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Afghan Allies That Were Left Behind Face An Uncertain Future

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One hundred and twenty thousand Afghans were evacuated through Kabul airport last month, and still, the Biden administration now acknowledges that most of the Afghans that America had promised to rescue were left behind. Without troops or diplomats on the ground in Afghanistan, it's not clear how the U.S. can help them. And as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, even the Afghans who were rescued face an uncertain future.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Thousands of U.S. troops made promises to Afghans over the past 20 years - serve alongside us and you'll get a special immigrant visa, an SIV. That process was troubled from the start and was never really fixed, even as the September deadline for U.S. withdrawal approached.

MATIULLAH MATI: At first, I had no HR letter...

LAWRENCE: Interpreter Matiullah Mati, for example, needed an HR letter from the U.S. Marines he helped in Helmand province starting in 2009. Matiullah could have applied for the visa back then, but he didn't want to leave Afghanistan until this year when things got bad.

MATI: Very bad situation. The terrorists are searching who helped Afghanistan army and especially the United States military.

LAWRENCE: When he finally applied, it was too late. He fled Helmand province to Kabul with his wife and six children. After Kabul fell, they were in the mob trying to get in to Kabul airport.

SETH MOULTON: In the most chaotic situation that you could imagine on Earth.

LAWRENCE: Congressman Seth Moulton, a former Marine, flew in to Kabul.

MOULTON: What I saw was a truly heroic effort on the part of our troops and our diplomats, where we had to go out in front of the gates, our Marines and soldiers to figure out, to pluck out of this crowd, yards from the Taliban with their horse whips, the people who were our allies.

LAWRENCE: As chaos sometimes overtook any sort of system at the gate, having a special immigrant visa could be a disadvantage, Moulton says, because the SIV program had rules about which family members it included.

MOULTON: I spoke to a lance corporal who couldn't have been 18 years old, who said, you know, sir, when they tell me to separate a family, take a 19-year-old brother and sister back out the gate, into the hands of the Taliban because they don't qualify as dependents, that's tough.

MATI: A lot of children I saw, they were crying, and they were lost from their families.

LAWRENCE: Matiullah is now on a U.S. base in Germany. You can hear his kids in the background. He didn't have an SIV. He got his whole family out with back-channel help from Marines he'd worked with. The next step for people like him is unclear, says Betsy Fisher with the International Refugee Assistance Program.

BETSY FISHER: This program didn't exist six weeks ago, and the infrastructure does not exist to process people through this program.

LAWRENCE: She specifically means something called the P-2 Visa program, but what she said could apply to almost all the Afghans from the airlift. The process for them now is nothing like it was when the U.S. had an embassy in Kabul. Even then, SIV or P-2 visas used to take three or five years, and Fisher says many Afghans' files were burned to keep them from falling into the hands of the Taliban.

FISHER: Many of these folks had their passports and supporting documents burned by U.S. Embassy staff in the waning hours of the U.S. presence on the ground. Many of them burned their own documents.

LAWRENCE: She says the Biden administration has provided no clear plan for the Afghans left behind, and there's not much of one for the Afghans who made it out, either. The State Department says it's looking into ways to expedite the process, which may require legislation. Afghans are being allowed into the U.S. under what's called humanitarian parole. That doesn't come with much support. Krish O'Mara Vignarajah is with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

KRISH O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: We're grateful, but their status is temporary. So if you enter as a humanitarian parolee, you're only granted at this point three months of support from the State Department. That's, in total, a couple thousand dollars.

LAWRENCE: This week, the House passed a bipartisan bill with almost $1.7 billion to support those refugees. Seth Moulton co-sponsored it. He says vets in Congress are also still working on the SIVs left behind at the mercy of the Taliban.

MOULTON: I honestly can't say that I'm optimistic, but I'm sure as hell committed that we don't leave anyone behind.

LAWRENCE: As for interpreter Matiullah Mati, he's still waiting. He hopes to get from Germany to the U.S. soon. After that, he's not worried.

MATI: No, no, I'm not worry about the work and jobs. No, I'm especially the businessman.

LAWRENCE: A businessman, he says. Just give him $100 seed money and he'll be able to do anything.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLITHE FIELD'S "PERRY ST. 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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