Earlier this month, as the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan resulted in the Taliban’s swift takeover, Julie Ellison-Speight received a heartbreaking email from a colleague caught up in the chaos.
“Their family was stuck,” said Ellison-Speight, who is the associate director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona. In that role, she’s worked with numerous Afghan scholars through a federal grant-funded partnership the UA had with Kabul University to help deliver the Afghan Cultural Heritage Education Project.
Now, many of those scholars and their families, including the person she’s been emailing with for the past weeks, are stranded in Afghanistan.
Some, she said, have already received death threats from the Taliban, which previously implemented oppressive laws when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001 before the U.S. military invaded.
“What do you say to someone who is a colleague who says they feel like the worst spouse and parent?” Ellison-Speight said Monday afternoon. “This is why I was determined to do something.”
But what could a university employee in Tucson do to help people desperate to evacuate a country 8,000 miles away?
A lot, actually.
According to the U.S. Department of State, any Afghan national, as well as their children and spouse, who work “or worked for a U.S. government-funded program or project in Afghanistan supported through a U.S. government grant or cooperative agreement” is eligible for a Priority 2 designation granting U.S. Refugee Admissions Program access.
That information prompted Ellison-Speight and her colleagues to identify Afghan nationals who have worked on a grant-funded project through the UA, and refer them to apply for a visa.
“I emailed the kitchen sink of everyone I’ve ever been connected with on this project,” said Ellison-Speight, who has assisted some people in the application process and also written multiple letters of support. “We’re trying to help as many people as we can get the referral.”
A colleague of hers went so far as to dig through the university archives to find documentation that proved one Afghan national had worked on a grant-funded project more than 15 years ago, and was therefore eligible for a visa.
So far, they’ve found approximately 40 eligible Afghan nationals. As of Monday afternoon, about 10 of those people were among the 116,000-plus people the U.S. and it allies have helped evacuate since mid-August.
“I know many of you have family, friends and colleagues who face incredible hardship and danger, and I know you are concerned for their safety,” UA President Robert Robbins said Monday. “Several families have visas already being processed. If you know of other refugees who need assistance, please reach out to our Federal Relations team to help coordinate our efforts to elevate these cases.”
“All hope is not lost”
That’s precisely what Julia Smith, the UA’s assistant vice president for federal relations who is based in Washington, D.C., has been focused on for the past two weeks. Since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last month, her office has filed visa applications on behalf of the Priority 2-eligible people in contact with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
“I knew right away as the Taliban was making its way toward Kabul — and what we were hearing — that we were going to have a crisis on our hands,” said Smith, who had her team check-in across campus and address any concerns from veterans groups, administration or faculty. “That’s when we discovered our Center for Middle Eastern Studies had overnight turned into this job of trying to bring these people to safety.”
Over the next several days, the number of people reaching out to the center for help kept climbing. “It started with one family,” Smith said. “We had a total of 13 at the high point.”
Although not all of those people have been able to leave yet, she got some good news Monday afternoon: One of the families she’d been working with had evacuated Afghanistan, just as the last of the U.S. troops left a country they had a continuous presence in for the past two decades.
“It got a lot more complicated as of (Sunday), but all hope is not lost,” Smith said. The UA’s effort to help remaining eligible Afghans escape Taliban rule, she emphasized, is “not over” yet.
As Smith understands it right now, humanitarian aid groups have plans to reenter the country in the near future. The UA will work with those organizations, as well as with German, French and U.S. governments, to evacuate eligible Afghans.
“As the U.S. is withdrawing, we have to take a beat and figure out if that’ll be overland evacuations to Tajikistan or Pakistan, or if aircraft are going to be let in under the Taliban. And if so, what our process will be moving forward for bringing people to safety,” she said.
“As long as we can get them out of the country one way or another to a refugee camp, then the U.S. will be able to bring them into the country.”