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Diversity Visa Winners Stuck in Afghanistan After US Withdrawal

FILE - Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021. Some of those unable to leave Afghanistan before the American military withdrawal include winners of the diversity visa program.

They beat the odds and won a chance to legally immigrate to the United States under a lottery visa program for nationals from countries with low numbers of immigrants to the U.S.

But after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan followed by the American military withdrawal completed on Monday, these once-lucky Afghans fear they may never be able to leave their country.

After 20 years of war in Afghanistan spanning four American presidencies, the U.S. government slammed the door on the last evacuation flights of civilian Afghans last weekend, leaving behind hundreds of these diversity visa winners.

S., a 27-year-old former women’s rights advocate living in Kabul, is among them.

Due to safety concerns, she asked VOA not to share her full name.

She was first informed by the U.S. government in 2020 that she had won a spot in the diversity visa program, commonly known as the green card lottery. Under the Immigration Act of 1990, Congress approved the program to increase the diversity among immigrants to the United States.

At first, she was excited.

S. said she was excited when she learned she was among the 55,000 randomly selected people chosen annually from around the world. But there was plenty of paperwork and documentation to provide, and interviews and background checks conducted by U.S. Embassy officials.

S. told VOA she filed all the required paperwork and was waiting for an interview at the U.S. Embassy, a process that usually took a few months.

“When I received the letter [from the U.S. government], I was very, very happy. And I was a master’s degree student,” she explained.

Because of her advocacy work, and fear the Taliban might go after her, S. decided to move in with her brother. And then her hopes for final approval were dashed.

“Unfortunately, the [U.S.] embassy in Kabul closed [on Aug. 31] … We don’t know where to go for interviews or where to get our visas. … In Afghanistan, we’re at risk. … And it’s really worrying us about our lives. … But I will keep trying to leave Afghanistan,” she said in an audio message.

Program’s turbulent track record

Long before S. and others suffered this major setback, the diversity visa program had a turbulent track record.

In 2017, then-President Donald Trump announced a series of actions that blocked people from Muslim-majority countries from coming to the United States. Then in March 2020, Trump shut down consulates around the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Trump administration followed that by announcing a ban on certain immigrant visas, arguing that it was needed to protect the American economy.

As a result, hundreds of Afghan winners of the visa lottery were prevented from coming to the U.S. at that time.

According to a U.S. government document, once consulates began to reopen in the summer of 2020, officials were ordered to process diversity visas last.

Immigrant advocates sued. Earlier this month, a federal judge decided the U.S. government must keep on processing lottery visa winners. On Aug. 17, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the Biden administration to issue 9,095 diversity visas from Fiscal Year 2020.

Yet, Biden administration lawyers said in court the administration would not be able to deal with applications until the fall of 2022, at the earliest.

Lottery visas

While the 1990 immigration law was designed to increase diversity among immigrants to the United States, those interested in applying to the program had to have at least a high school degree or two years of work experience in a profession that required a minimum of two years of training.

Winners usually receive an email or letter in July notifying them they won. Then they submit a complete application and must attend an interview at the beginning of the federal fiscal year, by Oct. 1, at the closest U.S. consulate. And because visa eligibility does not transfer to the following year, the entire process must be done in a year.

According to the latest figures from the U.S. State Department, more than 13 million people applied last year.

The unluckiest ones of all

But in the program’s 30-year history, winners in the last few years may have been the unluckiest of all.

H., a 33-year-old Afghan diversity visa winner, said despite sending all documents necessary he and his family have been waiting for a visa interview for a year.

“There is no hope for life in this country anymore,” he told VOA in a text message.

A State Department spokesperson told VOA by email Wednesday that although the U.S. government is “currently” unable to provide consular services for immigrant visas in Afghanistan, they are developing alternative ways so officials can continue to “deliver this important service for the people of Afghanistan.”

“Immigrant visa applicants should continue monitoring official U.S. government websites, including, for updated information,” the spokesperson said.

H. said because of the work he did assisting U.S. officials and the former Afghan government prosecuting criminals, his whole family is currently in hiding. He said only his wife or mother-in-law goes out to buy food when the family needs basic supplies.

“I have written [you] the reality of my life. … I wish the visa interview would be online and electronically, so that we can travel comfortably to our new life and home,” H. said in a text message.