‘A Moral Obligation’: How Agencies Help Afghan Women Who Can Escape

As the evacuation continues, resettlement agencies in the United States are working overtime to find new homes for those fleeing the Taliban.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Carolyn McIlvaine, a Westfield, Mass., hands out book bags to girls in the village of Kohe-sur in 2009. (Holly A. Hess / Flickr)

This story originally appeared on The 19th.

Urgent messages came flooding in: Some Afghan women said their homes were invaded, their organizations ransacked and their families’ lives threatened. Others were sheltering in place, unable to get to the airport. Women activists said they couldn’t leave their homes, terrified that the Taliban would kidnap, torture or assassinate them. 

Jessica Smith, the research and policy manager at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, said the situation in Afghanistan “could not be more dire.” The institute’s inbox is filled with desperate pleas for help.

In chaotic fits and starts, an evacuation is under way in Kabul. President Joe Biden on Friday said that he is committed to evacuating all Afghans who assisted in the war effort—despite reports of desperate crowds and violent scenes just outside the airport’s perimeter

In a press conference on Friday, Army Major Gen. William Taylor said there were 5,800 American soldiers in Kabul assisting evacuation efforts. Around 13,000 people have been evacuated since August 14 and the number of flights out of the country are “steadily increasing,” according to Taylor, the deputy director for regional operations and force management for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

But is special attention being paid to women, whose stories resonated so strongly with the West 20 years ago? While there is an intentional effort to protect women, the exact number of women who have been evacuated isn’t publicly available—making it nearly impossible to assess the success of those efforts, several resettlement agencies say.

 “We should have been working on evacuating women much earlier than right now,” Smith said. “But what I can say is—I don’t think it’s too late.” 

So what happens next to those who can escape?

Afghan refugees who are successfully processed and evacuated are greeted by resettlement agencies and other humanitarian groups when they land stateside. It is not clear how many evacuees are women, but several resettlement agencies reported that many translators are arriving in the United States with their wives and children.

“We receive notification of arrivals only a few days before, and therefore it is very difficult to predict how many we will receive,” said Emily Gilkinson, a spokesperson for the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC)—one of the nine national resettlement agencies. 

The majority of Afghan refugees are currently being placed in Denver; Silver Spring, Maryland; Houston; Arlington, Virginia; and San Diego, Gilkinson said. Even before the recent influx, ECDC—with its 15 resettlement sites across the country—had resettled 244 Afghans since October.

Typically, the refugees are brought from the airport to their new home, which is secured before their arrival. A local resettlement site ensures they have a warm, culturally appropriate meal and checks in during those first weeks and months living in a new country. Resettlement agencies might help enroll children in school, make sure they have access to medical and health care, register for job training and English language classes or assist them in acquiring a Social Security card.

“It can feel overwhelming. … The greatest challenge for many affiliates so far has been securing appropriate housing on such short notice,” Gilkinson said. 

Meredith Owen, the director of policy and advocacy for the immigration and refugee program at the Church World Service—another national resettlement agency—said the organization is in a position to welcome even more refugees. 

“We have been asking the administration to evacuate tens of thousands more Afghan allies and their loved ones,” Owen said, noting that they are also pushing the administration to admit up to 125,000 refugees next year—on top of the special immigrant visa program.

The Department of Defense said its goal is to welcome up to 22,000 Afghan refugees, but that figure falls far short of the total number of Afghans who are eligible for protection and their family members, Owen said. In a statement released on Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it had provided emergency assistance to 230,000 Afghans in 2021 alone and is currently monitoring half a million displaced Afghans—80 percent of whom are women and children.

“Processing overseas is something that takes a really long time,” Owen said. “And we don’t have time. We need to be bringing people to the United States and its territories immediately through humanitarian parole, and then processing them at that point. We truly have a moral obligation to protect people that we’ve pledged to.” 

In a February 2020 opinion piece published in the New York Times, the deputy Taliban leader said that the militant group would ensure all Afghans have equal rights, including “the rights of women that are granted by Islam.” But many activists and researchers are wary of the group’s assurances given their previous actions towards women. 

“When the Taliban was in power before, women bore the heaviest price,” said Smith, who works directly with Melanne Verveer, the former U.S. ambassador for Global Women’s Issues and head of the institute. “Based on what we’re hearing from contacts on the ground, it does not seem like this will be any different.” 

Madhav Joshi, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and associate director of the Peace Accords Matrix, said the attempt at a peaceful transfer of power was “not successful by any standard” and does not bode well for the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan. 

“We have to see how the Taliban translate their promise into action,” said Joshi, whose research analyzed more than 200 civil wars in the past three decades and found a direct link between how a conflict ends and the state of women’s political rights in the post-war period. “The next few days will be key as they come up with their law and how they want to govern the country.” 

Biden on Friday again stood by his decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and end the war. 

“The past week has been heartbreaking,” Biden said at the press conference. “We’ve seen gut-wrenching images of panicked people acting out of sheer desperation. … Now we have a mission to complete in Afghanistan.” And that, he said, is to “bring international pressure” on the Taliban to treat the Afghan people, particularly women and girls, with dignity.

Asked whether the United States was as committed to evacuating Afghan allies as American citizens, Biden responded: “We’re doing all we can.” 

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Mariel Padilla is a general assignment reporter for The 19th. Previously she covered breaking news at The New York Times, compiled data at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and contributed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning project at The Cincinnati Enquirer.