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Stranded in Kabul, Afghanistan: A US Resident Runs Out of Options

todayAugust 31, 2021 5

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WASHINGTON — For more than a week, Samiullah “Sammy” Naderi, a U.S. legal permanent resident, waited days and nights with his wife and son outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, hoping to be let in so that they could leave on one of the dozens of daily flights headed to America.

“It’s 50 feet away,” Mr. Naderi, 23, said Sunday night in a short telephone interview, speaking in halting English, as gunfire crackled in the background. “Maybe the Taliban will let me inside — maybe.”

But on Monday, after being told that no more people would be allowed inside the airport gate, Mr. Naderi and his family returned to their apartment in Kabul with no clear path back to Philadelphia, where he has been living since last year.

“All flights are closed,” he said with an incredulous laugh. “I am scared.”

Mr. Naderi is among at least hundreds of U.S. citizens and potentially thousands of green card holders who are stranded in Afghanistan at the end of a 20-year war that culminated not in a reliable peace, but with a two-week military airlift that evacuated more than 123,000 people.

The evacuations continued through the last U.S. military flight out of Kabul, which departed Monday night, as the Biden administration pledged to help as many as 200 Americans who remained escape from what they fear would be a brutal life under Taliban rule.

About 6,000 Americans, the vast majority of them dual U.S.-Afghan citizens, were evacuated after Aug. 14, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Monday. The State Department has not provided numbers for how many permanent legal U.S. residents have also been evacuated or — as in Mr. Naderi’s case — failed to get on a flight out. Immigration and refugee advocacy groups estimated that thousands remained.

Mr. Blinken described “extraordinary efforts to give Americans every opportunity to depart the country,” as diplomats made 55,000 calls and sent 33,000 emails to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan, and in some cases, walked them into the Kabul airport. The American Embassy in Kabul had for months warned U.S. citizens against traveling to Afghanistan, and in early August urged those who were in the country to leave immediately.

“We have no illusion that any of this will be easy or rapid,” Mr. Blinken said at the State Department’s headquarters in Washington. “This will be an entirely different phase from the evacuation that just concluded. It will take time to work through a new set of challenges.”

“But we will stay at it,” he said.

Several members of Congress had demanded that the U.S. military stay in Afghanistan until American citizens, permanent residents and an estimated tens of thousands of Afghans eligible for special immigrant visas could be evacuated. But by this weekend, the lawmakers sounded resigned in acknowledging that many would be left behind.

“Our team will continue to work to safely evacuate American citizens and Afghan allies and to reunite families and loved ones,” Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, said on Twitter late Sunday night. “I urge the State Department and the rest of our government to continue to use every tool possible to get folks to safety, deadline or not.”

Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, excoriated the Biden administration’s exit from Afghanistan as “insane” during an interview on Sunday with ABC News’ “This Week.”

“We have American citizens who are being left behind,” Mr. Sasse said. “We have American green card holders who are being left behind. We have Afghan allies who are S.I.V. holders, folks who fought alongside us, drivers, translators — people who actually fought with us. These people are people to whom we made commitments.”

The chaotic effort to locate, contact and then speed American citizens in Afghanistan to safety was mired, officials and advocacy groups said, by a lack of coordination across the U.S. government, frustrated attempts at outreach by the State Department, and increasingly frequent warnings of possible attacks that forced airport gates to close and meeting points to be moved.

U.S.-based relief groups that helped American citizens and Afghans who worked with the U.S. government described a heartbreaking and dizzying process in which people trying to escape were routed, and then rerouted, to pick up points across Kabul where they were to board buses or join caravans headed to the airport, but were blocked along the way.

Some people reported that Taliban fighters at checkpoints took their American passports, the relief workers said. Others said they were harassed or beaten as they made their way to meeting points, and were unwilling to again put themselves and their families in harm’s way. And some said they were turned back by American troops standing guard at the airport gate.

“Why can’t we get people out?” said Freshta Taeb, the American-born daughter of an Afghan refugee, who provides emotional counseling and translation services for Afghan immigrants in the United States, including those who worked with the U.S. military.

Ms. Taeb blamed the Biden administration for a military withdrawal that she said “was done haphazardly, was done sloppily.”

“There was time to create a plan and do what needed to be done to get these people out,” she said. “But it doesn’t seem like there was a strategy behind this.”

Ross Wilson, who was the top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan and was on the last military flight to depart, said Monday on Twitter that “claims that American citizens have been turned away or denied access” to the airport in Kabul “by Embassy staff or US Forces are false.”

In Washington, officials have struggled to keep up.

Military officials had privately accused the State Department of moving too slowly to process a crush of people begging to be evacuated. State Department officials, already facing a backlog of visa applications from Afghans, focused first on finding Americans and verifying their citizenship.

Officials said a small but unspecified number of U.S. citizens had signaled that they did not want to leave Afghanistan, unwilling to give up their homes, jobs or schooling, or refusing to leave behind relatives, including elderly parents who were not Americans and otherwise had no way out.

Foreign-born spouses of American citizens, and their unmarried children who are under 21, are eligible to immigrate to the United States after receiving certain approvals, a process that was expedited for some Afghans during the evacuation. Extended family members, like parents, siblings and other relatives, must go through an immigration process that Jenna Gilbert, director of refugee representation at Human Rights First, said can take “an extraordinarily long” time.

Mr. Blinken made clear that “if an American in Afghanistan tells us that they want to stay for now, and then in a week or a month or a year they reach out and say, ‘I’ve changed my mind,’ we will help them leave,” he said.

But there are no plans to change visa requirements for extended family members who would have to “travel to the United States under other forms of eligibility,” Ned Price, the department’s spokesman, said Friday.

The Kabul airport is not expected to be fully functioning for some time without the American military, although the Biden administration is leaning on allies, including Turkey and Qatar, to take over some of the operations to facilitate small charter flights for people who want to leave, Mr. Blinken said. The State Department is also weighing how to protect American citizens and Afghans at high risk of Taliban reprisals who drive to one of several neighboring nations, and seek safe passage to the United States from there.

Mr. Naderi said on Tuesday he was not sure of what to do, but was looking at leaving Afghanistan over its border with either Pakistan or Tajikistan. As proof of his American residency, he provided an image of his green card, which he received last year, and said he had been living with his father in Philadelphia with hopes of moving his wife and son to the United States. (The State Department would not comment on his case, citing privacy concerns.)

He returned to Afghanistan on Aug. 10 to gather immigration documents for his wife and son, said his father, Esmail Naderi, who had worked for several American military contracting firms in construction and other fields between 2004 and 2015.

Five days later, the Taliban seized power and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul closed as diplomats were evacuated to the airport.

Getting the proper visas for the family in time was not possible. “My situation is really bad right now,” Samiullah Naderi said Tuesday.

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