At age 12, he fled the Taliban to try to save his family. Then he faced years in US custody

Under the cloak of night, as Taliban gunmen roamed the streets outside, 12-year-old Mohammad Halim Shams quietly said goodbye to his sleeping parents, slipped out of the Kabul home he shared with his nine brothers and sisters and headed to Hamid Karzai International Airport.

His goal: Get on a flight out of Afghanistan, and find a way to get his family out, too. 

The Taliban had just taken over the Afghan capital and, though he was only 12, Mohammad knew what was to come. The Islamic fundamentalist group would soon prohibit girls from returning to secondary schools. They would unleash extrajudicial killings on former Afghan government and military employees. They would darken the future for him and his siblings. 

Carrying just a Samsung cell phone, his tazkira, or Afghan identity card, and 400 afghanis (less than $5), Mohammad forged through the city streets. The airport was already collapsing into chaos and bloodshed that would last for weeks. Thousands of Afghans would try desperately to evacuate. Taliban fighters guarding the gates would fire their rifles toward the throngs. A suicide bomber would trigger a blast amid a crowd and kill nearly 200 people. 

Mohammad would take his chances. 

Through fate and more than a little luck, he made it onto a flight that month, August 2021, and soon reached the safety of the United States. But for children like Mohammad, the journey to safety did not end there. It only began.

Mohammad’s story reveals a rarely seen consequence of the American exit from Afghanistan. Children who fled without their parents arrived in the U.S. as unaccompanied minors, making them perhaps the most vulnerable evacuees of all.

By the time Mohammad reached a federally run shelter in New York a few months later, the U.S. government was more than halfway through the process of reuniting thousands of Central American families with their children, who had been taken from them under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. He joined more than 1,600 new Afghan children who were beginning to stream, virtually unknown, into the same system of federal custody.

The Afghan children's future would be clouded by the international complexities of reconnecting them with families who now live under Taliban rule. 

Even after two years in the United States, hundreds of those children may still be waiting. 

As of late March, the latest date for which figures are available, 184 children in long-term foster care remained separated from their families, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Fifty-five children still lived in federal shelters. 

The story of Mohammad, who is now 14, is based on interviews with him and his family, immigration attorneys and advocates for migrant youth, as well as documents and statistics provided to USA TODAY by the U.S. Department of Health and Human and Services and the U.S. State Department. 

When he first arrived, he was alone. He spoke no English. He had no way to know what would happen. And for nearly the next two years, he would plead for one thing: His family. 

Fleeing Kabul 

Mohammad Shams at Broderick Park in Buffalo, New York, Aug. 7, 2023.

Mohammad had worked for much of his young life, first as a shoe shiner and mechanic’s helper at an auto shop, then at a Kabul hospital, cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors, providing meager means for his family to allow his younger siblings to get an education. Sara, five years younger, dreamed of someday becoming a doctor. Irshad, his brother who was two years younger, wanted to be a teacher. Mohammad never learned to read or write, and he didn’t want his siblings going down the same route.

“I wanted a good life for them,” he said.

As the Taliban swept into Kabul, Mohammad felt those dreams dissolving. Word quickly spread that the armed group would impose draconian restrictions on society and shut down schools for girls. After a late shift at the hospital one night in August 2021, Mohammad made the decision to leave his home country. He didn’t tell his parents out of fear that they would try to talk him out of it, he said.

He reached the Kabul airport in the darkness of night, waded across a sewage-strewn canal and waited nearly a week with hordes of other Afghans outside a U.S.-manned checkpoint for a chance to get inside, he said. He ate what he could and drank water only when others offered it to him. When a commotion broke out at the gate, Mohammad said, he darted past the military police and ran onto the airport grounds.

Inside, he was placed in a room with other unaccompanied children. After another day of waiting, he was placed on a flight to Qatar. Mohammad spent four months on a U.S. military base there with other youth. Initially, he was told he would be sent to Canada. But on the day the flight was scheduled to leave, authorities told him the flight to Canada had been canceled. He’d be going to the United States, instead. 

Mohammad didn’t speak English, and any knowledge he had about his new host country was limited to a few scraps of information gleaned from family and friends in Kabul. “All I knew about the United States was that they spoke English and they’re not Muslim,” he said. But he readily agreed to go.

“I just wanted to get my family out of Afghanistan,” he said. “I wanted to go anywhere.”

Special report:Staying could mean death. The escape nearly killed her. How one woman fled Afghanistan for freedom.

‘Their lives are on hold’ 

When the Taliban rumbled into the Afghan capital two years ago this week, ending two decades of American control in the country, Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government and were most at risk of retaliation were given priority to evacuate in the form of special immigrant visas. But in the chaotic crush, many people without visas, especially young children, were allowed through checkpoints and placed on massive C-17 military planes bound for Europe and the U.S.

Of the more than 100,000 Afghan nationals who have been assisted in relocating to the United States, records from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement show the country has taken in more than 1,600 Afghan unaccompanied minors since the fall of Kabul. 

As federal officials scrambled to accommodate them, shelters struggled to keep up with the children’s language and cultural needs. Many of the shelters lacked Pashto or Dari interpreters – the two most commonly-spoken languages in Afghanistan, advocates said.

Many of the children were also traumatized from what often was a tragic separation of their families at Kabul’s airport, said Mary Giovagnoli, senior counsel for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy group that assists migrant children. Unlike the thousands of unaccompanied minors who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border each year from Central and Latin America, many of whom willingly come alone, many of the Afghan children believed they were evacuating with their families but were separated during the violent chaos at the airport, she said.

Unaccompanied youth from Latin America often have some relatives already in the United States waiting to take them in, while the Afghan children arrived with no family connections. Reuniting them with family members often still in Afghanistan or third countries became an immigration challenge involving a myriad of state agencies, Giovagnoli said.

“Afghan minors [in ORR custody] have watched children from other countries depart facilities to reunite with family and wonder why they remain behind,” she said. “They inevitably suffer from ‘detention fatigue’ and can feel lost and that their lives are on hold.”

The shelters, she noted, could make that feeling worse. They had programs meant for children from Central America, who might wait days or weeks before connecting with a relative in the U.S. But Afghan children ended up waiting more than a year.  

“ORR custody,” she said, “simply isn’t designed for yearlong stays.”

More from Afghanistan:After six deployments, he was ready to leave the war. It followed him to Pennsylvania

Life inside the shelter

Mohammad Shams, 14, was sent to live at an immigrant children's shelter in the United States. There, he learned both English and Spanish, and kept a notebook of his schoolwork.

In the U.S., Mohammad was placed in ORR custody and transported to the Children’s Village shelter in New York. 

For his first few days at the shelter, Mohammad wouldn’t eat for fear that the food wasn’t halal, or prepared as prescribed by Muslim tradition. With no Pashto interpreter, he couldn’t communicate with shelter officials. He kept asking for his family but was not understood, he said. He not only missed his family but feared that the Taliban would retaliate against them if they discovered he had fled to the United States, Mohammad said. Finally, the shelter found a Pashto interpreter that they could call to help him communicate.

“I told them I don’t want anything else, just my family to get out of Afghanistan,” he said. “They told me, ‘There’s nothing we can do. We’ll talk about it later.’”

Mohammad was able to speak with his family during short phone calls. The calls assured him his family was still OK but were agonizing for Mohammad. He would retreat to his dorm after the calls and punch the walls and cry, he said, not knowing when he would see his family again. He didn’t even know the address of his shelter. (Children’s Village, which has run a shelter for migrant children in Dobbs Ferry, New York, did not respond to questions about Mohammad’s care.)

Weeks stretched into months. Mohammad initially wouldn’t interact with anyone. Slowly, he began memorizing English words and phrases. He would watch the other kids, mostly Dominican and Mexican, play soccer. A shelter official taught him how to play chess. Some of the other kids taught him Spanish and how to play basketball. He learned to say “Hello” and “Hola”; “I’m from Afghanistan” and “Yo soy de Afganistán”; “What is there to eat?” and “¿Qué hay para comer?” 

Meanwhile, attorneys at The Door, a New York-based advocacy group that represents migrant youths, struggled to try to reunite Mohammad with his family. They were trying to figure out what would happen to the children and how to reunite them with their families, said Maya Jacob, a staff attorney who worked with Mohammad. 

They found the government didn’t have a lot of answers.

“There was no actual plan,” she said. “The government was trying to figure things out as we went.”

How to reunite families?  

Aug 7, 2023; Buffalo, NY, USA Mohammad Shams, 14, is pictured at Broderick Park in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, August 7, 2023. Shams arrived alone to the U.S. in November 2021, just two months after the fall of Kabul. He didn't speak English and had no other relatives with him. At the two-year anniversary of the U.S.'s hasty retreat from Afghanistan, authorities continue to struggle with what to do with the remaining Afghan youths in U.S. custody.

Since August 2021, U.S. authorities have said they supported the reunification and resettlement of Afghan families. 

Those who could show they worked for the U.S.-backed Afghan government or military and were vetted by U.S. officials were granted humanitarian parole and allowed into the U.S. 

In November 2021, the State Department created an online portal with forms for Afghan families attempting to reunite. A special office in the department worked to seek out family members left behind in Afghanistan and bring them to the United States. 

Details of how that worked, however, were not often publicized, given the sensitivity of the matter and the tenuous relations between the U.S. and the Taliban, advocates said. Of the 100,000 Afghans who have been resettled, the State Department won’t say how many remain separated from immediate family members.

“We have been actively pursuing all potentially viable options to reunite families quickly and efficiently,” the department said in a statement. 

One of the biggest challenges: passports. Many Afghans didn’t have viable passports and the Taliban government was slow or reluctant to issue new ones, said Jennie Guilfoyle, a legal director with VECINA, an Austin-based immigrants’ rights group that has worked with unaccompanied Afghan minors. 

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