- By J. Malcolm Garcia
Some names have been changed for privacy
After Kabul fell to the Taliban, I knew I could do little for my friends and colleagues, Hamid, Faiz, and Aman. Various NGOs and veterans' groups organized Dunkirk-like efforts online to extract Afghans, and their staff insisted they could still help. Time and again these organizations asked me to complete immigration forms for them, the same forms I had already submitted at the behest of other groups. But now, more than two months after Kabul fell, I receive few encouraging messages; those that do come in have mostly devolved into chest thumping, rote insistence that “the mission will continue.” I hoped it would. Yet I have concluded that, despite their best efforts and through no fault of their own, the good people advising me can not help Hamid, Faiz and Aman any more than I can. The United States decided to leave Afghanistan. Who we left behind, our betrayal of their service and trust, and the threats they would face did not matter. Those of us who worked in Afghanistan assured ourselves and our Afghan colleagues that our government would not abandon them and their country. But it did. The withdrawal has made liars of us all.
I first arrived in Kabul as a reporter in 2001. Hamid and his oldest son, Sabil, worked with me as interpreters. I met them by chance when I interviewed a brother of Hamid who was employed by Halo Trust, a nongovernmental organization that cleared mines.
During my first years in Kabul, Hamid would wear a shalwar kameez and sandals. His wife and two daughters stayed in the kitchen when I came over. They would pull the mask of their blue burqas over their faces and glance at me. Hamid said he would never let them out of the house without a burqa. But over time he and they relaxed, trusting the new post-Taliban Afghanistan and the Western presence. Hamid became a dapper dresser. He started wearing slacks, dress shirts, and black shoes that shined like jewels. He combed his silver-streaked hair to one side and kept his thin beard tightly trimmed. His wife and daughters continued wearing burqas but rarely covered their faces.
By the late 2000s, Hamid began to worry. As far back as 2003, the Taliban had been slowly increasing its control of southern Afghanistan and inching north. Over time, major cities became little more than urban outposts surrounded by insurgent fighters. Despite declarations in 2001 of a quick US victory, the Taliban had never actually left, let alone been defeated.
Six months before Biden announced the withdrawal of all US forces from Afghanistan. Hamid had already stopped shaving. His beard inched down to his chest, thick and gray as an overcast sky. For some reason he could not grow a mustache. Stubble pebbled a line beneath his nose, while the rest of his face billowed with cloudy weather. When we spoke by video chat he teased me that, of the two of us, he had the superior beard. I did not argue. I sent him a photo from 1994 when I was thirty-six; my beard then made me look like a member of ZZ Top. Hamid laughed in a high pitch giggle. “You are Talib,” he said, as if nothing concerned him. He asked me about Aman and Faiz. As young men, he worried the Taliban would recruit them when it took Kabul.
He, Sabil, and I had met Aman and Faiz in 2003. They shined shoes outside of my hotel, the Mustafa, near downtown. I would wake up early, the noise of new construction projects better than any alarm. Millions of dollars of international aid had caused a building frenzy. Amid the bustle and noise from traffic so congested that the air smelled of exhaust, I would see Aman and Faiz hustling for customers on the crowded sidewalks, and I would give them a handful of candy. When they told me that sugar upset their empty stomachs, I began taking them to lunch. They were boys then, just shy of their teens, accompanying a foreigner and not just any foreigner but an American, a liberator of Afghanistan, riding with him to restaurants. They ordered their food and preened before the waiters. Sabil and I enrolled them in school, bought them clothes. Hamid sometimes tutored them.
Aman and Faiz introduced me to kids they knew and helped me with feature stories about street children. They called themselves my assistants, striding beside me like guards, chests out, and chasing away beggars until I told them to stop. They thought I had power, which gave them power. Sometimes they would surreptitiously follow me on the streets around the Mustafa—just to be sure I didn’t get in any trouble. when a cab driver started screaming at me in Dari for some transgression I didn't know I had committed, I learned that. The boys came out of nowhere to tell the guy to back off.
I returned to Kabul year after year, up until 2016, when the election of Donald Trump turned my attention to Mexico and immigration. Over that time I watched Aman and Faiz grow into young men. Aman apprenticed for a barber and then opened his own shop in the commercial hub of Shar-e-Naw. Posters of stylish young men with locks of hair curled down to their foreheads decorated his walls, hands in the pockets of their designer blue jeans, eyes sullen, their unbuttoned shirts exposing thin, pale chests. Faiz took a job as a security guard for the Kabul office of the World Bank. They never forgot our time together—when they were just boys and Hamid, Sabil, and I cared for them.
I was home in July 2021 when the Taliban began sweeping through southern and southwestern Afghanistan. Hamid, Faiz, and Aman asked me to help them apply for a Special Immigrant Visa to the U.S. The visa was available only to those Afghans who had worked as translators, interpreters, or in another professional capacity, employed by or on behalf of the United States government or a media outlet, for a minimum of eighteen months.
Since Hamid had worked for me as a translator, I knew he was eligible. I wrote him a reference letter and provided proof of his employment. On August 8, a week before the Taliban entered Kabul, he submitted his application. “Due to current security concerns in our country,” he wrote, “I feel serious concern about the safety of myself and my family. In recent days, I have been receiving calls from Takan (a district of Workday Province which is under Taliban control) asking me to help the Taliban financially. They warned that they will kill me if I ignore their request. Now, myself and my family are homebound, and I have asked all my family to restrict their movement and avoid all unnecessary travel.” He spoke about working “for Malcolm”—without using my last name or identifying the publications I wrote for—as if my name alone carried weight. He said that he was a committed, hard worker and that he was confident he would make “a proud citizen” for the United States.
“Malcolm,” he wrote, “can confirm this.”
I told Aman and Faiz that I would support their applications too, but because I had never employed them on a regular basis I questioned if I would be of much help.
Everyone knows we have associated with Americans, Aman snapped at me in a text message. The Taliban won’t care if it was eighteen months or eighteen minutes. He had trimmed the beards of Westerners. What if someone tells the Taliban they had seen him cutting the hair of Americans?
I made American friends at the World Bank, Faiz wrote. The Taliban will know this. Someone will say, “I saw Faiz talking to Americans.”
I did not disagree. I did not make the rules, I told them. I recommended them for a Special Immigrant Visa. Faiz’s World Bank supervisor also wrote a letter on his behalf: “I would like to recommend Faiz Abdul Akhtar as a dependable, honest individual of great personal worth. It seems likely he will face considerable danger should the Taliban come to power in Kabul, and I hope the international community can help him in his quest for residence outside of Afghanistan.”
In a cover letter, Faiz articulated the concerns he had for his safety.
“I fully believe I will be executed by the Taliban as a result of my faithful and sincere services to the World Bank and U.S. media,” he wrote.
Aman never did complete the application for a special immigration visa. He insisted my letter would be enough. He believed he had only to present it to the U.S. consulate and he would receive a visa. Nothing Faiz and I said changed his mind.
Faiz submitted his applications about the same time as Hamid. By then about 20,000 Afghans employed by the U.S. military during the war had submitted applications for special immigration visas. The often criticized slow approval process had sometimes taken years to complete and that was before Kabul fell. I could not imagine how long it would take now.
As the Taliban neared Kabul, I received frantic Facebook messages from Aman and Faiz:
August 12: Very bad situation. Taliban is too close to Kabul—-Faiz
August 15: Taliban entered Kabul. In different parts of the city there is fighting—-Aman.
August 18: This morning a Taliban soldier slapped me at a checkpoint. Everyone is trying to go to the airport—-Faiz.
August 19: The situation day by day is very bad. Everything is closed. There is no food. Help us.—-Aman.
I spoke with Hamid by phone. He told me his street was quiet. Sometimes he saw the Taliban but not often. He copied his application for a visa onto his phone, sent a copy to me, and then destroyed it so the Taliban would not find it if its fighters searched his house. The son of a friend, he told me, had eight fingers cut off by insurgents when they stopped him and found papers that documented his employment as a translator for the U.S. military.
Hamid left his house only to buy bread and water. He still had his national ID card from when the Taliban first ruled in 1996. He would show it at checkpoints, impressing the insurgents. They called him “Coco,” Dari for uncle, a term of respect for old men. Hamid said he would nod and look solemn and then proceed to the market. “Stupid donkeys,” he said of the Taliban. He laughed but sounded exhausted.
Despite everything, Hamid felt confident he and his family would leave for the U.S. because three of his sons, Sabil, Noor, and Qasim, had gotten out.
Sabil had left years before. Between gigs with journalists, Sabil worked as a translator for the Kabul office of the U.S. Corp of Engineers. His work led to death threats from the Taliban, and he applied for a Special immigrant Visa. He received it in 2017 and now lives in Dallas and works for Amazon.
Qasim and Noor were still in Kabul when the Taliban took control. Qasim translated for the U.S. Marines. His supervisor had a contact with U.S. Central Command. American Special Forces picked up Qasim, his wife and three children from a friend’s house near the airport on August 22. They remained inside a terminal for three days before a plane carried them to a Doha military base, where hundreds of families had been evacuated. From there they flew to Fort Bliss in New Mexico.
A Canadian NGO had employed Noor. On August 23, the Canadian government secured a visa for him and flew him to Toronto.
Hamid asked me what country I thought he and his wife and remaining eight grown children and their spouses would be sent to. I told him I didn’t know. “First, let’s see if you can get out,” I said.
Faiz and Aman believed they would receive their visas in four weeks. I asked them why they thought this, but they never gave me a direct answer. Perhaps another applicant told them. Or maybe it was a pipe dream. They were desperate. They believed in America, the dream of America.
“I have high hopes to relocate to the U.S.,” Faiz wrote in his application, “where all people live in peace and have access to all human rights privileges and where I can build a peaceful career and a new phase of my life.”
However, as the end of August approached, Hamid, Aman and Faiz developed doubts. Thousands of desperate Afghans waving immigration forms had converged on the airport. Chaos ensued and deepened into further confusion and violence. Few people were getting inside and getting out.
August 22: It’s a very bad situation. Last night I was in airport, when I arrived at a checkpoint the US army they told me for now you are not eligible, just wait for your SIV [ special immigrant visa ] to be approved, then you can come here. A few times Taliban slapped me. Can you write to the US embassy for me?—Faiz
The U.S. embassy had been evacuated when the Taliban entered Kabul. Acting ambassador Ross Wilson and a handful of staff operated from the airport. I had no idea how to reach them. Instead, I emailed the State Department. No reply. I emailed California congressman, Eric Swalwell, who had expressed concerns for Afghans under threat from the Taliban. A woman who identified herself as a Constituent Services Representative answered: Thank you for reaching out to our office for assistance. I am so sorry to hear of the circumstances facing your loved ones in Afghanistan. Our office is only able to assist in some circumstances where a visa application has already been filed. I sent her another email and explained that Hamid, Faiz, and Aman had already submitted visa applications. She responded with a link for a Special Immigrant Visa form. I told her again that they had completed the form. She did not respond. I then tried Pennsylvania Congresswoman Mary Scanlon, who had helped fifty Afghans leave the country. Her aid answered: We are unable to assist anyone who is not, or isn’t a family member of, a constituent of Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional District.
“Stupid donkeys,” I thought.
With three of his sons out of the country, Hamid felt desperate to reunite his family. On August 23rd he took his family to the airport. He left hours later, he told me, when the Taliban began beating people. For the next two days, he tried to get inside but each time the Taliban prevented him from entering any of the gates.
August 24: This is a very bad situation. They are just allowing people who have US passports and those Afghans with US visas or green cards. I’m just waiting for my SIV approval.—-Faiz
A journalist colleague with military contacts put me in touch with a Gold Star widow from Pueblo, Colorado. She was working with people in Fort Bragg, North Carolina who were trying to help Afghans. She asked me not to use her name. She thought Aman and Faiz would be eligible for humanitarian parole. Humanitarian parole is used to admit someone to the U.S. for a temporary period of time, due to an emergency. An applicant had to submit a filing fee of $575 for themselves and each member of their family. They would also need a U.S.-based sponsor who would support them financially. However, application evaluations were taking months because of the thousands already filed. No one, as far as the Gold Star widow knew, had yet had been completely vetted, despite the fact that the government had collected thousands of dollars in filing fees. I called U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and, after navigating various prompts, I left a message. I sent an email, too. No one responded.
A reporter friend also reached her congressman, Representative Emmanuel Cleaver, on behalf of Hamid, whom she had worked with in the mid-2000s. She explained Hamid had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa and shared his information. Cleaver wrote a letter to the U.S. State Department, listing Hamid, his wife, two sons and two daughters, as an evacuation priority. “These individuals,” Cleaver wrote on August 22 referring to Hamid, his wife, his children and their spouses and children, a total of ten people, “have applied for [ Special immigrant Visas ] and have significant documentation for proof of identity and credentials for his previous US support role. We are requesting entry to Hamid Karzai International Airport to secure immediate safety from loss of life and evacuation to a secure verification location.”
I was excited by Cleaver’s support but also skeptical. How much clout did he have with the State Department? I wondered. Would he push and follow-up with phone calls? An aid to Cleaver did not give me much hope. In response to my questions, he said had no time for speculation and asked me not to contact him again.
On August 25, the Gold Star widow got Hamid and his family on a flight manifest. She would not tell me the destination of the plane, or if it would even depart Kabul. He was on a list. Period.
“We are trying to work all angles now and that is all I’m able to speak on,” she wrote.
The next day two ISIS suicide bombers and gunmen killed dozens of Afghans and thirteen U.S. troops on August 26. Hamid told me he felt the explosions rattle his house fifteen minutes away.
August 26: Explosions at Kabul airport. Aman and I will try for Pakistan or Uzbekistan or Indian visa but it’s not possible for now. No visa service, no flights. We don’t know what should we do.—-Faiz
The next day, the Gold Star widow sent me a text. She said two U.S. soldiers at the Kabul airport had coordinated with a local NGO to extract Afghans, including Hamid and his family, by bus. The bus would meet them at a satellite TV station close to the airport. They would receive a call and need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
August 27 8:55 p.m. (9:22 a.m. Kabul): Tell [Hamid] my linguist is going to call him in the next few minutes or so. He needs to be ready to get [to the TV station]!
I called Hamid but couldn’t get through. I sent Sabil a text to contact him
9:01 p.m.: His number is busy!!! Linguist calling.—-Gold Star widow
9:02 p.m.: The linguist is talking to him. YYEEESSSS!—Gold Star widow.
She celebrated too soon. The linguist told Hamid to leave in ten minutes, but what Hamid had heard was, “Be there in ten minutes.” He didn’t have a car. Even with a car he would have to get past Taliban checkpoints. He worried he would be late, and the bus would leave without him. Then he would have to make his way back home and confront more Taliban checkpoints.
Hamid was sixty-five years old. His wife had high blood pressure and required a wheelchair. His children would be with him. The Taliban would know he was going to the airport. Why else would he be on the street with his wife, children, and their spouses? He had lived through the ten year occupation of the Soviet Union, the civil wars that followed, the rise of the Taliban and its fall after 9/11. Now he was trying to survive the U.S. withdrawal. He wanted to leave, but he would not expose himself and put his family at risk. He had survived nearly fifty years of war by being cautious, not careless. He did not take chances. He stayed home.
The Gold Star widow sent me texts, venting her fury with Hamid. The next day she pinged me again and apologized. Hamid had made the right call, she said. The Taliban had not allowed the bus into the airport.
Almost two weeks passed before I heard from her again. On September 9, she sent me a Facebook message. U.S officials in Kabul, she said, were giving the Taliban lists of American citizens, green card holders, and the Afghan allies they wanted to extract.
“People will literally get killed because of this,” she wrote. “We are in a tactical pause until the State Department resolves this issue.”
I called the State Department but a spokesman would not comment. The White House claimed that the shared information with the Taliban had facilitated evacuations.
These days, I talk to Hamid about once a week. The Taliban, he told me recently, have been conducting house searches, but no one has stopped at his home. He wonders if any of his neighbors know Sabil, Qasim, and Noor worked for the U.S. Would they tell the Taliban to ingratiate themselves with the new regime? He worries about that. Sabil sends him money, but he lives on a tight budget. He has a wife and seven children. He earns $175 a day.
Hamid accepts the help but does not ask for it. He has sold all the carpets in his house to buy food. He worries about winter and fuel to warm the house. He accepts he can do little now but wait and hope that one day he and his family will be evacuated. In Afghanistan, he has often told me, nothing is certain. After decades of war he expects nothing but more upheaval.
Faiz and Aman keep in touch. Faiz moves to the apartments of friends. Everyone in his old neighborhood knew he worked for the World Bank. He fears they might report him to the Taliban.
October 9: I am just looking for a window to save my life.—-Faiz
Aman closed his barbershop. The Taliban had smashed everything with clubs and assaulted him. The Taliban believe that shaving or cutting beards violates Islamic law.
October 9: Is what happened to my shop good enough for a visa?—-Aman.
He and Faiz never forgot our time together when they were boys. They are still in need, and I am still an American. For you anything is possible, they have told me. They would ask me what it was like to walk streets paved with gold. “The streets I walk have no gold,” I told them, but they didn’t believe me. Back then I didn’t have the kind of power they thought I had, and I still don’t.
October 9: Hi Malcolm. You are all I have. ––Faiz Jon.
October 9: My life is in your hands. I am waiting for your help.––Aman Jawid.
I have nothing to offer them. I won’t advise them to apply for any more magic pills. No more visa applications, no more humanitarian parole filings. Under threat from the Taliban but haven’t completed an immigration form? We won’t consider you. Completed a form? Well, there are hundreds ahead of you waiting to be processed.
“Processed.” The word says all that needs to be said about the government’s attitude toward visa applicants, and towards our own, too. The chaotic end of our involvement in Afghanistan has been welcomed by Biden’s opponents as yet another reason to denounce him. His supporters defend him, albeit with some handwringing, by reminding his critics that Trump abandoned Kurdish fighters in Syria in 2019. Neither side has evinced worry for the individuals affected, these men and women who served the U.S. They have become pawns in partisan one-upmanship as an unwieldy and cruel bureaucracy—that should be reformed if not abolished—continues to create obstacles and deny them visas.
Just the other day, I received an email from the Special immigrant Visa unit. It said Hamid had not submitted my letter of recommendation and proof of employment. The sender attached his file. The attachment included my reference letter and a letter from my editor confirming his employment, and all other necessary documents. In my reply, I pointed this out, trying not to be overly caustic. I received an automated response, referring me to a website that explained how to apply for the visa.
Years ago when I was a social worker in San Francisco a man I knew who worked for the Social Security Administration told me it was routine practice to deny AIDS patients disability the first time they applied. Everyone knew they would not survive the appeals process, he explained. No one issued a memo. It was just understood. Deny. Deny. Deny. In some ways, Hamid, Aman and Faiz are like his AIDS patients. Yes, a lucky few Afghans have reached the U.S.—-through connections, good fortune and the hard work of their advocates. The number of people who have gotten out, however, pales in comparison to how many are still left all but abandoned; thousands of men and women and their families who have legal standing to come to the United States. Some more may get out, but many, perhaps most, will not.
We grew exhausted with a war we didn’t understand in a country most of us could not find on a map. The tumultuous withdrawal injured our pride; national embarrassment ran high. Our humiliation, however, should not be confused with introspection or compassion and commitment for the Afghan people. Our excuses were endless. Afghanistan was not our problem. Its people not our people. Time to move on. Leave them to bleed out under the Taliban.
How many of us think of Afghanistan now? The urgency of 9/11 has long since faded. It’s as if we were never there. Triage by distant, faceless bureaucrats and us and our representatives as willing accomplices.
This morning, I received a text from Faiz.
What’s up? he asked. Any good news on my application?
No, nothing, I told him.
Nothing here either, he said.
Then my phone pinged with a text from an Afghan man named Faakhir. I didn’t know him. but months ago he sent me a Facebook friend request. He served as a translator at Camp Scorpion in Kabul for almost four years.
Hey Garcia, I moved, he wrote.
He explained he had received a Special Immigrant Visa in July, about a month before Kabul fell. He had been resettled in Sacramento. His wife was pregnant. An American baby, he said. He hoped to find a job. He thought a reference letter from me would help.
I didn’t know what I could say. We had never worked together. But against all odds Faakhir had received a visa. I try to balance my anger and cynicism with hope.
Sure, I wrote back. I can do that.
J. Malcolm Garcia is the author most recently of The Fruit of All My Grief: Lives in the Shadows of the American Dream (Seven Stories Press 2019) and A Different Kind of War: Uneasy Encounters in Mexico and Central America (Fomite, 2021). Garcia is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism. His work has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Best American Essays.