Fear mounts for many with loved ones left in Afghanistan as US begins to leave
SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Zohal Abdurahman has been waiting for three years to bring her brother-in-law to safety in the United States.
And now that the U.S. military is leaving Afghanistan, the wait has reached new levels of urgency.
Her brother-in-law, who is not being named due to threats on his life, fought alongside U.S. troops over the past decade and specialized in disarming explosives. He is still in Afghanistan waiting on a “special immigrant visa“ — often referred to as an SIV — that would allow him, his wife and their children to come live in San Diego and protect them from potential retaliation for the work that he did.
Abdurahman’s brother-in-law is one among thousands still in Afghanistan who helped the U.S. military and are now watching the days count down to President Joe Biden’s deadline for troops to leave with increased worry that they will be left behind by the United States — and then tortured and killed by the Taliban.
“It’s one thing dying on duty, that’s like an honor. If he’s caught, they will literally mutilate his body, torture him as much as they possibly can,” Abdurahman said. “That’s what scares him and scares the rest of the family.”
More than 300 people who worked as interpreters for the U.S. military, or family members of those interpreters, have been killed in Afghanistan since 2014, according to advocacy group No One Left Behind.
And though Biden’s initial deadline gives the military until September to exit Afghanistan, reports have since indicated troops could be gone as soon as next month.
Bipartisan groups in both the Senate and House have sent letters to the White House advocating for people like Abdurahman’s brother-in-law. But with backlogs in processing these visas and rules restricting who can get them and the quantity given, many who helped the United States are likely to remain there unless something changes.
The program is supposed to take no more than nine months, but the average wait time for SIVs at the beginning of 2021 was nearly three years, according to State Department documents.
The Biden administration has expressed support for interpreters and other Afghans who worked with the U.S., but it has not made clear what plans it has, if any, to protect them.
When asked about the issue, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said that any changes to the program would have to be worked out between the State Department and Congress.
“The president has been clear. We have a moral obligation to these people,” Kirby told reporters. “He wants to take a fresh look at the SIV program to see how and to what degree it could be expanded and/or accelerated.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the department has increased staffing levels in both Washington and Kabul to work on SIV processing.
“When it comes to SIVs, we’ve said this before, but we understand and we recognize that we have a special commitment and a special responsibility to the many Afghans who, over the years, have at great risk to themselves and even to their families — have assisted the United States in our efforts in Afghanistan,” Price said. “We are always seeking ways to improve the SIV process while ensuring the integrity of the program and safeguarding our national security and affording opportunities to these Afghans.”
Abdurahman’s brother-in-law got laid off last month as part of the withdrawal. Without his U.S. colleagues, he already feels less safe, Abdurahman said.
He is already close to the end of the process. He and his family had their medical screenings in May, one of the final steps in the 14-part process outlined in State Department records. He’s just waiting to have the visa in his hands so he can leave.
“We’re just literally praying day and night that he gets his visa,” Abdurahman said. “We told him, ‘You’re not bringing anything. If you’re going to pack anything, pack now because as soon as you get your visa, you’re coming here.’”
Even the distribution of visas once they’re approved is backlogged because the U.S. embassy there has been closed for much of the pandemic, according to James Miervaldis, chairman of the board for No One Left Behind.
And while Abdurahman’s family is close to the end of the process, many others have much less hope of getting out of the country in time.
Ali Rasouly, 39, and Rahmat Mokhtar, 34, both know that anxiety well.
They worked as interpreters with the Marines, and both managed to get through the SIV process and resettle in El Cajon.
Since fiscal year 2016, more than 2,400 people from Afghanistan — a combination of SIVs and refugees — have resettled in San Diego County, according to Abdi Abdillahi, county refugee coordinator.
Rasouly waited about five years for his visa, he said. During that time, he was constantly moving, keeping his family in hiding to avoid being killed during the wait.
When he worked with the military, he kept his face covered so that he wouldn’t be recognized. But sometimes neighbors or other observers would still figure out his secret, even in the time that he stopped working for the military to be an accountant. Each time, he quickly and quietly moved, sometimes to an entirely different province.
And though Rasouly and Mokhtar are now safe, their worries are not over.
They have parents, siblings and other family left behind, and on top of their concerns about the Taliban connecting their families to their work with the U.S., they have another reason to be afraid for their loved ones. Rasouly and Mokhtar are part of the Hazara ethnic group that has been and continues to be targeted for persecution.
That persecution has been going on for centuries, Mokhtar said, referring to it as a genocide. Frequent news of suicide bombings targeting Hazara make him feel physically sick with worry.
“It’s super complicated and stressful,” Mokhtar said. “I cannot live it every day, and I cannot forget it. It’s like a nightmare. It’s like a coffin on my shoulder and following me, and I’m carrying it everywhere.”
Neither Mokhtar nor Rasouly have become U.S. citizens yet — a process that has its own backlog and requires a five-year wait after getting a green card — so they are not able to sponsor visas for their family members back in Afghanistan. Even when they do become U.S. citizens, that process would take many years because of country caps and additional backlogs in the family-sponsored visa queue.
Rasouly and Mokhtar hope that in addition to helping interpreters and others who worked in service to the U.S. leave Afghanistan, the United States will find a way to prioritize helping Hazara people leave.
On Saturday, about 100 people of Hazara descent who have settled in the San Diego area demonstrated outside the County Administration Center to call for the formal recognition of Hazara genocide.
“In the past 24 hours there have been four attacks in our very small area” in Afghanistan, said participant Ali “Changiz” Yasa, an English language teacher who worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan as an interpreter and cultural adviser before fleeing to San Diego.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces “will leave us once again under suppression and extreme oppression,” he added.
The State Department told the San Diego Union-Tribune on background that there will be humanitarian and development assistance programs meant to support the rights of Hazaras, among other groups, after the troops are gone.
Veterans urge action
Some of the most vocal advocates for bringing people like Rasouly and Mokhtar and their families to the United States are the U.S. military veterans who worked with them.
“What we really ought to be doing is an immediate evacuation of these folks,” said Shawn Vandiver, a Navy veteran and co-founder of the Truman National Security Project chapter in San Diego. “We should be totally eliminating the cap on SIVs and immediately processing them. These folks served alongside us. They were armed. They killed their fellow countrymen while wearing uniforms with U.S. service members. They’ve already been vetted. Give them another quick background check, and get them over here.”
Referencing what happened when the United States pulled out of Vietnam — a move that began San Diego’s long history of receiving refugees — he suggested that the U.S. military transport Afghans to a safe place to finish any processing.
“Our system is so broken that people are dying all the time over there,” Vandiver said.
When asked recently about the possibility of evacuations, Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said that there are contingency plans for evacuations in different parts of the world, including Afghanistan.
“We have put some planning resources to this, no question,” Kirby said. “But there has been no tasking to carry such an evacuation out on any scale right now. And if that tasking comes, we will be ready to execute.”
Amber Robinson, 43, of Chula Vista, served in the U.S. Army for 10 years and feels conflicted about the withdrawal, knowing that it will likely mean more harm to Afghan civilians, particularly women and girls, while also recognizing the human cost of continued war.
“So many of my fellow veterans, we’re torn. We’re just absolutely torn. I know that’s how I feel,” Robinson said. “We’ve just gone over and over and over again, and we’re used up. We’re just exhausted. So when is enough enough?”
But on the issue of SIVs, her feelings are much more straightforward.
“They all have come over here just for safety. It’s just so dangerous for them to stay,” Robinson said. “I shudder to think what’s going to happen to everybody.”
Staff photographer Nelvin C. Cepeda contributed to this report.
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