Afghan Refugees

Stripped of their names, refugees head to court

A maddening bit of bureaucracy has erased the names of thousands of Afghan refugees arriving in the United States, making it harder for them to launch their new lives. Special Immigrant Visas granting them U.S. entry, such as this one belonging to Faisal Razmal, listed their first names as last names. Their last names were replaced with an acronym “FNU” – standing for “first name unknown.”
A maddening bit of bureaucracy has erased the names of thousands of Afghan refugees arriving in the United States, making it harder for them to launch their new lives. Special Immigrant Visas granting them U.S. entry, such as this one belonging to Faisal Razmal, listed their first names as last names. Their last names were replaced with an acronym “FNU” – standing for “first name unknown.” rbyer@sacbee.com

A maddening bit of bureaucracy has erased the names of thousands of Afghan refugees arriving in the United States, making it harder for them to launch their new lives.

Special Immigrant Visas granting them entry to this country omitted their last names. Instead, their first names were repurposed as last names. The spot where a first name would normally go contains an acronym – FNU – that stands for “first name unknown.”

Apartment complexes in Sacramento County are full of people with these truncated names: FNU Faisal, FNU Imran, FNU Mehran and so on. On every public document they receive – school records, medical documents, police reports, food stamps, social service records, driver’s licenses – they’re listed as FNU.

On the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office website, Mustafa Rafi, an electrical engineer who was hit and killed by a car last year while riding his bike, is identified as FNU Mustafa.

Kim Minugh, spokeswoman for the San Juan Unified School District, said there are more than 382 Afghan refugees spread across 22 schools in the district, and as many as 30 percent of them registered as FNU.

“It’s disheartening and, I’m sure for them, dehumanizing,” Minugh said.

The lack of an official first and last name can cause delays for refugees trying to apply for jobs, travel and sign up for public services.

Dr. Fahim Pirzada, who served as a protocol officer at the American Embassy in Kabul, said that when he first visited the U.S. in 2004, he was detained at the Dallas airport “because my last name was not on my travel documents, and they said I was using fake documents.”

He showed U.S. immigration officials his embassy badge and the letter from the training program he would be attending. But he was nonetheless required to stay overnight at the airport while they contacted the U.S. Embassy.

This experience gave Pirzada an advantage when applying for his Special Immigrant Visa in 2014. Unlike most of his fellow refugees, he knew enough to insist that Afghan authorities give him a passport with his entire name, and to make sure that’s what appeared on his U.S. visa.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon said he’s disturbed by the FNU snafu, along with reports of hardship suffered by recently arrived visa holders. Blumenauer authored the bill that authorized Special Immigrant Visa status for Afghans who served with U.S. and NATO troops during the war in Afghanistan.

“All of a sudden, you’ve got dozens of people with a first name FNU, and it’s confusing,” he said. “Many refugees don’t have the skill or money to change FNU. It’s hard to get jobs, hard to get services.”

Both Pirzada and representatives of the U.S. State Department said the mix-up can be traced to Afghan culture. Because Afghanistan doesn’t require anything but first names on the Afghan passport, “the name on their passport is their legal name and may not conform to the Western custom of having the first and last name on the passport,” said Beth Finan, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

If there is just a first name on Afghan passports or ID cards, that name is entered as the last name, and FNU is entered as the first name because the names on U.S. and Afghan documents need to match for security checks, Finan said. “This is not a problem unique to Afghans; we see this a lot in India where people only have one name on their passports, too.”

Last year, the Afghan government began to require Afghans to give both their given name and last name on their passports, which could eliminate the wave of refugees named FNU, Finan added. “We as the U.S. government are committed to supporting those who at great personal risk helped us. We’re fully aware of what we owe to our Afghan colleagues.”

A number of Afghan refugees have managed to file name change petitions in Sacramento Superior Court, but it can be a costly, cumbersome process.

Yalda Kabiri, a former interpreter for U.S. forces who helped provide medical care to Afghans, said she was shocked to learn that her green card listed her as FNU Yalda. “I said, ‘What’s FNU?’” she recalled.

Her husband, Zabihullah Najem, also named FNU when he arrived, embarked on a crusade to change as many Afghans’ names back as possible.

“It took my husband nine months to get me a first name and a last name,” Kabiri said.

Najem said he went to court and filed papers for a name change on behalf of his wife and others. “I’ve helped 30 families and more than 100 people get back their names,” he said.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

How to get a name back

  • File a name change petition in Sacramento Superior Court. The petition package is available at http://sacb.ee/filing-name-change.
  • Bring completed documents to the Civil Name and/or Gender Change Service Window in the courthouse at 720 Ninth St., Room 102, Sacramento, CA 95814, Tuesday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to noon.
  • Pay filing fee of $435 or apply for a fee waiver based on financial hardship.
  • Petitioners will receive a hearing date between six and 12 weeks later.
  • Prior to that date, petitioners must take out an ad in one of a dozen Sacramento County newspapers once a week for four successive weeks. The ad – called an Order to Show Cause for Change of Name – includes the name change and date of the hearing, and includes an invitation for anyone who objects to attend or file their reasons with the court.
  • The petitioner will need to file a proof of newspaper publication with the court for each name change requested.
  • The day prior to the hearing, the court will issue a tentative ruling telling parties if their name change petition is granted or if appearance is required at the hearing.
  • If granted, the court will mail the parties the order regarding the name change petition. If a hearing is required, the court will rule on the change of name on that date, and those applicants who don’t attend can look up the court’s finding on the website.

Source: Kim Pedersen, public information officer, Superior Court of California

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