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Charlottesville residents fear for the lives of family and friends in Afghanistan

A woman teared up at a gathering of Afghan women one recent night in Charlottesville while talking about how she was supposed to get married back in her home country of Afghanistan this week.

Now, she fears for her fiance’s life.

“Everyone in the neighborhood knows he’s engaged to an American girl. Everyone knows his brothers work for the U.S. Embassy. His life is in danger,” she said.

She’s hired a lawyer and is trying to file paperwork for her fiancé to join her in the United States. But she’s still worried if she can get him here in time, especially when so many Afghan people are trying to evacuate the country.

International Neighbors, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit that works with refugees and immigrants who have settled in the area, hosted the gathering in its downtown office to discuss the growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and help Afghan immigrants find resources to get their families to the United States.

The women attending the meeting requested that their names not be published due to security threats and the safety of their family members who are still in Afghanistan.

The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan on Aug. 15 following the collapse of the government. This was two weeks before the U.S. was set to complete its troop withdrawal after a two-decade war.

The militant group ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, until U.S. troops descended upon the country following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Taliban were known for their oppressive laws that took away almost all rights from women. Women were barred from attending school or working outside the home. They had to wear the all-covering burqa and be accompanied by a male relative whenever they went outside. The Taliban banned music, cut off the hands of thieves and stoned adulterers.

Afghans are fleeing the country, worried that the Taliban will reimpose its oppressive laws or carry out revenge attacks against those who worked with Americans or the government.

The women who attended the gathering all have family and friends who are trying to evacuate Afghanistan and get to other countries, preferably the United States.

“Our futures are unclear,” one woman said.

Kari Miller, founder and executive director of International Neighbors, listened as the women voiced their fears, and handed out I-130 forms, the immigration paperwork required to petition the U.S. government to bring a close relative to the country.

“We don’t want you to worry about money to file these,” Miller said.

It costs $535 to file I-130 forms. Miller said she is hoping that donor contributions to International Neighbors will cover the cost for people who need it. The nonprofit also is organizing a volunteer effort to help people fill out the forms, which take a few hours to complete.

President Joe Biden vowed on Friday to get any American trapped in Afghanistan home. A White House official said about 5,700 people were evacuated by military transport planes on Thursday. This included U.S. citizens and Afghans holding Special Immigrant Visas. SIVs are granted to people who have worked with the U.S. government or allied forces who are in danger.

Many of the women at the International Neighbors meeting are trying to get their family members approved for SIVs.

One woman said she is trying to get SIV status for her brother and his five children. His wife died last month after contracting COVID-19 and he is caring for the children by himself amidst the crisis. He is an English teacher and has worked with foreign diplomats, so the woman is hoping this will qualify him for an SIV.

She is particularly concerned that his safety is in jeopardy because of his associations with other countries. He has had to move from house to house due to threats in the past.

“His photos are all over Facebook, showing him with various diplomats,” she said. “I’m very scared for his life.”

Another woman shared how her brother texted her in a panic in the middle of the night. He told her he was chased by someone who was questioning if he had any association with the U.S. government or the American people.

“He tried to drive away on his motorcycle as fast as he could and avoid the question,” she said. “He was scared he could be shot.”

The woman said she is terrified for the safety of her brother and her five other siblings, parents and niece who still are in Afghanistan. She is trying to figure out the paperwork to get them to the United States, but she is struggling to juggle the logistics and stress while she parents three young children. International Neighbors is helping her file I-130 paperwork and figure out if any of her family members qualify for SIVs.

Settling refugees

Harriet Kuhr, director of the International Rescue Committee’s Charlottesville and Richmond offices, said she has received dozens of calls from locals who are willing to put refugee families up in a spare room.

Unfortunately, that isn’t legal, Kuhr said.

“It’s really sweet for people to offer that,” she said. “But it’s a government requirement for [refugees] to have their own space.”

Kuhr said separate apartments that can be leased out are most ideal, but many landlords are hesitant to rent to refugees because they don’t have any American credit history.

If people want to help and don’t have a separate property to offer, Kuhr said the best thing people can do is donate money.

“Normally, when people come through the normal processes, we know they’re coming in a couple weeks ahead of time and we can find housing, but right now we’re getting people with a few hours notice … because it is an emergency, we don’t have time to find housing. So we put people up in hotels,” she said.

The first U.S. stop for at least 2,000 Afghan refugees with SIVs over the past month has been Fort Lee, an Army base near Petersburg.

Tapped for its East Coast location and ability to quickly ramp up to serve as a temporary host installation, the base has been receiving refugees since late last month,

The Virginia Mercury reported.

Members of the Charlottesville IRC office have gone to Fort Lee to help relocate refugees.

Kuhr said there’s no way to know for certain how many Afghan refugees will come to the Charlottesville area, especially because refugees don’t get to choose where they go unless they are reuniting with a relative. However, refugees with SIV status do get some choice, and they might choose to come here because of the local Afghan population.

Kuhr said that since opening in Charlottesville in 1998, the local IRC office has resettled 4,652 people. Of those, 1,444 have been from Afghanistan.

International Neighbors has been helping two Afghan refugee families who came to Charlottesville last week. The group put the families up in hotels when they arrived, but through its network of volunteers and donors, was able to find stable short-term housing for the families.

Miller said she met with the families to discuss what personal items and supplies they need, and the nonprofit is working to provide those, as well.

A former teacher, Miller founded International Neighbors in 2015 when she became concerned that the needs of some of her students who came from refugee and immigrant families weren’t being met in Charlottesville.

“I saw families that were like, ‘I can’t survive here, I’m going back to Iraq, and the Taliban will kill my family, but I can’t survive in Charlottesville.’ I thought that is such a disgrace that these are folks who work for our military who are unable to thrive, barely survive. Another woman had committed suicide in Charlottesville after fleeing wars and surviving refugee problems,” Miller said.

“We have so many resources in Charlottesville. And so many people that are willing to help. [Refugees] just don’t know about them, so what we do is try to build bridges between people and resources and help every neighbor the best we can.”

Miller said she is confident that there are people in the area who have the money and resources to help Afghan refugees coming here. She said her phone has been ringing off the hook and she’s been inundated with emails.

“We can always use more money and volunteers to help these people,” she said.

Afghan women

Helena Zeweri, a professor of global studies at the University of Virginia, was born in the United States, but has watched in horror as the country her parents evacuated in the late 1970s is once again in a state of violence and chaos.

“I have family members who are stuck and we’re trying to help them. I’m still processing it. I mean the first reaction I think I had was this is the human fallout of unbridled imperialism and corruption in the government. This is the human consequences of that,” she said.

Zeweri teaches courses on global migration, humanitarianism and refugee resettlement at UVa and has done research on the activism of Afghan women. She is also a founding member of the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association. The group aims to amplify the many different voices of Afghans and members of the Afghan diaspora through art and language and to push back against negative stereotypes.

“In the last two weeks, we sort of transformed from an advocacy group and an artistic-oriented group to direct-service humanitarian efforts,” Zeweri said. “A lot of us have family who are stuck in Afghanistan at the moment so we’re desperately trying to help them evacuate.”

Zeweri addressed how sometimes Americans can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Afghans and look down upon Afghan culture for oppression of women, while many Afghans actually do believe in and fight for women’s equality.

“Women at the moment are in a more vulnerable position, trans and queer communities are in a really vulnerable position, as are journalists, activists, etc. So that’s a very real thing right now,” she said.

“The key thing to do as we help now in order to avoid falling into the white savior complex, in order to avoid falling into the neocolonial rescue narrative, is to really understand how we got to this point in the first place,” Zeweri said.

“We need to understand that it has been imperialism and colonialism, not just by the United States but also Russia, Britain and the region, that has contributed to the ongoing suffering and violence that people in Afghanistan have been having to deal with for decades.”

Zeweri said there’s a common misconception that Afghan women haven’t been able to fight for their rights, but she said Afghan women have been engaged in political activism for decades.

“A lot of people seeking safety have been working on social justice issues their whole lives, especially women, journalists and activists. Women in Afghanistan, in particular, have been working for gender equality, for participatory democracy for a really long time, since the early 20th century at least,” she said.

Zeweri said a lot of people may think that Afghan women only became engaged in political activism in 2001, but that is not true.

“Women have been at the forefront of social change in that country forever. Unfortunately, they don’t get the media coverage and that’s not the narrative that we hear, but that is the truth, and they will continue to fight,” she said.

“It’s not just about burqas and hijabs. Oh no, it’s much more than that, so much more than that,” Zeweri said.

One woman who attended the International Neighbors meeting wrote a letter expressing her anger at what is happening in Afghanistan and distributed it to attendees. She called out the U.S. government and the United Nations for not doing enough to protect Afghan women and girls.

“Our complaint to the U.S. is how, when the Taliban put Afghanistan in a bad state and seized it, you didn’t help our people and surrendered our homeland to the terrorists,” she wrote. “How did the U.S and the UN believe the Taliban will give the rights of women and girls as well as men are given them? … The [U.S.] and [UN], which always speak for the defense of human rights around the world, why are the people of Afghanistan not human beings?”

She said she wrote the letter because she was so upset at what was happening in her home country and she wanted to share how she is feeling with others and help them understand the crisis. She also wants the U.S. government to guarantee the safety of her brother, who is stuck in Afghanistan, because he fought with the American military.

Zeweri said it’s important for Americans to recognize that Afghans are real people who have goals and aspirations like everyone else, and to disregard xenophobic stereotypes.

“It’s important to really understand that the people you might be helping now are real people; they’re real human beings who are multi-dimensional in their identities. They’re not just people who want short-term aid. These are people who are trying to build long-term futures for themselves who are flawed, resilient, but imperfect. They’re real human beings,” Zeweri said.

Many of the women at the International Neighbors meeting emphasized how this humanitarian crisis is affecting people all over the world and right next door.

“It’s not just people in Afghanistan. This is affecting people in Charlottesville,” one woman said.


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