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San Antonians still working to get former students out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan

Afghan-illustration.jpeg
Illustration by Laura Rice
/
Texas Standard
Complicated paperwork required by U.S. law is a barrier to special immigrant visas that many Afghans might otherwise be eligible for.

Lark Escobar lives in San Antonio, but her life is consumed with what’s happening 8,000 miles away.

“The pressure is inestimable,” Escobar says.

That’s the pressure of communicating with and trying to help about 3,000 Afghan people safely evacuate the country since the Taliban’s takeover. Escobar founded a nonprofit, Fletcher Afghan Evacuation & Resettlement, specifically working to help these Afghans secure special immigrant visas or SIVs. So far, they have had little success.

“Successfully 20 people have either made it to the United States or are on the way, they’re in a transit point,” Escobar says.

Fellow San Antonian Patricia Schwindt fundraises for the nonprofit.

“Think about that. In a year, 20,” Schwindt says. “That’s – it’s ludicrous.”

Schwindt and Escobar got into this after working together at the Defense Language Institute English Language Center at Lackland Air Force Base. The DLIELC brings in both civilians and military personnel from all over the world to teach them to communicate in English. Because of the U.S. military’s 20-year presence in Afghanistan, Schwindt and Escobar taught a lot of Afghans. These are many of the people they’re trying to evacuate – their friends.

For Schwindt, there’s one person in particular.

“I’m going to call him ‘Roger,’” Schwindt says. “Of course, that’s not his name. But he was in my class for six months, and I got to know him as an individual. And honestly, we became very close. He called me ‘Mom.’”

When President Biden officially announced in April 2021 that American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan, Schwindt began working feverishly to get Roger out.

“I felt sick. He felt sick… We didn’t know what was going to happen. And it was a terrifying, terrifying time,” Schwindt says.

News outlets from around the world documented what happened next. Afghans swarmed the Kabul airport, desperate to leave. The Taliban takeover was rapid. Many with good reason to leave, like Roger, could not break through. They remain in the country.

“There are several families in safe houses, and he’s still there,” Schwindt says.

She says they live life daily on the edge.

“A few months ago… one of them noticed the Taliban lurking around downstairs outside,” Schwindt says. “That was a big scare and a terrifying one. I’m over using that word, but I don’t know another word that’s stronger than ‘terrifying.’”

Lark Escobar says this way of living is even more difficult when one of the people they are trying to evacuate from Afghanistan has an emergency – like having to go to the hospital.

“We don’t want the Taliban to drag my people out of the hospital while they’re in the middle of receiving medical treatment,” Escobar says.

She says this is just one reason she feels constantly on-call for her 3,000 contacts.

“It requires a lot of coordination. It requires money. And I have to be paying attention for that all the time,” Escobar says.

Rahela Shah is one of the 20 people Escobar and Schwindt have been able to successfully evacuate. She was targeted long before the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

“A white car tried to hit me two times,” Shah says.

While she was able to safely escape into a store after that incident, she says she was targeted all the time for her work.

“I was the first girl who joined the National Military Academy of Afghanistan as a teacher,” Shah says. “It was a big risk for me… In Afghanistan this is not the culture that a lady or a girl can work with the military.”

Shah began work on her special immigrant visa – or SIV – back in 2018. She is one of nearly 19,000 Afghans to so far be fully approved in the process. She finally made it to the U.S. in August — four and half years after first starting her application. And she’s among the lucky.

“My brother, his wife and their four, five kids are in Afghanistan,” Shah says. “And my sister, she is single, also in Afghanistan. And we are really worried about them because they also work with the American University and my sister worked in the American Embassy.”

As of November 1, the U.S. State Department reports about 48,000 Afghans had submitted all the required SIV paperwork. From there, it says historically just 40-50% of applicants clear the first approval hurdle.

Many, many more never even get that far. The law requires a lot of paperwork.

“And those documents aren’t available,” Schwindt says.

Consider, she says, that people had to quickly leave their homes. And consider the detailed information required.

“Letters from supervisors? No. [Not] the American supervisors either,” Schwindt says. “We don’t know where they are in this country. There’s no way we can track them.”

But Schwindt says she’s tried.

“I worked at my kitchen table with my computer out there. Grabbed some breakfast and sat at that computer. And I did not move until 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” Schwindt says. “I lost about 10 pounds in a month there… And Lark [Escobar] is still going through that. I’ve backed off because basically my age and my nerves can’t handle that anymore. I’d love to think that I could, but I can’t.”

The State Department says it has “surged” resources towards programs helping to process special immigrant visas and handling email inquiries. It says it has increased staff reviewing initial document submissions and responding to inquiries by more than 22-fold – and tried to streamline wherever legally possible. It says it has caught up with emails and now responds to new ones within 10 business days. The State Department says over the past 22 months, the average processing time to get a SIV application to the stage of “Chief of Mission” review has decreased from 883 to 105 days.

But Schwindt says it’s not enough.

“Pardon me, I shouldn’t say it, but if they wanted to, they could have the people in there immediately,” Schwindt says. “Like 87,000 new IRS agents. They could have 87,000 people in there working those applications.”

She says the U.S. owes these people more protection now.

“They should be lifting them out of there and vet them and go through those documentations later in a safe place instead of forcing them to wait there daily, expecting the Taliban to break in their door.”

Now safe in the U.S., Rahela Shah says she’s grateful. But she says she is also disappointed in the process. Her brother’s special immigrant visa has already been denied twice.

“We will never give up,” Shah says. “And we need to save ourselves. We need to save our family because it was not our sin to work with U.S. or with the government of Afghanistan.”

“I want people in Texas to know that the men that we are working with in Afghanistan are not a threat to our country,” Schwindt says. “They love our country. That’s why they helped us in the first place. That’s what got them into this situation… They risked their lives to support our military… and they do feel like they were abandoned. Left hanging in the wind. With the Taliban right at their heels.”

So far, Schwindt and Lark Escobar say at least three of the thousands of people their nonprofit has tried to evacuate from Afghanistan have died. One was violently murdered. Two others died of starvation when food support couldn’t get to them – a toddler and her aunt – who was giving up meals to try to keep the baby alive.

“They cannot just be left to die terrible deaths because they were here,” Escobar says. “They have Social Security cards and driver’s licenses. They speak English. All of these things are crimes to the Taliban. They are crimes worthy of death.”

But there is some progress. Just in the past weeks, Escobar says their count of people they have gotten out of Afghanistan rose – to 21.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.