ATLANTIC CITY - Mohammad Ranjbar last saw his 61 acres of apple groves and grapevines near Baghlan City, Afghanistan, in 1987.
Ranjbar, a commander in the Mujahideen, had left his pregnant wife and family behind to fight the Soviet military's advance into the northern part of his country. During one of that year's skirmishes, shrapnel lodged in Ranjbar's jaw, setting off a decades-long odyssey that brought him to the United States for treatment, but now has left him in a one-room tenement apartment near the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.
He wants to return to Baghlan City to find a family with whom he's had no contact since 2005. But he has no documentation from either country, and he has been trapped in deportation limbo - with no legal rights and nowhere to go - since his U.S. work permit expired in 2006.
"I'm tired of this life," said Ranjbar, 60, who pushes a Boardwalk rolling chair for a living. "I don't want to be like this forever."
Ranjbar's predicament is not uncommon, said Harold Ort, a spokesman for the Newark Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office. ICE must secure foreign travel documents before it can send any deportee to another country, Ort said.
Lawyers and social workers say the U.S. system is so complex that many refugees, who overwhelmingly lack representation, slip through the cracks.
For Ranjbar, it is a battle he feels he cannot win.
"I can't go. I can't get a real job. I can't apply for anything. I can't do anything," he said. "I only pushing rolly chair and that's all."
In 1987, when Ranjbar went to the United States for treatment, he was warmly welcomed as a war hero injured fighting communism.
It is unclear if the U.S. military or another agency was responsible for his getting to the United States, but during the two years Ranjbar spent at hospitals across the country, he met everyone from former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas to Sylvester Stallone. Wilson was a noted supporter of the Mujahideen.
In 1989, he was issued a work permit that allowed him to stay in the country as war continued in Afghanistan.
But immigration laws changed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Ranjbar found himself in a tenuous position. A deportation order was issued in 2003 upon his work permit's expiration, which Ranjbar was able to appeal. When that permit expired in 2006, he was not so lucky.
On Oct. 16, 2007 - Ranjbar remembers the date precisely - Homeland Security agents broke down the door of his apartment.
"They take me, not even give me shoes or my jog-along pants," he said. "They take me in pajamas in the middle of night."
Because the agents allegedly left his door off its hinges, Ranjbar said, he lost his life savings - about $62,000 in jewelry and money, including his wedding ring - to thieves. Without documentation, he had not been able to open a bank account.
"Now I don't have nothing," he said. "I look like a homeless [person]."
Ranjbar spent nearly five months in detention at the Middlesex County jail before he was able to appeal his detention on grounds that he had applied for, and been denied, his travel documents by the Afghan government.
Twice, in 2008 and 2010, the Afghanistan Consulate has denied Ranjbar's requests for the documents. The rejection letters say he needs to present a birth certificate, national ID card, passport, and school records.
Without them, Ranjbar cannot prove Afghan citizenship. And without U.S. work authorization, he is a man without a country.
A spokesman for the Afghan Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Ort, of the ICE, said some countries make it difficult for ICE to remove deportees.
"Countries may simply prolong and delay the issuance of the necessary travel documentation . . . while they attempt to confirm the alien's identity," he said.
Bashir Ghazialam, a San Diego-based Afghan American immigration lawyer, said those seeking proof of Afghan citizenship can bring two witnesses who knew them in the country to the consul office to obtain a passport.
But that can be difficult for those isolated from their family or living outside a major Afghan community, he said. And most refugees do not know their rights, he said.
"Afghans are underrepresented legally, so they don't really have access to legal resources," he said.
According to a report from the Afghan Embassy, there are more than 60,000 Afghans in this country, the majority in northern Virginia and the San Francisco Bay area.
The immigration system is broken, said Amy Gottlieb, director of the Newark-based Immigrant Rights Program of the American Friends Service Committee.
"It's been compared to tax law," she said. "For people who are underrepresented, the burden of proving a case before an immigration judge is one very few people are able to meet."
According to a recent study by the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, only 22 percent of New Jersey ICE detainees receive representation. While most are not seeking to return home, Gottlieb said, all face lives of isolation.
Ranjbar faces an uncertain future. Since 2010, he has been diagnosed with diabetes, a heart condition, and blood clots under both knees.
"That's why the doctor told me to walk," he said. "I go push 'rolly' chair on Boardwalk to make a living, to survive."
His job is the best he can get because of his document situation. Ranjbar pays $10 a day to rent his chair in the hope of making $30 or $40 from casino visitors. He said he makes just enough to pay for food, rent, and an occasional pack of cigarettes.
As bad as things may be for Ranjbar in Atlantic City, Ghazialam said, the situation is more dire in Afghanistan. While conditions improved in the early years of Operation Enduring Freedom, he said, those days are over.
Very few of his clients would risk a return to the country without first obtaining U.S. citizenship or a Green Card, Ghazialam said. Even a former Mujahideen would risk his life by returning from a long stay abroad.
"He would face suspicion," Ghazialam said. "Suspicion would lead to accusations. Accusations would lead to kidnapping. Kidnapping would lead to killing."
Ranjbar has not spoken with any of his family members since 2005. His first wife was killed in a Soviet bombing. His second, who was pregnant when Ranjbar left for the battlefield, vanished. During his time in the United States, Ranjbar said, his father, mother, and at least one brother have died.
He does not know if anything is left of the family farm. But Ranjbar hopes that he will one day return to Afghanistan.
"I want to find the old people," he said. "I want freedom."