My name is Lark Escobar. I’m a graduate student on scholarship at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and a veteran who served in Afghanistan in various roles. When, in August, 2021, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, my primary concern was assisting desperate Afghans, my former trainees, escape the crisis.
In August of 2021, my Afghan contacts at risk, including faculty, cadets, and those in other programs, numbered up to 8,000.
In 2010, I deployed to Afghanistan to help Afghan pilots who would come to the United States for training under the Thunder Lab program, but who were not able to pass their English exams. However, once there, I was assigned various roles in addition to Afghan pilot training.
These roles included integrating women into the Afghan Air Force and Afghan Military Academy, their West Point equivalent, work with national literacy programs, teaching the military and police, and gender issue advising. I was tasked with creating the American English Language & Culture degree at the military academy. I founded six libraries across the country, created coursework, wrote textbooks, and assisted professors by co teaching with them in their classrooms.
My focus now is helping the countless Afghans trapped in their country find a safe haven. There, they face imprisonment or death by the Taliban. When the United States and NATO withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, my Afghan contacts at risk, including faculty, cadets, and those in other programs, numbered up to 8,000. Most Afghans were not able to cross borders into Pakistan and other neighboring countries. The primary way we extricated them was through the SIV ( Special Immigrant Visa program) available to Afghans employed by the United States.
During the early days of the non-combatant evacuation operation, I was inundated with requests for help from my Afghan trainees. Long work days were spent in emergency mode, mostly on the phone, determining who needed help, where they were, and what we should do for them.
Women prosecutors tried many of the Taliban in court for terrorism, murder, and drug trafficking, resulting in the imprisonment of many Talibs. Such women are being targeted by the Taliban.
Our women allies are especially at risk. The Taliban outlawed women leaving their homes without an escort, using cell phones, and working in most capacities. Women must be totally covered in public. Women interpreters who worked for the US speak English, which the Taliban has outlawed. Women prosecutors tried many of the Taliban in court for terrorism, murder, and drug trafficking, resulting in the imprisonment of many Talibs. Such women are being targeted by the Taliban. One of my trainees, a military English professor and daughter of a Brigadier General who fought against the Taliban, developed severe mastitis and nearly died giving birth. She went into sepsis twice over the subsequent months requiring surgical intervention and we had to hire security guards to take her to the hospital and so the Taliban wouldn’t pull her out of bed during surgery. So far, she has survived.
In another case, the Taliban tortured a prosecutor and rule of law professor to death this May. His widow just graduated from medical school. The Taliban have already threatened to marry her if she doesn’t find another husband right away. She is still grieving her husband and is at extreme risk and lives in fear daily.
At the current rate of relocation, it will take 15-18 years to move all the applicants on the backlog to the US. Many will perish before they have a chance to reach safety.
While we don’t have current numbers for SIV approvals, [in recent years] the program was decimated. There were maybe three people processing about 2,000 applications annually. On August 28, 2021, there was a bombing at the Kabul Airport Abbey Gate. Thirteen Americans and 73 Afghans were killed. In response, there were massive evacuations of international diplomatic, military, business and civilian staff. All Department of Defense flights were booked. Then, when nearly 30,000 SIV applications were filed, we had an SIV backlog of about 278,000 applications, and no chance of our Afghan allies making it out on a Department of Defense flight. Well into 2022, we are still working on these August 2021 applications. At the current rate of relocation, it will take 15-18 years to move all the applicants on the backlog to the US. Many will perish before they have a chance to reach safety.
Many of our veterans, working with veterans’ networks, are using their own money to file humanitarian parole applications to bring their Afghan friends and allies to safety.
Humanitarian parole applications, an alternative to SIV, allow otherwise inadmissible applicants to enter and possibly stay in the United States for an urgent humanitarian reason. It amounts to a temporary leave of stay for someone who’s made it to the USA. A humanitarian parole application costs about $600, excluding attorney fees which will double that amount and also mandates about 500 dollars in medical fees in addition to requiring a financially-qualified US Citizen sponsor who is able to cover their transportation costs to the US.
Personally, I don’t help with such applications. My roster is primarily SIV applicants and refugees (called P-status or “Priority” status). But many of our veterans, working with veterans’ networks, are using their own money to file humanitarian parole applications to bring their Afghan friends and allies to safety. It’s appalling that while veterans are using personal finances to fund these applications, our State Department took in about $20 million in fees for such applications and kept the money, but accepted only 169 applications [as of February 2022]. The number of humanitarian applications being approved is a paltry few. In comparison, under the parallel program for Ukrainians, 60,000 Ukrainians have been admitted to the US via humanitarian parole since March 2022. Further, humanitarian parole requires the applicant to relocate to a third country for processing at a US consulate- at their own expense. The primary barrier to this is that the neighboring countries are not offering visas to Afghans to enter their countries and gain access to the consulate for processing.
One safe house for Afghans waiting to escape costs about $180/month, and food doubles that expense. These costs are financed largely by our veterans who volunteer to contribute their personal funds.
While their SIV and humanitarian applications are being processed many Afghan refugees are still vulnerable, waiting and hiding in Afghanistan. One safe house for Afghans waiting to escape costs about $180/month, and food doubles that expense. These costs are financed largely by our veterans who volunteer to contribute their personal funds. Our government is not helping while our veterans have largely exhausted their resources- including taking loans, selling property, and emptying their retirement funds. Other evacuees, numbered in the tens of thousands, live at the UAE Humanitarian refugee camp in Abu Dhabi. More are in various stages of processing in Qatar, Kosovo, and Albania.
We depend on MoneyGram to transfer funds to pay safe house fees and sometimes for food drops and other emergencies. Once, when the MoneyGram system was unavailable, we were notified that there was a starving family– relatives of US citizens–who needed food. Sadly, an infant and her aunt died of starvation before we could help them. Ironically, they were also closely related to victims of the Abbey Gate bombing.
I have true spiritual motivation to help distressed Afghans. I accept my obligation to help the many vulnerable Afghans to the fullest extent of my capabilities. As I face a mountain of grief and suffering every day, I’ll continue to provide assistance to those I’m responsible for, and do what I can for others. Currently, I am working the cases of 3,000 evacuees, and pursuing legal remedies for some victims of violence through the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
If you’re able, volunteer to assist refugees who have reached the US after the chaotic evacuation from Kabul. They need help with tasks such as registering their children for school and learning how to use the library. They may need rides to the DMV or to go shopping- help them learn the local stores. Invite them to dinner. Learn about Islam and Halal standards (similar to Kosher). Include them in your holiday celebrations. Organize play dates with your kids or take them to the local museums with your family. Afghans love spending time outside, so help them learn about the local lakes, rivers, mountains, caverns, oceans, parks, and gardens.
I am always seeking volunteers to join my team working on fundraising, congressional advocacy, media outreach, emergency aid, communications, and other administrative and leadership roles. We provide resettlement services in the form of education content and information sessions for Afghans in processing to come to the US. If you can commit 3-8 hours per week to supporting our operations, please reach out!
Email: [email protected]
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