Afghans in U.S., advocates plea for safety for family trying to leave Afghanistan

By: - August 19, 2021 4:42 pm
Afghanistan Taliban

Zoohra, 60, holds the photo of her daughter who she said was killed by the Taliban one month ago at a makeshift IDP camp in Share-e-Naw park on August 12, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by Paula Bronstein | Getty Images

Seeing images of Taliban forces taking rule in Afghanistan has brought Tucson resident Leena back to the time when she was a teenager. 

“I fled Afghanistan in the 1990s when (the) Taliban first took over,” she said. “I have lived in the Taliban regime as a teenager, and it was a nightmare I am reliving now.”

Leena is one of the many Afghans living abroad who are disheartened by the crisis unfolding as American troops are pulling out after nearly 20 years. (Leena is an alias that she said she uses out of concern for her safety and her family’s safety in Afghanistan.)

Her family feels trapped, she said. Her fiancé is still in Afghanistan. Despite an application to get him a visa filed almost two years ago, the couple are still waiting to reunite, Leena said. 

She worries about his safety. He is a musician, and his brother is a well-known singer. 

“Music and singing and being in the media is one of the things that are against Taliban’s beliefs,” she said. “His life is in great danger.”

Biden may not regret leaving Afghanistan, but I do

Leena spoke during a press conference held by We Are All America, an organization that advocates for refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants. She tried to paint a picture of the dire reality her fiancé and her family are facing. 

“There are no commercial flights, some of them have no passports, or have financial resources. The ATM machines are empty,” she said. “We need to evacuate those families that are fleeing persecution or if they have a pending visa application. People are really scared. They are scared for their lives, and they don’t know what to do and who to turn to.”

Leena and other Afghans living abroad are calling for the U.S. government to guarantee a safe path out of the country for people who want to flee and for expedited processing and adjudication of visas for Afghans who worked with the US military and other agencies. 

President Joe Biden is facing backlash for the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the swift Taliban takeover, which has created a crisis for both Afghans and Americans living in the country. Biden faces calls to implement and expedite the slow processing of visa applications to allow eligible Afghans to get the status to enter the U.S. 

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There are two visa programs some people in Afghanistan can use to be admitted into the U.S. 

One, the Special Immigrant Visa program, is available to people who worked with or for the U.S. government or were translators or interpreters. Once they arrive in the U.S., Afghans granted SIV can petition to enroll their spouse and children in the visa process. 

On Aug. 2, the U.S. government announced a new program to provide visas for people who don’t qualify for SIV but who worked for U.S. government departments and agencies or its contractors, for U.S.-funded programs or with U.S.-based NGOs or media organizations with operations in Afghanistan.

Processing for those cases is expected to take up to 14 months. 

Since October 2020, nearly 4,200 people from Afghanistan have arrived in the U.S. through the SIV program — 31 of them settling in Arizona — according to U.S. Department of State data. In fiscal year 2020, almost 9,500 people from Afghanistan arrived through the SIV program. 

Basma Alawee, the national campaign director for We Are All America, said the refugee and SIV programs are “live-saving” programs. She knows from experience. 

Alawee fled Iraq with her husband and young child and arrived in the U.S. in 2010 through the SIV program. 

She said local and state leaders should speak up, and say publicly that they welcome Afghan refugees and will support their resettlement process in their communities. 

That’s what Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and House Speaker Rusty Bowers did on Thursday. While taking a jab at the Biden administration, the Republican leaders said in a statement that Arizona will welcome and support Afghan refugees.

“Arizona recognizes the service of thousands of Afghans over the last 20 years,” the joint statement reads. “As refugees come and find homes in states across the nation, we welcome them to our state full of opportunity and choice, and we’re working closely with federal and state officials to offer them safety in Arizona.”

Bowers and Ducey said the state Department of Economic Security, which oversees the refugee resettlement program, will be ready to help the refugees make their new home in Arizona. 

“(DES) will work with them to secure housing and employment, enroll in English classes if needed, connect them with health care resources, and their children — including their daughters who would be denied an education under the Taliban — will be enrolled in school,” Bowers and Ducey said. “They helped our military members in their country, and now we stand ready to help them in ours.”

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Alawee said members of Congress should hold the Biden administration accountable and guarantee the safe evacuation of Afghans and protections in the country for vulnerable populations, which include women, LGBTQ people and religious and ethnic minorities. 

Leena, in Tucson, worries for her niece and nephews and the lives that younger generations of Afghans will be allowed to have under Taliban rule.

“I have nieces that are crying, are devastated about what the future holds for them, nephews that don’t believe in Taliban ideology. They don’t want to live under that,” she said. “It’s really difficult.”

Besides her fiancé, Leena has family who should qualify for protections to immigrate to the U.S. She has an uncle who worked at a U.S. military base, but he hasn’t been able to get a recommendation letter from his former boss as is required by the visa process. Another family member worked for USAID.

“Every Afghan that I have talked to, we have lost sleep, don’t eat, there is no interest in doing anything,” she said. “When I first heard about it, I felt like I was there.”

When she saw the news this weekend of the Taliban entering Kabul, the country’s capital, prompting the president to flee and the evacuation of US diplomats from the embassy, she felt scared for her family.

“Everybody was so scared. All we did was shed tears, pray, hope that everybody is OK,” she said. “The trauma they are going through and the fear they have in their hearts is unimaginable.”

Update: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of years Leena has waited for her fiancé’s visa to process. It has been nearly two years, not over three years.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

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