Organizers of a GoFundMe fundraiser to help queer and trans individuals in Afghanistan have been barred from withdrawing the money they raised, they said, leaving vulnerable Afghans in peril amid the Taliban's takeover of the country and raising questions about the popular fundraising platform's policies.
Relief efforts to help Afghans have escalated as parts of Afghanistan have rapidly fallen to the Taliban. On Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan and the Taliban seized the presidential palace in Kabul, sparking chaos as thousands of people tried to evacuate alongside the last of the US forces, with many more left in limbo.
The fundraiser, created by Qais Munhazim, Bobuq Sayed, and Wazina Zondon, three queer Afghans in the US, is meant to provide financial aid directly to individuals within their informal networks in Afghanistan. The creators were not working with an organization on the ground in Afghanistan.
The money raised will help pay for food as well as passports, visas, plane tickets, and other costs associated with leaving the country, according to the GoFundMe. Sayed said they planned on sending money directly to individuals in Afghanistan via a wire service like Western Union.
When organizers tried to withdraw the money on Monday evening — the campaign had raised $21,000 by then — GoFundMe told them in an email, "Unfortunately, we are unable to approve this withdrawal plan due to the crisis." Instead, GoFundMe asked organizers to "deliver the funds to a charity or non-profit organization" and suggested multinational groups like Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, and Save the Children International.
“The kind of backlog and paperwork required to move through a charity is so cumbersome and just so missing the point of the urgency of where we’re at right now," Sayed told BuzzFeed News.
Sayed said that GoFundMe also asked organizers for the names and addresses of the recipients — many of whom are not open about their sexuality and at grave risk of being targeted and killed by the Taliban.
"These are not people living out and proud ... These are people who are living private, discreet lives who are also fleeing," they said. "To expect them to have a permanent address that we can supply GoFundMe is really insensitive and ignorant given the situation that's going on right now."
The fundraiser had reached more than $33,000 by Wednesday afternoon.
GoFundMe spokesperson Leigh Lehman told BuzzFeed News the platform is "in touch with the fundraiser organizer and working directly with them to safely deliver funds to those in need" but did not elaborate on the policies that required the platform to obtain the personal information of the funds' recipients.
A blog post from GoFundMe on Tuesday said that any fundraiser related to Afghanistan relief efforts is currently being reviewed by the platform's Trust & Safety team "to ensure it's compliant with US and international laws."
Several fundraisers have been placed under review, the platform said, while also naming large organizations to donate to to support Afghan people: Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, Concern Worldwide, and Keeping Our Promise.
Sayed said donating the money raised to "Goliath charities" is not what they set up their fundraiser for.
"In Afghanistan, there has never been a shortage of aid," they said. "The problem is not these charities' presence there, the problem is [money] not reaching individuals in need."
They called it "disingenuous" for the platform to ask organizers to donate money they raised for individuals to large charities.
"We put our names and accessed our networks to fundraise on behalf of us as individuals. We didn't fundraise for UNICEF, we didn't fundraise for Doctors Without Borders," Sayed said. "They will not release funds to individuals, even though funds were donated on the grounds that it would be received by individuals."
The organizers are currently trying to work with an NGO to receive the money on their behalf. But every delay in the money being transferred to the recipients in Afghanistan could prove dangerous. Munhazim, the lead organizer, previously wrote in an early fundraiser update that "some of the queer and trans folks are already planning their escapes."
After this story was published, Lehman, the GoFundMe spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News that the platform can no longer transfer money to individuals in Afghanistan or release funds that will be given to individuals in the country "due to Taliban control."
Lehman also said that organizers of these fundraisers are now required to transfer all the money raised to a verified nonprofit and inform donors of the change, or the platform will refund the money.
"This is not a policy specific to GoFundMe — it is based on laws and regulations," Lehman said, adding that the company is reviewing every fundraiser related to Afghanistan to make sure it complies with global financial regulations.
Sayed and their co-organizers are not the only ones who have been frustrated by GoFundMe's handling of fundraisers to help people in Afghanistan.
Mina Sharif, an Afghan Canadian, started a fundraiser for a rehabilitation center in Kabul doing emergency relief work on Aug. 11, as the Taliban took over more territories in the country. The next day, GoFundMe placed Sharif's fundraiser under review and paused money withdrawals.
For days, the platform ignored her frantic questions about what it required for the money to be released to the center, Sharif said.
"Please get back to me soon, these funds are urgent and if the Taliban take over Kabul it will be difficult for me to send money," she wrote in an Aug. 14 email to the platform that BuzzFeed News reviewed.
GoFundMe did not immediately respond to questions about Sharif's fundraiser.
"If you're in touch with me, you said, 'Hey, these are questions about your fundraiser,' then how do you disappear on me for that long?" Sharif told BuzzFeed News. "You're obviously treating this as a low priority [even] knowing the urgency."
GoFundMe also suggested Sharif donate the money she raised for the center in Kabul to nonprofit organizations like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF.
Sharif eventually was granted access to the money raised on GoFundMe seven days after the fundraiser was created. But her experience with the platform was "horrifying," she said — not because the fundraiser was placed under review but because it took GoFundMe days to respond to her despite the gravity and urgency of the situation in Afghanistan.
"I'm still really horrified at what a low priority this was for you all," Sharif wrote to the company in an email thread. "Best of luck to whomever goes with you."
This article has been updated with additional comment from GoFundMe about the company’s current policies regarding fundraisers related to Afghanistan.