With the Taliban’s retaking of Afghanistan as the U.S. completes its withdrawal of forces, Afghans are desperate to get out of the country. Federally funded Oregon nonprofits like Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSN) are preparing to help meet the needs of refugees who arrive from Afghanistan in the coming weeks or months. Salah Ansary came to the U.S. in 1978 when he was in his mid-20s, after the coup in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union invasion of the country. His mother and siblings came a few years later. Ansary has been working with immigrants and refugees from his home country for almost as long as he’s been in Portland, and he says their stories have become his. He joins us to tell us more about his life and work and how LCSN is working to help those fleeing Afghanistan.
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The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: We turn now to the desperate situation inside Afghanistan and the thousands of Afghans who are trying to leave, now that the Taliban has once again seized power. Federally funded Oregon non-profits, like Lutheran Community Services Northwest, are preparing to help refugees who arrive from Afghanistan in the coming weeks or months. Salah Ansary is one of the people who is ready to help. He’s a Senior District Director for the non-profit. He came to Oregon from Afghanistan in 1978 and, for most of the last 40 years, he’s been working to resettle immigrants and refugees from all around the world. What has the last week and a half been like for you?
Salah Ansary: It’s incredibly painful to see the events that unfolded in my homeland, although I’m a U.S. citizen and lived in here, as you mentioned, for close to 50 years. But my roots in formidable years were in Afghanistan. I was there until age 25. It breaks my heart to see incredible sadness, but also triggers for how I left the country in 1978 with the unraveling of the situation at that time. I escaped that brutal regime at that time. And now we are in another phase, unfortunately. This feels like that poor country’s cursed.
Miller: The U. S. Government was caught off guard by the speed at which the Taliban took over complete control of the country. U.S. officials knew it was going to happen. But it seems...there are different intelligence services and reports...many people didn’t think it would happen as quickly as it did. Were you caught off guard?
Ansary: The pace of it? Yes, I was caught off guard as well. I thought, although, in one sense, there was no bloodshed...any resistance would have caused all kinds of tragedies. But it’s interesting that I was in Washington, D.C., July 1, on a rally to basically plead with U.S. Administration, let’s not repeat what happened in Saigon. That was one of my remarks that I said. When I was watching the news, obviously, just incredibly painful. Yes, I think everyone was caught off guard. But, it was a little bit disjointed and botched, to say the least, what happened.
Miller: On Sunday, President Biden said, “the evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started, when we began. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss, and heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact.” That was the President just a couple days ago. What do you make of those comments?
Ansary: I think a little bit of planning would have helped. Yes, chaos obviously have ensued. But, definitely, better planning would have avoided some of the tragedies that we see as it’s unfolding. Yes, the U.S. Administration did send about 6000 troops to manage the chaos. But the U.S. Army, unfortunately, is like a prisoner. Close to the airport, where the parameters of the cities in the hands of the Taliban, and makes the movement and the evacuation of folks who is trying to get out desperately, incredibly hard because they have to go through these checkpoints. Some of them were not ready. As we said, people didn’t think that it will happen this swiftly, so a lot of people don’t have any of their documents in place...and getting to... So in those checkpoints they are being asked, “Do you have your passport, do you have any documents?” And some people don’t have that.
It’s unfortunate how it happened. The SIV [Special Immigrant Visa] Program is in existence for several years now. But, obviously, the program suffered during the past administration. The capacity suffered greatly in terms of processing folks. But then, as the program started again, or at least given a little bit of more boost in terms of personnel and what not, then this thing happened. It’s incredibly painful to watch, as a person that was born and raised in that country, it’s incredibly painful.
Now I’m getting...the number of calls and people, I don’t know how they have found out my numbers, people from Afghanistan. I have this family of seven individuals, all female, that live in Afghanistan. One of them worked on the outside, had a job. She feels like, “I see that they are coming to our neighbors, searching their houses. And we are not afraid for our lives, but also any kind of sexual assault. Anything that happens, we will be totally destroyed.” These are the kind of fears that people have. It’s just--
Miller: The people now are calling you.
Miller: Even if you don’t know how they got your name or phone number. What do you say? What are they asking of you right now?
Ansary: “Help us…Get us out of here...Or, at least talk to folks...Convey our pain and suffering right now to folks….But also, here are my papers…” Through the messengers, I have received all these documents of individuals and folks that wanted for me to help. I would love to help every single one of these individuals. But unfortunately, I know that there’s not much I could do. That’s painful. It’s incredibly painful. Because I know the fear and the anxiety are so real for these folks in the unknown future, because they’re afraid. They’re afraid for their lives...children, women, all of these folks.
But I’m also grateful. There’s our congressional delegation, Senator Merkley, Senator Wyden. We have had numerous conversations with their offices and Congressman Blumenauer. All of these individuals and their staff are reaching out to us. As many people that we get their information, we forward it to them, hoping that some of them may be eligible for immediate evacuation. But the time is running out. August 31st is when we will probably stop evacuating, so I don’t know what happens to those folks...
Miller: Right now, the Afghans who are going to be getting priority for evacuation are those who worked directly with American or other Western governments. But it seems that we’re talking about many, many thousands more who, for a variety of reasons, their lives could be in danger or who could face severe persecution under the Taliban. Do you have a sense for the scale of that second group, the larger group of people who could be applying for refugee status right now?
Ansary: I think the number is a staggering number, and it’s going to be for years. Not only people will be dislocated to other countries, it’s already started. Some of the neighboring countries up in the north, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, some fleeing to Pakistan and of course Iran, these are the countries surrounded. But it reminds me of our...as long as I’ve been in the program...that refugees from Southeast Asia In Vietnam lasted for more than 15 years after the fall of Saigon in 1975. So, this will go on for a number of years, unfortunately. Unless there is peace. That has to be seen, in terms of the promises that are made. The rhetoric from the Taliban is such that we will be forming an inclusive government and will invite everyone to participate.
But, so far, it hasn’t been seen. Already incidents of atrocities that have been committed is being reported. But, yet, we need to see if this unravels in terms of the atrocities and things that have been committed in the past, in the 90s. And then you will see massive influx of refugees that will leave the country.
Miller: Are you expecting that influx to affect the northwest in a significant way? Are you expecting many Afghan refugees to come to Oregon or Washington?
Ansary: Our program, they have an office in Tacoma. It’s already impacted, in terms of arrivals. Some of these were processed out of Fort Lee in Virginia. We are seeing, at least...we had about 60 in Portland. We had much smaller number. But once the processing starts, the administration is contemplating -- these are what I hear, but I don’t know if it’s fact -- that they are contemplating opening up reception or a processing center in Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Bliss in Texas.
Once those processes starts, obviously with COVID-19, and also sorting out folx’s documentation, and also vetting process for security and whatnot, will take a few months. Unless some of these folks have already gone through that process. Because the first wave is all these SIVs that have been...that their paperwork was half-complete and they were in the pipeline. Maybe it will be a faster track for those individuals.
But once we get a notice of arrival, it’s usually about...our experience with our Tacoma office has been 48 hours that we need to turn around and obviously finding housing, which is a huge challenge. That’s number one. And I’m saying this for the listeners, the people that wanted to help: I think that would be the number one priority, in terms of housing.
Miller: What can people who might want to help if you’re saying that housing is the biggest issue, the biggest first issue. What can people do to help?
Ansary: I think in terms of helping us secure housing. Even short term housing, if people have extra bedrooms or that could assist. Because, long-term, we have done refugee resettlement for years. It takes a village to resettle a refugee family. We have not been...If it wasn’t for all the support from our community, the churches and individuals, we would have not been able to resettle over 45,000 refugees through this agency in the Northwest. So we are hopeful that people will... Already, we are getting an incredible number of calls from individuals which is so heartwarming to see the generosity of heart. People wanted to assist. But, yes, financial donation, all of those would be helpful, but also helping us securing apartments and whatnot. That would be incredibly helpful as well.
Miller: Salah Ansary is a senior district director for Lutheran Community Services Northwest. The nonprofit, among other things, helps refugees resettle in the US.