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Ahmed, a prominent Afghan professional who works in the Twin Cities, watched his television in shock over the weekend: The Taliban had, once again, taken his home country.
The government’s fall happened far too quickly for his siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles to evacuate Afghanistan. They couldn’t even go to the banks to exchange their currency to U.S. dollars before making plans to leave. Fearing looting, the banks, as well as all the stores, had shut down.
“This was a complete debacle by the Biden administration, there’s no doubt about it. They should have done a better job,” said Ahmed, who gave his middle name to protect his family in Afghanistan from potential retaliation. “This was exactly what happened in Saigon, Vietnam, some 40 years ago.”
Following a seemingly endless 20-year military engagement, the United States began its final withdrawal of troops in May, with the intention of completing the drawdown by the end of August. On Sunday, three months later, the Taliban took over Kabul.
Ahmed is a part of a group of four families who are working with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to connect with the state’s congressional offices. Their request: to expedite the evacuation of family members from Afghanistan.
Some have family members who worked for the United States government, the former Afghan government, or relief organizations. This connection makes them more vulnerable to reprisals from a group known for violence and human rights abuses. Others, like hundreds of Afghan families living in Minnesota, simply fear for their relatives and friends back home.
“Just like us, they’re stuck in front of their TVs, radios, and the internet, trying to figure out what’s going on next,” Ahmed said.
The International Institute of Minnesota, a refugee resettlement agency, has already facilitated the arrivals of 13 Afghans in the last week, including a family of nine that landed in the state on Sunday. So far, a limited number of Afghan refugees have come to the United States as refugees. But Afghan translators, interpreters, and other workers who’ve aided the U.S. military are eligible to seek safety in the U.S. with their families under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program.
According to Jane Graupman, the executive director at the International Institute of Minnesota, 190 Afghans resettled in the state through the Special Immigrant Visa program from 2005 to 2020. But in the past few years, the numbers have been climbing more quickly. By 2017, the state had brought in just 77 special visa recipients from Afghanistan. Between 2017 and now, those numbers have more than doubled.
“We’re expecting more arrivals,” Graupman said. “These families have been through a lot. They haven’t really had any transition time to leave the country, and they’ve had to leave pretty quickly.”
According to a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the state has been advised by federal and local partners that up to 65 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa recipients may be placed in Minnesota through the end of September.
‘There’s thousands of people who don’t know how to apply’
Elizabeth Ross is a case manager at the International Institute of Minnesota. She works with an Afghan client whose nickname is Khan. Khan asked to not be identified by his full name because of safety concerns.
Khan moved to the United States in 2011 under the special visa program. He formerly worked as a language and cultural advisor for the U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan. Now, Khan said he’s fulfilled his American dream: He holds a management position at a major U.S. company, his kids attend school, and he owns a home.
But back home, 10 of his family members in Afghanistan have been camped out for three nights in Kabul at the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Images flooded the internet over the weekend showing crowds of thousands gathering and waiting at the airport. Some could be seen clinging to the body and wheels of an outgoing U.S. Air Force jet as it taxied toward takeoff.
While the special visa program was originally designed for military interpreters, Khan said there are other people, including his relatives, who worked with the U.S. government in Afghanistan in other support roles, such as carpenters, mechanics, and drivers. They, too, should have access to the program, Khan said.
“There’s thousands of people who don’t know how to apply or where to go,” Khan said. “My family members have never applied, but they’re in the system with the U.S. government.”
Afghan locals who worked with the U.S. government have employment records, Khan said. Still, the Special Immigrant Visa application requires additional documentation. Some fearful people have burned those documents—evidence that they worked for the American government.
Helping family left behind
Now, Khan is also trying to reach congressional offices in Minnesota to ask for help in expediting the evacuation process for his family. Relying on the Special Immigration Visa isn’t enough, he said; it took Khan himself three years to receive the designation.
“They could have done more,” Khan said of the U.S. government that he worked for 20 years ago. “Everything is amiss right now.”
Ahmed expressed the same concerns for people trying to evacuate. He added that even getting to the airport is difficult.
“People who are trying to leave the country—they have to go through the Taliban checkpoints to get to the airport,” Ahmed said. “You have to go through your persecutor to get to the airport and get to freedom.”
Because of these barriers, both Khan and Ahmed emphasized the need for neighboring countries to take in refugees.
Some Afghan locals have chosen to seek safety in their homes. Meerwais Azizi, the owner of Football Pizza, an Afghan restaurant with locations in northeast Minneapolis and Columbia Heights, spoke with some cousins and uncles who have chosen to stay home and wait out the chaos.
While Azizi has been living in the United States since he was 14 years old, he said he wants safety and relief for those who remained in Afghanistan.
“People grew up in war there,” Azizi said. “If they’re 40 years old, that means they were raised in war.”
‘This is one of the most dehumanizing things a community can go through’
President Joe Biden addressed the nation Monday in a speech about the decision to pull forces from Afghanistan.
Nasreen Sajady is an educator who lives in Minneapolis, and most of her family currently resides in the United States. They first came to the United States in the 1960s, when her grandfather studied at the University of Minnesota. By the 1970s, both of Sajady’s parents had settled in Minnesota, too.
During President Biden’s press conference Monday night, Sajady heard him blame the Afghan government and armed forces for a failure to fight off the Taliban. She felt Biden had “gaslit” a global community of Afghans.
The response from the general American public has felt equally frustrating. Sajady recalled seeing media images of women in Afghanistan, fully covered in burkas. Liberating and protecting these women from the Taliban became an argument for continued intervention in Afghanistan. At the time, the United States military had entered Afghanistan to capture Osama Bin Laden.
“I definitely don’t want to see the U.S. continuing the narrative of using the suffering of women to support this imperialism,” Sajady said. “I want people to be aware that women are suffering, but there’s also genocide of specific ethnic groups, the Hazara people, the fact that Hindus, Sikhs, and Shias are also being attacked specifically by the Taliban.”
Sajady said that a group of organizers are planning to hold a vigil and rally at 4 p.m. next Saturday, August 28 at Loring Park. They’re also hoping to start a fundraiser for the refugees from Afghanistan who may be arriving at a military base in Wisconsin soon.
For Sajady, organizing protests has brought her some peace. She hopes that in the public debates and conversation to come, the voices of Afghans will not be replaced by white political pundits and lawmakers.
“Afghans have been dehumanized for 20 years by the West to justify these wars. We’re human, we have feelings, we have emotions, we have thoughts,” Sajady said. “This is one of the most dehumanizing things a community can go through—the erasure of your existence.”
Prior to the upheaval, Sajady and her partner had made plans to go to Taylors Falls —the first day she’d had off in months. Instead, they woke up Sunday to the news that the Taliban had overrun the Afghan government. Ultimately, Sajady and her partner decided to continue their trip.
“I was like, I need to go out in nature. I can’t sit on my phone and scroll through posts. I need to mourn this. I need to go and let myself feel these emotions,” Sajady said. “We went out and hiked for the whole day.”
On the way to Taylors Falls, the two held hands and listened to classical Afghan tribal music. Sajady said they cried the whole way there.