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‘Despair, doubt and uncertainty’: As Afghans rush to evacuate Taliban-controlled capital, Spokane volunteer awaits their arrival in Virginia

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 17, 2021

A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy, left, on Sunday in Kabul, Afghanistan. Helicopters are landing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound amid the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital.  (Rahmat Gul)
A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy, left, on Sunday in Kabul, Afghanistan. Helicopters are landing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound amid the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital. (Rahmat Gul)

WASHINGTON – When Mark Finney landed in Virginia on Sunday night, he expected to hit the ground running as a volunteer helping to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees to Fort Lee, an Army base outside Richmond.

Instead, the director of World Relief Spokane – a Christian organization that helps refugees settle in their new homes – found himself anxiously waiting for updates from Afghanistan, where chaos at the Kabul airport forced the U.S. government to halt evacuation flights on Monday.

From his hotel room near Virginia’s capital, Finney kept in touch with Afghans in Spokane worried about their relatives after the Taliban seized control of most of the country in a stunning, weeklong offensive that ended when Kabul fell Sunday to the Islamist group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

“There’s just a great deal of pain right now,” Finney said. “I have yet to talk to anybody from Afghanistan who is not fearful for the lives of family members and friends who are still over there.”

Finney is one of dozens of volunteers who responded when the State Department put out a call Friday for help from employees of refugee resettlement agencies like World Relief that operate offices around the United States. The volunteers will support the arrival of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government for at least two years and who, along with their immediate families, qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa program.

The refugees will be housed in a hotel complex at Fort Lee while they complete the lengthy screening process required for the SIV program, according to Bill Canny, executive director of migration and refugee services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the organizations coordinating the volunteer effort. Once they complete the process, the Afghans will catch flights to cities and towns around the country where local resettlement agencies will help them adjust to their new homes.

After U.S. troops secured the airport in Kabul, the Pentagon said evacuation flights restarted Tuesday, and Finney said he was told to report to the base Wednesday morning to help welcome the refugees.

The SIV program is not new.

Congress established the program in 2006 and expanded it in subsequent years for Afghans and, until 2014, Iraqis who aided the United States as interpreters and in other critical roles. But the rigorous vetting process required by the SIV program led to an average processing time of roughly three years and a backlog of some 18,000 applicants by the time President Joe Biden announced in April the United States would end its two-decade war in Afghanistan by Sept. 11.

The president apparently had second thoughts about the symbolism of that date – which falls 20 years after the terror attacks al-Qaida launched from its safe haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan – and he declared in July the American withdrawal would wrap up even sooner, by Aug. 31.

Amid growing bipartisan concern in Congress about the fate of the thousands of Afghans whose work for the United States has caused the Taliban to target them, Biden announced in July that his administration would begin flying SIV applicants out of Afghanistan to complete the visa process.

The administration initially said it couldn’t bring the Afghans to the United States to finish their applications, but Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, said the events of recent days have proven that claim to be baseless.

“It’s a question of political will. Of course they could, because that’s what we’re doing right now,” said Crocker, a Spokane Valley native, likening the officials who said such a move wasn’t possible to “bureaucrats at the department of motor vehicles.”

The first flight of SIV applicants bound for Fort Lee landed July 30, and Biden said Monday the operation had by then brought 2,000 Afghans to the United States. But Taliban control of the Afghan capital has put the fate of tens of thousands more in jeopardy.

“What has been done so far is commendable,” Canny said. “Unfortunately, it appears to have started too late.”

One of the Afghan families that arrived at Fort Lee before Kabul fell to the Taliban is already headed for Spokane. Kazim, an SIV recipient who has lived in Spokane since 2014, said Tuesday that his younger brother was on a flight bound for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter.

Kazim, an immigrant from Afghanistan, poses for a photo on June 24 at his karate dojo in Spokane. Kazim's brother fled Afghanistan for Washington in August, but he's worried about other family members in the country as the Taliban takes over.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Kazim, an immigrant from Afghanistan, poses for a photo on June 24 at his karate dojo in Spokane. Kazim’s brother fled Afghanistan for Washington in August, but he’s worried about other family members in the country as the Taliban takes over. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

As he got ready to drive across the state to pick them up from the airport, Kazim – who asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid endangering his relatives still in Afghanistan – said he was excited to welcome his brother’s family to the Lilac City but concerned about the rest of their family.

“I’m still nervous about the people who are behind, but it’s still a relief to know that my brother is here and he’s safe,” he said. “It’s going to give me a chance to think about different family members now.”

On Monday, Pentagon spokesman Chris Mitchell said in an email the U.S. military would evacuate up to 22,000 people from Kabul by Aug. 31, a figure that includes U.S. citizens, SIV applicants and “other at-risk individuals.”

Finney expressed doubts about the United States’ ability to evacuate those it promised to help by the end of the month.

“There needs to be a commitment not just to an artificial timeline, but to the people who served us,” he said. “We’ve got to get our allies safely out of there, whether it takes two weeks or 10.”

Kazim said his brother left Kabul with his wife and daughter Aug. 13, just as the Taliban were sweeping across the country and encircling the capital. But many other Afghans are now stuck in limbo, offered a way out on U.S. military planes but unable to reach the airport because Taliban fighters have blocked the way in.

Despite Biden increasing U.S. troop levels at the airport to 6,000, as of Tuesday those troops remained inside the airport. Kazim said several of his friends and relatives had received emails from the U.S. embassy directing them to come to the airport to board a plane, but Taliban forces wouldn’t let them through a checkpoint.

“I don’t know where those thousands of U.S. troops are, but apparently there’s no one there to escort them to get into the airport,” Kazim said. “I don’t get it, when you’re sending emails saying ‘get into the airport,’ but it’s blocked.”

Crocker, who moved back to his hometown after a four-decade Foreign Service career in which he twice headed the U.S. embassy in Kabul, said processing visas for the tens of thousands of Afghans the administration has promised to fly to the United States will take an unprecedented operation.

“If we can field about a battalion’s worth of Mark Finneys, we can also be sure – having gone through hell to get out of their country and into ours – that their experience is a positive one,” he said.

Crocker said he is “deeply worried” about the fate of the Afghans who worked for the United States and have been targeted by the Taliban as a result, but he is confident people in Spokane County will be ready to welcome those refugees.

“In a sea of despair, doubt and uncertainty, there is one thing I am absolutely certain of,” Crocker said. “Those that come to us out of Afghanistan right now, they’re going to know they came to the right place. They will be welcome here.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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