo)

‘New world’

Hamidi’s son, who is 2½ months old, cried the entire journey.

The father, 30, felt the opposite: joy.

They came from Kabul to Fort Lee, Virginia, a common path for new Afghan immigrants. His family was there for four or five days until they flew to Sea-Tac Airport, en route to Lynnwood.

Hamidi is reluctant to talk about exactly what he did in Afghanistan to be able to come here. He would only say he worked for a project funded by the U.S. government. He said he lived in constant fear in Afghanistan.

“If you are caught working for them or they have slight proof that you are helping them or you are working for them, then you know they have only rule,” he said. “And the penalty is — I don’t even need to tell you.”

His concern now is for his mother, father and two younger brothers, who are still in Afghanistan. They, too, are afraid, he said. If he could bring them here, he would do it instantly.

Fearing retaliation, he asked not to be photographed by The Daily Herald.

State Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, a retired U.S. Navy commander, said it is the “right thing … and the moral thing” to help.

“We need to do our part in Washington,” he said. “They saved the lives of our troops overseas and we owe it to them.”

Washington, he said, has a history of welcoming refugees dating back to the Vietnam War. Those who can settle in the state will enrich Washington’s diversity, he said.

One of those who came to the United States from Vietnam in 1975 was Van Dinh-Kuno.

Dinh-Kuno, of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest, says her experience 46 years ago wasn’t that different from Afghans trying to leave now. Her father worked with the U.S. government. That connection meant they were promised an orderly way to America.

It didn’t work out like that, she said.

Instead, in a similar scene to the mayhem playing out now in Kabul, her family went to the airport. But they couldn’t catch a flight. They took a boat from Saigon to the Philippines, then were transported to a refugee camp in Arkansas for a few months before settling in Minnesota. She went to college there and eventually moved to Washington.

Greg Hope, of the Diocese of Olympia, said two large families had been set for months to come to Washington from Kabul, but their flights got scrubbed in the chaos there.

Hamidi, who was a refugee in Pakistan as a child before returning to Afghanistan, said the process is like starting from “ground zero.”

“You cannot explain it,” he said. “It’s like a whole new world.”

‘A good life’

James was at a post-redeployment health screening in 2006 when someone handed him a pamphlet.

It listed seven or eight symptoms for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“As I started reading through them, I went ‘Yep, yep, yep, yep, nope don’t have that one, yep, yep,” James said.

He was diagnosed with PTSD. He started talking to psychologists at VA hospitals about what he experienced in Afghanistan. The problem, however, is that many veterans don’t want to talk about their memories with people who can’t relate.

“You ask a veteran about what they did over there, and they’re going to leave out the bad stuff,” he said.

For example, James’ grandfather was a combat medic as Allied forces stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day, he said. His grandfather was also in the Battle of the Bulge and liberated concentration camps. He never talked about it with his grandson.

But when James got back after his first deployment, he shared his experiences from almost 60 years earlier, “because he understood that I knew,” he said.

James, an officer for the state Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, had one psychologist in California who had been deployed multiple times. He could talk to him, but since moving up to Washington, James has had no such luck. He said the VA doesn’t provide enough resources for mental health treatment.

Lennon said his network of Marines is pretty connected right now. Other veterans text him to see how he’s doing. He has done the same for many of them.

Hamidi, meanwhile, is building his new life in Lynnwood.

Once he gets his driver’s license, he figures he can start actively looking for more jobs. Maybe he’ll start in security or construction to make ends meet, he said.

Hamidi studied computer science at a university in Afghanistan, but he said he’s out of practice. He wants to take classes here with the hope he could get a job at Boeing or Amazon.

Groups like the Diocese of Olympia and Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest provide migrant families with emergency food assistance, personal protective equipment and rental assistance. For example, those two organizations are supporting Hamidi’s family. They can pay at least two months of rent for him. This is funded by state and local governments, as well as private donations.

The resettlement groups also help find people jobs and get them into courses to learn English. Hope said his organization does “maybe 50 things” for new arrivals, but these are the most important.

Hamidi said he is “really satisfied” with the help he has gotten. Without it, he said, he’d still be waiting in Afghanistan for his visa to be issued, like thousands of his compatriots.

He said while half of his life might already be over, his son has a whole life ahead of him.

“When I was working there, in Kabul, it was one of my goals to move to states and make a living for my baby,” Hamidi said. “So the sufferings I have faced, he does not face, so that he could have a good life.”

He was waiting Friday for approval for the apartment. He said he’s confident.

“It’s always good to be optimistic about life.”

Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

How veterans can get help

The 24/7 veteran anonymous crisis line is 1-800-273-8255. You can also text the line at 838255 or chat online. The Everett Veterans Center also has counseling available for veterans and their families.

How to help Afghan immigrants

Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest is seeking volunteers to teach English and provide household needs to new arrivals. Volunteers for the Diocese of Olympia’s Refugee Resettlement Office can sign up to mentor kids and manage cases.

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