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Here Are Some Of The Afghans Scrambling To Get Exit Visas After The US Withdrawal

"The [American] government is leaving us behind for the enemy to cut our heads off," one interpreter said. "I just need a safe place for now."

Posted on August 20, 2021, at 5:02 p.m. ET

Paula Bronstein / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Abdul Rashid Shirzad poses at his home July 1st, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan.


Abdul Rashid Shirzad is one of many interpreters and support staffers to the American military apparatus in Afghanistan who have been left scrambling for visas to exit the country out of fear of repercussions for their work as Kabul falls to the Taliban.

"We have protected [American] brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and sons in the Army. Now their government is leaving us behind for the enemy to cut our heads off,” Shirzad, an interpreter who worked for the US Navy SEALs in Afghanistan, told BuzzFeed News.

Paula Bronstein, who has been working as a photojournalist in Afghanistan throughout the 20-year war, documented those seeking a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to leave the country.

According to the State Department, any Afghan or Iraqi citizen who has worked directly for the US military or the embassy is eligible for an SIV, but the visa requirements exclude anyone who was hired through a contracting agency, and only 50 visas are allocated per fiscal year.

The visas are in high demand as the country’s capital fell faster than anticipated, leaving many uncertain about their future under the Taliban.

Paula Bronstein / Pulitzer Center / Getty Images

Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants crowd into the Herat Kabul internet café seeking help applying on Aug. 8, 2021, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"The withdrawal put lots of lives in danger,” Shirzad told BuzzFeed News via text message. "The Embassy put lots of lives in danger since a long time ago for denying [visas] for no reason."

The SIV process is cumbersome and often opaque, relying on luck and, in some cases, who you know. Shirzad’s initial request for a visa in 2016 was denied for reasons unknown to him. He is now being relocated to Ukraine with the help of an aid organization that has been facilitating visas out of Afghanistan, although his flight is delayed indefinitely due to space issues on American bases.

"I just need a safe place for now," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's Ukraine or any other country."

Same Sharifi, an interpreter, sent an audio message to Bronstein on Thursday as he approached the Kabul airport to try to leave Afghanistan on an SIV. In his message, gunshots can be heard in the background. Thousands of people trying to evacuate overran the airport this week, in scenes that have shocked the world. Sharifi said he received an email from the US Embassy instructing him to go to the airport, only to wait outside the Taliban-controlled gates for hours overnight. As evacuations from other nations were prioritized over SIV cases, he was forced to leave and try again another day.

Paula Bronstein / Pulitzer Center / Getty Images

Abdul Rashid Shirzad poses with his family: Ali Omid, 8; Ali Akbar, 7; his wife, Nargis; and their youngest child Ali Abbas, 2, at his home July 1, 2021, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The Special Immigrant Visa program, which was created by Congress in 2006, has been criticized before for its backlogs and delays. The program was temporarily expanded in 2008 and 2009 to allocate 500 visas per year before being restricted again in 2010.

It is estimated that thousands of Afghans have worked for the American military and the US Embassy over the course of two decades, many with informal quid pro quo agreements to help the superpower in exchange for access to a visa. Over 20,000 Afghans have applied for the program since it was created. In order to be granted a SIV, the applicant must submit a referral letter from a general or flag officer, something Bronstein said is a massive hurdle.

“They just assume that Afghans understand how to fill out the forms properly, how to get updated HR letters that are not possible to get,” Bronstein said. “We're talking about two decades of war. If you finished up in 2014, well, how the hell are they going to get updated contact information?”

She described scenes of chaos at the passport office, with long lines and anxious crowds of people clutching documents to submit in the weeks leading up to the fall of Kabul. The lines were also long at internet cafés, where Afghans waited for hours to pay to use computers to file paperwork or check their visa status.

Desperate calls for help went out on social media. Lawmakers, aid groups, and veterans scrambling to try to help friends and former colleagues left behind in Kabul.

“The US created all that. Why the hell was it so disorganized and bungled and done at such a slow, bureaucratic pace in 2021?” Bronstein told BuzzFeed News. She also noted that in addition to American troops pulling out, the US Embassy has closed, and many aid groups in the country have left. As a result, programs that provided jobs, food, schooling, and other resources have disappeared.

"Now we have a situation where we leave a country in tatters with a government that may or may not be internationally recognized and will cause all sorts of other problems," Bronstein said. “Look at the girls at school, the young people who just want to achieve something in their lives. How does it work for them in the end?"

Paula Bronstein / Pulitzer Center / Getty Images

Shamila Sharifi, the wife of Special Immigrant Visa applicant Same Sharifi, 32, holds Osman, 8 months, in their home on the second day of Eid al-Adha holiday July 21, 2021, in Kabul.

Paula Bronstein / Pulitzer Center / Getty Images

Special Immigrant Visa applicant Abdul Rashid Shirzad holds a snapshot taken in 2011, during his time as combat translator.

Paula Bronstein / Pulitzer Center / Getty Images

Afghans wait in long lines for hours at the passport office as many are desperate to have their travel documents ready to go.

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Special Immigrant Visa applicant Same Sharifi poses with wife Shamila and his children Osman, Zahra, and Zainab at their home on July 21st, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Same worked with the US Embassy as a translator since 2017, finishing his job on May 1st, and he awaits his SIV application approval.

Paula Bronstein / Pulitzer Center / Getty Images

Yousef Mohammed stands with his two sons at his home, using a gas lamp during one of the many power outages on July 30, 2021, in Kabul. He worked as a combat translator for the US Army for five years in Laghman Province and says that when he requested a noncombat mission out of fear for his life, he was terminated.

Paula Bronstein / Pulitzer Center / Getty Images

Afghans crowd into the Herat Kabul internet café to apply for the SIV program.

Paula Bronstein / Pulitzer Center / Getty Images

SIV applicant Mohammed Arif Ahmadzai holds an image of himself with US military personnel while at his home on Aug.1, 2021, in Kabul. Mohammed worked for almost eight years as a combat translator for the US Army, the Marines, as well as on the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and the Special Forces in Kunar Province. He applied for the SIV and paid over $2,000 for the visa and medical fees, but was denied in 2014 without what he viewed as sufficient explanation. He is currently appealing his case.

Paula Bronstein / Pulitzer Center / Getty Images

SIV applicant Mohammed Arif Ahmadzai poses with his family at their home in Kabul.

Paula Bronstein / Pulitzer Center / Getty Images

SIV applicant Nazifa Sultani, 43, poses near her home on July 31 in Kabul. Nazifa worked from 2014 to 2021 for various security companies, including US and UK government contractors, cleaning their villas. She is still struggling to get the necessary paperwork to complete her SIV application.


UPDATE

Two images have been removed from this post, and the lead image has been replaced to better reflect the story.




A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.