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An Afghan NGO Worker Worries About How Her Family Will Obtain Visas To Leave


Thousands of Afghan citizens who have helped the U.S. mission there are desperately waiting for a way out. One option includes a limited number of Special Immigrant Visas, or SIV for short. Another option is the Priority 2, or P-2, visa, but that requires Afghans to somehow find a way out of Afghanistan to a third country before they can even apply. Khatera, whose last name we are not using, says she was one of the lucky ones. She first applied for an SIV in 2016, but a slowdown in processing SIVs during the Trump administration meant it took more than five years for her visa to come through. Khatera left with her husband and children just two days before Kabul fell to the Taliban.

KHATERA: When I was saying my goodbyes to my family, they told me that, you are the chosen one and will go to a safe place and we will be still remaining in this hell. And that is something I will never forget, and it made me cry all the way when I was coming to the U.S.

CHANG: Now Khatera says her relatives and colleagues still in Afghanistan could be targeted by the Taliban. She has spent years working on USAID-funded projects with a non-governmental organization that promotes gender equality. We reached her this week from a hotel room in California.

Can you explain to us - what concerns about your safety have you had over the years working to promote women's rights in Afghanistan? What risks would you have been facing if you had stayed?

KHATERA: I personally was followed with different cars. I received threats in my phone, people calling me certain names, and they were - they identified me. Sometimes I receive calls. They warned me if I don't stop working for Americans, they will kill me and my family and they will make it an example for others so they will never dare to dishonor the values of Islam and the values of Afghanistan. But it was not only me; anyone in my office and...

CHANG: Right.

KHATERA: ...Who was coming to a base or to a campus that was well known among community as a place that Americans work and Afghans that support Americans work there. And they were in a risk from their communities.

CHANG: I understand that many of your colleagues were approved for the Special Immigrant Visa, but are still in Afghanistan right now. Do you know - have U.S. authorities contacted them at all? What do you know about what might be next for them at this point?

KHATERA: I am in contact with my friends and previous colleagues. They are stuck right now. It has been a week that - or at least five days that they haven't go outside of their houses. So they are in a kind of lockdown, scared at home. They destroyed almost all their documents so if any group by the name of Taliban come and researched your houses, they could not find that they were an employee of some NGO - or you said funded projects. One of my friend, she text me in the WhatsApp and said, I want to go to the airport. I said, don't do that. It's not safe. And if you go there, you might not get a flight, but instead, you might be hurt because there was a lot of crowd and running and trying to rush on each other. And she is still waiting, and there is no contact with her yet.

CHANG: I also know that you have a sister and brother-in-law in Kabul at the moment. They are both seeking Priority 2 visas to come to the U.S. But as we say, the catch there is they have to travel to a third country before they can even apply. Is that even feasible for them right now, to travel to a third country?

KHATERA: They cannot go to the next street. How they can go to another country?

CHANG: Yeah.

KHATERA: Right now they are stuck at home. Most of the time, electricity goes. Internet connection get cut out in Kabul. And they just wait for the next time that they can do - charge their phone and get in touch with us. So it's not possible for them to go on the streets of Kabul, to the gates of the embassies of any country and seek any support or visa. All that they can get in touch with us through email or if someone has their phone number to call them.

CHANG: So what do you think U.S. authorities need to understand and act more immediately on right now to help your colleagues and your relatives find safe passage out of Afghanistan?

KHATERA: I think they should contact with all the U.S. organization, and through that, they can prepare a list of Afghan employees who are at risk; and think about a quick evacuation to one of the neighboring countries, maybe through flights or maybe through road. And from there, they can just continue their P-2 application process. It's not possible for Afghans to figure out that themselves. I think U.S. government should actually find a way for them and guide them that, OK, contact them in your phone, contact them in your email, ask them to leave to Pakistan through this road and make sure that Taliban will not attack them on the way and will not stop them and then from there, to continue their process of visa and just a quick evacuation.

CHANG: Khatera is an Afghan activist who has now found her way to the U.S. on a Special Immigrant Visa. Khatera, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your story with us today.

KHATERA: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Adriana Tapia