Beginning 8 a.m. March 16, the former Afghan soldier spent four hours answering every question the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer had — recounting why he had to leave Afghanistan after the war came to an abrupt end in 2021, why he had to cross three continents to escape the Taliban and why he had to join his brother, Sami-ullah Safi, in Houston.
Since Wasi was arrested at the Texas-Mexico border in September 2022, he has told anyone who asked that he had a “credible fear of persecution or torture” and needed asylum in the U.S. An hour after his interview, the federal government gave its initial approval: Wasi, as he is known by his family and friends, would get to make his case in front of a judge in July.
“I feel so good,” Wasi said. “They give me court date in three months, now I don’t know what they do with me, what they say. I’m scared. I don’t know what [will] happen with my life.”
With a court date set, Wasi inches closer to legal residence in the United States and puts his perilous global trek behind him.
Yet Wasi continues to feel on edge. He lives with the constant fear of deportation. His physical recovery is slow, and he likely will live the rest of his life with disabilities. Not a day passes that Wasi doesn’t think about the rest of his family in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
And so Wasi sets on parallel journeys: becoming a legal resident and healing.
Quest for asylum
After spending months crossing the world, Wasi was arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border after he was apparently dropped there by a smuggler. The former Afghan soldier had long imagined he would be welcomed as a war hero. Instead, he was charged with a federal criminal misdemeanor for failure to report with the correct documentation. He was detained for months as his brother — a former U.S. contractor who helped translate during the Afghanistan war — pleaded with government officials for his release.
After Congressional intervention by Houston U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Wasi was finally released, and the charges were dismissed in January “in the interest of justice.”
But an expedited removal order remained.
Without legal status in the U.S., immigration authorities could detain and deport him without appearing in front of a judge. To some legal experts, deporting Wasi back to Afghanistan would be seen as an “absurd” interpretation of the law. A human rights treaty called the Convention Against Torture might protect Wasi from such a fate, but the U.S. government has burned him before.
Even with the quasi-legal status he has now, the fear of deportation haunts Wasi in big and small ways.
Months after life behind the bars of a detention center, Wasi said he feels like he is on constant house arrest without the ability to work or drive. He seems to risk his freedom each time he steps out into the public.
At the gym where he tries to regain his former strength and speed, Wasi scans his brother’s membership card; the staff wouldn’t give him a membership without a valid ID. At peak performance, he said, he could run more than 3 miles in 15 minutes. His first day at the gym he had pain from simply walking on the treadmill.
In a more serious case, Wasi’s lack of identification could have been life-threatening.
Days before his “credible fear” interview, while Wasi pedaled to the gym on the new black Schwinn his brother bought for him, a motorist collided with him at an intersection. Wasi fell to the ground, his skin grinding against the asphalt. Wasi said the driver asked him not to report the incident, but he hadn’t planned to call authorities anyway.
“If I call to police, police take me,” Wasi said. He didn’t want to be taken from his brother, detained again or deported to a country whose government was trying to kill him.
Wasi’s immigration legal team declined to comment on Wasi’s specific next steps, but the court date in July is the big one. If the U.S. government grants him asylum, he can live and work legally within the United States. With asylee status, the world opens to him. He can apply for jobs. He’s considering the trucking industry, since it wouldn’t require extensive language skills. The money would help his family back home. He can travel internationally to most places except Afghanistan.
He can breathe a little easier in his new home and not feel the constraints his limited status gives him now. And he can get his own gym membership.
Healing with scars
Wasi’s journey to the U.S. was paved with physical altercation. At one point, guards near the border of Panama near the Darién Gap beat him.
Wasi is healing, but with scars.
He can no longer hear in his left ear. Hearing in his right ear is also a challenge. It’s more difficult to distinguish specific sounds, Wasi said. An audiologist and surgical team found his left eardrum completely ruptured. It will never heal, they said. And there is no surgical solution to improve hearing in his right ear without risk of worsening the hearing he has remaining.
After Wasi’s initial release from the detention center, his brother Sami took him straight to a dentist.
Bryan Ritchey , a doctor of dental surgery, heard about Wasi’s case months before his release. He coordinated with a Houston volunteer to work with Wasi as soon as he was free. Wasi had been in agonizing pain for months after the Panama beating. He complained to officials at the detention center multiple times but was not offered extensive options.
The first day, Ritchey’s team worked on Wasi for five and a half hours. Since then, Wasi has had more than 25 hours in a dentist’s chair to repair his jaw and teeth.
“He’s probably had a lifetime of dentistry in the last two months,” Ritchey said.
Wasi’s support team says some of his injuries could have been improved while in custody. Documents reviewed by The Texas Tribune show Wasi repeatedly sought treatment, but there is no evidence his injuries received the level of care needed. His medical and dental intake records at Eden Detention Center, a private facility run by the CoreCivic company, show providers recorded his pain at a zero, which is contrary to what Wasi has told the Tribune in the past. Providers also noted his primary language as English, but it is Pashto, one of the two predominant languages spoken in Afghanistan.
The quality of care provided to Wasi seemed to consist primarily of a limited oral evaluation and no pain relief while in Eden Detention Center. Records show that Wasi complained of loose crowns on his teeth. The dentist who saw Wasi primarily noted after more than a month of recorded complaints that the facility didn’t have the cement on hand or in stock to fix Wasi’s loose crowns.
A month earlier, the same dentist told Wasi “to seek dental treatment once beyond the scope of routine dental treatment and that extraction is the only other treatment available.”
According to Wasi’s dentist in Houston, if Wasi had agreed to the extractions to alleviate his pain, he would have effectively lost his ability to chew with any molars, further adding to his disabilities.
CoreCivic, the company that runs the detention center, declined an interview but released a statement.
“The EDC health services team follows both CoreCivic’s standards for medical care and the standards set forth by our government partners,” said Brian Todd, the company’s manager of public affairs.. “Licensed medical staff are onsite and available 24/7 to provide high-quality care for anyone who needs it.”
The Taliban’s grip
Permanent hearing loss is just one of many seemingly insurmountable obstacles Wasi faces daily.
Mentally, he still deals with trauma. He often thinks about the country he tried to protect from the Taliban. He wonders if he’ll ever see his family — who are harassed for their sons’ involvement with the U.S. — again. He agonizes over his ex-fiancee who said he was a different person after being held captive. He tries to reconcile how he was treated like a criminal at the U.S. border and in custody.
Wasi’s concern for his family is not unfounded.
After his story went international, the Safi family said their parents and other brothers and sisters needed to hide, fearing more of the Taliban’s retaliation once the story reached Afghanistan. A younger brother had already been captured and beaten once by the Taliban, Sami said.
Since the Taliban takeover, women’s rights in the country have rolled back, reawakening the regime’s past oppression against half the population. Women in Afghanistan can no longer attend university, run for office, work in government or travel long distances without an escort and adherence to a strict dress code.
This is not the life the Safi brothers want for their younger sisters.
The weight of his family’s situation eats at him, chipping away at his once-firm resolve.
“Everybody feel like, ‘You special force, you have to be strong. Be this, be that.’ Yeah, I was strong, but it’s all because of me [that my family is in danger],” Wasi said. “I am human also. I am special force but firstly I am human. I have a heart like you, eyes, two hands, two legs. I am also human. I feel. I understand.”
To date, Sami said he has contacted various extraction organizations meant to help in situations like the Safis’, but no entity has been able to deliver their assistance without a cost.
Eid prayers at Al-Noor Masjid in Houston on Friday, April 21, 2023.
Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
First: Brothers Wasi and Sami wait for Eid prayers to begin at Al-Noor Masjid. Last: Sami hugs a friend as he leaves Eid prayers at Al-Noor Masjid.
Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
Wasi does his best daily to find chances to reclaim himself and his independence at the gym, in the kitchen cooking with his brother, in writing and in preparing for his case.
More recently, he and his brother have observed the holy month of Ramadan, which ended last week.
The first cooling sip of water in the evening comes as relief to Wasi after the long, hot Houston days. The brothers observe iftar, breaking their daylong fast from food and water after sunset with a large meal.
Wasi likes the camaraderie of the nearby mosque the brothers visit Friday afternoons. He said he prays for his family’s safety, and in turn, his family prays for his. Continents apart, they are united in their faith and goals to one day see each other free, safe and happy.
This time last year, neither brother felt they could adequately fast during the holy month. They barely held themselves together just ensuring Wasi survived.
“I pray all the time in this Ramadan because it’s a special month for all Muslims,” Wasi said. “We believe [that] in this month, what you want from God, God give you. I want my good future. I want to save my family. I pray just for that now.”
What he wants now is security for him and his family.
“I’m scared of my parents’ life. My mom, dad, sisters, brothers, because all the time when I talk with them, they say we can’t hide from Taliban forever,” Wasi said. “So this Ramadan, my family, my life is everything. It’s so hard now. But it’s better than when I was in Afghanistan. It’s better.”
Sami-ullah Safi and his brother Abdul Wasi Safi ride an elevator at the Galleria Mall in Houston on Feb. 2, 2023.
Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
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