An Afghan family who left their home country years ago and resettled in Virginia attempt to help family members still stuck in Kabul, and grapple with the unavoidable question: With the US military gone, what happens to those attempting to leave Afghanistan now?
Bahar serves paratha and tea in her Richmond, Va. home, as she recalls the first time she fled Afghanistan. She escaped with her family through Afghanistan’s Nuristan mountains, wearing two sets of clothes and carrying bags of potatoes, on a 175-mile journey to Peshawar in Pakistan. They were forced to travel on foot after the bus they rode came under intense Taliban gunfire and armed interrogation. At one point her father was taken away by militants. She was seven years old.
“I still remember running in those mountains with my dad, with my brother, my sisters and my mom,” Bahar said. “I remember the sound of gunfire on the bus and my mother praying to save us. I don’t know how we made it out.”
In Peshawar, Bahar’s father, an officer in the Afghan military, couldn’t reveal his identity, and therefore couldn’t find legitimate work. The family of eight lived off an $80 monthly stipend her uncles wired from Canada, while her father made pocket change scalping cigarettes, and selling fruit on the street. Some days they simply didn’t eat. Eventually, her father found work as a security guard, which helped cover their expenses.
“That money was able to cover the rent, some bills like water and electricity, and to pay for our high school,” Bahar said. “We didn’t care if we didn’t have any food. It’s okay if we didn’t have food, as long as we can keep going to school.”
“I was very lucky in that I came from an educated family and my parents provided me the opportunity of getting a good education,” Bahar added. “My father believed children are the greatest asset of the country, of any country.”
Bahar, who asked to be identified only by her first name, returned years later with her family to Kabul. She had just graduated high school, and U.S. forces had suppressed the Al Qaeda insurgency, and driven the Taliban out of the country.
In the 12 years that followed, Bahar earned a degree in Business Administration, started a family, and built a career serving the US Embassy, and US backed projects intended to strengthen Afghanistan. She believed she was helping to rebuild her country. “I started as a receptionist and ended as an H.R. manager,” Bahar said. “We had very good jobs, very good incomes and we lost all of that. But we saved our lives.”
When the rumors circulated in 2014 that the U.S. was to withdraw, Taliban militants dispatched messages to leaders in Wardak and Jalalabad, where Bahar and her husband were from, promising that once Kabul was captured, they would hunt her family down. Then her husband’s uncle, a doctor, was shot dead by the Taliban. They immediately fled.
Bahar and her husband received Special Immigrants Visas (SIVs), since they both worked for U.S. funded projects – he was a translator. But because SIVs only grant asylum to immediate family members, they could escape with their three children. Not her parents and siblings.
[Taliban] think that we are infidel, a traitor of Islam and a traitor of the country,” Bahar said. “If they are captured, [the] Taliban kill them and all of their family, including their cousins and their kids, in front of them, before you are beheaded.
Bahar has helped complete the necessary paperwork for her family, all of whom are eligible for the SIV, as each has worked in some capacity for the US in Afghanistan. Approval eludes them. And so they remain in hiding, changing locations every few days to evade detection and capture. Their only hope right now is to wait it out until their SIVs are approved, and a flight is made available.
Escape from Afghanistan, especially at present, is a protracted and complicated process. The U.S. refugee resettlement system, comprised of an overlapping body of government agencies, large resettlement organizations, and local nonprofits and volunteers, is a cumbersome and tedious rigamarole that can take years to navigate. By the time the Biden Administration entered office in January, there had been an estimated backlog of 17,000 Afghans awaiting their visas and a flight out.
While technically not in their purview, many immigration lawyers have taken on clients stuck in Kabul, to help guide them through the government-run SIV process. “It’s been absolutely nuts for all of us,” said Naureen Hyder, an attorney at Hyder Immigration Law in Richmond, Va. Significant delays to the process began last year, when COVID-19 forced several U.S. consulates to shut down.
“So they have been prepared and ready for their interview and the government has told us, ‘all of your documents are ready, we are just waiting for an interview date,’” Hyder said. “All they need is an interview date. So what have we been doing? Whatever we can to get them the hell out.”
During the last week, Hyder worked around the clock– at one point, she said she stayed up for four days straight– to get people to the Kabul airport. “Every five minutes it was something different. Which gate should they go to, which gate is closed, oh that gate just blew up,” she said. “All of my clients got through, and at the very last point, while they were in the airport, officials said, ‘no, this isn’t good enough.’”
Hyder has coached her clients on wiping their phones of incriminating info, alerted them when to burn documents, and at one point even parlayed with Afghan security. “I’m an immgration attorney,” she adds. “I’m not trained for this. I can’t be responsible for messing up one of those [SIV] requirements at one of the 13 to 25 checkpoints they go through and they get killed. So I have taken a backseat and told my clients to wait until we have a vetted way to get out that’s not in the trunk of a car.”
At least 250,000 Afghans eligible for expedited visas– not including green card holders– were unable to evacuate before the Aug. 31 deadline, according to estimates from the Association of Wartime Allies and researchers at American University. Thousands of families like Bahar’s have become separated in a worldwide diaspora, with little hope for reunion with those left behind.
Bahar believes she’s exhausted all of her resources to quicken their visa process. She has contacted several representatives, including Abigail Spanberger, Tim Kaine, and Mark Warner, and filed all the additional paperwork they sent her. Weeks later, she hasn’t gotten any response besides more documents to file. She continues to send emails daily, attaching the documents each time.
“I don’t know who is working on those forms, but they have not given me any update on their status,” she said. “They only tell me that someone is working on your case and they will contact [my family] in Afghanistan so they can make it to the airport. But no one has contacted them.”
Unfortunately, U.S. lawmakers are still figuring out the next course of action. In response to request for comment, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine said in a statement that he “will continue working with the Administration to ensure that remaining U.S. citizens and eligible Afghan allies who want to leave are able to do so.”
“My team and I are working around the clock with the Administration to ensure relocation efforts proceed in the safest and most efficient manner possible,” he added.
The Biden administration announced Thursday that flights out of Kabul have resumed for U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, and foreign nationals. “We’re holding the Taliban to the commitments that they’ve made to ensure the free passage and safe travel for anyone who wants to leave Afghanistan,” the statement said.
This comes after numerous reports of grounded flights at Mazar-i-Sharif airport waiting days for clearance. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week those delays were due to Taliban claims that many Afghans lacked the proper documents to leave. “And it’s my understanding that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said those without valid documents, at this point, can’t leave,” Blinken said. “Because all of these people are grouped together, that means that flights have not been allowed to go.”
Bahar refuses to blame the U.S., or any government for that matter, for the fall of her country. “Now I don’t know what happened, how they did there, but I defend that [Afghan] soldiers are good fighters,” Bahar said. “But there were some corrupt leaders in government who dealt [away] their land, and the embarrassment goes to them. Because of them we are in this situation.”
She also defended Afghanistan former president Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee the country, stating that if he hadn’t then “Kabul city would have been destroyed,” and her family “would’ve been killed. If he had decided to fight, every street in Kabul would have been destroyed and millions of people would have died,” she said.
Immigration attorney Hyder said she was frustrated by how many mainstream media and friends have taken this as an opportunity for political discourse and to criticize politicians. She thinks the ‘what if’ conversation is not productive at all.
“Several people have asked what I thought about what Biden did, and I’m like you know who I haven’t thought about a single time is Joe Biden,” Hyder said. “I have not had the time for one moment, because we are in it and it doesn’t matter what he did or didn’t do or how he did it and what he said. We’re literally in it.”
Many doubt the Taliban will be as accommodating for Afghan nationals who they’ve only ever seen as traitors. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the former leader of the Haqqani terrorist network, and among the FBI’s most wanted with a $10 million bounty for alleged attacks and kidnappings, was appointed last week as the interior minister of Afghanistan, a position whose duties include passport authorization.
“Disentangling ourselves from Afghanistan was never going to be easy,” said U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks at a Monday hearing. “And for my friends who presume a clean solution for the withdrawal existed, I would welcome [them] to show what a smooth withdrawal of a messy chaotic 20 year war looks like. In fact I’ve yet to hear of a clean withdrawal option, because I don’t believe one exists.”
“I look forward to hearing from the Secretary how the State Department intends to complete its evacuation of the 100-200 Americans remaining in Afghanistan who want to come home, as well as evacuating those Afghans who worked alongside us during the past 20 years,” Meeks added.
Blinken said at the hearing that in the coming days and weeks, they will continue their commitment to evacuating American and Afghans who wish to leave, but said there “is no deadline to this mission.”
At this point, Bahar isn’t convinced she’ll see her family alive again. Without immediate intervention to evacuate her family, Bahar believes it’s only a matter of time until the Taliban finds and kills them. In the meantime, Bahar tries to assuage the fears of her family from 7,000 miles away. A shoddy internet connection limits video calls to one every week or two. Their conversations are brief and emotionally gridlocked. “‘Save us, do something for us, Bahar, please save us!’ and I’m not able to tell them that I can do it. All I can say is that I’m giving it my best,” she said. “I tell them I am in contact with [representatives] and [for them] to just wait.”
The pressure Bahar feels, and the looming threat of losing her family has taken a toll on her home. She goes to work and “feels nothing,” and has been “unable to focus” on her three children. Her mental energy is spent. Sometimes she dreams of her parents and siblings, begging her to save them.
“For all intents and purposes, these people’s chances of escaping the Taliban ended the day we left them behind,” said Afghanistan war veteran Matt Zeller, founder of No One Left Behind.
Despite having to flee, Bahar loves her former home and cares deeply about the people she left behind. If she didn’t have a family, she said she would be with her fellow Afghan women, marching in the streets, holding up signs and taking a beating if necessary, to fight for azadi, for freedom.
“Every woman should be able to stand on her own as an independent individual, because the Taliban doesn’t like this,” Bahar said. “In the majority of Afghanistan, they don’t allow their girls to go outside and study for anything. Every woman should be able to work hard, make their career and do something for themself. Men alone can’t run the world.”
Bahar never wanted to leave Afghanistan, her family, and a seasoned career. But their work for American forces and other international organizations made them a target of the Taliban, well before their takeover. She believes the Taliban’s promises to pardon Afghan nationals who worked with western forces is simply a ruse to draw them out of hiding. “Right now [Taliban] say they forgive everybody, but I cannot believe terrorists,” Bahar said.
So for Bahar, her family, and thousands of refugees displaced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is home now. They have friends in Falls Church, and dream of sending their older daughter to VCU, even as they continue trying to get her parents and siblings out of Kabul.
Recently, Bahar said she found comfort in her local community. Out of desperation, she posted her story on NextDoor, a social media app used to connect neighbors. Responses poured in. Most offered words of encouragement. Some sent her email links to local and state representatives. Several filled out inquiries on her behalf. Others brought over food. One man even mowed her yard.
“They give me hope,” she said. “They give me energy, that there is someone who wants to take care of you. I feel like I have brothers and sisters in this community. It means a lot to me.”
All Photos by Branden Wilson