After escaping the Taliban, hundreds of Afghans languish in Albania in a prolonged US visa process

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Shengjin (AP) — Almost two years since he fled Afghanistan to escape the Taliban takeover, Firooz Mashoof is still haunted by the memory of his last day in Kabul — the bus that took him to the airport, getting on a packed plane and taking off as gunfire echoed across the city.

“The last thing I saw were the mountains around Kabul and the dreary sunset as the Qatar Airways took off,” he said.

Today, thousands of miles from his homeland, the 35-year-old photojournalist and former employee of the Afghan soccer federation, is languishing in warm and sunny Albania. With each passing day, his anxiety grows over the delay in the promised U.S. visa, casting a shadow on his dreams of a new beginning in America.

For hundreds of others like him, it’s an emotional roller coaster. Some try to find work and live with a semblance of normalcy but the concern and fear for families back home permeates their days — even in welcoming Albania.

They are hopeful, despite the prolonged bureaucracy, and look to a new life.

In Shengjin, a town on the Adriatic coast some 70 kilometers (45 miles) northwest of the Albanian capital of Tirana where hundreds of Afghans were given temporary shelter, Mashoof often goes for long walks by the sea. He has found work at a mall, an hour’s bus ride away.

The walks stave off panic attacks that he has been forgotten — or the “crazy fear” for his family back in western Herat province.

“I was saved, … and now I am to start my new life in America,” he said, “But when?”

The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021 as U.S. and NATO troops were in the final weeks of their withdrawal from the country after two decades of war and as the U.S.-backed Afghan government and military crumbled.

Despite initial promises of a more moderate rule, they soon started to enforce restrictions on women and girls, barring them from public spaces and most jobs, and banning education for girls beyond the sixth grade.

The measures harked back to the previous Taliban rule of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, when they also imposed their strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia. The harsh edicts prompted an international outcry against the already ostracized Taliban, whose administration has not been officially recognized by the United Nations or the international community.

As the Taliban pursued an ever more hard-line path, a severe economic downturn followed, despite efforts by aid agencies to help large swaths of the impoverished nation.

In the days of the chaotic pullout, Washington had decided to take in all those who had worked for the U.S. government and American troops or for U.S.-based media organizations and nongovernmental groups in Afghanistan. But over time, the complicated visa process for Afghans who demonstrate they are at risk of persecution became protracted.

More than 3,200 Afghans have stayed in Albania’s tourist resorts along the Adriatic Sea. A NATO member, Albania first agreed to house fleeing Afghans for one year before they move for final settlement in the United States, then pledged to keep them for longer if their visas were delayed.

There are about 76,000 Afghans already in the U.S., where congressional efforts meant to permanently resolve their immigration status have also stalled.

A top Albanian government official told The Associated Press that the authorities in Tirana would not be against keeping Afghans more long-term in the Balkan country, if they can find jobs. The official did not elaborate and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the subject.

Last year, a small group of Afghans in Shengjin staged a protest, calling on Washington to speed up the process of their transfer. Some women and children held posters reading, “We are forgotten.”

“I don’t have the heart to protest because of the delay,” Mashoof said. “There is nothing I can do.”

Fazil Mohammad Shahab, a senior soccer federation official in Afghanistan, came to Albania in November 2021. Unlike many of the thousands of tourists who visit Shengjin and other Albanian resorts, he doesn’t see the pristine coastline as an unspoiled paradise.

“For me, it’s a place of waiting,” he said.

On a sunny day earlier this month in Shengjin, Afghan women holding scarves clustered in small groups as their children played on the grass. Afghan couples walked along the beach or sat at a nearby café.

Farishta Oustovar, a television news reporter and a former player on Afghanistan’s national volleyball team, arrived in Albania in September 2021. Within two months she found work — first at a hotel, then at a shoe factory and finally at a childcare center.

“I need to feel that I can have a normal life,” said the 23-year-old, despite worries for her family in Herat.

A popular TV presenter and comedian, 30-year-old Qasim Taban resumed producing funny YouTube clips from Shengjin. He says he finds strength in humor and is hopeful friends and fans back home can see the videos.

“We, here in Albania, and also Afghans back in Afghanistan need to laugh,” he said.

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