I am the child of Afghan parents who made the U.S. their home following the violent occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. One year ago, Afghanistan’s 20-year war ended, and images of the chaotic evacuation scenes at Kabul Airport emerged. My family—along with over 100,000 others in the Afghan-U.S. diaspora who have escaped the country’s unending series of conflicts—thought that history was repeating itself.
Shortly after the Taliban took over Kabul, I woke up to frantic Whatsapp voice notes pleading for help from three young women relatives there. I had started working with my family to try to get them out when we all realized the capital was within days or hours of falling to the Taliban. There was no question that the women would be forced into marriage or killed if left behind in Afghanistan.
Citizens like my husband (a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan) and I were trying to get Afghans to and through the airport using just a mobile phone and a laptop as part of Digital Dunkirk. Meanwhile, different philanthropies were actively working to airlift refugees out of Afghanistan and to safe haven.
More than 3,000 Afghans were airlifted to safe places in Albania, Iraq and elsewhere both during and after the fall of Kabul. Many of these refugees were once Afghanistan’s most talented leaders—doctors, lawyers, journalists and university students who speak multiple languages. A portion of this work was performed by the Afghan Future Fund (AFF), a partnership between Schmidt Futures (a philanthropic initiative) and the Yalda Hakim Foundation
The three young women were able to leave Afghanistan through a U.S. government plane and resettle in Maryland. But this required the support of key contacts, a stroke of luck and the generosity of the U.S. Marines who, per their modus operandi, put their lives on the line.
It shouldn’t have to be this hard, and connections and luck shouldn’t be this crucial in deciding the fate of refugees. Compassion is not a sustainable substitute for good policy and a clear process.
Connections and luck shouldn’t be this crucial in deciding the fate of refugees. Compassion is not a sustainable substitute for good policy and a clear process.
Today, one of the major barriers for Afghan refugees to escape famine and strife is the U.S. government’s visa processing. It’s too hard to navigate and too slow to function in people’s time of need.
77,000 Afghans are waiting on Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs)—with dependents, this number increases to 346,500 people. Many have saved American lives, whether as interpreters, or for military, intelligence and aid agencies.
There are 44,000 Afghans with pending Priority-1 or Priority-2 visas—meaning they have worked with the U.S. government, NGOs or media organizations, or are extremely vulnerable members of the population. But just over 10,000 SIVs have received an initial chief of mission approval. Half are initially denied. The process requires 14 steps and on average, takes three years to complete. And when it does work, there often isn’t a plan to support refugees as they look to build a new life in the country.
In the aftermath of the greatest civilian airlift in American history, working against the Aug. 31 troop withdrawal deadline, we need a plan both for those left behind and for those attempting to start over in their new home country.
As we see crucial protests around the world after the devastating death of Mahsa Amini, we should remember that there are also things we can still do to help women who are suffering similar atrocities in neighboring Afghanistan or have been able to escape the country to start over.
For those left behind, more than one year has passed since the Taliban banned teenage Afghan girls from exercising their right to education. The Taliban is actively and systematically dismantling the agency of women in Afghan society. While it is imperative that the U.S. government should continue to pressure the Taliban to allow women to access educational and economic opportunities, it should also offer a path to prosperity on its own shores. This is especially the case given the sacrifices that normal Afghans have made over the past two decades to support the U.S. intervention in the country.
As we see crucial protests around the world after the devastating death of Mahsa Amini, we should remember there are also things we can still do to help women who are suffering similar atrocities in neighboring Afghanistan, or have been able to escape the country to start over.
For those looking to leave the country and those starting a new life with dignity and hope in the U.S., the government can take two measures—neither of which are radical—to help Afghanistan’s refugees and support them as they resettle in the U.S.
1. Prioritize Student Visas
First, the government should prioritize Afghan student visas for those who didn’t make it on to U.S. evacuation planes and those who didn’t make the Aug. 31 deadline to leave Afghanistan. For example, university students with pending visa applications should have their immigration decisions fast-tracked. This fast-tracking can be contingent on acceptance into U.S. universities. And eligibility should not depend on whether they left Afghanistan before or after the troop withdrawal.
2. Economic Justice Response
Second, avoiding the traps of new immigrants falling prey to generations-long cycles of poverty and income inequality requires investing in education. The government, as well as businesses and philanthropies, can boost efforts to host Afghan students in U.S. universities. To this end, the Afghan Future Fund, together with its partners, the Education Above All Foundation (EAA) and the Institute of International Education (IIE), will facilitate scholarships, enrollment and other support for up to 250 Afghan undergraduate and graduate students in its first year. But to guarantee its success in the long term, it needs more partners to provide financial support, and more universities to accommodate worthy applicants.
Knowing the dangers facing young Afghans every day, I urge the U.S. government, businesses, universities, philanthropies and American citizens to step up to the plate, just as they did for families like mine decades ago.
If it were not for the opportunities that this country offered my family, I would not have had the chance to benefit from the American education that offers me the opportunity to make a case for Afghans left behind. And in particular, for the women and girls left behind.
The Taliban has broken its promise to girls who hoped to forge a path to a brighter future through education. In contrast, the U.S., by taking some simple and practical steps, can ensure that its promise as a beacon of hope and freedom translates to real opportunities for those who reach its shores.
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