Silicon Valley congressman, nonprofits voice support for Afghan refugees
Refugee and Immigrant Transitions members at a demonstration in Fremont, including Jane Pak, co-executive director; Lina Nazar, wellness education program manager; Laura Vaudreuil, co-executive director; and Malaak Malikyar Sills, board chair. Photo courtesy of Refugee and Immigrant Transitions.

Samir has barely slept in weeks. The East Bay resident, who came to the United States from Afghanistan in 2014, spends much of his nights staring at the ceiling, worrying about his mother and other relatives back home.

“I have no idea what to do about them,” said Samir, whose last name is being withheld to prevent possible retaliation against his family members. “The Taliban have already started searching people’s houses. They have no mercy and they will do whatever they want.”

Afghanistan devolved into chaos this month as provincial capitals rapidly fell to the Taliban. Tens of thousands of Afghans who—like Samir and his family—assisted the U.S. military or other agencies are now afraid they’ll be killed as America ends its longest running war. While some at-risk Afghans evacuated the country, others are stuck in limbo as they wait for the U.S. Department of State to approve their special immigrant visas.

Fighting to flee

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) told San José Spotlight it’s time to cut the red tape.

“We can at least move these folks to our military bases, like in Guam or Qatar for example, and process paperwork out of the Taliban’s reach,” he said. “My team is working hard to get Afghan allies and refugees connected to the Bay Area the documentation they need, but sometimes that paperwork is impossible for people fleeing for their lives to obtain.”

As President Joe Biden faces harsh scrutiny from both sides of the aisle over the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces, multiple congressional committees are planning to question the administration about why it was seemingly caught off guard by the Taliban’s swift takeover.

Khanna, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, firmly supports the president’s decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan. But the congressman said he plans to ask “tough questions” during the hearings.

“I’ll be asking why there wasn’t a better contingency plan in place for expeditious evacuations and refugee processing in its implementation,” he said. “…Why were we not speeding up the special immigrant visa process for our Afghan allies in the lead up to the withdrawal, which has required the average applicant to wait two years before obtaining a visa?”

Even some Afghans with the proper paperwork are fighting to flee. Samir said his brother’s family struggled to reach the airport in Kabul, even though they had their visas on hand.

“It was a nightmare,” he said, explaining the facility is surrounded by the Taliban. “They saw people being shot.”

His brother’s family, who eventually made it inside the airport, arrived in California a few days ago. They went four days without sleep, Samir said, and his four-year-old niece kept crying and asking her parents when they could go home.

“I think many people (who helped the U.S.) are angry to be honest,” Samir said. “They are criticizing the U.S. government because they just left everybody behind.”

‘You don’t have to feel helpless’

While the images and stories from Afghanistan are harrowing, Mindy Berkowitz, executive director of Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley, is urging local residents not to look away.

“You don’t have to feel helpless because there are ways you can help,” she told San José Spotlight.

Berkowitz’s organization offers a wide range of resettlement services. They assist refugees with everything from airport pickups and housing to case management and job hunts. Berkowitz said the organization is pulling together all its resources to accommodate the incoming Afghan refugees—but donations and volunteers are still needed.

Berkowitz urged others to have compassion for those who just lost their homes.

“Many refugees have told us they’re beyond relieved because they know they are not going to die,” she said. “But at the same time, they have just been forced to leave home and as problematic as home was, it was still home.”

Mindy Berkowitz, executive director of Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley, is pictured. Photo courtesy of Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley.

Jane Pak, co-executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Transitions, said the group is expecting several hundred Afghan refugees to arrive in the Bay Area in the coming weeks. The nonprofit—which focuses on post-resettlement services such as tutoring, support groups and youth leadership programs—is scrambling to prepare.

“I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around all this to be honest,” said Pak, who has a friend sheltering in a bathroom in Kabul. “It seems to me that a lot of things went wrong in Afghanistan, but our number one priority right now should be to rally around those in danger.”

Aisha Wahab, a board member for the Afghan Coalition in Fremont, agreed that humanitarian efforts should be the top concern. She explained it was devastating for many Afghan-Americans to watch as the Taliban seized control. The future of Afghanistan is weighing heavily on everyone’s mind, she said, and the incoming refugees will need long-term support.

“This is not just a one week news story,” she told San José Spotlight. “This is going to be an effort that all people need to engage in.”

How to help

Those who can provide rides or temporarily host a refugee can email [email protected]. Business owners with potential job opportunities for refugees can email [email protected]. To donate, visit the Afghan CoalitionRefugee and Immigrant Transitions or Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley.

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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