Afghan non-profit workers desperately scramble to evacuate

Roya was the face of the modern young Afghan woman. As the leader of a US government-funded girls’ club, she gave her troops a scenario for their lives that their mothers couldn’t follow: They were just as powerful as the boys in their ability to change their community. , she taught them. Working for another small nonprofit, she helped make connections between American and Afghan girls.

“I taught them that no one could silence us or tell us that something was not possible just because we were girls,” she said.

After the Afghan government fell to Taliban insurgents, Roya and some of those she worked with knew they could be targeted. But without direct ties to the US military, they had no hope of boarding a government evacuation flight from Kabul. Instead, their partners in non-governmental organizations in the United States staged a heartbreaking escape for Roya and some of her friends and family to neighboring Pakistan.

“The Taliban were looking for people who had worked with foreigners, and they were capturing them,” said Roya, 20. “I had to save my life and that of my family.

Among the vulnerable Afghans left behind after the U.S. withdrawal last month were thousands of people who worked for small nonprofits, many of which were funded by the State Department or agencies like the United States Agency for International Development to promote women’s rights, education and civic engagement. With many of their employees just as threatened as those employed directly by the US government, these cash-strapped organizations have had to find their own ways to get people out.

Thousands of miles from Afghanistan, using their phones and laptops, leaders of American NGOs scrambled to raise funds, obtain documents, find lawyers and organize travel for members of the staff and their families. They are also helping to evacuate women whose jobs put them on the list of potential Taliban targets, including some women who have trained Afghan police, lawyers and politicians.

“It’s like an underground railroad,” said Stephanie Sinclair, a photojournalist who founded Too Young to Wed in 2014 to empower girls and end child marriage. She orchestrated the safe passage of 45 people last week from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where they awaited their transfer to Albania, a step for those hoping to resettle in the United States, Canada or another country.

Among them were a lawyer who had prosecuted cases of domestic violence and children, a girls’ rights advocate who had received death threats and a woman who had served in the gender unit of the National Election Commission.

“Small, local NGOs are the ones who move mountains and do the heavy lifting to keep people safe,” Sinclair said from New York.

For help, Roya and his colleagues turned to Ben Schumaker, who had employed them in Kabul for the non-profit organization he ran from his garage in Madison, Wisconsin. “Our group is trying to keep our government’s promise to bring them to America,” he said.

Along with other members of his organization, The Memory Project, Mr. Schumaker arranged a stealth transport for Roya and the others to a safe house in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. In total, he caused 27 people linked to nonprofit groups to escape.

Several leaders of these groups said the Biden administration raised false hopes when it announced in early August that it would expand access to the U.S. refugee program for their Afghan employees who did not qualify for visas. special immigrants offered to people, such as interpreters. , who had worked for the army. These workers could apply for a new “priority 2” designation, the State Department said.

“They were looking forward to getting on a plane to the United States,” Schumaker recalls. “The reality was that they were never close to being eligible for an evacuation flight. It was an empty promise.

To apply for the program, applicants had to be outside of Afghanistan, they were later told, and they would have to wait at least a year for US authorities to review their cases.

“The program was a huge red herring; a publicity stunt, ”said Marina LeGree, founder of Ascend, a mountaineering program that aims to build physical and mental strength in adolescent girls and young women through sports activities and community services, such as mentoring orphans and teaching illiterate women to read. The administration has recognized that relocation can be a long process.

Ascend managed to place eight female instructors who featured prominently on the group’s website, along with family members, on an evacuation flight to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on August 22. They did this with the help of US Army Special Forces. veteran whose sister is a climber. Two of the families were accepted by Denmark; four more by Germany. Two more hope to travel to the United States.

Ms LeGree then extended her efforts to other people at risk, such as the organization’s driver and guards, as well as athletes, many of whom are members of the Hazara minority.

A mother of young children, Ms LeGree has been on her feet at all hours, she said, calling out all the personal and professional contacts she had ever made, and leveraging the goodwill people felt for the mission of its organization.

Sixty-eight people have been evacuated so far. Eighteen arrived in Chile on Wednesday, which offered them permanent residence. Ireland has said it will accept 20 girls, and Ascend hopes Poland and New Zealand will accept more.

“By hook and crook we get people out,” she said.

The Taliban have not banned non-governmental organizations from working in Afghanistan, and most groups hope to stay there even after sacking staff members who thought their work to advance gender equality would be banned, according to the Taliban. interpretation of Islam by the Taliban, which disapproves of the public roles of women. .

Schumaker’s Memory Project has used the portrait to foster connections between young Americans and their peers in more than 50 countries for 17 years; he took the initiative in Afghanistan four years ago.

Photographs of Afghan students are distributed to high school students in the United States, who then create handmade paintings and drawings, which are sent to their peers with a photo of themselves on the back.

Some 1,000 portraits were sent each year to Roya in Afghanistan, which, in addition to being a girl’s club leader, organized ceremonies in schools for the presentation of the works. The large-scale events were festive, often attended by senior government officials.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, Roya told Mr Schumaker that she had been so outspoken in recent years that she feared reprisals.

In recent television appearances, she had said that her work with the girls’ club troops to carry out community service projects, such as painting neglected urban properties, could be challenged by some “closed-minded” people. Roya had also declared that she wanted a “free and independent Afghanistan”.

When the Taliban invaded Kabul, the university where she studied journalism closed and the nonprofits that employed her ceased operations. The high schools eventually reopened, but only boys were allowed to attend.

“Everything was shattered,” Roya said. “My life was in danger.

She and her family had to flee.

Back in Wisconsin, Mr. Schumaker emailed his network of friends and family. Donations poured in, $ 5 to $ 5,000 each. Within a week he had $ 50,000.

On August 24, a group of nonprofit workers and their families, a total of 50, boarded a bus they chartered from Kabul to transport them to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Mr Schumaker tapped on a trusted contact to meet them on the other side.

He communicated with Roya via WhatsApp throughout the trip, which lasted 32 hours, including stops at Taliban checkpoints where passengers never revealed their true destination.

Scenes at the border resembled those at Kabul airport earlier this month, with thousands of people huddling together for hours in the scorching sun, waiting to be able to cross. At least one person has been trampled to death.

Pakistani guards demanded passage permits. Roya remembered crying as she begged them, “Please let us in.” Please. Our lives are in danger.

In the midst of the chaos, the group was divided. Several families, after assessing the risk, decided to return to Kabul.

Roya was upset. She wrote to Mr. Schumacher that she would rather be shot than not cross.

On their fourth attempt, most of the families made it through, including Roya, her mother, sister and brother.

Their guide took them in a van to a guesthouse in Quetta city to rest before heading to Islamabad, where they were to live until they could be resettled in another country. They were stopped en route by the police, who ordered them to turn around, and the guide appealed to the humanity of the police, pointing to the tired women and children.

Twenty-seven people from six families, including 13 children, arrived in Islamabad this month. About 10 days later, Mr. Schumaker made a whirlwind visit to Islamabad to meet Roya and the others in person for the first time, carrying wads of cash to pay for rent, food and other necessities. .

He had harbored the illusion of having them for a good meal, but everyone thought it was too risky to venture. Instead, Mr. Schumaker had take out food at an Afghan restaurant.

Back in the United States, Mr. Schumaker hired a childhood friend, a lawyer, to expedite immigration formalities for Roya’s family.

We didn’t know how long it would take, and Roya was already impatient.

“Let me fight again, let me work again,” she said.

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