Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series across AmeriForce Media publications. Part one focused on one Guard unit’s deployment to Afghanistan.
In one family alone, the Taliban murdered a husband in front of his wife – his body not returned for 20 hours – another was stabbed, and there’s the ever-present fear of death.
This is daily life for the relatives of Wasim, an Afghan currently studying at the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Command and General Staff College (CGSC).
But Wasim, who spoke to AmeriForce Media under a pseudonym to protect family still in Afghanistan, was able to get his wife and daughter into the U.S.
Seth Middleton, a retired Army veteran who teaches at CGSC, helped Wasim, whose affiliation with the U.S. military has made their situation in Afghanistan all the more pressing.
“He tried to find a solution, or found contact with other people, to find a way to bring – or to help my family – bring them out of Afghanistan,” said Wasim, who also has family members with military backgrounds.
Through Operation Recovery, Middleton has been assisting at-risk families in Afghanistan with securing paperwork and status to enter the U.S. It’s difficult, he said, to work through the “slow process” knowing what’s at stake for those still in Afghanistan.
He deployed to Afghanistan twice – once as a reservist and once on active duty – as a civil affairs officer.
“There are multiple cases where people have been kidnapped, killed, imprisoned or threatened,” he said. “So while progress is ongoing here in the United States slowly, for them, it’s a race against time. It’s the most pressing thing. It’s really a matter of life and death.”
Working in a ‘sphere of influence’
Because he was promoting U.S. policy through relationship building during his Afghanistan deployment, Middleton said he developed “a lot of great friendships.”
“So last August, when it all fell, when the Taliban took over, I was horrified to know that some of these people were in danger, in part, because of things I had promoted,” Middleton said.
His work to improve their lives “ultimately” led to real danger.
“I told myself, I can’t affect government policy or international relations or whatever, but I can do whatever’s in my own sphere of influence,” Middleton said.
Similarly, No One Left Behind, a nonprofit established in 2013, has been at the forefront of evacuation efforts.
Army Reserve Col. Greg Fairbank was part of the organization’s evacuation team, working with multiple families to get them to Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) and with Marines in the country.
“And then when the explosion happened at Abbey Gate, everything stopped,” he said.
Fairbank said they were “very careful not to tell anyone to do anything” but rather to share options in an advisory role.
One family, for example, was moved to Masari Sharif, Afghanistan, and put into a safe house for the “better part of a month,” said Fairbank, who led a board vote to provide additional funds to the family.
Then on Thanksgiving, when Fairbank sat down for dinner, he received images from an Afghan who had been beaten by the Taliban and suffered a broken nose.
“It’s hard to give thanksgiving when there’s people who are literally fearing for their lives,” he said. “I’m really proud of what we do and what the organization has done. It’s intensely more challenging since we left and HKIA’s gone.”
Fairbank, who serves as NOLB’s finance committee chair, said the evacuations themselves are more expensive.
“It doesn’t matter if we can resettle people if we can’t get them out of the country,” Fairbank said. “We continue to allocate money for evacuation. The challenge is … it’s very expensive now. If we charter a flight, we’re looking at an awful lot of money.”
‘Multiple avenues’ to sanctuary after Afghanistan
Middleton said there are “multiple avenues” to enter the U.S., ranging from asylum to special immigrant visas (SIV) to special immigrant parole.
Logistically getting Afghans out of the country depends on their visa status, according to Phil Caruso, NOLB’s acting executive director. If they have a visa, NOLB can fly them out commercially and provide resettlement assistance.
Without a visa, they could be eligible for other evacuation efforts and state department charter flights to third countries.
For Middleton’s efforts with Wasim, he spoke to people at the Pentagon and various embassies. Networking, he said, was a key aspect.
“I think another area of support that Wasim needed, and maybe all Afghans, I would say, is mental support,” Middleton said. “Just being able to talk to somebody was important for him and me as well … [to] know that they have not been forgotten and for me to be able to tell somebody, ‘This subject and your family is important to me.’”
Wasim’s daughter and wife escaped Afghanistan in December.
Middleton said he was “being the squeaky wheel” because situations like Wasim’s were “a little bit unusual” due to being a student in the U.S.
“It wasn’t like the evacuees who were flooding the airport in Kabul,” Middleton said.
But throughout the process for Wasim, he said Middleton never stopped encouraging him.
“He was working really hard with those people at the same time he was encouraging me don’t give up,” said Wasim, who noted that his mental health was not well during that time.
Once his immediate family left Afghanistan, they were in Qatar for a month before landing at a U.S. Army base and reuniting in early 2022
“I cannot express my emotion at how happy I was at that time,” Wasim said.
Middleton said he was convinced there was a way to help Wasim’s family.
“There’s just a labyrinth of regulations that we’re working through,” Middleton said. “Everybody in his family is kind of in a different situation.”
Wasim said he would like to see the process of helping Afghans out of the country move at a faster pace.
“It might be helpful because day by day, the situation is getting hard for them,” Wasim said.
Middleton said he hopes people don’t forget about Afghanistan.
“Whatever they can do, whether it’s just becoming informed or seeing what’s going on in their area, donating to an organization that’s helping or contacting a representative to advocate for it, that would be enormously helpful,” he said.