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Tension mounts as would-be Afghan refugees await evacuation to safety

Organizations working to help Afghan refugees and those threatened in Afghanistan

The International Rescue Committee has already helped resettle thousands of Afghan evacuees in Northern California over the past 15 years, offering support and rental assistance to people who served as interpreters, medical personnel or in other ways worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan.

rescue.org/announcement/irc-northern-californias-emergency-response-fund-new-afghan-arrivals

Opening Doors Inc. in Sacramento, where one of the nations’ largest Afghan communities is located, anticipates welcoming 1,700 refugees from Afghanistan by the end of the year. The nonprofit and its volunteers provide everything from a ride from the airport to help furnishing apartments to support preparing resumes and searching for work.

openingdoorsinc.org

The Afghan Coalition, based in Fremont, offers programming and support for a large Afghan community in the East Bay Area, including immigration support.

afghancoalition.org

The Schoolbox Project, founded by a Sonoma County resident, provides mobile, trauma-informed education, art and play to displaced children, including many who have fled Afghanistan for refugee camps in Europe.

schoolboxproject.org

The Revolutionary Association for the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has been fighting to secure the rights of women since 1977.

rawa.org/index.php

Women for Women International is raising emergency funds for women at risk of violence in Afghanistan through a dollar-for-dollar matching grant.

support.womenforwomen.org/donate/afghanistan-emergency-2x-match?src=HHUA21082A

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.

Abdul Pazhohesh
Abdul Pazhohesh

“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.

Huffman said on Twitter on Monday that the top priority was “getting Americans and allies out safely and swiftly.”

“All else can come afterward,” and that was the focus for his staff: “getting people out and to safety,” his spokeswoman said.

But it’s difficult in part because of communication challenges, questionable safety and the direction to Americans still in Afghanistan to shelter in place while officials continue to destroy documents in advance of the embassy closure, she said.

A Thompson spokeswoman said his caseload includes five Afghan allies already in the United States who are now trying to bring over family, as well as a person who worked in Afghanistan and is now trying to aid Afghans who assisted in the mission. Another individual is trying to help a friend who had planned to attend college in the United States.

Several local agencies said they are ready to help if any of those fleeing Afghanistan make their way to Sonoma County but said the cost of living here and absence of an Afghan community suggest large-scale arrivals in the North Bay are unlikely.

Kathy Differding, program manager for Sonoma County Secure Families, was among them. She acknowledged the risk to Afghan asylum-seekers sent back into the hands of the Taliban, however.

The U.S. “should just get people out of there,” place them in a refugee camp and begin processing them so they aren’t forced to face the dangers of illegal border crossings, Differding said.

“We’d be happy to help them if they decide to land here,” she said.

The American Red Cross also is providing assistance across the nation, as well, and is hosting a national helpline for those seeking loved ones in Afghanistan, a local representative said.

“Those looking for missing relatives in the wake of the unrest in Afghanistan should contact their local Red Cross office and ask to speak with a Restoring Family Links caseworker or call our free national helpline at 844-782-9441,” Kathryn Hecht, the American Red Cross Northern California coastal region communications manager, said in an email.

The locally based Schoolbox Project, which, since 2016, has provided trauma-informed art, education and play to dislocated children at various locations around the globe, beginning in at refugee camps in Greece, which have seen a steady flow of Afghan refugees, organizers said.

While the COVID pandemic quieted operations, the Schoolbox team is now trying to anticipate what comes next and what can be done, said Sheldon Rosenberg, logistics coordinator.

In Afghanistan, some of the girls in Daoud’s and Ahmad’s families no longer are allowed to attend school. Teenage daughters fear being taken away. Women fear violence.

But now there’s another concern, as well.

“My brother’s wife called me crying because too many people know they have a [refugee] case,” Ahmad said. If word reaches the Taliban that they have a case, they could even be killed, he said.

But the Fremont couple has had no luck reaching the American embassy, and all they received from the Canadian embassy was an email stating that they’re too backed up with too few employees to handle all the cases coming through, Daoud said.

Dauod said her family and community are thinking of all the people stranded in Afghanistan right now.

“For people here, we’re in the same boat and we wish there was something in our control to put an end to this and be able to help them,” Daoud said. “Let’s stand as a community and speak up and get our voices heard.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB. You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-521-5224 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Organizations working to help Afghan refugees and those threatened in Afghanistan

The International Rescue Committee has already helped resettle thousands of Afghan evacuees in Northern California over the past 15 years, offering support and rental assistance to people who served as interpreters, medical personnel or in other ways worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan.

rescue.org/announcement/irc-northern-californias-emergency-response-fund-new-afghan-arrivals

Opening Doors Inc. in Sacramento, where one of the nations’ largest Afghan communities is located, anticipates welcoming 1,700 refugees from Afghanistan by the end of the year. The nonprofit and its volunteers provide everything from a ride from the airport to help furnishing apartments to support preparing resumes and searching for work.

openingdoorsinc.org

The Afghan Coalition, based in Fremont, offers programming and support for a large Afghan community in the East Bay Area, including immigration support.

afghancoalition.org

The Schoolbox Project, founded by a Sonoma County resident, provides mobile, trauma-informed education, art and play to displaced children, including many who have fled Afghanistan for refugee camps in Europe.

schoolboxproject.org

The Revolutionary Association for the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has been fighting to secure the rights of women since 1977.

rawa.org/index.php

Women for Women International is raising emergency funds for women at risk of violence in Afghanistan through a dollar-for-dollar matching grant.

support.womenforwomen.org/donate/afghanistan-emergency-2x-match?src=HHUA21082A

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

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