A dangerous scramble to evacuate afghan nonprofit workers

Portraits made by students in Kabul participating in the Memory Project, an arts nonprofit, are displayed for a photograph in Middleton, Wisconsin, on September 23, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
Roya was the face of the modern young Afghan woman. As leader of a girls’ club funded by the US government, she gave her troops a script for their lives that their mothers could not pursue: They were just as powerful as boys in their ability to change their communities, she taught them. Working for another small nonprofit, she helped build connections between American and Afghan girls.اضافة اعلان

“I taught them that no one could silence us or tell us something wasn’t possible just because we were girls,” she said.

After Afghanistan’s government fell to Taliban insurgents, Roya and some of those she worked with knew they could be targeted. But without direct ties to the US military, they had no hope of boarding a government evacuation flight out of Kabul. Instead, their nongovernment organization partners in the United States engineered a harrowing escape for Roya and some of her friends and family to neighboring Pakistan.

“The Taliban were searching for people who had worked with foreigners, and they were capturing them,” Roya, 20, said. “I had to save my life, and my family’s life.”

Among vulnerable Afghans left behind after the US withdrawal last month were thousands of people who worked for small nonprofits, many funded by the State Department or agencies like the US Agency for International Development to promote women’s rights, education and civic engagement. With many of their employees just as threatened as those employed directly by the US government, these cash-strapped organizations have had to find their own ways to get people out.

Thousands of miles from Afghanistan, using their phones and laptops, American NGO leaders have been scrambling to raise money, secure documents, find lawyers and arrange travel for staff members and their families. They are also helping evacuate women whose jobs have landed them on the Taliban’s list of potential targets, including some women who trained Afghan policewomen, lawyers and politicians.

“It’s like an underground railroad,” said Stephanie Sinclair, a photojournalist who founded Too Young to Wed in 2014 to empower girls and end child marriage. She orchestrated safe passage for 45 people last week from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where they were waiting for transfer to Albania, a way station for those hoping to resettle in the United States, Canada or another country.

Among them was a lawyer who had prosecuted cases of spousal and child abuse, a girls’ rights advocate who had received death threats and a woman who had served in the gender unit of the national election commission.

“Small, grassroots NGOs are the ones moving mountains and doing the heavy lifting to get people to safety,” Sinclair said from New York.

For help, Roya and her colleagues turned to Ben Schumaker, who had employed them in Kabul for the art nonprofit he runs out of his garage in Madison, Wisconsin.

“Our group is trying to fulfill the promise made by our government to bring them to America,” he said.

With others from his organization, the Memory Project, Schumaker arranged furtive transport for Roya and the others to a safe house in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. All told, he arranged for 27 people connected to nonprofit groups to escape.

Several leaders of these groups said that the Biden administration raised false hopes when it announced in early August that it would expand access to the U.S. refugee program for their Afghan employees who did not qualify for the special immigrant visas being offered to people, such as interpreters, who had worked for the military. These workers could apply for a new “Priority 2” designation, the State Department said.

“They were rejoicing that they would get on a plane to the U.S.,” Schumaker recalled. “The reality was, they were never close to being eligible for an evacuation flight. It was an empty promise.”

To even apply for the program, applicants had to be outside Afghanistan, they were told later, and they would have to wait at least a year for U.S. authorities to review their cases.

“The program was a huge red herring; a PR stunt,” said Marina LeGree, founder of Ascend, a mountaineering program that aims to develop the physical and mental strength of teenage girls and young women through athletic activities and community service, like mentoring orphans and teaching illiterate women to read. The administration has acknowledged that resettling can be a lengthy process.

Ascend managed to place eight women instructors who were featured prominently on the group’s website, along with some family members, on an evacuation flight to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on Aug. 22. They accomplished it with help from a U.S. military special forces veteran whose sister is a rock climber. Two of the families have been accepted by Denmark; four others by Germany. Two others hope to make it to the United States.

LeGree then expanded her effort to others at risk, like the organization’s driver and guards, as well as athletes, many of whom are members of the Hazara minority.

The mother of small children, LeGree has been up at all hours, she said, calling every personal and professional contact she had ever made, and banking on the goodwill that people have felt for the mission of her organization.

Sixty-eight people have been evacuated thus far. Eighteen arrived Wednesday in Chile, which offered them permanent residency. Ireland has said that it will accept 20 girls, and Ascend is hoping that Poland and New Zealand will take others.

“By hook and crook, we are getting people out,” she said.

The Taliban has not banned nongovernmental organizations from working in Afghanistan, and most groups are hoping to remain there even after removing staff members who felt their work to advance gender equality would be banned under the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam, which frowns on public roles for women.

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