One year ago this week I started receiving emails from panicked Afghans about the Taliban takeover. Rahmat emailed with fear that he was going to be trapped in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar where he was currently working. He also asked if I knew anything more about the new US program to evacuate Afghans who had worked with US media organizations and NGOs. I immediately started researching it. That began a months long night and day effort to submit Priority 2 referrals for 22 people who had worked with CSFilm, and their families. As the US government demonstrated its limited response to the crisis, I turned to researching other options to get these families onto planes out of Afghanistan.
Night after night (daytime in Afghanistan) I used real-time on-the-ground intelligence information provided by vets and other organizations also working to evacuate people, to try and help guide families around the violent Taliban checkpoints, through the crushing crowds to the 20’ high walls of cement and barbed wire. There they were directed to pinpoint locations where they were supposed to make signals to soldiers, such as waiving red scarves or their hands with the letter P written large on the palm. The soldiers were supposed to see the signals, come out from the airport gates, and escort the individuals inside. It seldom worked, but repeated attempts were made even as the families witnessed the horrors of friends shot point blank at Taliban checkpoints and as they stumbled over the injured and trampled infants.
Of the 22 families that we tried to help, six families got onto planes in the chaotic weeks of August 2021. Those families were assisted by Polish military and consular personnel, in coordination with CSFilm, to get into the Kabul airport.
Filmmakers Reza Sahel, (Searching for a Path) and Wahid Zaman (Knocking on Times Door) and editor Rahmat Zafari (Treasure Trove and Searching for a Path)were flown with their families to Poland. They were quarantined in camps and then moved by train to Germany. Jafar Ebrahimi, Assistant Project Coordinator, was helped into the airport by Polish troops but got on a plane to Italy where his wife had family. Aqeela Rezai, maker of The Road Above, was evacuated by the French government but is seeking asylum in the US through the Priority 2 Referral submitted by CSFilm.
After eight months of waiting in limbo, four of these families have finally been interviewed by the US Resettlement Support Center about their eligibility to be granted asylum through the Priority 2 referrals. The administrative process will likely take at least a year more with no certainty about the outcome. These families are receiving basic financial assistance from their host country.
Project Coordinator Basir Bita, and his family of three, tried multiple times in August to get into the Kabul airport. In the following weeks he was assisted by CSFilm and a Canadian employer to travel under the cover of night from Kabul to Herat. After several failed attempts to get past Taliban checkpoints and enter the Herat airport he and his family finally got on a plane to Pakistan. He survived harsh conditions in Pakistan until the Canadian government agreed to offer him asylum and moved his family to Canada. He and his family are now building new lives in Vancouver.
Of the 16 families left behind in Afghanistan in August, two paid to be smuggled into Iran and two got across the border into Pakistan. It is difficult to be Afghan in either country. Filmmaker Qasem (Death to the Camera) and journalist Ayat are trying to survive under-the-radar in Iran. Qasem is with his eight- year-old daughter and elderly mother. Ayat is with his parents, wife and two children, one of whom was born in Iran. There is no way for them to process their Priority 2 referrals for US asylum from Iran and there is no neighboring country that it is safe for them to move to. They are in a dead-end situation that we keep working to find a way out of.
The two families that moved to Pakistan were prominent human rights organizers in Afghanistan. One family was caught by Pakistan police and evicted back into Afghanistan. The other has been struggling to survive in an expensive country on odd jobs and funds from CSFilm. The US government still does not have an agreement with the Pakistan government to process Priority 2 referrals in Pakistan. This leaves tens-of-thousands of Afghans in an impossible situation. Abbas and family are considering moving to Bahrain if they can get work permits.
The situation for Afghans in Afghanistan, including the eight families we continue to try and assist, is unimaginably painful. Sanctions, inflation, and hunger have hit Afghanistan hard. 1.1 million Afghan children are at risk of dying from malnutrition by November.
Some of the families we are trying to help remain in hiding and all fear the raids of neighborhoods and homes by the Taliban. They search ruthlessly for opponents, former government and military employees, human and women’s rights workers, journalists, and artists.
Journalist Majid (Water Ways) and his family were caught by the Taliban. As a fellow Pashtu, the ethnic group from which the extremist movement grew, he was not killed for having worked with Westerners and written against the Taliban. He and his family were imprisoned until his village elders negotiated his release. He is now in “village confinement” where he is forced to work for the mullah. One of his children recently died from lack of medical attention.
To end on a relatively positive note, five families we were helping in August 21 have, over the last 12 months, found other pathways to safety. They are now in the US, UK, Spain and Germany with varying degrees of hope for receiving permanent resettlement. All left Afghanistan with nothing and now have their whole lives to rebuild.
Since last August, CSFilm donors have contributed $44,000 to the Fund for Afghan Evacuation and Resettlement. CSFilm has distributed nearly $45,000 for Afghan legal and living expenses. Over half of our work hours have been dedicated to assisting our Afghan colleagues.
Your continued support of CSFilm’s Fund for Afghan Evacuation and Resettlement is very much needed and appreciated.
Afghan Evacuation and Resettlement By the Numbers:
15 Afghans in tenuous situations in Iran and Pakistan that we are trying to help move to other countries. Their US asylum cases cannot be processed in either Iran or Pakistan.
20 Afghans in Europe being assisted with the processing of their US asylum applications
32 Afghans that we continue to try to help evacuate from Afghanistan
46 Asylum referrals submitted by CSFilm that have been acknowledged by the US government but remain in limbo
52 Afghans in Afghanistan or neighboring countries that we have assisted with legal or living expenses
81 Meetings attended with the AfghanEvac coalition
915 Hours CSFilm has spent on Afghan evacuation and resettlement since August of 2021
43,980 Dollars donated by CSFilm supporters to the Fund for Afghan Evacuation and Resettlement
44,525 Dollars spent on legal and living expenses for Afghans.