A Less Than Humanitarian Response for Afghanistan

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In August, my husband and I went to see The Kite Runner on Broadway. Promoted as “an uplifting Broadway adaptation” of the bestselling novel 2005 by Khaled Housseini, a sign displayed outside of the theater continues by stating that this story “about the friendship of two boys living parallel lives in Afghanistan is a heartbreaker–but so uplifting it’s worth the pain.” 

Afghanistan had been weighing heavily on my heart and mind already earlier in August, as the one year anniversary of the United States military withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years, and the Taliban’s quick ascent to power drew closer and closer. 

I was familiar with the book, having read it previously, and I knew the content was gut wrenching in many different ways, so I was prepared to experience a full range of emotions. What I wasn’t prepared for was the deep well of sadness and, dare I say it, shame that sprung up as hot, uncontrollable tears when, close to the end of the play, we witness Sohrab receiving a humanitarian visa so that he could leave the orphanage in Pakistan and live with Amir and Soraya in the U.S. This becomes the pivotal moment of redemption for Amir and salvation for Sohrab–the “uplifting” end to a heartbreaking story. 

These tears continued for most of our walk from the theater to Penn Station to catch our train home. I didn’t leave the theater feeling uplifted. I left feeling the weight of a full year of promises to so many vulnerable people in Afghanistan to provide welcome go unfulfilled…the weight of thousands of lives still at risk. 

One year later I ask, where is the humanitarian response for Afghanistan and her people?

For Those Who Arrived in the U.S.

One year ago I, along with so many of you, witnessed the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban to power, and the trauma and terror that ensued. Part of the U.S. government’s response was to airlift thousands of U.S. residents and citizens, third country nationals, and vulnerable Afghans out of Afghanistan, where they landed either at secure locations abroad or directly on U.S. soil. Approximately 86,000 Afghans have been resettled in the U.S. since July 2021 through Operation Allies Welcome, and 90% of those resettled hold humanitarian parole visas, which only grants them temporary legal permission to stay in the U.S. (up to two years). On August 9, 2022, after a year of diligent advocacy efforts, the bi-partisan Afghan Adjustment Act was introduced in both the House and the Senate. If passed by Congress, this bill creates a pathway to lawful permanent residence for humanitarian parole visa holders from Afghanistan, which would prevent them from continuing to live in legal limbo, or in fear of being sent back to Afghanistan. 

As I sat watching The Kite Runner, the fear and utter despair Sohrab experiences when Amir tells him that he may have to stay in the orphanage a little while longer, as they work on processing his visa to fly to the U.S., was palpable in the theater that evening. I’ve heard the same fear and despair from Afghans (and those who love them) who arrived in the U.S. under humanitarian parole protection. Will the United States turn its back on more than 75,000 Afghans who were airlifted out of their homeland one year ago due to significant threats to their lives and liberties? 

Advocacy Action Step:

  • Urge Congress to pass the Afghan Adjust Act. Start by filling out this form, then follow up with personalized letters and phone calls, or by requesting a meeting with your local representatives.

For Those Not in the U.S. Who Applied for Humanitarian Protection

While thousands of vulnerable Afghans were airlifted out of Afghanistan last year and flown directly to the US, thousands more were flown to temporary safety in other countries or left behind in Afghanistan, but were able to find other ways to leave the country and find temporary refuge. Under Operation Allies Welcome, the U.S. government created a special program allowing Afghan nationals to apply for humanitarian parole visas once they left Afghanistan. Many of us were hopeful that this would be a lifeline for those who were caught in limbo–we were so grateful that they escaped Afghanistan, but knew that a safe and legal pathway to enter the U.S. was still needed to protect their lives and liberties. We scrambled to find attorneys who could help file the humanitarian parole visas, gather all of the necessary documents, pay the application fees, and plan for their potential arrival in the U.S. while also trying to keep them safe and meet their daily needs while waiting for their applications to be processed, while remaining hopeful about the process. Month by month that hope has faded. At first the question was, “Why is application processing taking so long?” Then, as stories surfaced about how the applications that have been adjudicated are being denied, the question became, “Why are vulnerable Afghans being denied humanitarian protection?” 

In June, CBS news reported that since July 2021, the USCIS (United Stated Citizenship and Immigration Services) has received 46,000 humanitarian parole applications. At the time of the reporting, less than 5,000 applications had been adjudicated, with over 90% being denied. [This report from MPI reports that only 297 applications have been approved. It goes on to report that, in contrast, 17,000 Ukrainians have been paroled into the United States and another 24,000 have applications have been approved for Ukrainians, pending their arrival in the US since April 25 of this year.] On May 26, several members of Congress sent a letter to President Biden, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of USCIS expressing their concern about the overly restrictive response to Afghan humanitarian parole applicants and the “disparate treatment of Afghan and Ukrainian humanitarian parole applications.” 

Several news agencies have reported that beginning October 1, the US government will end Operation Allies Welcome (including the humanitarian parole program) and begin Operation Enduring Welcome. An administration official is quoted as saying, “Moving forward, Afghan arrivals will enter the United States with a durable, long-term immigration status that will facilitate their ability to more quickly settle and integrate into their new communities, and they will also travel directly to their new destination community without the need for a stop-over at a safe haven in the U.S.”

Through Operation Enduring Welcome, the US will focus on resettling Afghans in three categories, each with a direct pathway to permanent legal status: immediate family members of US citizens and evacuees who were resettled over the past year, special immigrant visas for those who assisted in US war efforts, and resettlement of the “most vulnerable” as refugees through the US Refugee Admission Program (USRAP). Committing to creating safe, legal pathways for Afghans to enter and stay in the US permanently is great news. But what about those who have applied for humanitarian parole protection and continue to wait or have their applications denied? Will there be no enduring welcome for them?

Advocacy Action Steps: 

  1. Contact your congressional representatives and the Biden administration and urge them to implement a more efficient, equitable and compassionate process for adjudicating humanitarian parole visas for the 46,000 vulnerable Afghans who applied. Encourage them to implement another pathway for those who have already been denied humanitarian protection during Operation Allies Welcome through their implementation of Operation Enduring Welcome (possibly through family reunification, special immigrant visas or refugee resettlement.) 

  2. Urge the Biden Administration and Congress to invest in rebuilding the refugee resettlement program, and urge President Biden to set a goal of resettling 200,000 refugees through the USRAP program for the 2023 Fiscal Year. 

For Those Affected by Climate Change and Climate Disasters 

As if the people of Afghanistan haven’t suffered enough over the past year (past 20 years…past 50 years and beyond), Afghanistan has also recently experienced deadly earthquakes, flooding, drought and food insecurity, and the Germanwatch Global Climate Watch Index (an independent development and environmental organization which analyzes and ranks countries’ vulnerability to extreme weather events) listed Afghanistan as the sixth-most affected country in its most recent report (published in 2021). Approximately 3 million displaced Afghans also live in Pakistan, where one third of the country is currently under water due to severe flooding

As this NY Times piece so brutally and honestly articulates, “unrest and climate change are creating an agonizing feedback loop that punishes some of the world’s most vulnerable people.” This includes the people of Afghanistan.

Advocacy Action Step:

The Time to Act is Now

Inside the playbill handed to us by the usher at the theater was an insert highlighting several organizations providing care for both those who have fled Afghanistan seeking refuge and those who remain in Afghanistan. For each organization listed there was a brief summary of their work and a QR code theater goers could scan to learn more about the organization and how to support these humanitarian efforts. I noticed, through my tears, many of these inserts littering the ground of the theater as I exited after the performance. 

We, the people who call ourselves Christ followers, must not throw away the opportunity to advocate for compassionate, Christ-like care for the people of Afghanistan. The time to act is now.

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