‘These people had our backs’: US veterans lobby to rescue allies trapped in Afghanistan

The Afghan Adjustment Act would offer permanent resident status to Afghans who fled the Taliban but Congress has not taken action

​​A group of 12 people sit in camp chairs – chatting, smoking, listening – in the dark. Behind them, the Capitol building in Washington DC is luminescent, bringing into focus the Afghan flag. Well, the version of the flag before the Taliban changed it. It flies above their heads, catching the yellowy light of dusk.

Since Kabul fell to the Taliban in August last year, military veterans and organizations have been lobbying Congress to offer Afghan evacuees long-term visas to stay in the US. Now, with no action taken and thousands coming to the end of their temporary stays, a different route is being taken to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. This bipartisan bill would grant thousands of Afghans permanent status in the US.

If cleared by additional security checks, Afghans who supported the US mission in Afghanistan or were evacuated after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last August will be given long-term authorization to stay.

“By sitting out here, we are trying to hold Congress accountable,” said Matt Zeller, a US army veteran and co-founder of No One Left Behind, an organization that advocates for special immigrant visa programs for foreign employees of the US.

“In Afghanistan, these people had our backs,” he added. “Here, it is time that we had theirs.”

Zeller is one of several veterans who have teamed up with Afghans in the US who are leading this initiative, or “Fire Watch”, as the group refers to it. He is joined by his former interpreter, Janis, who saved his life while he was serving in Afghanistan, and Safi, an American citizen and US navy veteran who is of Afghan descent.

Janis moved to the US in 2013, and the two describe themselves as brothers and best friends. They spend Thanksgiving and Ramadan together, like family, and have even become uncles to each other’s children.

Protesters are calling on Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act.
Protesters are calling on Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. Photograph: Oliva Rose Empson

Habiba Ashna Marhoon, a dual citizen of Afghanistan and the US, is here for similar reasons, with the same goals in mind.

While she, Safi and Janis have permanent status to remain in the US, they have friends, families and colleagues who have been left in a legal gray zone – some uprooted from their homes only to be further neglected on US soil.

“This is not for me; this is for the people who worked with the Americans,” said Marhoon. “For my brother-in-law, whose family is waiting in danger in Kandahar. And for the Afghan women activists who are in the US but whose visas soon expire.

“They need this green card. The Taliban will kill them if they are made to go back.”

Each day, Marhoon prepares traditional Afghan dishes to bring from her home in Virginia to the group outside the Capitol. A few days ago, it was bolani, a thin-crust flatbread often served with pumpkins or chives.

“Safi told me that if I brought more, we might get more people,” Marhoon said, laughing. “I didn’t realize he was joking, so that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Not all of those to whom this act is crucial can be there. Safi’s cousin Jamal, who worked with the US government in Afghanistan and also helped citizens escape during the US evacuation, is trapped in Kabul. He has been waiting to leave since last August with his wife and three young children. But because there is no guarantee of long-term stability in the US, he fears that if he left Afghanistan only to have to return, it would be “nothing but a suicide”.

“This [Afghan Adjustment Act] would give my family and me much more patience,” Jamal said. “It would allow us to feel secure and more mentally relaxed about our future.”

The roughly 70,000 evacuees who arrived in the US last August and were granted parole status – a temporary protection for two years – could be saved from an uncertain future if the bill passes. And it would also extend a path to safety for many nationals left behind, which is imperative at a time when thousands are in danger. Yet the Afghan Adjustment Act faces opposition from several Republican politicians, who see the evacuees as a potential threat to US security.

The vigil grows slowly in number as people have become frustrated over Congress’s inaction.
The vigil grows slowly in number as people have become frustrated over Congress’s inaction. Photograph: Oliva Rose Empson

“If only they read the bill, they’d notice that enhanced vetting is an important component of it,” Safi said. “It also calls for the vetting of those who were evacuated last year.”

Supporters of the Afghan Adjustment Act hoped it would be included in a recently passed short-term government funding bill. It was not, but they are still optimistic.

“Realistically, this is probably just going to get attached to something else, so the next big target is the omnibus in December,” said lawyer and chair of the Afghan-American Foundation, Joseph Azam.

“Congress will continue to kick the can further down the road,” Azam added.

Until the bill passes, those involved say they will continue to wait it out, even if it takes another six months. They hope their presence outside the Capitol will pressure politicians as each day passes and there are more chairs, energy and faces joining the group.

The initiative started with just three people. Yesterday, the total number reached about 30.

Jamal can only watch the progress in Washington from social media live streams or WhatsApp calls from his apartment in Kabul.

He misses the busy rush of his city, where he says the markets were once full and people loved their homes and lives.

“There was a future besides bomb blasts,” he recounted. “But now, it is dark.”

Every morning, he checks Twitter and waits for updates from his cousin Safi.

“Do I wish I could be there? Yes. But unfortunately, I can’t,” he said. “I need Safi to sit in front of Congress for me and for us until this act is passed.”


Olivia Rose Empson

The GuardianTramp

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