Informal U.S. refugee network turns to text messages, GoFundMe to rescue Afghans

By Ted Hesson, Kristina Cooke and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The desperate plea was sent via text message from one refugee advocate to another trying to aid frantic evacuations from Afghanistan: “Just got a call for a young mom with her two young kids,” it said, “She got through Taliban but being turned away by U.S. forces.”

The Afghan woman, a U.S. permanent resident who was in Afghanistan to visit family, and her U.S. citizen children were hoping to board a flight from Kabul to rejoin her husband in North Carolina on Thursday following the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country.

It was her second attempt to leave Afghanistan after she and her small children were trampled in a stampede triggered by gunfire near the airport on Wednesday, advocates and the woman’s husband said in interviews, requesting anonymity for her safety.

Thousands of miles away in the United States, Jenny Yang from the refugee resettlement agency World Relief had so far been unable to reach U.S. authorities.

Yang’s last resort was a text message to Chris Purdy, a U.S. military veteran and project manager with the advocacy organization Human Rights First, hoping he could use personal government contacts to get her out.

Then they lost contact with the woman and her children.

The frenzied text messages are just one tactic in a sprawling improvised effort by current and former officials, military veterans, congressional staff members and advocacy groups across the United States to get vulnerable people out of Afghanistan, often without clear guidance from the U.S. government. Many are Afghans who worked with the U.S. military in the 20-year war and fear the Taliban will hunt them down.

Desperation on the ground has been exacerbated by a lack of coordination between U.S. military forces controlling the airport perimeter and the State Department, which is notifying U.S. citizens and eligible Afghans about departure flights.

A State Department spokesperson said they are processing Afghans entering the airport as fast as possible, but that “congestion levels are high.” The spokesperson said they could not confirm details of specific incidents.

After being injured in the first melee, the woman returned only to faint from a grueling seven-hour wait outside the airport gates. When she came to, she re-established contact with her husband and is now at home waiting for another opportunity to flee.

“Some of the most desperate people are going to be stuck, and will continue to be stuck, unless the State Department figures out a way to get this mess under control,” Yang said.

New York-based Human Rights First has collected tens of thousands of names of people in Afghanistan who may need to be evacuated. The group shares the list with the State Department.

While it remains unclear exactly how the U.S. government uses the information, some people on the list have boarded planes, Purdy said.

The network of people trying to aid the evacuation has shared tips to pass through Taliban checkpoints. Wear traditional clothing, keep eyes down and persist. “You have to try many, many times,” reads one tip sheet. “Be patient.”

One Afghan man disguised himself in a burka, a traditional female robe, to get through Taliban checkpoints as he traveled hundreds of miles to reach the airport in Kabul, Purdy said.

Democratic Representative Jason Crow, a former U.S. Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, told Reuters that the Taliban have been using files from Afghanistan’s intelligence agency to round up Afghans who worked for the United States.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said that the United States expected to evacuate between 50,000 and 65,000 people from Afghanistan. That is fewer than the number eligible for safe harbor, according to estimates by advocates.

The Pentagon said on Thursday that in August roughly 12,000 American citizens, U.S. Embassy personnel, Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and others have been evacuated.


U.S. defense contractors are also working to get their current and former employees out of Afghanistan, with mixed results.

Abdul Noori, 29, arrived in the United States six years ago with SIV status because of his work as an interpreter for the U.S. military, he said. Last month, his older brother followed. But a third brother, who worked for a U.S. security contractor, had his visa interview scheduled for next week canceled as U.S. Embassy staff evacuated.

Stuck in Afghanistan, Noori’s brother sent screenshots of emails from his employer telling him to stay in a safe location. A senior manager wrote he was “doing everything in my absolute power” to get Afghan employees to the United States. The company confirmed the emails but asked not to be named due to security concerns.

Noori was not impressed with the effort. “If you want to help, get them papers, get them a visa,” he said.

No One Left Behind, a charitable organization that for years has helped relocate at-risk Afghans, has emerged as a central node in the growing informal network striving to evacuate people from Kabul. The group has raised more than $2.5 million for charter flights through a GoFundMe campaign, said James Miervaldis, chairman of No One Left Behind.

But Human Rights First said the U.S. government was not allowing charter flights out of Kabul.

Some in Congress are also working to get U.S. citizens and others out of Afghanistan, fielding requests from constituents and trying to coordinate with U.S. agencies to arrange flights.

“What’s abundantly clear is in the last week the evacuation has not gone the way that it should,” Crow, the U.S. lawmaker, said.

Crow, whose office fielded over 1,000 evacuation requests in the past four days, said people were emailing and texting passport photos and visa information to him. Informal chat groups shared details like which airport gates were open.

“We’re doing everything we can to help on the ground,” he said.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Jonathan Landay in Washington, and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Doyinsola Oladipo in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Cynthia Osterman and Daniel Wallis)

U.S. to start evacuating some under-threat Afghan visa applicants

By Jonathan Landay and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States this month will begin evacuating from Afghanistan special immigration visa applicants whose lives are at risk because they worked for the U.S. government as translators and in other roles, the White House said on Wednesday.

The evacuation, dubbed Operation Allies Refuge, is set to start during the last week of July, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a briefing. Fighting between U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban has surged in recent weeks, with the militants gaining territory and capturing border crossings.

“The reason that we are taking these steps is because these are courageous individuals. We want to make sure we recognize and value the role they’ve played over the last several years,” Psaki said.

President Joe Biden has set a formal end to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan for Aug. 31. The U.S. general leading the mission, Austin Miller, relinquished command at a ceremony on Monday, a symbolic end to America’s longest war.

Psaki said she could not provide specifics on the numbers of Afghans who will be in the initial evacuation flights “for operational and security reasons.”

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the initial evacuation will include about 2,500 people and that they likely will be housed in U.S. military facilities while their visa applications are processed. A final decision has not been made on the specific bases to be used, the official said.

The Special Immigrant Visa program is available to people who worked with the U.S. government or the American-led military force during the Afghanistan war that began in 2001. A similar program was available for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government in that country after the 2003 American-led invasion, but no applications were accepted after September 2014.

The news of the new Afghanistan operation was first reported by Reuters.

The Biden administration has been under pressure from lawmakers of both U.S. political parties and advocacy groups to begin evacuating thousands of special immigration visa applicants – and their families – who risk retaliation because they worked for the U.S. government.

That concern has been increased by the Taliban’s rapid territorial gains and deadlocked peace talks.

Psaki said the objective is to get “individuals who are eligible relocated out of the country” in advance of the withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of August.

It is expected that the initial evacuation will be carried out by civilian chartered aircraft and will include Afghans who are waiting for their Special Immigrant Visa applications to be processed, according to sources familiar with the issue.

James Miervaldis, chairman of a group called No One Left Behind that has been pressing for the evacuation of U.S.-affiliated Afghans, called the start of the evacuation operation “a very positive development.”

Miervaldis said the move is still not enough as there are potentially tens of thousands of Afghans who may want to leave the country while they await their visa process.

A State Department unit coordinating the evacuations will be run by veteran ambassador Tracey Jacobson and include representatives from the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, Psaki said.

White House Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Russ Travers will coordinate an interagency policy process related to the evacuations.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay, Idrees Ali, Trevor Hunnicutt and Jeff Mason; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Will Dunham and Howard Goller)