As tragic images of Afghanistan unfold, some Americans are eager to help

As tragic images of Afghanistan unfold, some Americans are eager to help
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
19 August, 2021
News on Afghanistan has spurred Americans to ask how they can help.
Most commercial flights from Kabul have been halted, but hope remains to resume the evacuation. (Getty)

The heart-wrenching scenes of people risking their lives to leave Afghanistan over the past several days have left many people around the world feeling helpless, wondering what they can do to assist those in need.

While there has been much debate over the US withdrawal strategy in Afghanistan, one response that appears to be consistent and undeniable: Afghan people need help.

"How can I help the people in Afghanistan?"  - written in various forms - is one of the most common comments on many of the articles about the situation in Afghanistan.

Refugee agencies say they are receiving frequent calls from lawyers offering to work pro-bono, Afghan restaurants are hearing regular customers ask how they can help, and friends of Afghans in the US are getting messages of solidarity from their friends.

"Organisations are being flooded in a good way with offers of assistance, and people are offering to do pro-bono legal work"

"Prayed this morning for the first time in a very long time… for you, for your family, for your birthplace, for all the women & girls who are our sisters, for all the men and boys who are our brothers. Love you,” wrote a friend of Zakia Kator, an attorney based in southern California, who left Afghanistan with her family in the 1980s.

"You'd think people would become jaded with all of the horrific things happening in the world. There's so much going on, but people are really paying attention," she tells The New Arab.

"It's touching that the human emotions are still evoked. I think people can relate. What do you do? You're desperate enough to hang onto an airplane," she says. "I suggest to them to donate to local charities that can deliver necessities fast."

There are around 165 local charities on the ground in Afghanistan. Until larger organisations can resume operations, the smaller ones are helping with basic needs.

Among them are the Kator Foundation and the Jalala Foundation, both of which were established by Kator's family to help with education and living supplies. For now, people can donate through electronic money transfers, but it's unclear how long the telecom infrastructure will stay reliable given the country's growing instability.

Back in the US, Kator suggests that Americans find an Afghan family to sponsor or to help informally. Among her early memories in the US was an American woman who became like a grandmother to her.

"A lot of people have families here, but a lot of people won't have families here who can help them," she says. "It's so important that when people do come, that we Americans extend ourselves to the Afghans."

Until now, only several thousand Afghan evacuees have reached the US, which happened prior to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Most air travel out of Afghanistan has almost completely ground to a halt.

For the remaining Afghans who qualify for US visas - whose numbers were recently added to the approximately 70,000 to 80,000 Special Immigrant Visas (SPI) through the P2 programme - advocacy will be important for cutting through the thick layers of bureaucracy they now face.

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JC Hendrickson, senior director policy and advocacy with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), tells The New Arab there are three buckets of policy actions the US should take: safe and orderly departures, streamlining P2 and SIV applications, and surging humanitarian aid to trusted partners in Afghanistan.

"The US and the UK need to surge resources there. It's not happening yet. Everything is on hold right now because of the uncertainty on the ground," Hendrickson says.

He points out that even if the SIV and P2 programmes were functioning at their maximum capacity, it would only help less than one percent of Afghans. There are currently more than 18 million Afghans in need of aid, including more than 500,000 who are internally displaced.

"Despite the current instability and some opposition to resettlement, refugee advocates remain hopeful"

"This is one of fastest growing displacements in world. It's important for us and others to not take the foot off the gas with humanitarian help. It's scary - particularly when we have a situation when we don't know when flights will go," he says.

So far, he says, more than 12,000 Americans have emailed US President Joe Biden through the IRC website urging him to implement the three policy actions he noted.

This is in addition to the numerous other online petitions circulating urging the US government to do more to help the Afghan people.

Not everyone, however,  is supportive of Afghans' resettlement. Conservative news host Steve Cortes tweeted: "Raise your hand if you want this plane landing in your town?"

This was accompanied by an image of a US military plane filled with civilians fleeing Kabul following the Taliban takeover. A slew of people responded they would gladly welcome them to their town. 

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Despite the current instability and some opposition to resettlement, refugee advocates remain hopeful.

Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, told The New Arab: "It's tragic that all of this could have been avoided. The evacuation should have been part of the withdrawal plan. But it's not too late. There are flights going out. I'm hopeful Afghans can escape, and that the US can get them into the US."

Once the airport is secured and there's a plan to help those outside of Kabul, he says the goal is to evacuate 5,000 to 8,000 Afghans a day.

An impediment to this goal is the scaled-back immigration infrastructure which still largely remains in place from the previous Donald Trump administration.

From the US civilian side, he says: "Americans are being so welcoming. Organisations are being flooded in a good way with offers of assistance, and people are offering to do pro-bono legal work," he said.

"If it was a political calculation to not evacuate, it was the wrong one. Americans really want to help."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews