A former military interpreter, who moved to Houston from Afghanistan with a special visa offered to those who helped the U.S. and allied forces, watched the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban with a mixture of fear and grief.
The man, whose name Houston Public Media is withholding because of possible retaliation against family members, said he was worried about his father, who previously worked for NATO forces. He was worried about his wife’s family — her sisters are schoolteachers in the country. And he said his brother had attempted unsuccessfully to escape the country with a flood of refugees at an airport in Kabul.
“He didn’t have a passport or visa or anything,” the man said. “He was scared about his safety. He wanted to get into any airplane and just to get out of Afghanistan and fly. Like there was hundreds of other people also.”
In Houston, where around 1,700 Afghan interpreters and their families have relocated with special visas, the danger faced by those left behind in Afghanistan feels very real. And Texas groups are struggling with red tape to get life-saving visas for those Afghans who previously worked for the U.S. government and are now trapped.
Houston-based Combined Arms is one of the few veterans’ organizations that offers support to former Afghan and Iraqi contractors to obtain what are known as Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs. But between background checks and documentation requirements, they’re being hamstrung by bureaucratic hurdles, according to volunteer Cress Clippard.
“We’re trying to pass on as much advice as we can,” Clippard said. “We are helping to track down former supervisors that need to write letters of recommendation for SIV applications. We are trying to pressure contracting companies that haven’t provided proper documentation for their former employees who are applying.”
Earlier this summer Combined Arms helped an Afghan family settle in Houston after the husband and father, a former translator for the military referred to by his middle name Mohammad, was executed by the Taliban.
But the SIV approval process has been slow. Mohammad’s family waited 10 years for their initial visa application to go through. At one point, it was even erroneously denied. And when Mohammad was killed, their visa pathway was invalidated. The family was eventually brought to the country through an emergency process called humanitarian parole.
As of June 2020, an estimated 18,000 families had Special Immigrant Visas pending. And right now, getting an SIV is a matter of life and death, Clippard said.
“We have members of our group in Houston, people that we’ve welcomed over the past few years, Afghan families that have already had family members murdered in Kabul and in other cities,” he said. “These are people that are part of our group. They’re Houstonians and their family members are being killed.”
The U.S. government began evacuating its embassies in Kabul over the weekend after a withdrawal that has been largely criticized by Republicans and some Democrats. In response, President Biden said on Monday that he was “deeply saddened” by the events unfolding in the country, but that he did not regret the decision to leave.
“There was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said. “That’s why we are still there.”
The Taliban has insisted that its tactics have changed in recent years, and that the insurgents have moderated on issues like women’s rights and seeking revenge on those who have worked with U.S. and allied forces. But those claims have been met with skepticism, and thousands of Afghans have attempted to flee the country in recent days.
Hundreds of refugees are expected to resettle in Texas in the next few days, with thousands more over the coming weeks in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth. The Pentagon said this week that it could provide as many as 22,000 spaces at Fort Bliss in El Paso.
Among those families are likely to be many people who have worked with the U.S. military, Refugee Services of Texas CEO Russell Smith told KUT.
“They are fleeing because they were translators for us,” Smith told the station. “They were guides. They helped out. And now it is not safe for them.”
Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston said it has been working for weeks in coordination with international partners to relocate Afghans with SIV status to Houston, and is seeing two to three families every day coming in from Fort Lee in Virginia.
Houston Interfaith Ministries Chief Programs Officer Ali Al Sudani — who was himself a military interpreter who came to the U.S. from Iraq in 2009 — said Texas is a top destination for SIV visa holders and refugees in general — particularly Houston.
He’s also watched the news in horror, and called the chaotic scene a “disaster.”
“This footage of individuals who helped our troops, and who sacrificed their lives because of their association to our troops and the work that we wanted to achieve in Afghanistan,” Al Sudanbi said, “to see them in such kind of horrific scenes and chaos, it’s disappointing.”
“Those individuals, the SIVs who helped our troops and sacrificed their lives and believed in the hope to change their country, we need at least to ensure they are safely resettled in the United States and we are not turning our backs on them,” he said.