Tension mounts as would-be Afghan refugees await evacuation to safety
Petaluma resident Abdul Pazhohesh hasn’t spoken for the last few weeks with his friend in Herat Province — a man who once worked as a driver for the U.S. Army and was trying to leave Afghanistan with his wife and two children.
Nor has he had recent contact with another friend who asked him for a letter inviting him to the United States and stating that Pazhohesh agreed to sponsor the man’s immigration.
The retired lab technician followed through with the letter, but it wasn’t the right way to go about things and hasn’t proved successful, at least so far.
The friend was nervous, said Pazhohesh, 75.
“It was about a month ago, when the Taliban was close to the cities,” said Pazhohesh, who has lived in California for about 30 years.
Getting out now “is not possible,” he said. “We are waiting to see what’s happening for the next few weeks.”
In countries around the world, people with ties to Afghanistan worried for their friends and family still trapped there. Many felt engulfed in an overwhelming sense of helplessness as they watched the refugee drama unfold on television. It was no different in Northern California.
In Fremont, restaurant owners Pushtanah Daoud and Jamshid Ahmad are desperately trying to help family members escape Taliban rule.
“They cry to us over the phone, screaming,” Daoud said. “The schools are closed. Hospitals are closed. Stores are closed. Everything.”
Daoud and Ahmad are the owners of Fremont Afghan Kabob. Tuesday, they stayed home, spending the day on the phone trying to arrange refugee status for Daoud’s brother, wife and four children or consoling Afghan friends in the Bay Area who are in the same situation.
“We’re so tense and worried about our family and everybody there,” Daoud said in a fast, urgent tone. “What’s going to happen? They’re worried that if they go out, they’re going to be killed.”
It’s a stressful wait for much of the world, amid streaming images of chaos and desperation in the wake of the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s rapid seizure of power.
Taliban leaders have attempted to calm fears with promises of moderation and assurances there would be no threat of retribution for those who may have worked in concert with the governments of fallen President Ashraf Ghani or the United States. But continued reports of violence and human rights abuses, particularly against girls and women, raise new doubts about the militant group’s credibility, which already was in question.
Closure of the U.S. embassy and relocation of State Department personnel to the Kabul airport has drawn increasingly desperate mobs of citizens hoping to be evacuated. That, coupled with the real threat of danger from the Taliban has created a confusing, frantic situation that one congressional staffer on Tuesday described as “a fire drill.”
Refugee aid organizations are gearing up for what they expect and hope will be large scale migrations.
Those organizations include nonprofits like Opening Doors Inc. in Sacramento, which has one of the United States’ largest Afghan communities, with around 9,700 people.
“We have the strongest military in the world,” said Chief Executive Officer Jessie Tientcheu. “We made a commitment to our allies, and we have a moral obligation to follow through on that commitment. And our ability to garner support from future allies also depends on our following through on this commitment.”
Tientcheu’s agency and volunteers offer a range of assistance to immigrants and refugees — from airport pickup to help furnishing apartments to support developing resumes or seeking work. She has been told to expect to help relocate 1,700 Afghan recipients of what are called Special Immigrant Visas, of SIVs.
The visas are provided for medics, engineers, translators and others who worked for the U.S. government before year’s end, as well as for activists, humanitarian aid workers, journalists and religious or ethnic minorities who could be at risk because of their positions or beliefs.
But the screening process for refugees usually takes two years, and given the immediate need for people to flee their home country, it’s unclear how that will work, she said.
“So we are ready to welcome people fleeing real fears of persecution and hope that the federal administration puts all the efforts that they can into this,” Tientcheu said.
In the thick of it are congressional offices, including those of Reps. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, each of which is triaging a handful of requests from constituents in need of help tracking down forms and half-finished application forms in the midst of pandemonium.