On August 30, just one day before the American deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, I messaged Parwana (not her real name) on WhatsApp to see how she was doing.
“There is no help for now… but we are doing well so far. At least I can move around in a proper hijab and a mahram. [a male family member as a chaperone]She replied with a hint of resignation.
Parwana was scheduled to depart by plane from Kabul airport in the final days of Western evacuation efforts, but a last-minute mistake prevented his departure. Young, educated and employed by a high-profile international organization, she was not alone in her situation. She was receiving hundreds of messages from Afghan women like her, all fearing for their future and desperately seeking to escape from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, I have been leading a volunteer initiative consisting of more than 200 members to help young Afghan women and their families. The idea came after some former faculty members of the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh, where many Afghan women have graduated, and I decided to try and help some 180 Afghan students and alumni who wanted to flee. Since we launched the effort, I have also been in contact with other Afghans who were desperate to leave.
Before the August 31 deadline, Western governments airlifted significant numbers of Afghans and foreigners; in fact, more than 114,000.
But even now, many people of diverse origins continue private efforts to evacuate more, out of frustration that the official “West” has failed in its duty to rescue those who deserve to leave Afghanistan. Many of the unfortunate are Afghan women who write countless emails and WhatsApp messages to Western governments and organizations touting their enthusiasm for helping Afghan women. However, the answer is usually silence. Despair reigns among the forgotten.
Typical is the situation of Farzana (he asked me not to use his last name), who, like many Afghans, is in limbo. An employee of the large German NGO Welthungerhilfe (WHH), she came to me through her sister, who knows me. Fearing for his life, Farzana said he had called for the evacuation of Welthungerhilfe in mid-August and did not receive an update for two weeks.
On September 1, I felt compelled to write an urgent message to the WHH human resources office on their behalf and received a response a week later, on September 7, requesting a document that “certifies [Farzana’s] employment ”at WHH, as if they had no record of who worked for them in Afghanistan. Germany had announced on August 16 that it was evacuating 500 Afghan employees of “NGOs like Welthungerhilfe”, but obviously WHH never got the message out to people like Farzana.
Following my email request, WHH forwarded her to the German government for approval of a special visa, but without any instructions on how to get to the nearest German diplomatic mission that would stamp her passport. Despite the grand claim by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on August 30 that Uzbekistan will allow entry to Afghans bound for Germany, Farzana told me that the German embassy in Qatar responded to his email on 13 September that Berlin, in fact, is still “struggling” to make arrangements with Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. ” He remains in Kabul, unable to decide what to do next.
This kind of endless slow bureaucratic hell is killing many Afghans who have had close connections to the West, not physically like the Taliban, but slowly with anxiety from within. They live each day in agony as they struggle to come to terms with the harsh reality: that it might be better to make other plans than to keep waiting for the promised help that never comes.
Official escape options for the remaining Afghans have been tragically flawed, bordering on absurdity. In mid-August, both the UK and Canada announced with great fanfare their plans to resettle Afghans. However, John, a British volunteer in our group, spent a day and a half trying to reach the UK government’s special hotline for Afghan refugees, only to receive a pre-recorded message that the phone number was actually missing. intended for Afghan refugees. A media report on the same hotline claimed that some people were even redirected to a washing machine company.
As for Canada, a government source told us a week after the highly publicized announcement about hosting 20,000 “vulnerable Afghans” that the press release preceded the actual planning, so there were no clear details to share.
On August 17, India also went to great lengths to offer a special “e-Emergency X-Misc visa” to Afghans. That sounded lovely, except that not a single Afghan I know has received it after applying. In fact, the Indian outlet The Wire reported that the number of Afghans who managed to obtain this special visa was “nil or negligible.”
The United States also announced a special immigrant visa (SIV) or priority refugee designations for Afghans, but it appears that only those who have already fled the country would immediately benefit. Even in June 2020, an internal US State Department report estimated the average wait time for an SIV application from an Afghan at “480 days.” And the processing of one of these “priority designations” doesn’t really begin until the applicant is out of Afghanistan.
Zahra (not her real name) was fortunate to be in India with her husband on medical visit visas before the fall of Kabul and to be able to remain in the ongoing turmoil. She qualifies for a Priority 2 refugee designation from the US Department of State. But she needs a referral from her US-based NGO employer, who has so far been blocking her application (they even told her outright that stop contacting them). She asked me not to name this employer for fear that she might be punished with an even longer delay if it becomes public.
Not that there seems to be a difference if you keep quiet: many Afghan women contact me to say that their email requests for help from Western employers are routinely ignored.
The usual self-aggrandizing mission statements in the international development sector about helping people build a better life or shape a better world do not seem to apply urgently when it comes to the situation of local Afghan employees. It’s hard to believe that these organizations really help someone when they can’t even help their own workers.
The United Nations, whose mission is to respond to these crises on the ground, has not been as effective either. Families we were in contact with who crossed into Pakistan’s Balochistan province in late August told us that they discovered that the local office of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Quetta was closed for an unspecified reason. . Quetta is the first major city on the route to Pakistan from the Spin Boldak-Chaman crossing and it makes little sense that this Afghan refugee hotspot does not have a functioning UNHCR office for refugee registration, but several other Afghans do as well. reported in early September that they may not be able to access the services of the UNHCR office in Quetta.
A local contact told me that the UN probably gave in to “political pressure” from the Pakistani government, which is wary of the arrival of too many Afghans and has already started deporting Afghans it believes had entered the country “illegally”.
However, this does not prevent UNHCR or other UN branches from using the Afghan crisis to raise funds. “UNHCR is on the ground to provide life-saving care and protection to families in need of help.” Maybe yes, but it seems not so much in Quetta. I ranted about the situation with a longtime UN employee friend, and she didn’t sound the least bit surprised. “That’s why I say, don’t give the UN money. It’s worse than wasting it, ”he sighed.
I am not arguing here that the West needs to save everyone who wants to leave Afghanistan, but only that it must do the right thing for those who meet its own criteria for urgent aid, not least educated women.
AUW, whose students and alumni we have tried to help, receives a substantial amount of Western aid.
Although 148 of its Afghan students and alumni made it out of Kabul on two of the latest American evacuation flights, the university’s boastful claim about the rescue does not mention the fact that some two dozen are still in Afghanistan and even more in the countries. neighbors. They all face a myriad of dangers for reasons ranging from having a women’s rights activist as a mother to not having stable legal status, and they don’t want the world to forget them, even if the university seems to have done so already.
Among them, Somaya Ahmady was spending her meager funds on a hotel stay in Kabul before moving into a rented room at our expense saving suggestion. Her home is in the distant city of Herat, and she told me that a distant relative who joined the Taliban was forcing her to marry him, so she ran away with her mother’s blessing.
“I worked hard to reach my goals through higher education. Now I have no hope of continuing. The only plan is to find a way to escape Afghanistan so that we can [stay] alive, ”he said.
The AUW, whose chancellor is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie Blair, did not give them any formal updates for nearly a month and did not respond to their emails, the group in Afghanistan told me. Finally, on September 24, the university held a Zoom meeting with them, only to tell them to wait “a couple of months”, without offering an exact schedule. That is to be expected. It is simply another international institution that is not taking care of all the Afghan women in its charge.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.