With Few Options Left, Afghans Who Helped U.S. Troops Hope For ‘A Miracle’ To Save Their Families
Many Afghans who aided U.S. troops now find themselves in a terrible limbo. They made it to America on special immigrant visas, but their extended families are still in Afghanistan — with no real way to escape.
“We don't have anything in hand for my brother from the Americans,” said Khyber, an special immigrant visa recipient who’s lived in San Antonio since 2017. “He’s really scared of the Taliban. He left his own province and hid himself with his family in another province.”
Khyber, who asked to go by his first name because his loved ones are under threat, worked as a reporter and translator for a NATO-led security mission that trained Afghan forces. His sibling also has worked for the international community, but doesn’t appear to qualify for a special immigrant visa.
“One day or one night, the Taliban will come in, knock on the door...and they will ask about my brother, and they will...maybe they will kill him,” he said.
From the U.S., Khyber has tried just about everything to evacuate his brother and extended family. He submitted their names to members of Congress and relentlessly worked his sources on the ground in Afghanistan. So far, he’s heard nothing back. He may soon consult with an immigration attorney to petition the State Department.
But he doesn’t hold out much hope.
“Whatever I could do, I did it,” Khyber said. “I can’t see any chance for him, for my brother or for my other family. But if something happens, that will be a miracle.”
The Center for Refugee Services in San Antonio has been helping Khyber and other Afghan special immigrant visa recipients navigate the uncertainty. As U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan wound down, the volunteer-run organization was overwhelmed by worried Afghans trying to get their families out of harm’s way.
Until a few weeks ago, the agency compiled names of vulnerable Afghans and forwarded them to Washington. It collected at least a thousand request forms — with some heads of household trying to bring as many as 10 to 15 people to join them in the U.S.
In late August, the agency volunteers stood outside in the heat, helping a crowd of Afghan men put together their lists. Many couldn’t write in English and lacked much of the documentation needed for traditional visa applications — especially when it came to female family members.
But the agency’s approach changed after the U.S. withdrawal. Margaret Costantino of the Center for Refugee Services now refers her Afghan clients to immigration attorneys embedded with local refugee resettlement agencies. She said she’s been told that Afghans living in the U.S. need to apply for humanitarian parole on behalf of their vulnerable family members.
“I’m optimistic but I'm scared, because it all hinges on whether or not people can get out of the country safely. Nobody knows what the Taliban will agree to,” she said.
Immigration attorneys are facing long odds. The American embassy in Kabul has shut down, the borders are closed and Afghanistan’s infrastructure is crippled. It’s hard to get documents into the right hands.
“Families that we’re closely working with are looking at their personal safety,” said Farheen Siddiqi, a managing attorney with refugee resettlement agency RAICES. “So they’re often moving from place to place. Technology is also very difficult right now. So concerns are coming up about whether WhatsApp is being monitored or Facebook is being monitored. So their ability to communicate with their families here in the U.S. — or even the attorneys— is limited.”
There are three apparent options for stranded Afghans. They can apply for humanitarian parole from the U.S., get an e-visa for another country, or apply for refugee status in a third country.
Even if their paperwork is in order, Siddiqi said would-be evacuees still have no guarantee they can get out.
“The difficult thing is, who is manning the airport?” she said. “How do we ensure that it's actually safe? People are identifying themselves — they're basically admitting that they're fleeing Taliban rule, right? So the security measures are just in flux there.”
Meanwhile Khyber is living an uneasy life in San Antonio with his wife and children, always with an eye toward conditions in Afghanistan. He hopes America won’t forget about stranded Afghans during this critical time.
“My message would be: think about the Afghans and don't leave them alone," he said. "Do whatever you can and try to walk with them — bring them back here to the United States — so their life will be safe here."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.