In late August I wrote about two outstanding Afghan women who were struggling to escape Taliban pursuit. One had made it out of the country and the second was still hiding in Kabul.
Miraculously, Najlla Habibyar, a U.S. green card holder and U.S. aid worker, has now escaped to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, with her family. But her harrowing odyssey — and current plight — reminds us that the U.S. effort to handle Afghan evacuees has been nearly as chaotic as the exit from Kabul.
Legislation is pending in Congress to mitigate these problems, but it is unclear when or if it will pass. As Najlla’s story makes clear, that should be soon.
Escape from Kabul
I met Najlla in late May at an exhibition in New York City of brilliantly colored Afghan carpets organized by the Kabul Carpet Export Co., one of the projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that had real impact.
As Afghan staff director, she helped Afghan women weavers to set up their own businesses and sell directly abroad, rather than going through Pakistani middlemen who took the lion’s share of the profits. A well-known businesswoman, she was on the Taliban target list.
When the Taliban took the city, she went into hiding. “I tried to contact everyone, USAID, State, but finally got in touch with veterans from Digital Dunkirk,” she told me. She was referring to the organization of ex-U.S. military officers who organized an underground network to rescue Afghans who helped Americans — and weren’t being evacuated by the U.S. government.
Three times she was told to go to the airport, but was beaten, gassed and shot at.
Twice the family sat on buses at the airport gates, once for 28 hours, once for 16 hours, with no food or water and at risk from car bombs — and were not let in.
Finally a Digital Dunkirk contact advised Najlla to take her family to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif — and wait for a chartered plane out.
Like Moses leading his flock to the (hopefully) promised land, she dragged her relatives to a rented apartment in Mazar. Each time, the phone call came to go to the airport, but the flights were canceled — as the Taliban asked for impossible bribes.
Finally, Najlla’s bedraggled family boarded a plane holding 397 Afghans, but the flight was nearly canceled — when a stowaway was found in the luggage hold.
After landing in Abu Dhabi, she recalled, “it was like a scene from a movie, with Emirati police all around the plane with guns. When we reached the barracks the guards looked at us like we were in jail. I cried so hard.”
Right now, Najlla and 20 relatives are crammed in barracks buildings formerly used for immigrant workers. Most of her adult relatives have worked for the U.S. military or government. The area has been dubbed International Humanitarian City and now holds at least 7,000 other Afghans.
Separated from most of her relatives, Najlla and her husband were allowed out for two hours a day, until a COVID-19 scare led to a total lockdown.
‘My family has lost everything’
Many of her fellow Afghans are large rural families of Afghan Special Forces fighters who got them access to the Kabul airport, or ordinary Afghans who rushed the airport in the early chaos. Unclear what will happen to them.
Najlla has no idea when or whether her family will get U.S. consular access, and how many of them will be allowed to enter the United States. “It is tough times,” she told me, crying softly. “My family has lost everything, and we don’t know what will happen.”
Najlla has yet to see a U.S. consular official. “You can’t find anyone in charge,” she worried. “There are so many people, and the Emiratis don’t have the resources to sort them out.”
Najlla’s story is typical of the confusion surrounding the aftermath of the last-minute rescue effort in Kabul.
An exodus without direction
Having worked to help Afghans to escape, I have witnessed an exodus without direction. One internationally known women’s rights campaigner has been stuck with his family and thousands of other Afghans for weeks on the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va.
They have been given no idea about their visa status or when they will be released. His daughter has had to defer a full scholarship to do a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania because there is no internet so she can’t take classes online.
My colleague Jeff Gammage has written about the confusion over the visa status of the thousands of Afghans who were admitted on humanitarian parole and are now living at other U.S. military bases, including 9,500 in a tent camp at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey.
Yes, 130,000 or so Afghans were airlifted out of Kabul. Yet many of the most deserving, including those who worked for the U.S. military and civilian agencies, were left behind.
And tens of thousands of the escapees are now stuck in temporary holding camps in the Arab Gulf and Europe, as well as on military bases in the United States, because there was no preparation for handling them — and their visa status is still unclear.
Najlla and her family represent the best kind of refugee America can hope to welcome. It’s time for the State Department and Congress to organize a legal system to admit them to what once was called “the promised land.”