Rich McKinlessAugust 20, 2021

What would you do if armed men broke into your home tonight, dragged your husband or grown son into the street, and had them publicly executed—solely for perfectly legal work he had performed to support your family? Suppose instead that these armed men demanded that your unmarried daughter immediately be turned over to them, soon to be offered to a jihadist in forced marriage, likely never to be seen again?

If you cannot imagine such scenes in your home, by all means offer a prayer of thanksgiving that such excruciating circumstances just don’t happen where you live. You might also consider not waiting until next Veterans Day to say thank you to a veteran or a soldier now serving—those who have willingly risked harm’s way to safeguard the sense of personal security many of us simply take for granted.

Sadly, scenes such as those I described are taking place in Afghanistan and are reliably expected to continue with increasing frequency in the months to come. The question I grapple with today is no longer how or even why this can be happening. It is a bit simpler: What’s a Christian to do?

Welcoming the stranger

My wife and I live very comfortably in the Virginia suburbs just outside Washington. But the events now making daily headlines as civil society collapses in Afghanistan in the vacuum left by the departing U.S. military nonetheless feel different for my family than perhaps they do for many Americans. I am of course thankful that I need not be terrified that my spouse or child may suddenly be taken from our home in the middle of the night. But knowing that this is in fact happening to other families, even halfway around the world, is now personal, in a different way.

The question I grapple with today is no longer how or even why this can be happening. It is a bit simpler: What’s a Christian to do?

Six years ago, the U.S. insurgency into Afghanistan was already 14 years long. Most Americans had more personally pressing matters occupying their attention. While international terrorism had by no means gone away, with Osama bin Laden gone, incidents of terror had moved to the background of American consciousness, no longer atop any poll of public concerns. That would certainly be true for my family as well.

At that same time, our local Catholic Charities began to share volunteer opportunities to assist families from Afghanistan attempting to resettle in the D.C. area. This was when my wife and I first learned of the Special Immigrant Visa program, approved by Congress in 2009. Its goal was to encourage the local Afghan population to assist the U.S. military in its community and infrastructure rebuilding during the conflict. The explicit promise was that those who worked with our armed forces as interpreters and in other essential support roles could apply for a permanent U.S. work visa (or green card) if they faced serious threats as a result of their work. Approval of such applications required written recommendations from their supervisory U.S. personnel and the successful completion of a series of security clearances conducted by our in-country embassy staff.

Migration and Refugee Services is a program of Catholic Charities nationally and is very active in the Diocese of Arlington where we live. It serves as one of the federal government’s contract providers assisting S.I.V. families who resettle in the D.C. area. When we asked how we might help, one simple answer came in learning that families may have no place to sleep upon arrival. Our State Department provides S.I.V. immigrants (as it does for others admitted as refugees) a resettlement allowance of a few thousand dollars, based mostly on family size. The allowance is intended to defray the startup costs of finding a place to live and other living expenses while gainful employment is sought. We learned from the Catholic Charities staff that these allowances disappear very quickly if the family has no local sponsor family to stay with initially, given the cost of commercial lodging in our major cities.

Abdul qualified for the S.I.V. program because he had worked in one of the most dangerous of support roles: joining U.S. Army teams to find undetonated roadside bombs intended for coalition soldiers.

My wife and I agreed to host an arriving S.I.V. Afghan family while they looked for work and a lease for a small apartment. Abdul and his wife Fatima arrived at Dulles Airport with three beautiful young children, ages 5, 3 and a newborn. (Names have been change to protect the subjects and their families.) Abdul qualified for the S.I.V. program because he had worked in one of the most dangerous support roles: joining U.S. Army teams to locate undetonated roadside bombs—improvised explosive devices—intended for coalition soldiers. His excellent English allowed Abdul to reach out to trusted locals regarding recent activities of jihadist groups and then share gathered intelligence with bomb disposal teams.

Most roadside I.E.D.s are set off remotely by cell phone once coalition troops or their local “collaborators” are close by. Taliban sympathizers were not always identifiable, even by locals. Efforts to disarm the devices always risked life and limb. For those like Abdul, the daily risk did not end with successful bomb disposal. Helping Americans disarm the Taliban was a heresy beyond simply taking a security or clerical job at a U.S. military base. If he were caught, his demise would not be quick or painless.

We hosted a second S.I.V. family the following year, in 2016. Sayed and his wife, Mina, were newly married when their approved visa came through from the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Sayed was a licensed physician in Afghanistan and had agreed to provide health care at a clinic set up by the U.S. Army in a village lacking any medical facilities.

Helping Americans disarm the Taliban was a heresy beyond simply taking a security or clerical job at a U.S. military base. If he were caught, his demise would not be quick or painless.

For bureaucratic reasons that could never be defended, the average approval time for a successful S.I.V. application now exceeds three years. If your green card eventually comes through, you are advised to board the first flight you are able to book to the United States. In this case, that meant the couple said goodbye to their extended families (both are one of nine siblings) just three days after they were married. 

Both families that we hosted found apartments and work within the first few months following their arrival in Northern Virginia. We have kept in touch, and one of our joys has been watching our own adult children seek out spending time with these wonderful families. They have been self-supporting, even throughout the pandemic that saw so many Americans lose their jobs. 

Abdul and Fatima welcomed their fourth child a year ago, and their two oldest are looking forward to in-person school beginning this week. Abdul is now completing a certification program in cybersecurity, which he expects will enhance his own professional opportunities significantly. Sayed and Mina started a family of their own since their arrival; they now have a daughter and son who they quite proudly remind us are full American citizens. Sayed, who continues to take classes to improve his English, recently moved from driving for a food delivery service to a full-time position as a medical technician at a major local hospital. Mina works from their home as a beautician while juggling responsibility for the kids and attending an evening cosmetology certification program after her husband arrives home from work.

These families are thriving by any measure—including facing and managing the struggles that nearly all newcomers to any country face.

These families are thriving by any measure—including facing and managing the struggles that nearly all newcomers to any country face. What impresses me most is not how hard they have worked, or even how much they genuinely appreciate America’s freedoms. For me it is the courage it took for these young couples to leave behind their large and very close extended families, fully understanding they might never see them again. All to move halfway around the world to a place where they knew nearly no one. It surely takes some level of personal courage to start over with nothing while leaving everyone and everything you know behind.

I must balance this admiration with the knowledge that they also feared for their lives if they didn’t leave. They knew others who tried and did not make it.

Those left behind

Fast forward to this week. We heard from both families as the images of desperation from their country appeared on everyone’s TVs, laptops and smartphones. They watched in horror as the Taliban entered Kabul, the U.S. embassy was evacuated and tens of thousands fled toward the airport—where, for most, their slim hopes of a quick escape to any refuge were dashed.

Our Afghan friends now experience a personal terror all over again: for the family members they left behind. They don’t understand how the country that may have literally saved their lives has now seemingly given up on everyone else still in Afghanistan. They don’t care about our politics, for the most part—they just want their loved ones to survive. They are, of course, Muslim by faith and culture—but reject everything the Taliban represents, most of all the jihadist philosophy of intolerance toward all those who oppose their conception of the faith.

Our Afghan friends now experience a personal terror all over again: for the family members they left behind.

We have just learned that Abdul’s brother also worked with the U.S. Army on “U.X.B.s”—unexploded bombs. Unlike Abdul, he wasn’t sure about leaving his native country, the ongoing danger notwithstanding. He waited until 2018 before applying for S.I.V. status. Abdul told us his brother’s paperwork was “99 percent complete” when Kabul fell. His brother now knows there will be no more green cards coming from our embassy in Kabul. He went into hiding when the Taliban entered the capital, leaving his wife and three young children at home alone in the city. He knows that Taliban fighters have little use for married women or their young children. If the family has no valuable possessions, they are likely to be left alone. The father, on the other hand, would not survive if found and identified.

Fatima’s brother worked in a less dangerous job for the U.S. embassy, which hired many locals during the conflict to work as translators as well as in security positions, clerical jobs and other roles in Kabul. He too finds himself now an unapproved S.I.V. applicant, fearing each day he may be identified, awaiting a safe way out that may never come.

Mina’s mother and 17-year-old sister live in a northern province of Afghanistan, two days by bus from Kabul. Last month, they had fled to the capital when the city appeared to be the last safe haven, knowing they would have a place to stay with their in-laws. They have now chosen to flee back to their home village, where they hope the Taliban will have less interest. While an elderly widow is probably safe, an unmarried teenage girl, sadly, is the most attractive of targets.

What can be done?

News-loving Americans have no shortage of heart-wrenching stories from around the world. The 24-hour news cycle combined with our mobile phone addictions guarantees us access to any and all places where civil order is broken, public corruption is rampant, or natural disaster has decimated communities. It really can become numbing. Our natural compassion for people in such terrible plights can begin to give way to feelings of hopelessness—or at least that things are beyond our reach to make a difference. 
 
For those of us in mostly safe neighborhoods and climate-controlled worlds, Covid-19 may have been the most unnerving threat we have experienced in years. For me and my family, Afghanistan is not just on the front pages, one more distant problem we really can’t do anything about. It isn’t the same when the anxiety, and even terror, is experienced by your friends—not anonymous victims in your news feed. Of course, my second-order connection to these victims doesn’t mean I have any more answers. 

For me and my family, Afghanistan is not one more distant problem we really can’t do anything about. It isn’t the same when the anxiety, and even terror, is experienced by your friends.
 
Reports in The Washington Post estimate that there may be over 80,000 eligible S.I.V. applicants (including their spouses and minor children) still in Afghanistan. As of this writing, U.S. forces control the airport perimeter outside Kabul but essentially no other territory in the country. We are told our government is still assessing how to facilitate safe passage from the city, and hopefully the outer provinces, with the Taliban. Time will tell how many of those eligible are able to emigrate and realize the opportunity our friends were given. It seems clear many are certain to be left behind—or will not survive the wait.
 
Our government’s policy decisions made (and not made) over four different presidential administrations will be debated for years to come. Political finger-pointing remains a favorite pastime inside the D.C. beltway. It does nothing for our friends’ family members, or the tens of thousands of others in now trapped in potentially lethal circumstances. 
 
There seems to be broad agreement that America owes those who stood with us in Afghanistan at least our protection, if not a new life here. But the reality for even those who care is that most of us have no way to help any evacuation effort now underway or to influence how extensive it will be.

Political finger-pointing remains a favorite pastime inside the D.C. beltway. It does nothing for our friends’ family members.
 
But this cannot be just one more international crisis from which we move on as the news cycle rolls on, concluding we just can’t make any difference. There in fact may be little any of us can do to change the fate of those who are ultimately left behind. But thousands will get out. Those who do come to America will soon face the daunting challenges that immigrants have always faced in a strange new land. Most every American can and should do something for them. Just three ideas:

Remember: Your own family first came to this country from a foreign place, likely leaving hardships behind, willingly coming to a strange land that promised them little more than the freedom to start over.

Learn: Who in your city or town works with S.I.V. refugees? The need for these services is about to explode. One well-regarded nonprofit dedicated solely to this effort is No One Left Behind, founded by a retired U.S. Army captain and his former Afghan interpreter. They play a coordinating role with other N.G.O.s around the country that assist in resettlement efforts at the community level.

There are currently nine umbrella social service organizations (including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) designated by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to provide direct assistance to S.I.V. families in finding places to live, securing jobs, enrolling their kids in school, or even finding used furniture or shopping for a used car. 

Local parishes and other faith communities are now “adopting” one or more refugee families to help play these support roles. Find out what is already happening in your area.
 
These arriving families are brave, and they are willing to work. But they don’t know how our society works or how to figure it out on their own. Local parishes and other faith communities are now “adopting” one or more refugee families to help play these support roles. Find out what is already happening in your area.  
 
Share: Most S.I.V. arrivals choose to resettle in large U.S. cities, where they believe they will more readily find work and perhaps others from their home country who may have recently resettled. If you are not in one of these larger metropolitan areas, consider supporting one of the charitable groups that are meeting their needs. These nonprofits have learned what the barriers to success are for these families, and how to leverage existing community networks effectively. Demands for services from these organizations will grow dramatically in the months and years to come. Help in that way if you are able.

Keeping our promises

For me, Afghanistan is not at all about the larger ongoing debate regarding U.S. immigration policy. Those challenges need addressing, to be sure. But no matter how welcoming a country we choose to be, America cannot invite everyone inside our borders who would rather be here than where they find themselves. Pray for all who face hunger, political instability or economic deprivation. We know they deserve better.

Those who end up getting out will be very fortunate. Many deserve recognition as heroes for what they did, with so little promised in return.

This situation is different: Our country made a promise to the people of Afghanistan when we invaded their country to remove Osama bin Laden, disable Al Qaeda and degrade safe havens for radical Islamists. We told the Afghan people: Work with us. We will help you create a democracy of your own—this is your child’s chance for a better life. Whether that was ever a realistic promise, we did make it, and our presence there for 20 years meant most Afghans came to believe that we really meant it.

Historians and foreign policy experts can argue whether different policy choices would have led to better outcomes. What I will not leave to those experts is the moral judgment that our country’s promise must still mean something. Even if we have given up on building democracy in Afghanistan, leaving behind those who trusted us and risked everything to do so should be wholly unacceptable.

Those who end up getting out will be very fortunate. Many deserve recognition as heroes for what they did, with so little promised in return. It is time for Americans to do all we can to treat them accordingly.

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