Not a Numbers Game: Human Faces of the Crisis in Afghanistan

By USCRI August 17, 2021

Many of us have been shaken by recent news of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. As news outlets report staggering numbers of people in danger, it can be easy to decontextualize those large figures from the humans they reflect. USCRI, and other refugee resettlement agencies and human rights organizations across the United States, have received countless emails, phone calls, and messages from Afghans fearing for their and their families’ lives, each with unique circumstances that cannot be compartmentalized into a visa priority category, or a number.

Four of those humans are the children of a woman named Suneeta. About a year ago, Suneeta arrived in Albany, New York from Afghanistan as a refugee. Her husband had worked as an interpreter and team leader with the U.S. military at Camp Eggers before disappearing in 2013. Although unconfirmed, it is almost certain his disappearance, and likely murder, was at the hands of the Taliban based on his affiliation with the United States’ mission. After losing her husband, Suneeta feared Taliban retaliatory action would be extended to herself and their four children, so she crossed the border into Pakistan where the family of five was granted refugee status by UNHCR. While in Pakistan, Suneeta began to explore the possibility of moving to the United States. Her husband had put his life on the line for the American mission, and she hoped the United States would welcome her family by virtue of his sacrifice. However, Suneeta’s plans were horribly disrupted when her brother-in-law covertly kidnapped her four children while he was visiting, and brought them back to Afghanistan where they were to live with her deceased husband’s family, as is customary in traditional Afghan families. Not long after, her case was picked up for resettlement in the United States, and she saw a window of opportunity to get her children back.

From the day she arrived in New York in mid-2020, Suneeta began to pursue every avenue to bring her children from Afghanistan to the United States. In tandem with one of USCRI’s attorneys, she filed for refugee status on her children’s behalf, and booked interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the final step in being granted humanitarian parole. They were ultimately turned away from their interviews due to passport and documentation-related issues, and have been trying to rectify those issues ever since. The children, two of whom are teenagers, two of whom are under 10 years old, now live unaccompanied in Kabul. Since the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is no longer conducting interviews, they will not be granted humanitarian parole in country – they simply need to get on a flight, and their status can be processed when they are brought to safety. They have spent the last two days circling the Kabul airport in a taxicab, waiting for the moment when planes resume flight, and they can at long last reunite with their mother safely.

Human Faces of Crisis in Afghanistan
Suneeta during an interview with ABC News10 Albany.

American-Affiliated Afghans are Caught in Limbo

Over the weekend, Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, the last and largest remaining area under Afghan government control, fell to the Taliban. U.S.-backed President Ashraf Ghani fled to neighboring Tajikistan with his family and other government officials as Taliban militants took over the Presidential palace, installing themselves as the de facto governing force in the country. Since it became clear about a month ago that the Afghan military were unable to stave off the Taliban’s rapid territorial gains, the U.S. government ramped up the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program started in 2006, which authorized visas for Iraqis and Afghans who worked directly for the U.S. military and diplomatic corps. The Biden administration also launched Operation Allies Refuge on July 14th to help facilitate relocation for Afghan nationals who are already SIV holders or in the final stages of the SIV application process. The Department of State also activated the Afghanistan Coordination Task Force on July 19th, an interagency effort to operationalize logistics for visa applications and evacuating U.S. citizens from the country. In a rare bipartisan act, Congress passed an emergency supplemental spending bill on July 27th which allocated $1.12 billion to Afghan refugee assistance.

Despite the steps taken by Congress and the Biden administration, more than 80,000 American-affiliated Afghans and their families remain in Afghanistan, and hundreds of thousands more Afghans are in need of evacuation. Regardless of where SIV, Priority 2 (P-2), or humanitarian parole eligible Afghans are in the visa process, flights to Dulles airport for relocation have been frozen indefinitely due to the State Department’s prioritization of evacuating American citizens from the country. Commercial flights out of Afghanistan have been halted. Most border crossings are manned by Taliban checkpoints, making land evacuation impossible. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan people have been displaced, and tens of thousands more fear for their lives as the Taliban begins its fundamentalist rule over the country.

Scenes of the Kabul airport are reminiscent of the U.S. evacuation of Saigon in 1975, as Afghan men, women and children are reportedly desperately trying to get in the air to flee the country. As Taliban forces surround the perimeter of the airport, and American and Turkish military forces attempt to mitigate the chaos inside, Afghan civilians are caught in limbo. However, unlike Saigon, where 5,000 Vietnamese allies were evacuated via helicopter, and around 130,000 more were taken into the United States as refugees over the course of a month, U.S.-affiliated Afghans, aside from the approximately 2,000 who have been processed at Fort Lee, Virginia over the past two weeks, do not seem to have a viable pathway to safety at this time. Helicopter evacuations are not happening, there is no planned relocation to a U.S. territory such as Guam, and Afghans and their families who risked their lives for the American cause are being left behind.

Evacuation and Airport Security are Paramount

USCRI calls for the Administration to do everything in its power to facilitate evacuations for every single American-affiliated Afghan. That requires keeping the Kabul Airport open and secure, and allowing Afghans to get on planes regardless of the documentation they may have on their person. Afghans like Suneeta’s children must be brought to safety – whether that is to a third country like Kosovo, Albania, Qatar, or Kuwait, to a U.S. territory, or to the mainland United States. All necessary processing of visas can happen once our allies are out of harm’s way. We hope to be welcoming Suneeta’s children, and all the other Afghan allies, to the United States with open arms in the coming weeks. While facts and figures are important, this is beyond a numbers game – it is the Administration’s responsibility to ensure each of these human lives are safe.

Visit our page for more information and resources for Afghan allies: https://refugees.org/resources-for-afghan-allies/ 

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