Sayed* has not slept in days. His nights are filled with frantic messages from friends and family, and his days are filled speaking to the media and lobbying California’s congresspeople by phone, email, and trips to their offices.
“This is a very dark day not only for Afghanistan but for the international community,” said Sayed, the organiser of an Afghan community group in Sacramento, California.
Across the United States, Afghan Americans like Sayed are going through much of the same as they watch their country crumble from afar.
“All of their achievements and sacrifices, whether it was human life sacrifices or humanitarian assistance, all of the lives and money cost within 20 years of the struggle to build a country from scratch, it’s all gone in the middle of one night. It’s incredible and shocking and embarrassing for the international community,” says Sayed, whose mother, brother, and other relatives are still in Afghanistan after his resettlement in the US in 2015, thanks to his work with USAID. “People are desperate, fleeing in the middle of the night with bags full of cash.”
Arash Azizzada – a co-founder of Afghans For A Better Tomorrow, a group of progressive Afghan diaspora organisers working for peace in Afghanistan – predicted the country’s current events months ago when he co-wrote an opinion piece for Newsweek in April.
“We knew that Afghan folks would find themselves in a predicament because we knew the US was not acting in good faith and was looking for ways out – they’ve been doing this across administrations,” he told Al Jazeera. “Now the diaspora community here in the US and across the globe are creating ad hoc networks of support, trying to triage and focus on evacuations first and foremost, advocating for keeping the airport running.”
Azizzada emphasises the wide array of people – from members of the LGBTQ community to those who fought for women’s rights and spoke out against the Taliban crimes – who are at risk amid the US forces’ withdrawal.
“The US and the international community spent roughly 20 years saying, ‘Hey, break barriers, be bold and daring, take a risk. Don’t worry, this is democracy, this is how it works,’ and now they’ve totally abandoned every single person they promised not to leave behind,” he says.
Azizzada says he and fellow members of the diaspora community are spending more than 20 hours a day speaking to the media to highlight the plight of those back home. “We’re on WhatsApp, Slack, Signal, sharing as much information as possible about possible evacuation routes, about how to get cash out at banks, and figuring out the refugee process. Everyone is getting a crash course in becoming an immigration expert because that’s currently what it takes.”
Azizzada wants the US and the international community to drop visa requirements and other regulations that prevent people from resettling outside of Afghanistan and to “deal with the humanitarian crisis that is slowly unravelling, which will cost countless lives of everyday Afghans”.
He wants the US government to establish a crisis hotline, but does not feel optimistic because “they’re unable to even facilitate the safety of the airport”, he says.
Sara Noorzay is the former operations director of the Afghan American Community Organization and current organiser with the Afghan American Coalition, an alliance of groups advocating for assistance for Afghans both within Afghanistan and those seeking refuge in the US in response to the current crisis.
“We need the power of coming together with one single, unified voice of what our stance is and what our demands are of the Biden administration,” she says. “As the diaspora community mobilised and we saw people across the US taking a more active role, we thought it was necessary for us to create a hub of information.”
Noorzay’s coalition has developed a script for people to use when calling their local congress members and a list of four specific calls to action for the US government: prioritising emergency evacuations for Afghans; expanding and expediting the visa process for P-1, P-2, and special immigrant visas (SIVs); immediately delivering humanitarian aid; and increasing the annual refugee allocation by 100,000 and reassessing the number based on need in the future.
The central problem with the P-2 visa is that applicants have to be in a country outside of Afghanistan to apply, which is not safe or feasible. Plus, as embassies have been closing in the country, it is nearly impossible for Afghans to acquire the paperwork they need to apply.
“Over the last few days, we’ve seen reports of flights that are leaving nearly empty because there’s not safe passage to the airport,” she says. “[Kabul] is chaos and outside of that the Taliban are intimidating and terrorising people who have been approved to leave to the US along the route to the airport. We’re hearing reports of men, women, and children being physically assaulted on the way to the airport. There aren’t nearly enough flights and it’s not safe or logistically possible for people to get to them.”
Noorzay says the majority of the requests that her group receives from members of the diaspora community are related to how to help get loved ones out of Afghanistan and how they can be most useful to aid efforts, which is why they created the script for contacting government representatives.
She tells people asking how they can help to contact their congresspeople and other representatives by phone or email. “You’re a constituent of these people. Make sure they know what we’re asking for and what our demands are,” she says.
In the meantime, many Afghans remain worried and desperate.
“My brother and mother are living in fear right now. I’m sending emails to everybody to save their lives, but I’m not getting a response. I haven’t slept three nights in a row. I keep watching the news and the Facebook videos people are posting,” Sayed says. “The whole world is responsible for taking immediate action in whatever way they can.”
*names have been changed due to security concerns.