Khan had faith in the U.S. troops who arrived in Afghanistan to rebuild his country when he was just 14 years old. He had faith when he began working alongside them, paving roads, digging canals and erecting schools. He still had faith when he left for a college degree in America some years ago.
But that once-unshakeable belief in the reach of the American government has been rocked over the last few days as his wife, Zainab, who is trapped in an apartment in Kabul, desperately awaits word from the U.S. Embassy that her application for a Special Immigrant Visa has been approved and she, too, will be able to escape the Taliban’s grip.
“It’s like leaving somebody in the middle of the sea — in the middle of nowhere — and you don’t know when somebody will return to pick you up, ” Khan, now 34 and living in Texas, told NPR.
For his wife, an educated woman with a master’s degree who hasn’t left the house for months out of fear of reprisal against those with connections to people who helped American forces during the war, he says, “It’s like she is sinking. Almost drowning in the water.”
“Every second that [the email from the State Department] doesn’t come she is risking” her life, Khan said, noting accounts of the Taliban going door to door to identify individuals who have worked at any time with the U.S.
NPR is not using their full names out of concern for her safety.
Staffing shortages, violence and the global pandemic worsened the already slow processing of Special Immigrant Visas
The stunning collapse of Afghanistan’s government during the U.S. military withdrawal has left the Biden administration scrambling to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans — allies of the U.S. — whose lives are in danger after years of being stuck in a paperwork limbo waiting to get out.
But the special immigrant visas for Afghans have been painfully slow in coming and plagued with problems nearly from the start in 2015 with the State Department citing staffing shortages and security threats. Since then, the department reports that as of March 31, about 15,600 applicants and another 2,000 in recent weeks have been approved out of 26,500 available slots. However, advocates estimate another 50,000 vulnerable Afghans remain in the country.
Garry Reid, the director of defense intelligence, who is leading the Defense Department’s work on the evacuation, addressed the issue at a news briefing on Monday, saying that officials had begun mobilizing to evacuate as many as 20,000 to 22,000 additional special visa applicants. They are expected to arrive at military bases, including Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Bliss in Texas over the next few weeks.
Still, over the last 16 months the already onerous and slow process has been moving at a glacial pace. First, the global pandemic put a complete halt to all application processing. Then the violence and chaos across Afghanistan forced another stall.
During the first quarter of 2021 the State Department reports 789 applicants and their families were issued the visa, after waiting an average of 703 days to complete the 14-step process.
Applicants wait an average of nearly two years for U.S. visas
For Zainab the wait has been even longer — as of Tuesday, it has been 749 days since she first submitted her application.
She was approved for an interview at the U.S. embassy on May 10 — the 11th step on the checklist. But it wasn’t until August 14, after the complete Taliban takeover and after the majority of embassy personnel had been evacuated, that she received an email from officials.
“What does the email say? It says do not contact the embassy,” Khan recounted.
The email, which was reviewed by NPR, does say that, explaining that officials cannot offer any information about available repatriation flights to the U.S.
It advises people who have already been approved for an immigrant visa “to take advantage of commercial flights now as airports could experience unexpected closures with little to no warning.”
But Khan says he’s not sure that applies to Zainab because she has not had an official interview. “I simply do not know,” he said, adding that he filled out an attached online form in case she’ll be allowed to skip the interview all together.
When asked if his wife might head to Kabul airport in hopes of making it onto any aircraft going anywhere that’s not Afghanistan, he says emphatically, “No. No. No. No way!”
On Tuesday the White House and Defense Department officials said the airport has been secured and that evacuations are underway.
“The Taliban have informed us that they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment,” Jake Sullivan, a national security adviser to President Biden told reporters. As of midday Tuesday, he said, the administration expected the deal could last through the end of the month.
However, even as he spoke there were scenes of brutal violence and chaos at Taliban check points and “access remained near-impossible,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
Biden has said he wants the evacuation completed by Aug. 31. but it is unclear if the tenuous agreement between the U.S. and Taliban leaders will hold that long.
Human rights organizations call for urgent action
In the U.S. and around the globe, human rights and immigrant advocacy groups are calling on the Biden administration to take urgent action to help Afghan nationals trying to flee their country.
“I urge that you appoint a special presidential envoy for Afghan humanitarian and refugee issues,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, in a letter to Biden.
Schwartz also asked for a streamlining of the process to sponsor repatriated families, saying it “has been unclear and awfully bureaucratic.” The existing Afghan diaspora in the U.S. could serve as a critical partner to the administration in such an effort, he added.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a national refugee resettlement agency that advocates for special immigrant visa recipients, was critical of Biden’s speech on Monday, during which the president said many Afghans had chosen to delay their departure from the county.
“The undeniable truth is that we [the U.S.] had both the means and the time to evacuate those in danger, and yet, we neglected to act in any meaningful way,” Vignarajah said in a statement.
The organization is collecting volunteer information for Americans eager to help new arrivals in the coming weeks.
“At LIRS, we stand at the ready to welcome every Afghan ally that can reach our shores,” she said. “In the past few days, we have received an enormous outpouring of support from supporters, donors, veterans, and folks on both sides of the aisle. The American people are standing up and opening their hearts and their communities to those who have given so much to us. The administration must do the same.”
A husband counts the minutes until his wife’s arrival
Meantime, Khan says he is trying to hold onto hope as he gets through the day. “I’m counting the minutes that my wife will awake alive, and she can talk to me or send me a message.”
“I do have faith. I do have faith,” he repeats over and over again.
He says he believes that the American military vehicles that are now being driven by Taliban forces as they carry U.S. weapons will not stop outside of his wife’s apartment. He believes she will be spared that knock on the door.
“I believe this so much,” he says softly. “You know, the U.S. troops, and the Department of State and the embassy, they are going to help me bring my wife here.”
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