(NEW YORK) — “It’s like a living hell for us now,” Zahra, 20, told ABC News on a phone call while hiding out in western Afghanistan, in a country she hardly even knows.
“When I think about all the things that I’m missing out on — because of these people — I feel like crying,” she said, seeming to be fighting back tears.
While Zahra (ABC News has changed her name and her sister’s to protect them and their family) was born in Afghanistan, she has lived in India since she was 8 and is currently studying petrochemical engineering at a university based in Gujarat.
She visited her family in Afghanistan in late May as COVID-19 worsened in India after her father suggested she and her younger sister, Amina, travel home for the summer, where they all thought it would be safer. The sisters were excited to see their family, having only gone back to their home country a handful of times since they moved to India in 2007 for their education.
They now call the decision to return the “worst mistake of our lives.”
“The person who I was — I was so joyous, I loved going out,” Amina, 17, told ABC News. “Now, I’m just at home. I don’t even feel like talking to my cousins. Sometimes I think that I’m depressed.”
Amina graduated high school in New Delhi in May and was planning to start classes toward a bachelor’s degree in Germany in September after spending the summer with family.
But now, the sisters said, they haven’t left their house in more than a month.
Just outside, they said, Taliban flags are displayed prominently and fighters, armed with guns, patrol the streets.
“I really prefer staying at home rather than going out and seeing this chaos. It’s better to stay inside and be safe,” Amina said.
Amina and Zahra said they are in hiding with their father, mother, and brother, who also studied in India and has worked for an international aid organization. Only their brother and mother leave the house for groceries, and her mother is forced to wear an all-encompassing burqa, a head-to-toe garment they said she finds difficult to breathe in and “oppressive.”
Their family thought about leaving at the end of July, as the crisis worsened, they said, but were unable to travel to embassies in Kabul.
They said they’ll never forget Aug. 15 — the day they woke up to embattled President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country and the Taliban taking over the capital, entering the presidential palace in Kabul.
“At that moment, the day Kabul was taken, we were, like, ‘no, there’s no way for us to be able to leave this place. We are stuck here.” Zahra said.
“I get up in the morning, and I think, ‘It was just a dream,’ and then I see the news. It has not been a dream. It’s like a never-ending nightmare,” Amina added, saying she’s cut back on social media for her mental health.
Zahra said she blames the Afghan government for misleading people on how dire the situation was becoming — but also blamed herself.
“If only we were told there was a slight chance of them taking over Afghanistan so quickly, we wouldn’t be feeling this bad. We were foolish, we were foolish,” Zahra said.
“My dad really worked hard for us to be where we are right now, but unfortunately, everything is just a waste. We’re stuck here with no solution. Every day I wake up, it’s the same — more or less worse,” Zahra said.
Amina, the youngest daughter, repeated several times in an interview that not only her family, but Afghanistan as a whole, needs support.
“I feel really bad that Afghans are not standing up for themselves enough, but they have no choice,” she said. “If they stand up for themselves, they get shot, or they will be dead. So we’re all scared for our lives.”
Both sisters said their biggest concern is the fate of their father.
A father’s devotion to education makes him a target
“I don’t know after five minutes if I will be alive here or not — especially with all of my family,” their father said on another phone call.
“Now, I’m full of worry, in a bad, bad situation. First, my daughters are at home. They cannot study. They cannot work. I don’t know what will be the future of my daughters,” he said. “Second, I don’t know what will become of myself.”
The father, a professor who speaks six languages, has a Ph.D. and has chaired departments in universities in both India and Afghanistan, moved back from India to Afghanistan in 2012, after five years abroad, to take a top position at a prestigious university.
Housing provided by that university for the last eight years is now under Taliban control. The family retreated to their “ancestral home” at the end of July, which they feel thankful to have kept while their dad was teaching, as the situation worsened. It now serves as their safe house.
“I fear it’s a matter of days now before they find him,” Zahra said.
The daughters, who praise their father for being a public figure in Afghanistan who spoke for education, women’s rights, and against the Taliban regime, worry fighters will find documents identifying him in a raid of their old home.
As his daughters fear for their father’s life, he is most concerned about their future.
“My daughters are so intelligent, and all the time they sit at home,” the professor said. “They are so sad, and they ask me, ‘Papa, what can we do, what will be our future?’ Unfortunately, I cannot give a good answer.”
“But I only tell them, ‘Please, my daughters, please be patient, because God help us, maybe our problems will be solved,"” he said.
“My dad really cares about our education and about our well-being,” Zahra told ABC News on a separate call. “Not many Afghans are like that. They don’t really care about women’s education or rights, but my dad has given his entire life for the well-being of his daughters.”
Now the very thing he wanted for his family — education — has put them directly at risk.
‘Team 13’ answers the family’s call
Amina and Zahra’s older sister escaped Afghanistan during the chaotic evacuations from Hamid Karzai International Airport. She says she was caught in a stampede outside of the Baron Hotel two days before ISIS-K suicide bombers killed as many as 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members in a bombing outside the Abbey Gate.
Among those who helped her get out safely was an ad-hoc group of 13 volunteers, mostly based in the U.S., who call themselves “Team 13” to honor the U.S. service members who spent their last minutes alive helping get Afghans like her to freedom. Now they’re working to get the rest of her family to safety.
“We’re this motley little crew working together to try to get them over here, and we know that if more Americans know what’s really happening, that these people are having to make a ‘Sophie’s choice’ with their families, they would be horrified,” Cori Shepherd Stern, the group’s de-facto leader, who is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker by day, told ABC News.
Team 13 helped to get out 80 Afghans and their families during the evacuations in Kabul in August. They attribute this greatly to Jeff Phaneuf, a former Marine Corps infantry officer in touch with Marines at the Abbey Gate. Shepherd Stern found him on Twitter after he posted tips for people trying to access the airport.
Phaneuf said he’s thrilled to help do his part to evacuate at-risk Afghans, but that it’s not one he imagined he’d find himself while pursuing an MBA from Stanford.
“I should never have been, a couple of years out of the Marine Corps, in a position to be making life-and-death decisions for people on whether or not they got out. And that’s sort of the situation we found ourselves in,” he told ABC News.
While heaping praise on the U.S. military and State Department officials, Phaneuf said the evacuation mission is simply not complete.
“I look at it through the eyes of a Marine Corps infantry officer, and this is not mission accomplished. This is mission failure, and there are people who deserve to get out who we are not getting a lot of hope for at this point,” he said.
Team 13 is still working on the cases of 200 individuals in the country wanting to get out, including the professor’s family.
“America would be lucky to get this family,” Shepherd Stern said. “We should be begging these people to come to work, and we should be sending planes, and rolling out a red carpet.”
Unfortunately, she said, they are instead facing “a lot of red tape.”
A multipronged approach to ‘mission failure’
Team 13 is trying what the group calls a “multipronged” approach to get the family to safety. Having engaged in other kinds of relief work through the years with her friend, Megan Johnson, Shepherd Stern said, “One thing that we’ve learned is you pursue every possible option until you get the breakthrough.”
One option they helped secure was a teaching fellowship in Germany for the professor, but the program has a huge caveat for the family-devoted man: It accepts only a spouse and children under the age of 18.
“That’s the problem with all of these things. It’s immediate family and young children,” Shepherd Stern said, noting Amina is 17. “We’re seeing over and over again rules that are not necessarily reasonable given the crisis situation.”
Ideally, they said, the professor’s family could relocate to the U.S. where he could teach at a university and his daughters could finish their degrees online or in the U.S.
The two U.S. options they are primarily focused on are 1) obtaining a Program Priority 2 Designation or P-2 for the professor, which he would appear to qualify for, having worked for the U.S. government aid affiliate International Rescue Committee; or 2) obtaining humanitarian parole for each individual family member, which they qualify for as at-risk Afghans.
Under a P-2 visa, a program extended to qualifying Afghans by the Biden administration in August, an individual can take their spouse and children of any age. Team 13 has efforted the family’s applications for both options, hoping for P-2 status, putting them in the queue with approximately 9,800 referrals to the Afghan P-2 refugee resettlement program the State Department has so far, a spokesperson told ABC News on Monday. But the Catch-22 with P-2s is that a person cannot finish applying while still in Afghanistan. Because it’s a form of refugee status, Afghans have to leave the country first.
Their other option, humanitarian parole, faces steep hurdles as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agency has received nearly 20,000 applications as of Friday, according to a Voice of America report — more than 10 times the number of humanitarian parole applications submitted in a typical year, Danilo Zak at the National Immigration Forum told ABC News.
“The reason people are suggesting humanitarian parole is, despite a number of the same problems, it’s a faster way to get access to protection in the U.S. than P-2 which only allows you entrance into the refugee pipeline,” Zak said. “For both, you can begin the first part of your application while you’re in Afghanistan, but eventually you’re going to have to escape the country which is a huge challenge within itself.”
Johnson, leading Team 13’s filing efforts, has personally prepared more than 30 humanitarian parole applications — but hasn’t seen a single one processed by USCIS. The group has at least 100 hopeful humanitarian parolees in their pipeline as well as 76 P-1 and P-2 cases.
“I am not a paperwork person,” she laughed, at first. “I’m a creative type so if you talk to me about paperwork, I just sort of check out.”
“So the amount of paperwork involved in HP applications that has to be filed per person — even a three-day-old baby has to have a packet — when I first saw everything you had to do, the first thing that occurred to me was, ‘Oh, the United States doesn’t want these people here,"” she told ABC News.
“It is so much work, and so much of it seems ridiculous and repetitive, that in my opinion, I feel like they make it so hard so that it will intimidate you,” she added.
Johnson is calling on the U.S. government to waive the humanitarian parole application fees of at least $575 per person. For her part, she has signed on to financially sponsor nine Afghans — an element required in a person’s humanitarian parole application.
“We need to do a full surge at the State Department,” Johnson said. “The processing needs to happen faster. It needs to be seen as an urgent, moral issue because it is an urgent, moral issue.”
Shepherd Stern emphasized that ways to process families like the professor’s are already available and the support to expedite the safety of at-risk Afghans is bipartisan.
“We already have the ability to absorb these people into the U.S. We don’t have to change any laws to make this happen,” she said. “It’s sad that it’s the thing that unites our country, but in 10 years, the face of America will be even brighter with these particular people in our country.”
Zak said the National Immigration Forum is calling on the Biden administration to work with foreign governments to create more safe passages out of the country.
“We’re hoping that the administration will put more political will and diplomacy into establishing safe passages out of Afghanistan for people who qualify for humanitarian parole or P-2 and who may have some of these initial pre-approvals prior to the additional vetting in third countries,” he said.
‘It’s not enough’
As the State Department prioritizes getting the remaining American citizens out — at least 176 people of whom still want to leave, up from the roughly 100 officials said were there last month — Phaneuf said more needs to be done across the board.
“It’s not enough,” the former Marine infantry officer told ABC News. “That’s not a political statement — it’s just the reality on the ground.”
“As the new cycle starts to move on, and I think, for some in the administration, they’d prefer the conversation move away from Afghanistan, we’re worried that if the attention of the American public moves on from this too, then there’s nobody else to help them. There are hundreds of us who are working day and night to still try to pull people out, but the reality is that we have severe limitations,” he said.
However, Phaneuf added, it’s the Americans pulling together to pick up the slack that gives him hope.
“It’s astonishing to see that when the American government really fails to accomplish a mission like this that there are so many concerned citizens that are willing to drop everything and just get it done,” he said.
That spirit keeps families like the professor’s sustained, they said.
“That’s what keeps us going,” Amina, his youngest daughter said. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel because there are people working really hard right, trying everything, just to get us out of here.”
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