For the past several months the nation’s attention has been rivetted on the ongoing humanitarian crisis at our southern border, where migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from Mexico and Central American countries are clamoring for a fair hearing and just treatment of their plight.
Absorbing almost daily the horrors of children already cruelly separated from their parents and, then, held in the most squalid conditions and seeing the image of a father and young daughter lying face down in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande, drowned while seeking asylum, how can we not be shaken to the core.
Yet, we must not forget that there are also hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from other parts of the world seeking refuge and humanitarian protection from persecution in their home country.
“Normally,” the asylum process should take six months or less after an application is filed, but a huge backlog of immigration court cases — approaching 900,000 cases — has led to asylum seekers waiting years to find out what their karma is.
While visiting South Padre Island this Spring, we met a charming young man working in an equally charming café. The young man, Roin Khurami, has been patiently waiting for almost four years for his asylum application to be accepted. The name of the café? You guessed it: Cafe Karma.
Young Roin Khurami was busy serving his customers while the café’s owner and now Khurami’s partner, Texas native Will Everett, was away in Khurami’s native country of Afghanistan doing aid work.
Although very busy brewing various coffees, preparing Mocha Frappés and serving Affogato to customers, Khurami still found time to chat with us.
And what a fascinating story!
Khurami, now 23, arrived in nearby Brownsville, Texas, in December 2015, after fleeing his native, war-ravaged Afghanistan for his own safety.
Khurami’s travel and exit from Afghanistan had been carefully arranged for by his long-time friend, sponsor and benefactor, Will Everett, a former journalist who currently works as a communications specialist for AID programs in Afghanistan.
Khurami’s arrival would only be the beginning of a long struggle to be granted asylum in the United States — a struggle that today, almost four years later, still continues.
But the story goes back even farther.
While working in Afghanistan, Everett met, befriended and employed Khurami in late 2014. Khurami was 18 and finishing high school when he interviewed Everett for a class project. Everett lived in a Kabul apartment and soon hired Khurami to do odd jobs and generally make Everett’s life easier.
Khurami used the money he earned to help his family and to attend the American University of Afghanistan to improve his English.
It all went well for about a year.
But then things turned sour. The two factors that were helping Khurami improve his life — earning a decent living working for an American and learning English at an American university — would become the very reasons for which he would be ostracized, persecuted and, eventually, forced to flee his native country.
In a society where suspicion of outsiders dominates the culture — only to be exacerbated by decades of invasions, wars and occupations, including the recent American “intervention” – it is no surprise that, soon, Khurami would feel the repercussions of his friendship with and his work for an American.
By now, Everett was living in a house that Khurami had found for him in a quiet Kabul neighborhood. Khurami’s comings and goings were soon noticed and word got around that he was associating with a khareji, or foreigner.
“I wasn’t doing anything wrong, just going to the market and watching the house when Will was away on leave, but Afghans can be resentful,” Khurami says. “They see you getting ahead and they want to pull you back down to their level. They use religion as an excuse.”
Accused of rejecting Islam, Khurami was ostracized by friends and even by some family members. He was told not to go back to the khareji and his life was threatened.
Khurami continued working for Everett anyway, and one day a gang of men pulled him into a side street and beat him with a pipe.
His parents feared for his life but did not have the resources nor the wherewithal to send their son to safety abroad. That’s when Everett stepped in.
While, according to Everett, every year hundreds of Afghans who work on behalf of American interests come to the U.S. on special immigration visas, Khurami didn’t qualify since he wasn’t formally employed by an organization. “He was just a young man who helped me around the house. But I knew that if I didn’t do something to help him, some tragedy was headed his way, largely because of me,” Everett says.
So, Everett invited Khurami to the U.S. on a tourist visa, seeing in him the ideal candidate for asylum.
Homeland Security defines an asylum seeker (“asylee”) as a refugee already in the U.S. “unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution…”
Young Khurami clearly meets those criteria.
He no longer has any close family in his home country – they have fled to Turkey. He has followed all rules and procedures and, yet, almost four years later, he is still waiting for his fate to be determined by U.S. bureaucracy.
“Asylum seekers are in a weird immigration category,” Everett says, referring to the complex and lengthy process asylees have to navigate.
“His life and future are on hold until a court determines his eligibility to remain in the U.S.” Everett says, but he and Khurami are making the best of it, under the circumstances.
The delightful Cafe Karma (below) was started by Everett and Khurami and is doing very well. So well that Khurami is dreaming of opening another coffee shop, perhaps even expanding it into a franchise. “He envisions Café Karmas all over Texas, perhaps across America,” says Everett.
Of course, Khurami’s dream could turn into his worst nightmare if his asylum application is denied and he is returned to Afghanistan, to face continued persecution – perhaps worse.
But Khurami has heard and read so much about the compassion, generosity and magnanimity of America and Americans that he truly believes the nightmare will soon be over and that he will be able to start repaying his host nation for the refuge it has given him so far – tenuous, temporary and uncertain as it may be.
If karma and the traditional values for which our nation is celebrated hold true for Khurami, his best days are still ahead.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.