More than 1,200 Afghans under a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program have undergone processing at Fort Lee, Virginia, since President Joe Biden announced U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by August 31.
As of Saturday, the Taliban had captured at least 19 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals. Many Afghans fear life under the group’s ultraconservative religious stance.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, said she worried about a return in Afghanistan to “draconian measures” under Taliban rule, especially for women, who will lose their right to hold a job, and for girls, who will be forbidden to attend school.
“We may very well see a rise in forced marriage, domestic violence, social stigma and so-called honor killings as a drastically patriarchal regime takes hold,” Vignarajah said.
Haji, who asked that his real name not be used out of fear for his life, served as an interpreter for U.S. Special Forces for 11 years. But these days, Haji has insomnia and feels hopeless. He has waited four years for approval of his application for SIV status, and he said he worried that the Americans were abandoning him to the violence of the Taliban.
“My fear is not for myself. Mine is for my family, for my 3-year-old daughter, for my 5-year-old son. I don’t know, if I get killed by the Taliban, what will be their future. Who will take care of them? That’s my biggest fear."
'Abdication of our moral responsibility’
On July 30, the Biden administration started evacuating Afghans with approved SIV applications to Fort Lee near the city of Richmond, Virginia, under Operation Allies Refuge. About 90% of the first 1,200 arrivals underwent health and COVID-19 screening and were cleared to resettle around the country, ABC reported. Other Afghans whose SIV applications have not yet been approved, about 20,000 in all, will be evacuated from Afghanistan to an unknown location, the U.S. State Department said.
Vignarajah volunteered at Fort Lee during the SIV processing and witnessed the refugees’ arrival with their allotted two suitcases carrying their life’s possessions.
She was concerned that the Afghan nationals with unfinished applications would be evacuated from Afghanistan to Qatar, which she said “is not a signatory to the refugee convention and does not assure freedom of expression or movement.” Vignarajah suggested Guam, a U.S. territory, would be better and added, “Anything less than a full evacuation of all allies and their family members in danger would be an abdication of our moral responsibility.”
‘The people … have nowhere to go’
Ismail Khan worked for six years as an interpreter for U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan and survived several roadside vehicle bombings.
“Life was really dangerous; it was full of risks,” he said.
Khan resettled with his wife and children in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington in 2014 on a SIV. Now, he worries for the 38 family members he left behind.
“The people are in huge danger,” Khan said, “and they have nowhere to go.”
Khan started a petition to include siblings and parents in the SIV process and plans to present it to the U.S. Congress. The petition reads, “We stood with you when you needed us the most, we are asking you to stand with us in a time that we are fighting for our and our families lives.”
Flights arriving daily
State Department spokesman Ned Price said SIV flights would start landing daily in the United States “and you’re going to see the total number grow very quickly in the coming days and the coming weeks.”
The challenge is to get everyone who aided the U.S. military out before the Taliban take full control of the country.