… if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday (Isa. 58: 10, NIV).
Afghanistan may not be in the headlines, but it remains the site of a real-life Hunger Games for our friends and allies trapped under Taliban rule. Hunted, many move from house to house to avoid detection. With their employers gone, they struggle to keep their families fed and sheltered. Those who have relatives outside the country survive on any remittances they’re able to provide. To work—if a job could be found—they would have to come out of hiding, an extraordinary risk.
Last August, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan with breathtaking speed, I scrambled to write P-2 referral letters for my former employees in hopes that the Priority 2 designation would help them get to safety in the United States.
When Afghan friends in Arkansas and South Carolina asked for help getting endangered family members evacuated (people who had worked for the US military, NATO, or within civil society to defeat terrorists and establish a democracy) my caseload ballooned from a dozen people to hundreds in just a matter of weeks.
Among those on my list included: Combat interpreters and other US military employees, a NATO interpreter, a UN employee who survived kidnapping and beatings, a US Embassy employee and his wife and kids, a women’s rights activist, a female newscaster, an employee of a South African-owned communications company, a widow facing forced marriage and her children, a Hazara family whose daughter dressed as a boy to avoid Taliban attention, and religious minorities vulnerable to persecution.
A friend in Ohio, who I had worked with in a refugee camp, volunteered to help with the growing workload. Because lives hung in the balance, she took a six-month unpaid leave of absence from her job, and I laid down the book manuscript I was writing to focus our efforts on the enormous task before us—submitting visa applications and names to evacuation lists, gathering identification documents, writing letters of threat, and communicating with those trapped in Afghanistan and others coordinating rescue efforts.
Another Afghan friend, who survived a Taliban attack before fleeing to the UK and who had 30 family members still trapped in Afghanistan, joined our team as an interpreter. Our far-flung team worked 24/7. We met on Zoom and communicated over a secure app with terrified people in Afghanistan, receiving 500 messages a day in the beginning. We provided the best information we had to assist them in making life-and-death decisions—whether to flee their homes to another city in Afghanistan, if and when to cross a border at the risk of being shot, or remain in hiding, all while wiring funds for health emergencies and food shortages.
Afraid for their lives, many with SIVs (Special Immigrant Visas) fled to Iran. There, they were detained, beaten, and humiliated—forced to clean public toilets—only to be expelled back into Afghanistan. One of my former translators attempted to board an evacuation flight with her small son, but got cut on barbed wire and sprained her ankle during the airport mayhem. Shortly thereafter, she lost a baby in utero, likely from the trauma.
As of March 2022, only about three percent of Afghans who applied for SIVs had been evacuated. According to the Department of State, the average SIV application takes 564 days to process; other sources say up to 996 days—a dreadfully long time to feed families in hiding.
Over a six-month period, our team raised $35,000 for groceries, housing, medical care, and communications while searching for ways of escape for Afghan friends, allies, and other vulnerable people. In the end, largely due to the efforts of my teammate in Ohio, we got 262 people listed for evacuation flights, most of whom are languishing in a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi awaiting resettlement. Another 138 people on our list remain trapped inside Afghanistan, struggling to avoid detection and meet basic needs while battling PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), anxiety, and depression.
On learning about humanitarian parole—a potentially faster process for getting endangered people to safety—I recruited sponsors. Columbia friends, a physical therapist and her husband, a schoolteacher, sponsored a Hazara family of five with a severely disabled child. The husband, a brother of another Afghan friend in Columbia who was herself once a refugee and is now a US citizen.
The nightmare continues for Afghan friends and allies trapped in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, but ordinary South Carolinians can offer them practical relief and comfort. Your church or civic organization can become a lifeline to a family in need with a wire for groceries and words of encouragement sent over a secure app. Through technology, it’s possible to communicate your love and build a life-changing relationship across the ocean.