Afghan Friendship Circle
for Women & Families
IT’S BEEN OVER A YEAR SINCE AFGHANISTAN FELL INTO SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC CRISIS.
A small group in Wyoming has been doing their best to save and support a family including women doctors escape immediate danger — and they need your help.
With community help, the family which includes keeping a family united, have been moved from a perilous situation to a half way point — and now with donations and attention (sometimes in very small amounts) we can help them through the next phase of their journey and into educational programs in the safety of the U.S.A.
Every donation counts - this ongoing work is a perfect example of how each of us can directly impact the lives of others in need.
Please join the Afghan Friendship Circle and "celebrate the good will of mountain people helping each other." says Candra Day, leader of the effort.
To learn more about the people in this amazing story, follow us to learn more, we will be sharing their personal profiles.
To donate via the go lively campaign, click here.
To submit questions or suggestions, please contact us any time.
Thank you for your support!
AIMING TO WORK IN COLLABORATION WITH
It is almost impossible for Afghan people to even move around the world, much less find a new home, unless they have close support. Even for this highly educated family of medical professionals and medical students, it is very difficult to find a place to be in this world today. With the help of the Jackson Hole community and people in our cultural exchange circle, they escaped Afghanistan. They escaped extreme danger and hardships. They have been in Iran since January, trying to obtain the legal elements for the path forward, but the situation is urgent. We are now building a circle of support to help them enter the U.S. to pursue their education and continue their careers.* They have already been accepted to attend the University Of Wyoming. "Our dream is to be able to serve their community and the place we live as doctors, as lawyers and as social advocates, for a brighter future for Afghanistan and the rest of the world."
Alignment With Partners
This Cultural Exchange program includes teamwork with humane immigration and migration partners that respect the dignity and worth of every human being. We see the value of helping each and every family we possibly can.
First through a love of mountain places as our common home - and through the spirit of goodwill towards all - we work to reduce division and support each other.
Each week, we talk about a range of social topics to teach English. This covers subjects of daily life concerns and specific focus on immigration, gender issues and the experience of displacement.
You are invited to join us for these illuminating personal interactions with a family trapped in a pressing issue of our time.
. . .would the baby
Life is Passing
Like water on river and rain on meadow
I am never worried about two days
The day which hasn’t come yet and the day which is already passed.
By B (name changed for security),
written in English
3rd year medical student, age 22
Afghan Friendship Circle
Chapter three: Family's Journey / Escaping from the Taliban
Project Leader Notes: May 29 - November 14, 2022
An Epic Story Of Friendship and Cultural Exchange
Written for our circle of friends that made this happen...
During the long weeks and months of waiting, we did poetry and song exchanges with all the family on ZOOM, both for English practice and for spirit-lifting. As part of these exchanges, B sent us this little poem, written after months of waiting and uncertainty. It evokes resilience, singing "this is how it's done".
This poem was written before the Iranian protests led to government Internet blocks -- now there's rarely enough connection for ZOOM.
From mid-January, when they escaped Afghanistan, to the end of May, we tried five different pathways to get out of Iran. Each attempt represented many hours of effort, much money and weeks or months of waiting to learn whether a door would actually open. As described above in previous chapters, twice we attempted to take the family to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, once to Turkey (with incredible support from an American-owned business in Istanbul), once to India and once to Uzbekistan.
At the end of May, the family was still waiting in Tehran, safe but with high anxiety. The mother, Rahima, was very depressed by the forced idleness. She is a woman who raised six children while working full-time as a surgeon, teaching at the hospital and running her own clinic. Idleness does not sit well with Rahima. She is compelled to be useful.
By June, eight members of the family had been in Iran for six months. They were all studying English, taught by a wonderful volunteer, Ms. Shree. (Hooray!) Shree met with the family on ZOOM several times a week and became a big sister to all of them. It was Shree that started the poetry and song exchanges. They all loved Louis Armstrong singing "It's a Wonderful World." Can you imagine sitting in a small apartment in Tehran, listening to that amazing man? It was pure joy.
There was a daily mountain of paperwork to do for visa applications, travel plans and Iranian visa renewals (difficult!). They applied to the University of Wyoming in June, as well as to the International Language Institute of Massachusetts. Every application required completion of complex forms for ten people. The eldest son, Dr. M, took care of 99% of the paperwork, emails, applications -- as well as strategic decision-making. Both schools required access to a US Embassy for student visas -- non-existent in Iran. They also were once again revising their Humanitarian Parole applications to the U.S. In Wyoming, we helped with all the paperwork and there was ongoing fundraising to keep them safe, housed and moving forward, which we managed to do through the support of many people to the JH Afghan Friendship Circle.
Two family members were in Turkey. The father has a Turkish green card from earlier times and one daughter has a scholarship to study medicine at a prestigious university in Istanbul. They both were able to leave Afghanistan in 2022 and the father stays in Turkey to be closer to this daughter.
Meanwhile, the family continued to wait for word from Uzbekistan. Their agent there told them "one more week" every week for months. It was possible to check a Uzbek government webpage for each name: it said "pending" week after week.
We were also waiting for the birth of the baby! Dr. T and F were expecting a baby in July. Would the baby be born after the Uzbek visas were approved? Would Dr. T be too pregnant to fly? Or would the baby be born in Tehran? Questions and waiting.
In July, there was a sea change.
First of all, to great relief and joy, baby girl was born on July 20th in Tehran. The hospital was very difficult to deal with, and quite frightening for both mother and grandmother (both doctors who knew very well what kind of care to expect), but the baby was released after a few days and taken home to the care of EVERYONE. Papa F was in Afghanistan at the time of the birth, taking care of his ill parents, but he is safely back in Tehran now. I was honored to be invited to give the baby a middle name and, with lots of advice, I chose Aurora, the ancient goddess of the dawn and new beginnings. In Roman mythology, Aurora can turn tears into mountain dew.
Second, Vanessa Boshoff joined Vista 360°'s staff (hooray!) as our new Director of Strategic Partnerships -- and she brought with her the idea of taking the family to Panama. Vanessa and her family lived in Panama for 17 years and she has an extensive network there, including Felipe, our miraculous immigration lawyer who has taken on this family 100%.
Third, after waiting for more than two months for Uzbek visas that never materialized, we decided to withdraw those applications and redirect the money committed to that pathway to focus on Panama. With Felipe's guidance, the process of applying for Panama visas was initiated. Both Vanessa and Shree took on the shared task of applying for tourist visas for people from "restricted countries", never knowing what this would eventually entail. In the end, it required more than four months!
August was an extremely busy month, a roller coaster ride. Baby Aurora and her parents had to travel to Kabul for her passport because the Afghan Embassy in Iran could not be trusted to provide legitimate documents. This was a scary and expensive undertaking. The passport office in Kabul, for just one example, charged them almost 100 times more than the usual cost of passport fee -- it cost almost $3,000 instead of $30. (They also objected to her English middle name and refused to include it on her passport.) While they were in Kabul, staying in a Green Zone guesthouse for safety, flights back to Tehran were cancelled and they had to stay an additional week. We were all greatly relieved when they were able to fly to Tehran.
At the same time, the Iranian visas of four family members were about to expire and the only way to renew with a legitimate Iranian visa was to cross the border into Afghanistan. This was dangerous, expensive and unavoidable. The four included our teenage girl, a daughter-in-law, B, and two sons. Again, flights to Iran were cancelled and they had to wait one more week in the border town. This time, when they were boarding the flight back to Tehran, the Taliban refused to allow B to board the plane. They insisted that she be accompanied by her father, her husband or her brother. The two brothers-in-law that accompanied her were not deemed sufficient male chaperone. B and one of her brother-companions stayed in Afghanistan and the others flew home. After one more terrifying week, the family was able to pay bribes and B was reunited with her family.
A highlight of August was a ZOOM visit with Hal Cannon and Teresa Jordan. Hal's beautiful new song, "Silver Dove" was one of the favorites we shared with the family and they were deeply moved by the chance to meet the songwriter in the digital flesh and have a good conversation about the song. Teresa also created artwork about birds that we were able to share with them and discuss.
On September 16th, the Iranian protests began following the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police. These protests have increased in violence and intensity ever since, to the time of writing this on November 14th. Reports say that 326 people, including 43 minors, have been killed since the protests began and tens of thousands of people have been arrested and are facing public trials and some possible executions. Even the lawyers representing people under arrest are at risk of punishment. When Dr. M was taking certified birth certificates to the courier office, as required by Panama, he and his brother were traveling home in the metro when they encountered a protest in the metro. They were tear gassed along with everyone else on the train. Iran is no longer safe and they go outside as little as possible. Also, the Iranian government is blocking Internet access intermittently and there is no longer enough access to ZOOM so they are more isolated than ever. Sanctions and unrest are also making all day-to-day essentials more expensive.
All through September and October, the superhero team of Shree and Vanessa continued to meet a long list of new requirements from the Panama immigration office. None of these requirements could be met without sponsors outside Iran. For people without partners like our Afghan Friendship Circle, this would be flat out impossible. Each group of five people were required to have a Panamanian sponsor who would vouch for them and maintain a Panama bank balance of $5,000 or more. Even the baby required a sponsor. This was a hurdle, but one of the Afghan Friendship Circle friends was able to recruit a friend of theirs in Panama for the baby's sponsor. Fantastic!
Most challenging was the need for Power of Attorney (POA) forms to allow Felipe to file on their behalf. These POAs needed to be signed, notarized and fingerprinted and, if possible, certified by a Panamanian Consulate. We could not find any direct way to ship these documents from Panama to Iran. No such service. Fortunately, two members of the family are in Istanbul so that became our first destination for POA documents. There, T navigated the Panamanian Consulate to get their two documents signed, notarized and fingerprinted. The other eight documents were carried by a friend to Tehran, where they were translated, signed, notarized and fingerprinted ($100 each). Then another friend carried them back to Istanbul, where they were all combined and sent to Panama. T, our young student in Istanbul, had to travel for hours around Istanbul to find notaries, consulates and a FEDEX.
Here is a typical story about what it's like to apply for a Panama visa for Afghan citizens. When all the POA documents were finally ready to go to Panama (weeks after we began this step of the process), T. took them to the Fedex office that was an hour from her home because we wanted her to use our Fedex account for the shipment. She didn't have enough money ($125) to pay for the shipment. The Fedex office refused to accept our account number, thinking she perhaps stole the number. We then called Fedex repeatedly (in the middle of our night) to try to use a credit card, while T. waited in their office. No, not possible. Then she called her brother in Tehran, who called a friend in Istanbul who came to the FedEx office before it closed and brought T. enough money to send off the package to Panama. Every single step of the process is like this-- inch by inch.
We also worked with the family to apply for Venezuela tourist visas to enable them to leave Iran as soon as possible. Venezuela said no and no again even before they submitted their visa applications. Azerbaijan also closed its borders to Afghans. So we were all resigned that they would have to remain in Iran until the Panama visas can be processed.
As of November 14th, the Panama visa applications are 99% complete and Felipe is ready to file them during this coming week. Then we expect the review process will take 4-6 weeks. If approved, they'll be arriving in Panama by the end of December, RUNNING over to the US Embassy to apply for student visas and, if those are approved, arriving in Laramie by Jan 17th. We're working closely with a wonderful team at UW to be sure that everything is ready for their visa appointments by the middle of December.
We're very hopeful about Panama. It's the best pathway we've had, by far. But we've also learned that the world is almost completely closed to Afghan citizens so we are going to continue to look for other options while we wait. Azerbaijan? It's closed at the moment, but could open again. Armenia?
A thousand thanks to everyone who is helping to make this journey possible.
Afghan Friendship Circle
Chapter two: The Epic Story Continues
Project Leader Notes: May 27, 2022
Dear Friendship Circle,
This is the second chapter in the story of our family's escape from Afghanistan. This is the "long version" — we often publish short updates in our Social Media channels.
The first chapter described how our family was able to leave Afghanistan and arrive in Iran. I wrote this chapter on January 21, 2022 when they were finally all safe in Iran after 4-1/2 months of waiting and hiding. If you would like to receive a further information, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By January 21, 2022, the family of eight people were all safe in Iran, thanks to the Afghan Friendship Circle in Jackson Hole. Without your support, they would, in all likelihood, not have been able to leave.
Two other family members, the father and a daughter, were safe in Turkey.
-- The father, who was in gravest danger from the Taliban, went into hiding in September and fled in December. He was able to enter Turkey because he possesses a Turkish green card. He has a 22-year-history of active opposition to the Taliban.
-- An 18-year old daughter, T, was accepted to a Turkish medical university in Istanbul after Kabul fell to the Taliban, with a full scholarship, so she was able to leave for Tehran with a Turkish student visa. The family is looking forward to being reunited soon.
Our family includes parents and six children and two of the grown children's spouses -- so a total of ten people. The mother is a surgeon, an associate professor of medicine and has worked for more than two decades as an advocate for women's education, women's rights and women's access to low-cost health care. Two of her children are also medical doctors. Two more of the young people are medical students and one has just graduated from medical school. One is a law student. One is just starting university and one is a high school girl.
This family is remarkable. In their extended family in Afghanistan, there are 51 medical doctors and medical students! They had a good life in Afghanistan, productive and happy. They have had to leave everything behind -- many beloved relatives and friends, professions and work, home and security, homeland. They each have only what could fit in a small suitcase -- and no money other than what we can provide. Above all, the mother says she misses being able to work and be useful.
One further note: for some reason, medical doctors are being targeted in Afghanistan for kidnapping and murder. It is unknown whether this is being done by the Taliban or by criminals. Immediately before they left, three doctors from the mother's hospital were kidnapped and one was murdered. So the mother and two of her children were in extreme danger as doctors.
Our family managed to leave in two groups in January. Before they left, the Taliban had come to their home and detained the eldest son to question him about his father, but they released himand he was able to leave the country before the Taliban returned. The mom and three of her children hid under blankets in the car of a hired driver to cross the border. Once in Iran, with one-month visas, they were, at last, safe.
They rented an apartment in Tehran, with the help of our Friendship Circle, and began the process of trying to leave before their Iranian visas ran out. If they are stuck in Iran without visas, they are at risk of deportation back to Afghanistan and are not allowed to board any airplane.
There are an estimated 500,000 Afghan refugees in Iran today who arrived in 2021 and 2022. A definite number is impossible to determine because there is no way for refugees to register in Iran. As a result of this enormous number of people trying to find a place to go, it is not possible to apply for most visas in Iran within a one-month window. For most embassies in Tehran, there is at least a four-month waiting list for appointments -- and even then, it is very difficult for Afghan citizens to be approved. There is no U.S. Embassy and no United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR) services.
So we looked for countries that our family would be allowed to enter without a visa. There is a VERY short list. Most of the world is closed to Afghan refugees without visas. There were about a dozen small countries in this category, mostly in Africa or small island nations. We chose St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Caribbean) as our destination.
We contacted St. Vincent and found a kind woman in the Prime Minister's office who provided us with an official letter stating that no visas would be required for them to enter the country for 90 days. After 90 days, we were not sure what would be our next step.
We purchased tickets for ten people on Turkish Air, transferring to Lufthansa in Frankfurt and again in Barbados. The tickets were scheduled for two days before the expiration of their Iranian visas. We even rented a little house in St. Vincent for a few days of rest. We checked if they needed visas for Germany and the German government Internet site said that Frankfurt was OK for changing planes for citizens of all countries.
However, when the family showed up at the airport for a 2:AM flight, they were denied boarding passes. They were told that they must have transit visas for Germany even though they would only be there for 45 minutes and always in a secure area. We frantically changed the ticket dates from February 26 to March 10 and extended the Iranian visas until March 10th. This one extension was allowed.
Then we tried, in every way we could think of, to obtain transit visas for both Germany and Barbados. We contacted embassies in Tehran, we worked with immigration lawyers and travel agents, we even called the German Federal Police to ask why the Internet told us one thing and the Turkish Air gate manager told us another. Frantic, crazy ten days, looking at every route to St. Vincent that we could think of. Virtually every country, every airport, required transit visas for Afghan citizens.
We learned that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention (and its 1967 protocol) allows refugees to claim asylum status if they set foot inside a country. This is true even in secure transit conditions in an international airport. For this reason, almost every country on earth will not allow Afghan citizens to transit through their airports. We discovered that Afghanistan is almost always on the list of countries whose citizens must have transit visas for their complete itinerary in order toboard a plane -- especially in 2022.
In the end, we came to the conclusion that it was impossible to fly through Frankfurt or any other European or North American airport to reach St. Vincent. Now we had until March 10th to find another way.
We began to look for countries that have never signed the UN Refugee Convention and so are not subject to asylum claims. We discovered that Venezuela had never signed the Convention and even had an Embassy in Tehran. The Venezuela Embassy was not swamped with refugee requests -- there are thousands of Venezuelans who are leaving that poor country as refugees themselves -- and the kind man agreed to give us transit visas. And amazing! Turkish Air had a direct flight from Istanbul to Venezuela and we could pick up the other two family members in Istanbul on the way.
The next challenge was how to get from Venezuela to St. Vincent. Although the two countries are geographically close, there are no direct flights and all indirect flights required a transit visa for Afghan citizens. We did find a direct flight to Dominican Republic, which seemed to have flexible policies. With the help of wonderful people at the Dominican Consulate in San Francisco, we were able to get permission to transit there for two hours.
Now we had to get from Dominican Republic to St. Vincent and there are no direct flights. Barbados had already told us NO NO yes NO AGAIN. Then we had a true-blue miracle. A pilot friend (born and raised in Jackson Hole) contacted all of his connections in the world of private planes and was able to find someone with planes in the Caribbean who was willing to fly the family to St. Vincent from the Dominican Republic at no charge! Two planes were required, but they efficiently arranged for that. We had private planes all set to take us to St. Vincent and the letter from the Prime Minister's office stating that the family would be allowed to enter.
We bought tickets for March 8th from Tehran to Caracas, from Caracas to Santo Domingo. We rented another small house in St. Vincent.
Once again, the family went to the airport in the middle of the night and once again they were denied boarding passes. They waited for six hours -- no chance. It was the same Turkish Air employee, Mr. Ghareb - night shift manager. This time he gave them a completely bogus reason -- that multiple entry visas to Iran were required to board the plane just in case they were deported. This explanation is completely illegal -- Afghans cannot obtain multiple entry visas to Iran, it was the middle of the night and if the family was deported, they would be deported to Afghanistan, not Iran. Never mind. They were not allowed on the plane.
We had to call the private planes and tell them we couldn't come.
The next day, we heard from St. Vincent's Prime Minister's office that they had changed their rules and Afghan citizens were no longer allowed to enter St. Vincent without a visa. They apparently were pressured to change the rules by the government of neighboring Barbados, who warned them about the dangers of welcoming refugees. We called and begged them to give us (one family) a chance to enter before they changed the rules, but they said NO NO NO.
The kind lady we had been working with in St. Vincent told us she was so, so sorry. When we cancelled the reservation for the house, the landlady was very sorry, too.
At this point, the family had been waiting in Iran for almost two months. Their visas were expiring. Dr. M., the eldest son, was able to find a way to buy a three-month "final final" extension -- but this, too, was crazy. The person who was providing the visa stamp extension told Dr. M. to give him all the passports, but Dr. M. insisted on coming with him and keeping his passports. As they were walking down the street toward the government offices, Dr. M. watched as his contact was approached by police and taken away! Dr. M. turned and went home, but they came close to losing their passports that day.
Later, this same man was released and provided them with Iranian visa extensions. The family now had until mid-June to leave Iran.
At this point, the family was very worried and depressed and they all sorely missed having something productive to do. They were slowly becoming hopeless. They applied for visas to India (at a bribery cost of $3,000 per person) and were told that the visas were approved, but then a holiday occurred (Nawruz, the Persian New Year) and all embassies closed. When the India Embassy opened after the holiday, they had closed the country to all Afghan citizens. Next they arranged for 90-day visas into Tajikistan at the same cost of $3,000 per person (bribes for legitimate visas) and again, when they were ready to go, Tajikistan closed its doors to all Afghan citizens. This money for visas was possible because of the Jackson Hole Afghan Friendship Fund.
On the street, talking to other Afghans, they heard about ways to cross into Turkey or other countries illegally, but this was extremely dangerous and also carried other risks. Even if they succeeded in crossing a border, they would not have legal status and it would be much more difficult to apply for going onward to the U.S. One of the daughters is pregnant (due in July!) and all the women would be vulnerable. They also very much want to continue to have legal standing in the world. They had already risked a great deal to maintain their legal standing. They also didn't want anything at all to do with human traffickers and their evil world. They made a family decision not to do this.
They really didn't know what to do next. The only option was to continue to try to apply for other visas -- possibly to Azerbaijan. All these options were frightening because these visas were for 30 days or 90 days and then, again, they would be subject to deportation back to Afghanistan.
Then a second miracle occurred. A man, P, who is closely connected to Jackson Hole heard about this family and contacted us. He told us that he wanted to help. Because of his business interests in Turkey and his contacts with high levels of Turkish government, he offered workvisas to Turkey for the family. He offered to provide a financial guarantee for the whole family -- that he was financially responsible for them -- and he offered them REAL JOBS! This was incredible. The plan was to stay in Turkey and work and make a life while they applied for U.S. and Canadian entry, which could take months or even years. And, of course, they could also be reunited as a family.
P carried out extensive paperwork to make these applications to the Turkish government and did his best to rally support from government officials. The Turkish government had one requirement after another, but he was able to jump through all these hoops with the help of his staff in Istanbul. At last, he was told that his applications for all ten people had been ratified and sent to the Turkish Embassy in Tehran. The family would soon be notified to come to an appointment.
The family had now been waiting in Tehran for four months.
The clock on the Iranian visas was ticking and Dr. M. was told that they could not be extended. The family waited with great anxiety. Would the Turkish visas come through before the Iranian visas expired? P did everything he could do to expedite the process, but in Tehran the Turkish Embassy was still dealing with thousands and thousands of cases. The only option was to wait.
Through a relative in Uzbekistan, the family was told that they could purchase one-year visas into Uzbekistan for $4,800 per person (the cost of bribes), but they would have to decide immediately or this opportunity would be offered to another family. The Afghan Friendship Fund didn't have enough money to pay this much per person, although we recognized that $4,800 per person is not too high a price for a person's life and future. The Uzbek visas would take 3-4 weeks to process so they had to make a decision 3-4 weeks before the expiration of their visas in Iran.
That day arrived and still no word from the Turkish Embassy, which was still by far their best option. On that same day, my brother (knowing nothing about this situation) contacted me and offered to make a large contribution to the Afghan Friendship Fund. Miracle #3. We suddenly had enough money to go to Uzbekistan.
Last Sunday, we decided to say yes to Uzbekistan and the family is now waiting for those visas to come through. We are also still waiting for Turkey -- and when those visas come through, they will go on to Turkey.
In the meantime, they will be safe in Uzbekistan, Mom has tentatively been offered a job in a hospital and other family members may also be able to find a work. There is a U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan and we can finally begin to apply for U.S. entry. There is a Turkish Embassy in Uzbekistan that is not overwhelmed by thousands of applicants. We are applying this week to an English Language school for university students in Massachusetts -- and we'll be able to apply for other visa programs as well. With great good luck, they'll be able to enroll in English Language school in August.
As I write, the family is in Tehran, waiting for the Uzbek visas. They have placed the visa payment in trust and it won't be paid to the final recipients (presumably government officials) until they are safely arrived in Uzbekistan. We all have our fingers and toes crossed. The visas have been promised by June 5th.
Next steps: First, we're raising money for airplane tickets to fly from Tehran to Tashkent. Thefamily is also trying to sell their house in Afghanistan (who knows if this will be possible) and a relative who owes them money is promising that he can repay the loan when they arrive in Uzbekistan so they'll have some resources of their own.
Of course, like most people, it is very stressful for this family to be dependent on all of us, feeling helpless and with no resources of their own. They keep telling me they will repay us, but I tell them we are fortunate to have this opportunity to do something positive.
One morale of this story is that this wonderful family is very fortunate to have a sponsor. Their journey would not be possible without the help of all of us, even for amazingly resourceful, resilient people. It would be quite a different story.
Another morale of this story is the enormous kindness of people who have contributed. There's been an overflowing of generosity and offers to help from people in Jackson and beyond. From participating in this experience, I know that there are thousands of people helping Afghan families, one by one, all over the world -- outside of the formal organizations. When you take into consideration that we are just one circle of friends helping one family, the enormous kindness of people is truly heartening.
And another morale of this story -- SO MANY MIRACLES, JUST IN TIME.
Thank you all for making this life-saving project possible.
We do have English Conversation classes with the whole family on ZOOM once a week, as much to distract them and cheer them up as to practice English. Our pre-arranged topics, chosen by them, have ranged from poetry to memories to immigration to a debate about "which gender is more beneficial to society." (Women won that one because of the importance and love ofmothers.)
If you ever want to join one of these amazing conversations on ZOOM, you would be more than welcome. It's really a wonderful experience.
Afghan Friendship Circle
Chapter one: Urgent escape / It started with a cowboy hat . . .
Project Leader Notes: Jan. 21, 2022
An Epic Story Of Friendship and Cultural Exchange
Written for our circle of friends that made this happen...
In early September of 2021, when the news was full of stories about the chaos in Afghanistan, I received an email from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan. It was from someone I had met five years earlier as part of a cultural exchange program. Mr. T wrote that he and his family were in immediate danger from the Taliban and could I help them get out of Afghanistan.
I replied that I had no idea how to help and didn't he know anyone else who might have more knowledge, experience or connections. He said no, I was the only person he knew. With trepidation, I said yes, I would try. More than four months later, the last member of the family escaped Afghanistan and they are now all safe at last, but just beginning their journey to a new home and a future.
In the process, I learned that there are hundreds (probably thousands) of informal networks -- people of good will with no official standing -- all across the U.S. and Europe who are helping Afghan families escape to safety, one or two families at a time. This story is just one example of a positive humanitarian movement that is almost invisible in the press, carried out by people from all walks of life who are overjoyed to be able to do something personal and meaningful to help.
This is the story of how this happened:
This story begins with a cowboy hat.
Vista 360° is a Jackson Hole based non-profit that has done cultural exchange and sports diplomacy programs in Central Asia for fifteen years. One of our favorite exchanges has been connecting Wyoming cowboys with the nomads of Central Asia, supported by the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. This led to an invitation from the Embassy in 2016 to form a U.S. team of cowboy horsemen to play the traditional horse game of kok boru at the World Nomad Games. This game is also played in Afghanistan and is called buzkashi there. We said yes! and our team has since returned several more times to play in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. (Four players are going to Kyrgyzstan for the President's Cup in March.)
At that first World Nomad Games, there was a ceremonial banquet and gift exchanges between the teams representing fourteen countries from around the world. As the manager of the official U.S. team, I gave a cowboy hat to the director of the Afghan team, along with my business card. That man was Mr. T. Five years later, he emailed me asking for help.
Before fleeing the Taliban, Mr. T. and his family lived in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city with beautiful Islamic architecture in northern Afghanistan, close to the border with Uzbekistan. Mr. T was a great buzkashi player in his day and now served as the Director of the National Traditional Sports and Buzkashi Federation of Afghanistan. His wife, Rahima, is a surgeon and assistant professor at a teaching hospital where she has practiced for 35 years. Three of their children (including spouses) are now doctors, including two women. Three are currently in medical school, including two women. One is in his last year of law school. Their youngest daughter is 16 years old and could no longer attend school when the Taliban took over. Rahima, the mother, has been a champion for women's education all her life.
When the Taliban took over, this family was in immediate danger for three reasons.
The first reason is that the Taliban had banned buzkashi as an immoral activity. (There's a long and fascinating story about the relationship between buzkashi and national politics, for another time.)
The second reason is that Mr. T had fought against the Taliban twenty years ago, was forced into exile at that time and his brothers were arrested and tortured when the Taliban were looking for him. He is a known opponent of the Taliban and has been an active, leading member of a political party that is strongly opposed to the Taliban.
The third reason is that doctors are being targeted in Afghanistan. During the past few months, two of the mother's colleagues at the hospital , all prominent doctors like herself, have been kidnapped and one has been murdered. It is unknown if these are acts of the Taliban, of ISIS or of criminals seeking ransom. Nevertheless, this targeting of doctors is taking place all over the country.
I began by calling someone I had met during a Vista 360° cultural exchange trip to Afghanistan in 2011. Chris was a long-term State Department diplomat who was our designated liaison in Afghanistan. We had kept in touch over the years a bit. When I called, he told me that he was retired, but that he was also trying to help another family and that he would introduce me to Rose. Rose was trying to get people seats on the last planes leaving the country.
Rose was Chris' family friend and had no more experience than I had. But she was a member of a military family -- her husband is a career Marine and her daughter is a student at West Point. (Veterans have been extremely active in helping to evacuate Afghan citizens, especially people who worked with them. They've accomplished many miracles.) Rose woke up one morning and realized that she had to help. So, using her military network, she made contact with several Americans in Afghanistan who were involved in deciding who could get on a plane. When I contacted her, she was working 14-hour days trying to find seats for families who had contacted her. She told me yes! she would try to find seats for Mr. T's family, too.
There followed weeks of "almost" and "not quite yet", including visiting a hotel in Mazar-i-Sharif where the manager secretly kept a list of people who were approved for a seat on an American or Allied plane. Mr. T's name was supposed to be on the list, but the manager's list didn't include him. Finally, we had to give up getting on a plane and had to look for another avenue. It was heartbreaking and frightening for the family.
That week, despite vaccinations, everyone in the family came down with Covid.
Mr. T. left his family and went into hiding. His son, Dr. Milad, became my primary contact. Fortunately, Dr. Milad speaks five languages, including English. Dr. Milad learned that it was possible to purchase visas into Uzbekistan for $1,750 each. I told him that I would try to raise the $17,500 that was needed for visas for his family of ten. (This is two parents, six children and two spouses of grown children.) I contacted everyone I could locate who has been involved in Vista 360°'s cultural exchange program over the past fifteen years and, most wonderfully, we were able to raise that amount of money in a matter of a few days. One large gift made a huge difference. The Wyoming Quakers also pitched in immediately and generously.
The next daunting challenge was how to transfer this money to Afghanistan. All banks in the country were closed, no money wires were possible and Western Union refused to send money to Afghanistan or to Turkey, where Dr. Malid had contacts. I begged them on the phone, to no avail. What to do? Through Polina, who is a Russian-Kyrgyz woman who works for Vista 360°, I happened to know a remarkable man who is an Afghan living in Uzbekistan and who is well-connected around the globe. Polina helped me to email him to ask for advice.
It was then I learned about the incredible ancient Muslim system of transferring money, called hawala. It is based on trust and relationships. Cash money is given to someone in one place and it is delivered to his partner anywhere in the world, usually within hours. The U.S. government doesn't like hawala because they believe it is sometimes used for illegal purposes, but it is commonly used every day all over the Islamic world. My friend told me, "No problem." He would take care of it.
And he did, very quickly. He put me in touch with someone in California who would transfer the money to Afghanistan, but we needed to use only cash. He told me not to worry, everyone could be trusted. Within 24 hours, two of my friends in California helped me draw cash out from several of their bank accounts and sent them a check to repay. More friends in California, brave souls, delivered the cash to a young man who worked at a used car lot in a town an hour from San Francisco. He was answering the phone and picking his kids up from school when they arrived, but he was able to take a few minutes to greet them and accept the money, very casually and informally. Two days later, it was delivered in cash to Dr. Malid.
All this took place in the middle of pure chaos in Afghanistan. Thank you, hawala.
Dr. Malid purchased the visas, but the Uzbek Consulate never opened and the border never opened so the visas could not be stamped or used. The Uzbekistan government said they would open soon so again, the family began to wait. They waited several weeks, but there was no change. Mr. T., the father, could wait no longer. Danger to him was increasing and he was able to escape to Turkey because he alone had entry papers to Turkey. Dr. Malid , who is 25, was now responsible for his family.
Meanwhile, while the family was still hoping to get on a plane, I needed legal advice about how to apply for entry for Afghan refugees into the U.S. I asked my niece, Lena, who grew up in Jackson and is now an immigration lawyer. She gave me the name of an immigration friend of her's who immediately sent me to an information webinar that was taking place the next day and to an immigration lawyer in Boston, Khanbabai Immigration Law, who is specializing in assisting Afghan refugee. Mahsa Khanbabai immediately said yes! and told me I could pay her modest fee whenever. We began the process of filing for a Humanitarian Parole entry that is atemporary status that is being used for Afghan citizens to allow them to enter the country and apply for asylum or other visas. The filing fee is $550 per person so we also sent her $5,500 from the money we raised from the Vista 360° cultural exchange circle. She advised us that we shouldn't apply until everyone was out of Afghanistan. We are now submitting those applications, at last.
They say that the Afghan passport is now the worst passport in the world. Very few countries are allowing Afghan refugees to even apply for visas. At the moment, Dr. Malid told me that a black-market visa for an Afghan citizen to enter Turkey would cost $5,000 each.
We waited for more than a month for the Uzbek border to open. We were told "any day, any day", but it still is not open to Afghan people, only commercial traffic.
While we waited, the situation was getting more and more tense, especially for doctors. All around the country, while the misery and deprivation of the general population increased, doctors were being targeted for kidnapping and murder. Two doctors from Rahima's hospital were kidnapped, but later released. One was a neighbor as well as a colleague. One doctor from her hospital was kidnapped and killed. No one knows if the Taliban are involved in this attack on doctors. They deny involvement. It might be ISIS, in an attempt to further destabilize the country. It might be criminals seeking ransoms because law enforcement is almost non-existent.
We decided to give up on Uzbekistan and try to escape into Iran. The Uzbek Embassy friendwho had provided the Uzbek visas returned the money and Dr. Malid began to seek out a path to visas in Iran. He found that he could purchase visas and began the process.
One daughter was accepted into medical school with a full scholarship in Istanbul. She was able to get a visa and flew to Turkey.
Then an Afghan journalist, who was living in Sweden under the protection of a program for threatened journalists, widely posted a photograph on Afghan social media and in the Afghan press of a group of Afghan men in exile in Turkey who are opposed to the Taliban. Mr. T. was in the photo. Within a day, the Taliban arrived at their home and began a three-day interrogation process concerning Mr. T's whereabouts and activities. They also arrested the oldest son, Dr. M., for one day, but he was allowed to go home. After the Taliban were done (and I don't yet know the details about this interrogation), the Taliban said they would be back soon.
The family began to leave the next day. Four of them went to the Iranian border and waited for the visas and were able to cross the border and travel to Tehran. A week later the rest of them left home, telling neighbors that they were going to Kabul for medical care, and arrived at the border, where they had to wait for their visas and find a way to get past the Taliban checkpoint without being identified. With the help of friendly driver, they were able to hide from the checkpoint and now the family is reunited in Tehran.
More than fifty people in the U.S., each contributing in a unique way, made this possible. They could not have left otherwise.
We are all enormously relieved because now they are all safe. But this is just the beginning of the journey for this family. They next have to find a country that will allow them to enter while they wait for the U.S. processing of their applications. The State Department calls these "lily pad" countries.
There are just a few "lily pad" possibilities for our family. We are applying to Albania, which has been exceptionally helpful to Afghan families, mostly professional, who are waiting for U.S. processing. (The Afghan Futures Fund, supported by influential people in the U.S. financial industry, are helping the Albanian government. The network of help is very diverse and multi-layered.) We are applying to Canada, but chances are slim. Their process mostly allows people who worked with the Canadian military or who have immediate family in Canada. We are seeking private sponsorship there. We are applying for Qatar and United Arab Republic, but costs of living there will be extremely high. We are thinking about St. Vincent and the Grenadines, one of the few countries in the world that doesn't require any visa. We are thinking about St. Lucia, close to St. Vincent, which might allow Afghans. We are continuing to seek out other possibilities.
They are only allowed to stay in Iran until the end of February.
Rahima, Dr. Malid and their family have now rented an apartment outside Tehran for $700/month. They have enough money left for one month. They need to leave Iran as soon as possible. They will not be allowed to get on any airplane, to anywhere, after their Iranian visas expire.