By Kathreen Harrison
Ever since Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, and U.S., NATO, and other military forces pulled out soon after, people all over the world have been working to try to help Afghans get out of the country who were left in harm’s way. These include human rights defenders, individuals associated with the former Afghan government, single women, persons perceived as “Westernized,” LGBTQ+ people, journalists, university professors, and members of numerous other groups. In Maine, a remarkable collaborative humanitarian effort is underway, with a razor-sharp focus on getting relatives of Afghan Mainers out of Afghanistan, to safety in Maine, and supporting them once they arrive. The core groups at the center of the collaboration include the newly formed Afghan Community of Maine, Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP), Catholic Charities of Maine Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS), and the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic (RHRC) at the University of Maine School of Law.
As of October 21, 14 Afghans had arrived in Maine, and all have family ties in the greater Portland area. They are staying, at least for now, with relatives. Maine is already home to between 400-500 individuals who were either born in Afghanistan or are of Afghan heritage. These include people of different ethnic backgrounds, such as Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazaras. Pashto and Dari are the nation’s two official languages. Religions include Islam (by far the dominant religion), Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Baha’i. Some Afghans already living in Maine came during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s; others came much more recently. Most live in Cumberland County, in cities such as Portland, Westbrook, Gorham, South Portland, and Cape Elizabeth. Others live in Augusta or elsewhere in the state. Afghan Mainers span all socio-economic brackets, with some people highly integrated into their host communities, and others living a more marginalized existence. Maine is slated to receive a total of 100 more Afghans by March 2022.
The terrors of life in Afghanistan
According to the five leaders of the recently formed Afghan Community of Maine, the situation in Afghanistan is a horrifying crisis, with many people facing death threats, kidnappings, and “disappearances” – there one day, and gone the next. Afghans living in Maine receive traumatizing news daily from loved ones and news sources. Sami Shahed, one of the newly elected board leaders, said, “We hear the day’s news from Afghanistan at night, and it hurts. I used to listen to music in the evening to calm down, to be happy. Now we think about family in Afghanistan all the time. People have no food. They are selling children to get money so they can feed their other kids. It’s like a zoo.” Dr. Abdul Rahman Qani, president of the Afghan Community of Maine, said, “Families are in dire need of safety. They are living in fear for their lives due to their affiliation with Western countries, especially the U.S. They need to leave the country for safe haven. Men, women, children, the elderly.” He told the story of “one lady in Portland who has family in Kandahar. Every day she was texting me for sponsors. Then there was a suicide bomb in a mosque in Kandahar. Her relative died in that attack. Passed away.”
“We want to do our best to bring children and women to the U.S, so they can go to school, and college, because under the Taliban the girls can’t get an education. Our girls love going to school. I have seen how hard they study. We see the girls ahead of the boys – they study harder and are determined to become educated,” said Shahed.
Amnesty International has documented extrajudicial executions of members of the former government’s security forces, as well as of ethnic Hazaras, a minority group. According to The Guardian on October 10, “a Hazara man described being interrogated by the Taliban as they demanded to know whether he was a civil activist and had any links to foreigners. The man, whose name cannot be published for safety reasons, said he was taken into a cell where he was blindfolded and gagged. ‘I received 26 lashes. I felt the first five lashes and after that I couldn’t feel anything anymore, my back became numb.’ He recounted later being threatened with execution. ‘I believed my life would soon be over. I was so frightened.’ ”
Catherine Lindgren, staff attorney for ILAP, who was hired recently to focus on immigration legal assistance for Maine’s Afghan families and Afghan evacuees, said that beginning in late August, ILAP was inundated with calls from Afghan families concerned about family members back home. “Many Afghan Americans are terrified the Taliban will go to their relatives’ homes in Afghanistan and kill them because they worked for the U.S., or were in some other way connected to the U.S.,” she said.
So far, ILAP has been approached by about 40 individuals, seeking help for relatives back home. Each of the 40 individuals has between three and 20 family members they would like to help. RHRC, through its student attorneys, volunteer students and RHRC alumni, is currently helping Afghans in Maine file papers for about 70 family members. Professor Anna Welch, founding director of Maine Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, spoke of the current situation in Afghanistan as “a horrifying crisis,” made all the more distressing “since the U.S. is why we are in this crisis.”
According to UNICEF, in addition to the human rights crisis, Afghanistan’s infrastructure is on the verge of total collapse. “14 million people in Afghanistan are facing acute food insecurity, and an estimated 3.2 million children under the age of five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of the year. At least 1 million of these children are at risk of dying due to severe acute malnutrition without immediate treatment.”
The New Humanitarian reported on October 6, “Only five percent of Afghan households reported having enough food to eat, according to recent World Food Programme surveys. For the first time, there are similar levels of food insecurity among urban Afghans as drought hit rural ones, the U.N. agency said: “Job losses, lack of cash, and soaring prices are creating a new class of hungry in Afghanistan.” Food worries now stretch from the country’s remote rural corners – which often face the brunt of shortfalls caused by drought, conflict, or under-development – to its urban areas.”
As of June 18, there were already 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees worldwide, and more than half a million people have been internally displaced since the beginning of 2021. Some 80% of nearly a quarter of a million Afghans who have fled their homes since the end of May are women and children.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security data indicates “roughly 68,000 Afghan evacuees had arrived in the U.S. since August 17,” according to CBS News. Also according to CBS, “about 55,000 Afghan evacuees remain at eight domestic U.S. military sites, where they have been undergoing vaccination against the coronavirus and other diseases, as well as immigration paperwork.”
How to help
The current primary focus of the Afghan Community of Maine, as well as ILAP and RHRC, is to get as many relatives of Afghan Mainers out of the country as possible. The chosen vehicle for doing this is “humanitarian parole,” a lawful option for getting into the U.S. based on “urgent humanitarian reasons.” Each application for humanitarian parole must be accompanied with an Affidavit of Support from a sponsor and a fee of $575 per parolee. According to CBS News, the Biden administration also appears poised to launch a private Sponsor Circle Program, “…an initiative that would mirror Canada’s popular private refugee sponsorship program, arguing that private individuals and groups can help the government resettle more immigrants who qualify for humanitarian protection.” This program would also require sponsors and application fees, however instead of being administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the “Sponsor Circles” would be administered by the Department of State, together with the non-governmental organization, Community Sponsorship Hub.
The leadership team of the Afghan Community of Maine would like Mainers to know that those looking to help should consider becoming a sponsor, because the U.S. will not allow Afghans to receive humanitarian parole or enter the country without a sponsor. Because Afghans will be entitled to federal benefits, will be eligible for MaineCare, and will be able to file for a work permit once they are granted parole, they say that potential sponsors should not be afraid to help. Also, Afghans arriving in Maine will most likely have family members here, so they will not be dependent on sponsors for either housing or cultural adjustment. Individuals, nonprofits, houses of worship, and other kinds of organizations can all be sponsors, and are urged to reach out to the group with questions.
Another important way to help is by donating money to help cover the high costs of humanitarian parole applications. The application fee for each family member is $575, so fees add up quickly. A family of four would need $2,300, and most Afghan families are larger than that. To find out more about these ways to help, email: [email protected] The Afghan Community of Maine assures the public that they are prioritizing financial transparency. If donors want to track exactly where their money goes, the group will make sure that is possible. Nasir Shir, a long-time Afghan Mainer, expressed his confidence in the leaders. “They are very talented, and very IT-savvy. We are going in the right direction with this group of young leaders.”
Welch, of Maine Law, said that a national call went out among lawyers to do something when Kabul first fell. And according to Lindgren, at ILAP, a nationwide group of attorneys has formed to share tips and information regularly, in order to help as many Afghans as possible; she called this group “a fabulous collaboration.” In Maine, ILAP and RHRC, initially overwhelmed with people asking for help with their humanitarian parole applications, also reached out for help. ILAP turned to its roster of pro bono lawyers, and many other lawyers stepped up as well.
And Welch said she thought to herself, “Well, we have a whole building of really smart students – as well as talent [alumni]. So, I sent out an email blast to all second- and third-year law school students, and I was so pleased to see that around 30 students responded. And the alums are helping to oversee and handle cases.” In addition to helping individuals with applications, ILAP, the RHRC, and Catholic Charities have put together trainings and workshops to share best practices in regards to filling out the applications.
To date, USCIS, the branch of the government responsible for processing humanitarian parole applications, has received approximately 15,000 applications. So far, only a handful have been approved. At present, USCIS has said it is working out how to handle the deluge of cases. They expect to receive 100,000 applications by the end of the year. Once an individual is granted parole, they can proceed to the next step, which is to somehow cross the border and report to a U.S. embassy in a third country to be vetted and to wait for their application to be processed. After that, if they are accepted, they can come to the U.S.
Catholic Charities Office of Refugee Services (OMRS), directed by Tarlan Ahmadov, is responsible for providing benefits and services to eligible Afghans who arrive in Maine in accordance with the federally funded Afghanistan Supplemental Appropriations Act, passed on September 30. Catholic Charities (RIS), directed by Hannah DeAngelis, will provide initial, one-time cash payments of $1,050 to arriving Afghan individuals, intended to help cover initial costs. RIS will also provide other core services for 90 days, such as airport pickup, furniture, enrollment in public benefits (Afghans will be eligible for the same benefits as those provided to refugees from any country, although they do not have official refugee status), and locating housing. They will prioritize finding housing for arriving Afghans close to others who speak the same language and share the same culture, to make adjusting to life here easier and less traumatic, and hope this will be possible.
A number of other service providers have been subcontracted by OMRS to help the new arrivals. For example, Augusta, Lewiston, Portland, and Westbrook schools – all expected to be host communities – have received funding to help children adjust to the U.S. and learn English; Gateway Community Services of Lewiston and Portland will provide mentoring services; Portland and Lewiston adult education will work on employment for jobseekers. Like refugees, but unlike asylum seekers, Afghan parolee arrivals will be eligible for work permits and driver’s licenses.
As needs arise, OMRS will add partners to provide services, Ahmadov said. “Maine is a unique place. Everyone works together to support those who are arriving,” he said.
Lindgren added, “We want all our Afghan neighbors to know we are here, working as hard as we can, to bring their family members out of danger.”
Stay tuned to amjamboafrica.com for updated information about Afghanistan, humanitarian parole, and how to help.