The US Is Ready to Resettle Afghan Refugees. They Just Can’t Get Here.

As refugee resettlement agencies ramp up to receive thousands of Afghan refugees, getting them visas and onto flights at Kabul’s airport is proving difficult.
As refugee resettlement agencies ramp up to receive thousands of Afghan refugees, getting them visas and onto flights at the Kabul airport is proving difficult.
Afghan passengers sit as they wait to leave the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the group's feared hardline brand of Islamist rule. (Photo by Wakil Kohsar / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

The blood from the little boy’s skull who was beaten by the Taliban at Kabul’s airport seeped into his T-shirt. 

His father worked for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, which means his whole family was at risk of being targeted by the Taliban. Just months prior he was kidnapped and severely beaten before being rescued by the Afghan National Army (ANA). 

The family is being aided by Ellen Smith and her organization Keeping Our Promise—a resettlement group based in Rochester, New York, that works with Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort. Earlier this month, she was able to get the boy’s father a “special immigrant visa” (SIV) and she’s now trying to help him get on a plane and into the U.S. 


Smith shared a photo of the young boy in which he stares defiantly into the camera despite the blood on his face (VICE News is not publishing the photo out of concern for the family's security).

Smith told VICE News that over the last week she’s been running off pretty much no sleep. She’s been speaking to desperate people overseas on Facebook Messenger, creating and uploading spreadsheets to government websites, and trying in vain to get a hold of politicians.

"It was adrenaline,” Smith said. “You knew you had to do something.”

Smith said every day she hears from people who are attempting to get visas for themselves and their families and get out.

"When I was in my office last week, family after family, SIV after SIV, just kept coming to me and saying, ‘Please help my family; here are their pictures,’” she said.

After 20 years of war, the U.S. and coalition forces are withdrawing from the country and the Afghan National Army has essentially fallen to the Taliban, leaving tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. or allied countries—like family with the young boy in the bloodstained shirt—in immense danger. 

"We have resettled only a couple thousand special immigrant visa holders and family here in the U.S. so far,” Krish Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), told VICE News. “But the need is massive. There are nearly 80,000 Afghan allies still in the country who are fearful of retribution by the Taliban.


"Even beyond the Afghan allies who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government, there are countless gender rights and women's rights activists, journalists, academics, and other civic leaders who remain vulnerable throughout Afghanistan," said Vignarajah. 

Over 58,700 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan through the Kabul Airport since August 14, American officials said Tuesday morning. Tens of thousands remain in the war torn country.

A sluggish visa program is hamstringing U.S. efforts to get Afghans who worked for the U.S. out of the country. As the New York Times reported Monday, as many as 6,000 people were at Kabul’s airport on standby Thursday after a days-long pause in visa processing. The U.S. has flown in more officials to help, while a recent memo showed the Department of Homeland Security calling for hundreds of volunteers.

The administration lost a year of processing visas because of the pandemic. The White House stated earlier this year that when President Joe Biden took office in January, there was a backlog of over 18,000 cases. The government has issued around 6,500 special visas since the beginning of the year; since the start of the war, over 34,000 visas have been issued. 

Smith compared the process she and others attempting to help get Afghans with special visas and get out of the country are dealing with to Little Dorrit’s Circumlocution Office—a satire by Charles Dickens about a government office that’s run by and for inept government officials. 


“It's like you're told to file paperwork and then you wait,” said Smith. “Then they tell you to go somewhere else and then they send you back to where you were, who then send you back to the other one. It's nuts.”

The difficulties aren’t dissuading volunteers determined to help resettle refugees, as a massive effort preparing for an influx is currently taking place across the country. 

Adam Clark, the office director for World Relief in Durham, North Carolina, told VICE News he and his team are working hard to resettle refugees when they get across the Atlantic. The organization has been able to resettle a handful of evacuated families already, and have a few more “already booked to come.” 

World Relief Durham has sent “dozens of folks to help process SIV applicants” at military bases they’re flown into, Clark said. While they don't know the exact number they're going to receive, they're planning for hundreds. 

“Normally, we would have a few weeks to prepare," Clark said. "We may end up only having a few days to prepare for some of these families.”

“In the first 90 days, they will have Social Security cards, jobs, English classes, doctors, schools, most of what they will need,” said Clark. “The first 90 days of any refugee coming to the United States is fairly intense.”


Oftentimes, said Vignarajah, the refugees arrive with “very little beyond the clothes on their backs"—many of the Afghan refugees are coming with just a small bag or nothing at all. 

“We help them find affordable housing, we furnish that housing with modest furniture, and we even stock the refrigerator with culturally familiar food,” she said. “We help the children enrol in public schools. We connect (refugees) to community-based resources so they can meet basic needs like medical care. And we introduce them to their neighbors in the hope that they will become friends and eventually an extended family.”

Even if the refugees get their visas approved, they’ll have to brave a trip to Kabul’s airport, an incredibly harrowing experience that, for some, can turn deadly. 

Smith said  the family of the little boy is still stuck in Afghanistan and the “nightmare is ongoing.” For many of the people she’s trying to help, Smith has had to tell them the truth: she can’t help them. 

“These guys will tell you that they know that we tried our best,” Smith said through tears. “And, you know they realize that they might die, but they still thank us for trying. And they just want us to know that they're not angry with us. 

“They still believe in what they did.”

This story has been updated to include up to date numbers of people evacuated out of Afghanistan by the United States as of August 24.

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.