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The Taliban Seized Her City. Now America's Red Tape Stops Her From Fleeing

A man holds a certificate acknowledging his work for Americans as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday.
A man holds a certificate acknowledging his work for Americans as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday.

Khan had faith in the U.S. troops who arrived in Afghanistan to rebuild his country when he was just 14. He had faith when he began working alongside them, paving roads, digging canals and erecting schools. He still had faith when he left for a college degree in the U.S. some years ago.

But that once-unshakable belief in the reach of the American government has been rocked over the last few days as his wife, Zainab, who is trapped in an apartment in Kabul, desperately awaits word from the U.S. Embassy that her application for a special immigrant visa has been approved and she, too, will be able to escape the Taliban's grip.

"It's like leaving somebody in the middle of the sea — in the middle of nowhere — and you don't know when somebody will return to pick you up, " Khan, now 34 and living in Texas, told NPR.

For his wife, an educated woman with a master's degree who hasn't left the house for months out of fear of reprisal against those with connections to people who helped American forces during the war, he said, "It's like she is sinking. Almost drowning in the water."

Noting accounts of the Taliban going door to door to identify individuals who have worked with the U.S., Khan said, "Every second that [the email from the State Department] doesn't come she is risking" her life.

NPR is not using their full names or their photos out of concern for the woman's safety.

Three factors conspired to slow her visa process

The stunning collapse of Afghanistan's government during the U.S. military withdrawal has left the Biden administration scrambling to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans — allies of the U.S. — whose lives are in danger after years of being stuck in a paperwork limbo waiting to get out.

But the special immigrant visas for Afghanshave been painfully slow in coming and plagued with problems nearly from the start in 2015, with the State Department citing staffing shortages and security threats. Since then, the department reportsthat as of March 31, about 15,600 applicants and another 2,000 in recent weeks have been approved out of 26,500 available slots. However, advocates estimate another 50,000 vulnerable Afghans remain in the country.

U.S soldiers stand guard along a perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday. After the sudden Taliban takeover over the weekend, trapped Afghans  rushed the tarmac and clung to U.S. military planes deployed to fly out staffers of the U.S. Embassy, which shut down Sunday, and others.
Shekib Rahmani / AP
U.S soldiers stand guard Monday along a perimeter at the Kabul airport. After the Taliban's takeover, Afghans rushed the tarmac and clung to U.S. military planes trying to fly out.

Garry Reid, director for defense intelligence, who is leading the Defense Department's work on the evacuation, addressed the issue at a news briefing Monday, saying that officials had begun mobilizing to evacuate as many as 20,000 to 22,000 additional special visa applicants. They are expected to arrive at military bases, including Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Bliss in Texas, over the next few weeks.

Still, over the last 16 months the already onerous and slow process has been moving at a glacial pace. First, the pandemic put a halt to all application processing. Then the violence and chaos across Afghanistan forced another stall.

During the first quarter of 2021, the State Department reports 789 applicants and their families were issued the visas after waiting an average of 703 days to complete the 14-step process.

Applicants are waiting an average of nearly two years

For Zainab, the wait has been even longer — as of Tuesday, it has been 749 days since she first submitted her application.

She was approved for an interview at the U.S. Embassy on May 10 — the 11th step on the checklist. But it wasn't until Saturday, when the Taliban's complete takeover was imminent and the majority of embassy personnel had been evacuated, that she received an email from officials.

"What does the email say? It says do not contact the embassy," Khan recounted.

The email, which NPR reviewed, does say that, explaining that officials cannot offer any information about available repatriation flights to the United States.

It advises people who have already been approved for an immigrant visa "to take advantage of commercial flights now as airports could experience unexpected closures with little to no warning."

But Khan said he's not sure that recommendation applies to Zainab because she has not had an official interview. "I simply do not know," he said, adding he filled out an attached online form in case she'll be allowed to skip the interview all together.

When asked if his wife might head to the Kabul airport in hopes of making it onto any aircraft going anywhere that's not Afghanistan, he said emphatically, "No. No. No. No way!"

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint near the U.S. embassy that was previously manned by American troops, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday.
/ AP
Taliban fighters stand guard Tuesday at a checkpoint near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

On Tuesday, the White House and Defense Department officials said the airport had been secured and that evacuations were underway.

"The Taliban have informed us that they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment," national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. As of midday Tuesday, he said, the administration expected the deal could last through the end of the month.

However, even as he spoke there were scenes of brutal violence and chaos at Taliban checkpoints and "access remained near-impossible," The Wall Street Journal reported.

President Biden has said he wants the evacuation completed by Aug. 31, but it is unclear if the tenuous agreement between the U.S. and Taliban leaders will hold that long.

Human rights organizations are calling for urgent action

In the U.S. and around the globe, human rights and immigrant advocacy groups are calling on the Biden administration to take urgent action to help Afghan nationals trying to flee their country.

"I urge that you appoint a special presidential envoy for Afghan humanitarian and refugee issues," Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, said in a letterto Biden.

Schwartz also asked for a streamlining of the process to sponsor repatriated families, saying it "has been unclear and awfully bureaucratic." The existing Afghan diaspora in the U.S. could serve as a critical partner to the administration in such an effort, he added.

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a national refugee resettlement agency that advocates for special immigrant visa recipients, was critical of Biden's speech Monday, during which the president said many Afghans had chosen to delay their departure from the country.

"The undeniable truth is that we [the U.S.] had both the means and the time to evacuate those in danger, and yet, we neglected to act in any meaningful way," Vignarajah said in a statement.

The organization is collecting volunteer information for Americans eager to help new arrivals in the coming weeks.

"At LIRS, we stand at the ready to welcome every Afghan ally that can reach our shores," she said. "In the past few days, we have received an enormous outpouring of support from supporters, donors, veterans, and folks on both sides of the aisle. The American people are standing up and opening their hearts and their communities to those who have given so much to us. The administration must do the same."

Taliban fighters stand guard in front of airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday. Thousands of people rushed the tarmac and pushing onto planes in desperate attempts to flee the country as the Taliban advanced.
Rahmat Gul / AP
Taliban fighters stand guard Monday in front of the Kabul airport. Afghans rushed the tarmac and pushed onto planes in desperate attempts to flee as the Taliban advanced.

Her husband counts the minutes until she arrives

In the meantime, Khan said he is trying to hold onto hope. "I'm counting the minutes that my wife will awake alive, and she can talk to me or send me a message."

"I do have faith. I do have faith," he repeated over and over again.

He said he believes the American military vehicles now being driven by Taliban forces as they carry U.S. weapons will not stop outside his wife's apartment. He believes she will be spared that knock on the door.

"I believe this so much," he said softly. "You know, the U.S. troops, and the Department of State and the embassy, they are going to help me bring my wife here."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.