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Testimony of "Mina Burhani"

Refugee from Afghanistan -- Granted Asylum in the U.S.

Immigration Subcommittee
Committee on the Judiciary
United States Senate

May 3, 2001

Chairman Brownback and other Senators, I am grateful for the chance to talk today about my own experience as a refugee seeking asylum here.

I appreciate your cooperation in keeping my identity confidential as I fear that my family in Afghanistan might be further endangered if it was known that I have fled to the U.S. and spoken out about my treatment in Afghanistan.

I was a medical student in Afghanistan before I was forced to leave school when the Taliban ordered women out of the schools. The Taliban took a particular interest in me because my sisters had converted to Christianity and because, together with one sister, I ran a school to teach young girls. Though I tried to keep the school secret, the Taliban discovered what we were doing. They raided the school and closed it down. They beat me and threatened to kill me. They said that they knew I was a Christian probably because they knew that my sisters are Christian. They said that my punishment would be a lesson to others. I am sure that you know, Senators, that the Taliban treats those who disobey its orders very harshly. I was very frightened and knew that I had to flee from Afghanistan. When I left, I took only one extra set of clothes and some money. I did not bring identification with me because I knew that if the Taliban stopped me, it would be dangerous if they learned my identity, because my family is so despised by them.

I fled to the U.S. and arrived at JFK airport in October 1998. After the INS interviewed me, an officer ordered me to take my clothes off. When I hesitated, she ordered me to do what she said. I was confused and humiliated. Then they shackled me to a bench. I thought that they were going to send me back to Afghanistan. I was so scared that I fainted. As they took me to the hospital, I was still scared and told them "Don't send me back. Please kill me here, but don't send me back."

I was eventually brought to Wackenhut, which is a kind of jail for asylum seekers like me. I was brought there in handcuffs and shackled to another person I did not know who was also seeking asylum. At the Wackenhut facility, they took away my clothes and gave me an orange prison uniform. I was treated like a criminal. I was kept in a room with 12 other women for 23 hours a day. There was no privacy. The toilets and shower were in the same room behind only a low wall - so that you could see someone's upper body as they sat on the toilet. We were only taken out of the room for one hour a day; the outdoor recreation area was really like a cage -- an internal courtyard with a fence for a roof. We could not see the trees or anything other than a small patch of sky through the fencing. Every day, guards woke us up at 6am and told to stand in a line to be counted. They searched us several times a week.

My pro bono lawyers tried to get me out of this terrible place. They applied for parole for me. I have one sister in this country and she is an American citizen. My sister signed an affidavit promising to house and support me if the INS would let me out. But they refused. We could not appeal to a judge or anyone outside the INS. It was very difficult for me to be detained. When my sister came to visit me on Christmas Eve, she was so upset, she begged an INS official to release me. Meanwhile, the Lawyers Committee told some Members of the United States Congress about what was happening to me, and one of them raised my case with the INS. It was only because someone so powerful and respected had compassion for me and intervened that I wasn't detained for even longer. I was detained like a criminal for over three months, but many of the refugee women I met there were detained for even longer. One woman I knew who had fled from Uganda was detained for about 2 years before she was finally granted asylum.

I am now attending the University of Baltimore and received a scholarship for my studies.

I am happy to learn that there are U.S. Senators who are concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers in this country. I believe that this country is a wonderful country and thank you for your efforts to improve its treatment of refugees.

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