On the last day of Rezwan Kohistani’s life, he ate lunch alone.
Three other boys were at his table in the high school cafeteria, two of their trays touching Rezwan’s, surveillance video shows. They laughed among themselves, seemingly oblivious to their classmate, even after one of the boys accidentally knocked over Rezwan’s milk carton.
Rezwan, a tall and handsome freshman, had arrived at the school four months earlier, after fleeing Afghanistan with his family. He sat at the table for a few more minutes, at one point covering his face in apparent distress. Then he got up and made his way through the halls, past a bulletin board announcing, “You belong.”
Rezwan pushed open the school door, walked out into the rain and sent his mother a text in his native language, Dari, saying “goodbye.”
Months earlier, the Kohistanis had been among the lucky ones. The eight members of the Kohistani family had fled Kabul as it fell to the Taliban in August 2021, catching an overcrowded evacuation flight arranged as part of President Joe Biden’s pledge to rescue Afghan allies. Rezwan’s father, Lemar, had spent years risking his life to distribute fuel to the Americans.
The Kohistanis, especially 14-year-old Rezwan, saw their arrival in America as an opportunity. But the family found itself isolated in a new home that made little sense to them: Oronogo, a sleepy town of 2,500 in southwest Missouri where almost all of the residents are white.
There were no other Afghans for miles. A few other Afghan refugees were scattered across the surrounding Joplin metropolitan area. That part of Missouri has a history with the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings, and today it has few immigrants of any nationality. About a decade ago, the area’s only mosque was shot at and then set ablaze.
Rezwan’s school had never enrolled a newly arrived refugee, according to administrators. Without Dari interpreters on staff, Rezwan used Google Translate to try to engage with his teachers and classmates. He sometimes came home crying, telling his family that he’d been mocked for things like fasting during Ramadan. His teacher, noticing him struggle with attendance and grades, sent repeated pleas for help to his resettlement agency, to no avail.
“We’d been left alone,” said Lemar. “We tried to leave. But what do I know about how this system works?”
How did the Kohistanis wind up so cut off from other Afghans? And how did Rezwan end up at a school that didn’t know what to do with him? The answer lies in a cascading series of failures that stretched from a tiny Missouri nonprofit to the White House, which was ill-prepared to handle the human fallout of America’s longest war.
The United States has a long and fraught history when it comes to welcoming refugees. For decades, the resettlement system has been chronically underfunded, with the government outsourcing the work to a network of often-overstretched nonprofits that are supposed to help refugees navigate their new and deeply foreign worlds.
The system was further gutted when President Donald Trump slashed the number of refugees that the U.S. would accept each year by 80%. Hundreds of nonprofits, which relied on a small payment for each refugee they handled, had to cut their staff or simply close.
As a candidate, Biden had promised to reverse Trump’s cuts and “reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees.” Once he became president, experts, advocates and members of Congress also urged him specifically to do more to evacuate Afghan allies before U.S. troops withdrew.
But the administration let in only a trickle of Afghans. And Biden wavered on his pledge to cancel Trump’s historically low cap on refugees. The White House said it needed to assess the damage done by the previous administration. After pressure from advocates in the spring of 2021, Biden agreed to let in more refugees, but even then he raised the cap to only three-quarters of the pre-Trump numbers.
By August, when Kabul fell, most resettlement nonprofits that relied on federal payments were only just beginning to rebuild. Suddenly, they were forced to handle the U.S.’s biggest refugee influx in decades.
“They brought in numbers that were close to the amount we would resettle as a nation in a year, but they did it in a month,” said Ann O’Brien, an official at a Connecticut resettlement organization that remained open after Trump’s cuts by relying on volunteers.
O’Brien and others said their groups initially had to pay out of their own pockets to care for the incoming Afghans, as Biden and Congress took nearly two months to allocate emergency funds.
“All the resettlement agencies were welcoming families with no federal funds coming through,” O’Brien said. “We were fronting the federal government cash to take care of these families.”
Reports that Afghans were not getting the help they needed began piling up across the country. The refugees were being left without food and found themselves facing eviction and unable to get in contact with the nonprofits tasked with helping them.
When the Kohistanis arrived in the U.S., they were among tens of thousands of Afghans packed into military bases. They waited for a placement for four months in Fort Dix in New Jersey.
By many accounts, the Russian-doll-like resettlement system buckled under the strain. The government relies on nine federally designated nonprofit organizations, which, in turn, often outsource the critical work of resettlement to subcontractors who are tasked with finding homes, jobs, medical care and schools for refugee families. In exchange, the government pays $2,275 per refugee.
Every Wednesday, the U.S. Department of State hosts a Zoom call with resettlement groups, who then select refugees to take.
Lemar had initially asked to be resettled near cousins in Los Angeles, but as a second choice, he offered St. Louis, where an aunt lives. During a December call, one of the nonprofits, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, selected the Kohistani file.
Soon after, Lemar’s aunt, Marina Kohistani, received a call from a resettlement official to verify the relationship. Marina vowed to support the family. She had fled Afghanistan nearly two decades before and knew the family would need extra help.
“I told them the kids need special support,” Marina recalled. “Life here is different in so many ways.”
Lemar said he was soon told that his case had been assigned to a resettlement subcontractor, the International Institute of St. Louis.
St. Louis had been ranked highly by the State Department as a relocation spot for Afghan refugees because of its relative affordability and the availability of jobs, housing and services. It has a school dedicated to students new to the U.S., complete with Dari and Pashto interpreters, along with teachers trained to recognize early signs of stress.
But in August of 2021, the International Institute was only just beginning to rebuild after Trump’s cuts. It had nearly two dozen job openings, including for caseworkers, job placement coordinators and school program managers.
“There wasn’t enough time to hire and train staff, plus no money to do so,” said Anna Crosslin, who served as the organization’s director for many years but left in the spring of last year, before the Kohistanis arrived.
Paul Costigan, who helps run the International Institute’s refugee program (and who also oversees Missouri’s resettlement program as the state refugee coordinator), said he hadn’t known the family wanted to go to St. Louis. “I think if we knew they wanted St. Louis, that would have been approved,” he said.
Instead, the International Institute assigned the Kohistanis and other families to their branch 200 miles away, the International Institute of Southwest Missouri.
“We’re a small office,” said Rebekah Thomas, director of the southwest Missouri branch. “We were quickly overwhelmed.”
So her office further outsourced some of the cases it had received. It made an informal agreement to hand the Kohistanis and six other families to an even smaller organization: Refugee And Immigrant Services & Education, or RAISE, a small nonprofit based near the Arkansas-Missouri-Oklahoma border.
There was no contract in place. Nor had RAISE ever resettled refugees before. Founded in 2017, its staff of four had taught English and helped Somali refugees get jobs at a local chicken plant. RAISE had never before sought housing or enrolled kids in school.
Michael Newman, RAISE’s executive director, said the organization saw a chance to grow by filling in some of the gaps left by the Trump-era cuts. “This was our opportunity to start that process,” said Newman.
Newman, who joined RAISE in 2018, had previously worked in insurance and for a company that sells adjustable beds. He had no previous experience with refugees.
“This is like my third career,” he said. Asked what factors had gone into choosing a location for the Kohistanis, Newman said his faith guided him to help find “nice homes” for refugees.
The Kohistanis, including an uncle who fled with them, landed at Springfield-Branson National Airport on Dec. 28. They were met by a RAISE staffer and volunteers, who drove them more than an hour west. They passed the area’s largest town, Joplin, then the smaller Webb City, and wound up traveling down a rural single-lane highway into Oronogo, Missouri.”I wanted to say, ‘Where are we going?’ but the translator was in the other car,” recalled Lemar, who’s 39 and broad chested with jet-black hair. “We were coming from a city, but there was nothing around us on the road except farms.” They finally drove down a dead-end gravel road to their three-bedroom townhouse. There was an elementary school nearby, but little else. Around the corner was a shuttered fireworks store and a car wash. Half a mile down the road in one direction was a Dollar General; in the other direction, a gas station. Groceries were 7 miles away.
Like many refugees, the Kohistanis initially had no car.
“There are more cows and sheep here than people,” Lemar recalls Rezwan saying when he first surveyed the landscape around the house. “This isn’t a city, this is a village. Why are we here?”
In exchange for his risky fuel-delivery job in Afghanistan, Lemar’s salary had offered his family comforts in Kabul. They owned a bungalow in a bustling, middle-class neighborhood and the kids all went to private school. The family would pile into their Toyota Highlander for holidays and drive into the mountains to visit their grandparents.
Lemar and his wife, Muzhda Kohistani, said they did not expect the United States to replicate their old lifestyle. But they were at least hoping for familiar faces who could help them navigate the basics of life in the U.S.: How to pay for lunch. Where to get wifi access. How to get health care.
As it was preparing to host Afghans, RAISE announced a partnership with a church to gather volunteers and hold cultural orientations ahead of the refugees’ arrival. The volunteers stocked the Kohistanis’ pantry with Afghan groceries, but they knew little about Afghan culture or customs. “We received cultural sensitivity training,” said one of the church volunteers. “But the idea that we could be trained and deployed in specific ways” like recognizing signs of depression or finding Rezwan a doctor, “is preposterous.”
While RAISE worked with a local church, the refugee group said it didn’t create a similar arrangement with the mosque in the area. Leaders of the small Muslim community in nearby Joplin said they were contacted by RAISE only once last year before the Kohistanis and other refugees arrived.
Navid Zaidi, the treasurer of the local Islamic Society of Joplin, shared a text exchange in which a RAISE official asked if Shiite and Sunni Muslims could be placed in the same community. But Zaidi said they were never asked to support the resettlement process. “We were approached to answer questions like: ‘Is there a mosque in the region?'” he recalled. “That’s it.”
RAISE placed a few Afghan families in Joplin. But some of them felt isolated too. “For us, we wanted a community of Afghan brothers and sisters,” said Nasirullah Safi. The Safis moved to Houston with the help of a cousin who worked for a refugee resettlement group. “We have family here in Houston, which made it better for my wife and children to grow. We call this place home.”
Zaidi said placing the Kohistanis in the smaller, more rural Oronogo was “not appropriate.”
The Kohistanis were the only Afghan family settled there.
“We were all glad to be safe, but nothing about this place felt like home,” said Lemar. “Rezwan was the most upset, and he was determined to get out as soon as we arrived.”
On a crisp January morning, Rezwan started his freshman year at Webb City High School, 3 miles south of the family’s home. Rezwan wore clothes that had been donated by a local church: sweatpants that were too short, a T-shirt that was too big and sneakers that were worn out.
That morning, he met English language teacher Sally Lee.
Rezwan smiled and nodded as Lee introduced him to some of her other students who were nonnative speakers of English. No one else spoke Dari. Over the last three years, Lee had taught Webb City’s few migrant students from Mexico and Central America, often sacrificing her summers to give them extra assistance.
When Lee learned that her remote Missouri town might be hosting Afghans, she had reached out to RAISE to request training “to help [Webb City] be prepared to meet the needs of these children and their families,” as she wrote in a Nov. 16, 2021, email. No one responded.
State money was available to pay for interpreters to help refugees adjust, but the school didn’t apply.
In an early assessment, Lee wrote that Rezwan’s English was better than she expected, but he was still worried for family members who had been left behind in Afghanistan. “We are just trying to get them familiarized with our language and culture,” she wrote on Jan. 29, 2022. “He is in survival mode, but seems very grateful to be here.”
On his second day of school, a classmate noticed Rezwan was missing from class. She wrote to him over Instagram.
The classmate, who asked not to be identified, asked Rezwan: “Do you live close to the school, because maybe my mom could take you.”
“Yes, but your mom will be bothered,” he wrote back. “Unless your mother is merciful.”
The classmate and her mother drove Rezwan to school the next day. They hummed along to the radio and helped Rezwan practice English. “I can understand you,” he’d tease when she and her mother tried to break down a new phrase for him.
Rezwan and his classmate continued to message each other regularly the first few weeks he was at Webb City. But his attempts to connect with her often seemed to miss the mark.
When she asked Rezwan whether he had made any new friends, he said no.
One student who did befriend Rezwan was Judah Beard. They met during a school pickleball lesson. Judah was a senior, three grades above Rezwan. But they were around the same height, both athletic and fans of soccer. They bonded over fashion and their similar sense of style. “He used to ask me all sorts of questions: how I got my hair so soft, where to buy jeans, what I thought about America’s wars.”
Beard tried to introduce his senior classmates to Rezwan. But they found little in common with the Afghan teen.
Back home, Rezwan had amassed a following on TikTok, where he would flirt with the camera while lip syncing Bollywood ballads and dramatic Afghan song lyrics about life, love and sometimes death. At his new school, Rezwan would share TikToks of people falling down or farting that the other kids found childish. Some videos were in Dari, which the other teens couldn’t understand.
Sometimes kids would ask Rezwan a question and he’d turn to his phone for a translation. Beard recalled that the resulting exchanges often didn’t make sense, and kids started to feel as though they were talking to a computer.
“He’d try to ask a question. I wouldn’t understand and he’d get frustrated and stop trying,” Beard said. “Most of the kids didn’t know his name. When he had no one to talk to, he’d go on FaceTime,” talking to friends and family back home.
Rezwan tried to get noticed. He started wearing tight pants and satiny shirts, leaving the top three buttons undone, hoping to look like soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. When he wore chunky sneakers, classmates mocked him for “knockoff Yeezys.”
Beard remembers that students in gym class made a point of walking on the opposite side of the basketball court from Rezwan.
“It’s not natural to see,” said Beard. “I’d see him over to the side, walking at the same pace as everyone, and there would be no one near him.”
His English teacher, Lee, tried to help Rezwan. She emailed RAISE on Feb. 22 asking again for cultural training. Three weeks later, RAISE’s newly hired school enrollment coordinator, Madeline Bridgford, wrote back asking how school was going for the Kohistani family.
By late March, Rezwan was struggling to make it through the school day, either leaving early or arriving midday, attendance records show. Lee wrote in an email at the time that she tried to reach out to Rezwan’s parents, but they didn’t respond. Lemar said he was out of town visiting family.
When RAISE’s Bridgford responded to Lee, the coordinator said none of the teacher’s problems were unique. Other schools and Afghan families were also requesting additional resources from RAISE. “I actually just found out today that school in Afghanistan is ½ day,” she wrote. “I’m only part-time and it’s actually insane how just an incredible amount of things need attention every day!!” (Bridgford did not respond to requests for comment.)
On March 28, Rezwan told Lee that he was moving in with his uncle in nearby Joplin and transferring to Joplin High School, where a few Afghan kids were enrolled. But that move never happened. He missed 16 classes that week, according to attendance records.
“I don’t know what’s going on with him, he seems to think he can make his own rules,” Lee wrote to a Joplin teacher over email.
His parents said that after their evacuation, they weren’t always focused on Rezwan. He was the eldest of their six kids, and they expected him to help the family navigate life in the United States.
But when Ramadan started in April, Rezwan told his mother and younger brother Emran that others made fun of him for not eating during lunch.
Muzhda said she wasn’t sure what to do. “I told him that if it doesn’t get better, that I’d talk to his teachers at school,” but she never did, she recalled. She said she didn’t know how to support Rezwan when he was wrestling with a system and culture so foreign to her.
She said that she wasn’t used to seeing her oldest son struggle. In Kabul, Muzhda recalled, Rezwan was happy and had no mental health issues. “He was a good student and a good brother to his siblings.”
But Rezwan’s problems in Missouri were getting worse. “He has 3 Fs right now,” Lee wrote to RAISE’s Bridgford on April 28.
Despite Lee’s effort to flag Rezwan’s troubles, Webb City schools Superintendent Anthony Rossetti said “other than an initial visit … there were no other visits with the counseling team.” Nor did the school set up an alternative learning plan, despite the district allowing students to take half days or attend virtual classes. Although the school did not schedule any follow-up meetings with Rezwan’s parents, it did send them automated calls every time Rezwan was not in class.
The same week that Lee sent an email about Rezwan’s grades, RAISE gave Lemar a questionnaire to assess how the family was doing.
It was a survey from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the group that had first taken the family’s resettlement case and then subcontracted it. The form had multiple-choice questions that asked whether the family had proper housing and access to food. One of the questions was about mental health, offering a rating of 0 to 3. Lemar circled “1,” which he explained later was a reference to his own mental health struggles.
RAISE arranged a virtual appointment for Lemar to meet with a Dari-speaking therapist. The therapist recommended that the family move, Lemar recalled.
Rezwan had been begging to move since they arrived in Oronogo. He’d set his sights on Dallas, Texas, where the Kohistanis had relatives and a larger Afghan community that had expressed a willingness to support the family. In mid-April, Rezwan and Lemar had driven to Dallas to assess their future home. The trip was a success and the Kohistanis had made plans to move.
But when Lemar told RAISE about the planned move, Newman, the group’s executive director, visited the Kohistanis at home and encouraged them to stay until the end of the school year. “Their Welcome Team is trying to encourage them to stay,” Bridgford wrote on April 28 to Lee, Rezwan’s teacher. The “Welcome Team” were church volunteers organized to help the family.
Rezwan’s father agreed to hold off.
The family had planned to move on May 4. Instead, Rezwan arrived at school and confronted Lee to demand a new path to graduation. He insisted he was 17 years old and couldn’t spend four more years at school.
Later that day, Rezwan ate alone and texted his mother goodbye. Rezwan’s parents were not worried. They assumed he had gone to spend the night with his uncle in Joplin. Rezwan had done that a few times before.
Early the next morning, police received a 911 call. A student had been found dead near the high school baseball field.
The preliminary autopsy report declared Rezwan’s death a suicide, though the final report stopped short of making a definitive determination because police have yet to complete their investigation.
Rezwan was buried on May 6 after a service in the mosque outside Joplin. Dr. Tabassum Saba, a leader of the area’s small Muslim community, started a fundraiser for the family. “Not everyone here is a hatemonger. Not everybody is KKK. But putting families in rural areas is going to be traumatic,” said Saba, who is a psychiatrist. “They would have been better off in many other places.”
Saba remembers seeing Rezwan’s 5-year-old sister comforting Muzhda, and students from Webb City consoling Lemar.
The few students who’d befriended Rezwan grieved. A former classmate ran out of her classroom in tears when she saw his seat empty the next morning. “I think this whole thing could have been avoided if there were other Afghan kids and he had a group to be in instead of being alone,” his friend Beard recalled.
Others were callous. One student expressed surprise that Rezwan hadn’t died trying to “blow up the school,” multiple classmates recalled. The boys who had sat at Rezwan’s lunch table before he disappeared were asked about him by investigators. None recognized him. One said, “What’s a Rezwan?”
Rossetti, the superintendent, said he’s still unsure exactly what happened to Rezwan, but he feels responsible. “We’re doing a lot of reflective soul-searching.”
He also said the school district hadn’t been given the guidance it needed. “We didn’t even know what the right questions to ask were. We didn’t know what support or approaches we may need. We didn’t even know if we were going to get one student or 50.”
The district has since hired a diversity coordinator and a counselor to monitor migrant students for trauma, and it’s hosting a suicide and bullying prevention workshop. Each change is a product of the district’s experience with Rezwan, Rossetti said.
Lee, Rezwan’s former teacher who had tried to get help for him, did not want to speak about what happened.
“I can’t think about it. I don’t think I can even talk about it. I’m trying to put it away so I can move on and try to heal,” Lee said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my entire career.”
When asked whether she and the school had enough support, Lee responded, “I don’t know if I want to answer that.”
Each entity that was tasked with taking care of the Kohistanis offered similar sentiments: They expressed sympathy for the family’s loss but took no responsibility for the difficulties the family faced.
The head of RAISE said Rezwan’s death is a tragedy, but he remains committed to the group’s expansion into refugee resettlement. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done. We’re very proud of Joplin. It’s risen up,” Newman said. He and RAISE declined to answer a lengthy set of questions from ProPublica and The Kansas City Star about the group’s resettlement work.
The International Institute of St. Louis, whose Springfield branch passed off the Kohistanis to RAISE, was the on-the-ground entity responsible for the family. It had to follow federal guidelines for the resettlement of refugees, including regular performing check-ins.
The International Institute did not respond to detailed questions about how it handled the Kohistanis’ case and why it handed families off to an organization with no resettlement experience.
In earlier communications, the organization said it had properly handled the Kohistanis’ placement. “We made the best decision with the information and resources we had,” the Institute’s Costigan said in an interview. “RAISE said they had the housing to support large families, and that’s what this family needed.”
The nonprofit originally tasked with resettling the Kohistanis, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, also declined to address questions about its handling of the Kohistanis’ case.
“We will not speculate on the circumstances of this tragic event to prevent further damage and pain to the Kohistani family,” it said in a statement. The organization noted that while “the resettlement system had been decimated,” Afghans were only placed in communities after “careful consideration and assessments involving housing, employment, transportation, school enrollment, and more.”
The federal government typically requires its main refugee partner organizations, including the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, to audit their resettlement subcontractors and ensure that refugees have been properly cared for.
“USCRI continues to adhere to the goal of auditing all our service providers at least every three years, and we continue to achieve that aim,” said Kevin Sturtevant, a spokesperson for the organization. He declined to comment on plans to audit the International Institute.
Responsibility for resettling America’s Afghan allies ultimately falls on the Biden administration.
The State Department, which oversees the placement of refugees, said in a statement:
“We grieve with the Kohistani family, as well as the community in Missouri who opened their arms to welcome them.” It went on to point to “a staffing shortage at many refugee resettlement agencies” and said that the government “worked closely with the resettlement agencies to address these challenges.”
The investigation into Rezwan’s death remains open. Webb City police have been waiting since May for law enforcement in Joplin to unlock Rezwan’s phone, which was found near his body. (Joplin police declined to comment.) Investigators still hope to check the phone for any potential evidence.
“This is new territory for us,” said Webb City Police Chief Don Melton, who could not remember a time when his department was responsible for possible evidence on a locked mobile phone or had a case go on for more than five months. Even Rezwan’s age remains a mystery to investigators. While Rezwan’s parents and passport say he was 14, the police report noted “his real date of birth is unknown.”
The Kohistanis stayed in Missouri through the summer, awaiting word on the investigation.
On Aug. 15, 2022, a year to the day after Kabul fell to the Taliban, they finally moved to Dallas.
The Kohistanis now have cousins and an extended community of other Afghans to rely on for meals, child care and guidance. And the kids are starting afresh at a school dedicated to immigrants and English language learners.
Lemar has had severe back pain since Rezwan’s death. He was planning to get his trucking license, but he hasn’t. He has also been putting off his plans to be an Uber driver.
Instead, Lemar spends much of his time mulling over his son’s death. Suicide is a sin in Islam, and Lemar remains convinced that Rezwan wasn’t capable of it.
“To survive war then come to America to be buried?” Lemar said, his voice trailing off. “What else is there to say? We are lost.”
About This Story
This story, a partnership between ProPublica and The Kansas City Star, is based on dozens of hours of interviews with the Kohistanis, other newly arrived Afghans, the local Islamic community, church volunteers, Rezwan’s classmates, school officials, law enforcement officers, employees at the International Institute and RAISE, and federal resettlement officials and experts. We also relied on a variety of records obtained through public records requests, including subcontracting agreements, school emails, Rezwan’s final autopsy report and video documenting his last days.
We reviewed death records, scene photos, police reports, surveillance footage from inside Webb City High School, Rezwan’s social media posts and his mobile phone data usage.
We published photos and texts from Rezwan with the consent of the Kohistani family.