Annie Yu Kleiman is a senior technical analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an 18-year Air Force reservist. She serves on the board of directors for No One Left Behind, an organization working to help evacuate, resettle and advocate for Afghan Special Immigrant Visa recipients.
My 9-year-old daughter still remembers August 2021 as a “horrible time.”
After the fall of Kabul that month, my husband and I, both Air Force officers who had served in Afghanistan, found ourselves pulled into a complex, unofficial operation to help evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan allies. There were endless sleepless nights spent frantically sending messages over Signal and compiling enormous spreadsheets of passenger manifests. We worked as if it were a matter of life and death — because it was.
Two years later, those long days are a memory for me. But for the hundreds of thousands of our allies still left behind, the horrors continue.
As of April 2023, about 152,000 Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants remain trapped in Afghanistan. These people, who served side-by-side with U.S. forces during the long war, face years of danger, severe economic hardship and increasingly onerous restrictions — particularly on women and girls — while applying for their SIVs through a complicated, Kafkaesque process.
A daunting list of obstacles
To create a snapshot of the absurd gantlet our former friends and allies have to run, I gathered quotations from text messages and emails that they sent to my organization, No One Left Behind, seeking help. They have been edited for clarity, and names are being withheld for the writers’ safety.
Proof of employment. To start an SIV application, applicants must submit a slew of documents through the U.S. State Department’s website. This requires access to the internet — not a given when one is hiding from the Taliban. The required documents include proof of employment for the U.S. government for at least one year and a letter of recommendation from a former supervisor. But the companies often kept poor HR records, and former supervisors are difficult to reach — and may not even remember their former employees.
“I have all the recommendation letters from the teams [I worked for], but I cannot get the HR letter because the company does not answer our emails.”
“If the Taliban finds me, they will not ask me how many days I worked for the U.S. Army. If the Taliban finds me, they will kill me.”
“I served U.S. troops in my country. I am sorry I don’t have a contact. A long time has passed since then.”
Agonizing choices.Once the documents are submitted, applicants wait almost a year for “Chief of Mission approval” to proceed to the next step. During this time, they must come to terms with leaving behind members of their extended families, many of whom are also in danger for being related to a former U.S. employee. SIV applicants can take only their spouses and unmarried children younger than 21. And because the application process takes so long, many children age past 21 by the time the SIV is issued.
“The Taliban has killed my brother … and my wife. They also shot my younger brother in the left leg. The Taliban told us that we are spies for the Americans, and that one by one they will kill all my family members.”
“Kindly note that our children who are over 21 now were all under 21 when I applied for SIV in 2016. Our children are single and they do not have close relatives. We hope they are included.”
Reaching a U.S. Embassy — outside Afghanistan. With chief of mission approval in hand, applicants will wait several more months for an interview at an American embassy. Since the United States no longer has a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, this puts applicants — who were relying on the SIV to help them escape Afghanistan — in the paradoxical position of having to get out of Afghanistan to get the SIV.
At this point, the applicant must wait for the United States to help them get to a third country, or self-fund their travel to a nearby country with a U.S. Embassy. The first option is fraught, as the United States’ ability to move candidates out of Afghanistan is extremely limited. Those who can afford the second option are faced with another daunting obstacle: Every single person traveling must have a passport. Many do not.
“I am living like a prisoner. After the fall of the regime, my husband and I lost our jobs. Please help me if you know any way to evacuate me. I don’t have enough money to transfer my case to a third country.”
“I was in a car accident and my leg is broken. If I don’t get evacuated, I’m sure they will kill me. I no longer have a job. I can’t afford my family’s food or medicine for my three girls. Also my Pakistan visa was rejected.”
“My wife, my three children and I applied for Pakistan visas. Two of my children received their visas, but my wife and I were rejected. The other newborn does not have a passport.”
Getting a passport in Afghanistan. Passports cost about $70 at government passport offices, which can be closed for months at a time. The waitlists are long, and rumors suggest that the Taliban are detaining applicants who worked for the United States. It can be faster and safer to use a passport broker, but this costs $1,700 to $2,200 per person and comes with the risk that the passport is fake.
“The passport department is either overcrowded or closed most of the time. It takes months to get an appointment, and it is risky because our biometrics are there.”
“My wife is pregnant with twins. The passport department is closed. It’s impossible. I am just confused about what to do.”
Finding a way to survive abroad. Once out of Afghanistan, SIV candidates must subsist in a foreign country with no income as they wait to be processed, sometimes for months. In Pakistan, local police forces are increasingly hostile to Afghans, arresting or deporting them with little provocation. Applicants will also need to pay for a medical exam, an often-overlooked SIV requirement.
“I have struggled to cover my family expenses in Kabul—the visas, medical checkups, transportation, and lots of other expenses. I have spent all my savings and cannot finance tickets to the U.S. Nor can I stay any longer in Pakistan.”
“Please help save me and my children. We are not safe and keep changing our locations.”
Obtaining a ticket to the United States. For the extremely lucky who overcome all the hurdles and get their SIVs, the primary way to the United States is through the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, which will buy them commercial airline tickets (as a “loan”) and assign them to a resettlement agency.
Getting a flight can take months, and in that time the third country visa, medical exam or the Special Immigrant Visa itself might expire, resulting in additional fees or months of delay.
Source : The Washington Post