AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Avista Hamadi's (ph) parents used to tell her how the pomegranates tasted better in Afghanistan - the ice cream, too.
AVISTA HAMADI: They tell me about their childhood and the greatness of their homeland and the city of Kandahar.
CORNISH: Avista is a student at the University of California in Davis. Her parents arrived in the U.S. years ago as refugees of the Soviet-Afghan War. And their hometown of Kandahar fell to the Taliban last week in the final stage of its takeover of the country.
HAMADI: What I'm feeling is utmost hopelessness just because I'm watching the country my parents tell stories about every single day of my life since they came in America as refugees fall into ashes.
ZORAH YARRIE: I cry. I can't control myself. My body is in France, but my whole mentality is all in Afghanistan.
CORNISH: Zorah Yarrie (ph), a 29-year-old university student in Paris, remembers living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The group kidnapped her father in 2000, and the family never saw him again. When the Taliban were driven out, she told NPR it was a golden time for Afghans.
YARRIE: He studied (unintelligible) school, especially the young people. Right now, they have hope. They want to work in Afghanistan.
CORNISH: Wazhmah Osman, a professor at Temple University, was born in Kabul.
WAZHMAH OSMAN: My family came here to the U.S. as refugees of war.
CORNISH: Nobody really wants to leave their country, Osman told NPR. The situation has to be dire. Right now, tens of thousands of Afghan nationals are trying to do just that.
OSMAN: And it's just heartbreaking for actually many people who believe in a democratic Afghanistan. Now they find not only what they've been building towards - all the infrastructure and hard work and creativity - is in danger, but their actual lives are in danger.
CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - for Afghan refugees and their families around the world watching from afar, this week's victory by the Taliban has been devastating. But that victory could be life-threatening for many Afghans who are still trying to escape their homeland.
From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Thursday, August 19.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. This was the message from the U.S. military on Wednesday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK MILLEY: We intend to evacuate those who've been supporting us for years, and we're not going to leave them behind. And we will get out as many as possible.
CORNISH: General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was speaking about tens of thousands of Afghans who have worked with the U.S. over the decades and are now trying to escape Taliban revenge. But the first priority, he said, was American citizens still in the country trying to get to the airport in Kabul. And from videos that have emerged on social media in the last 24 hours, that has not been easy.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
CHARLOTTE BELLIS: The Taliban are controlling the perimeter of the airport. They are shooting into the air. They are pushing people back.
CORNISH: Charlotte Bellis, a journalist with Al Jazeera, is in Kabul.
BELLIS: There's an element of chaos and kind of anarchy at the moment as the Taliban want to look like they're in control but at the same time trying to deal with crowds and just feeling, I think, pretty overwhelmed with the thousands of people who are making a run to the airport.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES HONKING, GUNFIRE)
CORNISH: To help Americans get inside the airport perimeter, the Pentagon says it's worked out facilitation measures with the Taliban. General Mark Milley again.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MILLEY: We fully intend to successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan, all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan. They are our priority No. 1.
CORNISH: Estimates of the number of Americans still in Afghanistan range from five to 15,000. They had been encouraged to leave the country weeks ago, even before the Taliban take over. For those who remained this week, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a security alert directing them to wait for instructions to come to the airport. But they were told that the U.S. government could not ensure safe passage to the airport itself.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: In addition to those thousands of U.S. citizens, there are tens of thousands of Afghans and their family members trying to get out of the country, and that includes those seeking special immigrant visas because they worked for the U.S. government or high-profile Afghans like journalists or human rights workers who will be targeted by the Taliban. For those that do make it out of the country, if they wind up in the States, organizations like the U.S. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service will offer help getting them resettled. Krish O'Mara Vignarajah is president and CEO, and this week she spoke to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
MARY LOUISE KELLY: I want to get the latest on how resettlement is going, all the work you're doing, but if I may begin by asking just what you're feeling. You must be watching these images as well at the airport in Kabul.
KRISH O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, it's heart-wrenching to see so many fleeing with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Candidly, it's not surprising to advocates like myself and our organization just because we have been predicting this panic for months.
KELLY: Well, let me get into some of the numbers of how many have been evacuated. How many Afghans have arrived in the U.S. already?
O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: At least 1,200, but the numbers coming out from the administration are about 2,000.
KELLY: So walk us through how it works. The Afghans who have been approved to come, who have made it out - they are arriving and then being processed at Fort Lee, Va. Is that right?
O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Exactly. So I was actually at Fort Lee a week before, was able to meet with some of the families. They arrived there. For some, the final step was just the medical exam, and so that was conducted on base. And then the vast majority of them are now resettled in communities across the country.
KELLY: Where are they going? How does that get decided?
O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: We take into account whether they have family ties to a given state or city, whether there is a concentration of other Afghans that could provide a stable community to integrate into. And so we see concentrations particularly in Virginia, in California and in Texas.
KELLY: And then what happens? Because, of course, there's getting people here, and then there's helping them build a life here. What kind of jobs are you helping people connect into?
O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Many of them, they will go into really all different sectors. We help them to secure their initial housing, food, clothing, meeting their basic needs. Volunteers help us get them to English as a second language courses. We help enroll their children in public schools, and we connect them into the community so that, you know, they will learn to interact with their neighbors who we hope will ultimately become their extended family. For so many of them, they are leaving everything but a couple of suitcases behind. They're also grappling with the fear and anxiety of what, you know, what family - parents, siblings, other extended family who don't qualify for admissions through the SIV program.
KELLY: There's urgency to this, obviously. Back to the pictures of people trying to frantically to get out of the country because they fear their lives are in danger. What do you need? What could the U.S. government be doing to expedite the process?
O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: So this is where the increased U.S. military presence is an asset. I have the utmost confidence that with the control of the airport, we still can save the lives of our allies, but this is where the U.S. needs to act urgently. I truly believe that with community support, we can do the rest.
CORNISH: Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, head of the U.S. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. A big question in the last few days has been how long the U.S. will use its military assets to help evacuate Afghan refugees. President Biden has set a deadline of August 31 to get Americans out, but said this week in an interview with ABC News that was fungible.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're going to try to get it done before August 31.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But if we don't, the troops will stay.
BIDEN: If we don't, we'll determine at the time who's left.
BIDEN: And if there are American forces - if there's American citizens left, we're going to stay until we get them all out.
CORNISH: For the Afghans that remain, things are less clear. Earlier in the week, Biden suggested the U.S. could help some of them evacuate sooner but didn't because, in part, there were those who didn't want to leave yet.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BIDEN: I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan, civilians sooner. Part of the answer in some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country.
CORNISH: But keep in mind, many Afghans have been trying to leave the country for a long time, applying for those SIV - special immigrant visas. And applying for an SIV is a 14-step process that takes 3 1/2 years.
JAMES MIERVALDIS: And obviously with the evacuation, that - we don't have that time.
CORNISH: James Miervaldis is chairman of the nonprofit organization No One Left Behind. And it works to expedite the process for Afghans applying for special immigrant visas. He told NPR's Ailsa Chang even some Afghans who had finally gotten SIVs have not been able to leave the country.
MIERVALDIS: We had dozens of SIV recipients, the interpreters who had their visas in hand and were waiting for the embassy to reach out to them about what evacuation flights they'd be on. They never heard from the embassy, so we started flying them out commercially on our own dime. Each family is about $10,000. So when the president made a comment that Afghans may have wanted to stay in Afghanistan, the translators may want to stay there, we...
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Do you take issue with that? I wanted to ask you that question. Is that your understanding that many Afghan interpreters and other people who assisted the U.S. military actually didn't want to be evacuated earlier? What is your understanding?
MIERVALDIS: No, ma'am. We strongly disagree with that assessment.
CHANG: How many people are we talking about right now who are currently stuck in Afghanistan? These are Afghan interpreters and other personnel who have helped the U.S. the last 20 years. About - what is what is the volume of people we're talking about right now?
MIERVALDIS: Sure. As of last - or maybe about two weeks ago, the total number of applicants was over 20,000. So there was a flood of applicants that started in the first part of this very serpentine, bureaucratic, paper-based inter-agency process. Again, 14 steps where - that takes about three years. And we never saw that timeline get any faster. What's interesting is, by law, it's only supposed to take nine years. And some great organizations like IRAP sued the government last year and won in U.S. district court about the timeline - the State Department not following the timeline. And then nothing happened. The government provided an adjudication plan but provided no reports about whether recommendations were being audited or acted on. And additionally, the State Department OIG provided a report to Congress last June citing all these issues, and nothing was acted on.
CHANG: May I ask, what danger do you believe that these people are in because they have been unable to evacuate the country so far?
MIERVALDIS: We at No One Left Behind went through six years of emails and Facebook messages. We identified over 300 instances of interpreters or their family members specifically being targeted and killed by the Taliban or other extremist groups because of their affiliation with the United States. So there is a retribution campaign, an effort to - yeah - exact revenge.
CORNISH: James Miervaldis is chairman of the nonprofit organization No One Left Behind. This week, Biden administration officials responded to criticism that the program has been moving too slowly. They provided The Washington Post with a timeline that noted a backlog of 17,000 SIV applicants when Biden took office. As part of the process, those applicants are required to sit for in-person interviews. A State Department spokesman said that before the Biden administration assumed power, not a single interview had taken place in Kabul since March of 2020.
It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.