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One year after war’s end, Afghans and veterans in Maine struggle to evacuate those left behind

A man wearing a baseball cap, blue tshirt, and blue jeans stands in the open doorway of an old wooden barn.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
John Friberg at his family farm in Oxford. Friberg served 40 years in the Army — including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — and since last summer has been part of a veteran-led effort to help evacuate vulnerable Afghans, including those who served the U.S. mission.

In the summer of 2021, the Taliban was steadily reconquering territory across Afghanistan.

But in Kabul, life was continuing mostly as normal for a man named Ramiz, who was advising the Afghan government on how to use advanced data analysis tools to design and implement anti-poverty programs.

"I mean, I was very happy," Ramiz said. "Because this was very new."

Ramiz is not his real name — we're using a pseudonym to protect his identity.

On Aug. 14, 2021, Ramiz and his supervisor had a meeting with one of the Afghan vice presidents. But when they arrived at his office, he was nowhere to be found. Instead, Ramiz said they encountered the chief of staff, who was in tears.

"And he got close to my head of office, and told him that the rest is in the hands of God," Ramiz recalled. "That’s when I knew that the government was really collapsing."

The next day, the Taliban took Kabul. After more than a week in hiding, Ramiz and his family were able to get onto a military evacuation flight, with the help of American veterans who coordinated their escape.

They eventually settled in Maine.

Ramiz then turned his attention to trying to help other family members escape Afghanistan. He said he's particularly concerned about one of his uncles who worked for the U.S. and has twice been arrested and beaten by the Taliban.

But even with the help of American veterans, Ramiz said he hasn't been able to help his uncle secure a visa, which he would need to leave the country.

"I tried a lot to get him out of Afghanistan," he said. "To get him out to another country, like Pakistan. We could not do that."

Ramiz said he sometimes feels guilty for having made it out of the country, when so many others did not.

Abdul Qani, president of the Afghan Community of Maine, said most Afghan families in the state have relatives back home, and that’s taking an emotional toll on the community.

"Because you have your loved ones stuck behind and you can't travel, and you cannot bring them here," he said.

A man wearing a button down shirt stands in front of a green river.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Abdul Qani is a physician assistant and president of the Afghan Community of Maine. Qani says even though he is a U.S. citizen, he hasn't been able to find a way for his parents and siblings to get out of Afghanistan.

Qani also has family in Afghanistan. He said his father’s immigration case has been approved for years — pending an interview at an American embassy. But since there is no longer a U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, Qani said his father’s case is in limbo.

"It makes me feel hopeless. Even though I'm a U.S. citizen, I have nothing in my power to bring my immediate family member, my dad," Qani said.

Qani is also trying to get his mother and siblings to the US, through a process called Humanitarian Parole, but said those cases have been pending for nearly a year.

It's a common story. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, more than 66,000 Afghans have applied to come to the U.S. on Humanitarian Parole. As of mid-August, only 123 of those cases had been approved. The vast majority of cases are still pending.

Catherine Lindgren, with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, said the government’s response to Afghanistan is in stark contrast to its swift approval of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Humanitarian Parole applications. That’s through a program called Uniting for Ukraine, known by the shorthand U4U.

"U4U shows us that the United States government can answer the call in the face of a crisis." Lindgren said. "And so we ask that they do the same thing for Afghans."

Lindgren said she is encouraged by the introduction of the Afghan Adjustment Act in Congress earlier this month. The bipartisan bill would create a pathway to citizenship for Afghan evacuees already in the U.S., and direct the State Department to establish an office capable of reviewing visa applications and providing other consular services for Afghans while there is no operational embassy in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, many U.S. military veterans, including John Friberg, have not given up on their former Afghan colleagues.

"Well I still got my interpreter over there," Friberg said. "And I wanna get him out. And then there's a lot of other folks that need help as well."

Friberg lives in Norway, Maine. He served 40 years in the Army, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last summer, he joined Team American Relief, a veteran-led organization coordinating evacuations for Afghans who had supported the U.S. mission. Friberg said the group worked around the clock to help evacuate around 600 Afghans before the final withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Since then, Friberg said the group has helped evacuate somewhere between 1,400 and 1,900 Afghans, in part by helping those with eligible immigration status obtain and prepare the documents they need to present to the State Department.

But Friberg said the interpreter he worked with remains in hiding. He said the interpreter's family needs to have passports before the State Department can help them, but getting passports is risky, because it could expose them to the Taliban, which now has access to data collected by the former Afghan national government.

"The Taliban got the biometric data," Friberg said. "They’re doing cross checks. And if they roll you up, you know, you might get imprisoned, beaten."

For now, Friberg said he and a few friends send over some money each month, so the interpreter can feed his family.

Corrected: August 30, 2022 at 10:18 AM EDT
The Afghan Adjustment Act does not direct the State Department to open some form of consular office in Afghanistan. Instead, it directs the State Department to figure out an alternative way of processing Afghan visas while there is no operational U.S. embassy in Afghanistan.