Afghan American activists who spent weeks trying to help thousands of people flee from Afghanistan are urging the Biden administration to do more to help refugees as they arrive in the U.S.
Activist Arash Azizzada, who co-founded two groups dedicated to helping the Afghan diaspora, said he has spent 18 to 20 hours a day working on evacuating at-risk citizens since the Taliban declared victory in Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15.
His work has included coordinating with other community members, private-sector businesses, human rights activists and veterans to try and find a way to safely evacuate people amid the scenes of chaos at Kabul’s airport.
“It consisted of figuring out charter flights for ourselves and fundraising for millions of dollars to ensure that planes went and picked up those we care for and those Afghans that are at risk and vulnerable,” Azizzada told Yahoo News.
The groups communicated with sources on the ground to try and provide up-to-date information on what airport gates those leaving needed to take, while providing real-time information on avoiding Taliban checkpoints.
Their job was made increasingly difficult as terror threats and security worsened at the Hamid Karzai International Airport. The site, which attracted crowds of desperate people fleeing the country, was targeted by a blast last week that killed hundreds, including 13 U.S. service members.
Azizzada, the co-founder of Afghan Diaspora for Equality & Progress (ADEP) and Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, said it is impossible for him to estimate how many of the people the groups were in contact with made it out of the country successfully.
But he said the groups are continuing to try and help those who want to leave, despite the end of the two-decade U.S. military involvement in the region on Aug. 30 with the departure of the last U.S. military aircraft.
Since the last military plane left the country, Azizzada said, his contacts on the ground are feeling “increasingly hopeless” and “increasingly fearful of the Taliban.”
“They feel abandoned by the Western international community,” he added.
The operation by U.S. and allied forces flew more than 123,000 civilians out of the country since the Taliban took control, but it’s currently unclear how many of them were Afghan nationals. The United States has also not yet announced the exact number of refugees it will allow in.
But for those who are arriving in the U.S., or who have already arrived, the journey has just begun, said Freshta Taeb, a board member with the Afghan-American Foundation and the official who is leading Afghan refugee resettlement efforts in New Jersey.
“Once the Afghans enter the United States, they will have to have a federal screening,” Taeb said. “Then they get released to the states, and each state in the United States has its own way of dealing with resettlement organizations.”
During resettlement, the refugees will be given 90 days of support from state authorities before they are on their own, Taeb said.
“We are in crisis mode, and crisis equals chaos,” she said of the program. “Let’s be very realistic. Ninety days is not enough time to learn a language, get a job and be able to stand on your own two feet.
“Realistically, the experience that I have from the Syrian refugee population is that still today, six to seven years later, we are still watching that population struggle.”
To plug the gap and help refugees settle in, Afghan American activists are calling for donations to advocacy groups, and for people to lobby their state representatives.
“I think the best way for folks to help is to continue to pressure policymakers and politicians in their respective countries to pressure them into accepting as many Afghan refugees as possible to find resettlement for them,” Azizzada said. “We need to help those folks find safety, human dignity and refuge and also continue to advocate to establish a humanitarian corridor and to continue to send humanitarian aid.”
The end of the U.S. military involvement in the country has left humanitarian parole — which essentially means applying for asylum — as the only way for many Afghans to gain a pathway into the United States.
However, the cost of an application is $575 per person, which activists say will be unaffordable for many Afghan families.
Laila Ayub, an Afghan American community organizer with ADEP and an immigration attorney, is leading a project to help Afghans file humanitarian parole applications to gain entry into the U.S.
“We’ve seen our community and our allies mobilize to support Afghans in filing humanitarian parole applications, but they shouldn’t have had to step up in this way,” she said.
Ayub said the government has been slow to respond to their requests, which include waiving fees for the applications and speeding up approvals.
The process, which is used for emergency situations, isn’t a visa but grants authorization for someone to enter the U.S.
Attorney Wogai Mohmand, an Afghan American community organizer with ADEP, is also working on the humanitarian parole project.
“We quickly realized a need to help our community directly. We were flooded with hundreds of messages asking for help,” Mohmand said. “We had hundreds of people reaching out to us asking us to help them file applications.”
The group is looking for U.S. citizens to “sponsor” applications by Afghan nationals, who are required to apply through someone who lives lawfully in the U.S. and can financially support the refugee.
It’s currently unknown whether people will be able to leave Afghanistan now that the U.S. military has ended its evacuation process, but the attorneys say they are hopeful that Afghans wishing to leave will still be able to.
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