Afghans left behind face visas, logistical challenges as friends, family tries to get them out

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Mohammad, like many Afghans who worked with the US military, was left behind even though he and his family could be hunted down and killed by the Taliban. He requested that his last name and details of his whereabouts and employment remain private, despite the Houston Chronicle reviewing some visa-related documents.

The former U.S. military contract worker said he was so stressed in hiding that his hair fell out.

“I can not sleep at night. I wake up until 5 or 6 a.m. Every five minutes I look outside and every car or vehicle that goes by I think, ‘Okay, the (the Taliban) are coming for me,’ ”he said during a voice message exchange.

Mohammad has had a pending US visa since 2019. He worked in Afghanistan with Houston-based veteran Liz Vallette. She reached out to Congressmen about his case, but she couldn’t move him forward.

Meanwhile, Mohammad is still waiting for the first approval of his special immigrant visa, a protection for Afghans and Iraqis who have helped the US military. He said it takes about a month to get in touch every time he asks about his case. The visa would allow him and his wife to get to the US, but he said it would be “a miracle” if they could manage to stay alive while the visa process progressed so slowly.

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He tried to get to Kabul airport to board an evacuation flight, even after saying that one of his colleagues was killed trying to get into the city’s airport, but his family was stopped at a Taliban checkpoint and beaten. They never made it to the airport.

Many Afghans who are US allies and have pending visa applications have also been left behind, he said, including his brother-in-law.

“Even those who had the right documents with them couldn’t get in,” said Mohammad. “And we were all very sad, we were all very hopeless, and we all saw or felt (our) death before our eyes.”

He said he saw on Facebook that some shopkeepers and other Afghans with no ties to the US managed to board evacuation flights despite not facing the same threats because of working with the United States.

“I am really disappointed with the way the US government has carried out the evacuations,” he said.

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Thousands of Afghans left behind

Sunil Varghese, political director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said his organization estimates that thousands of Afghans in the process of obtaining special visas have been left behind, not counting their family members.

“There were also a lot of people from all backgrounds, some even taxi drivers,” said Ahmadullah Sediqi, who works with Afghans through The Alliance, the refugee resettlement agency. “That was just a mess.”

Sediqi came to Houston on a special visa from Afghanistan and spent time processing incoming Afghans in Fort Bliss, Texas.

He believes the US still has time to include the people who worked with Americans in Afghanistan if they want.

But in the weeks since the withdrawal in late August, the Biden government has provided little clarity about the future of the stranded Afghans, according to Varghese. “We stand still,” he said.

“Will that be the permanent phase we are in? That there are basically no options for the people in Afghanistan, no matter what we have promised them or what work they have done for the US. said Varghese.

Naqibullah Laghmanai talks about his brother who works as a journalist in Afghanistan while eating at the Afghan Village restaurant in Houston on Monday, September 27, 2021. Laghmanai previously worked as an interpreter for the US armed forces and became a citizen after entering the US in 2013. He said his family are being persecuted in Afghanistan and that he knows 200 families at risk of violence. He said he was concerned that his country, the United States, would keep the promises it made. “You made sacrifices, it won’t come by itself,” he said.

Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / staff photographer

In a written statement, a foreign ministry spokesman reaffirmed the Biden government’s commitment to process special visa applications from people still in Afghanistan.

“We will redeem our commitment to SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) applicants who stood by us and risked their lives to support our mission in Afghanistan,” the spokesman said.

The government has said it has evacuated more than 124,000 American citizens, Afghan special immigrant visa applicants, and other vulnerable Afghans in dangerous conditions.

But Varghese said the Biden administration failed to answer specific questions, such as how exactly to conduct the necessary visa interviews without an embassy and how to get vulnerable allies from Afghanistan to third countries.

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Fear and pain are felt in the US

Extended families of Afghan allies in the US face similar hurdles.

The Taliban “wanted to torture my family so I could feel the pain here,” said Naqibullah Laghmanai, an Afghan American in Houston. He used to work in the U.S. military and said his parents and seven siblings were now in hiding in Kabul.

Shortly before the Taliban came to power, Laghmanai’s family received a threatening letter from members of the Islamist movement. They had to find other accommodations to evade their members, Laghmanai said.

He’s helping to pay for a safe house and has been sponsoring his father’s visa to come to the States since February 2020. But the Taliban took over the country before his father was scheduled for his interview with the US embassy. Now he is desperately trying to save his whole family but doesn’t know how. He said he was afraid to send his father to a neighboring country like Pakistan.

“There is no guarantee that he will go there (to Pakistan) and return home safely,” said Laghmanai. His father worked for the Afghan government and is himself at risk because the Taliban control travel controls.

Naqibullah Laghmanai pauses while speaking about an interpreter who was killed in an IED explosion in Afghanistan while eating at the Afghan Village restaurant in Houston on Monday, September 27, 2021.  Laghmanai previously worked as an interpreter for the US armed forces and became a citizen after entering the US in 2013.  He said his family are being persecuted in Afghanistan and that he knows 200 families at risk of violence.  He said he was concerned that his country, the United States, would keep the promises it made.

Naqibullah Laghmanai pauses while speaking about an interpreter who was killed in an IED explosion in Afghanistan while eating at the Afghan Village restaurant in Houston on Monday, September 27, 2021. Laghmanai previously worked as an interpreter for the US armed forces and became a citizen after entering the US in 2013. He said his family are being persecuted in Afghanistan and that he knows 200 families at risk of violence. He said he was concerned that his country, the United States, would keep the promises it made. “You made sacrifices, it won’t come by itself,” he said.

Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / staff photographer

Houston immigration attorney Fariha Chowdhry has been bombarded with requests from Afghans in Houston and other cities seeking legal assistance in getting vulnerable family members out of the country.

“I estimate an average of three or four Afghan consultations a day,” said Chowdhry, who has made around 30 humanitarian probation applications for Afghans in his law firm Alonso & de Leef since the fall of Kabul. She is part of a Facebook group of lawyers that wants to help stranded Afghans. She’s heard heartbreaking stories.

“I work with four orphans whose father was murdered in cold blood by the Taliban on August 15, the day Kabul fell, and they were just left there,” Chowdhry said.

She has seen her humanitarian parole requests so far have helped a family, despite saying they are already well connected and have other support systems to help them leave the country.

But humanitarian probation, a freedom of choice for entry into the United States, is not a guarantee. She only recommends it to people who can afford it, as it costs $ 575 per person to apply and there is a minimum income limit for U.S. sponsors.

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Houston immigration attorney Ruby Powers has also worked on humanitarian probation requests for Afghans. Even if entry into the US is approved, they must leave Afghanistan.

“A humanitarian parole could be approved and you could go to another consulate or office in another country like Pakistan or elsewhere. But if they can’t leave the country and can’t get a flight, that’s a moot point, ”Powers said.

Given the visa and logistics barriers, the future looks bleak for those still in Afghanistan. They hope for good news before the Taliban find it.

“It’s not really safe for me to stay any longer,” said Mohammad, the hiding applicant for a special immigrant visa.

“Since the borders are also closed … we have nowhere to go. We’re just left behind. “

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