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‘Completely Helpless.’ Afghan Americans Scramble to Help Family Back Home

6 minute read

As President Joe Biden prepared to address the nation on the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on Monday, Mariam Mustafa sat in her car a few blocks from the White House, exhausted.

The past four nights had been a sleepless blur as she watched the terror of Afghans desperate to escape all over television and social media—including her own family members. She had called and emailed lawmakers, recruited others for protests, and set up GoFundMe fundraisers for the visas of strangers who contacted her on Snapchat. Finally she had asked to take the day off work, driving into the city with a sign reading, “We stood together shoulder to shoulder, but you left us there to bleed.”

“You feel completely helpless,” says Mustafa, 30, who was born in Kabul and came to Springfield, Virginia with her family when she was four years old. “It’s overwhelming. I can’t eat, I can’t do any of my daily tasks. I’m in America but my heart’s been in Afghanistan.”

Mustafa’s frustration was echoed by more than a dozen Afghan Americans living in northern Virginia—the country’s second-largest Afghan diaspora—who spoke to TIME. Most have been fielding a constant barrage of messages between Afghanistan, Europe and the U.S. as they try to figure out what the country’s rapid fall to the Taliban will mean for friends and family. They felt blind-sided by the chaotic manner of the U.S. withdrawal; the confusion, the speed of the country’s collapse, and the unyielding wall of bureaucracy have left them without a realistic roadmap to evacuate loved ones who will be targeted by the new regime, they say. While their neighbors argued about political blame and long-term consequences, for them the tragic scenes overseas are personal. Mustafa’s father, who was there on a visit, had left Kabul just three days before the city fell.

The U.S. already faces a major backlog for the special immigrant visas promised to Afghans who worked alongside American troops. An estimated 20,000 Afghans who risked their lives helping U.S. and international forces, as well as 53,000 of their family members, are currently waiting for their visas to be processed. As the U.S. moved forward with its military withdrawal earlier this summer, a bipartisan group of 20 lawmakers repeatedly expressed concern that the government was not moving quickly enough to streamline or accelerate the process. “The current SIV process will not work,” they wrote in a letter to Biden on June 4. “It takes an average of 800+ days, and we plan to withdraw in less than 100 days.”

Feeling like they’re out of options, Afghan-Americans in the Washington area have been organizing daily protests outside the White House asking the U.S. government to protect the people they left behind.

“My generation will not sit back and watch these atrocities happen without our voices being heard, even if some of us have never even been to Afghanistan,” says Diana Wassel, 26, whose parents left Kabul after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and whose extended family settled in Fairfax, Virginia. “We feel a deep connection to our roots and are the children that witnessed 9/11 happen at a young age.”

More than 300 Afghan Americans and supporters protested outside the White House on Sunday, with signs reading “Don’t let history repeat!,” “Save Afghan Lives” and “20 years of war for what?” They said the execution of the U.S. retreat had been a betrayal of the promises made to their community. Wassel is working with other young Afghan Americans in more than 30 cities to plan a bigger protest on Aug. 28.

Over the past two decades, Afghan Americans often found themselves intentionally or unintentionally acting as ambassadors for the U.S. mission in the country, feeling like they had to reassure family, friends or colleagues that the United States would stand by its promises.

“I became a bridge between these two countries,” says Alaha Ahrar, 29, who came to the U.S. in 2008 on a scholarship to attend university in Virginia. “And now everyone is calling me and asking me for help, thinking that since I’m in America I can do something for them. But I cannot do anything.”

Even worse, she says, many Afghans and Afghan Americans living in the Washington area like herself have long been involved in charity and educational projects in the country, often backed by U.S. officials. They now fear that has left the very people they meant to help named, exposed, and in immediate danger.

Ahrar, who runs a non-profit that works with vulnerable and displaced women and children in Afghanistan, says she has six staff members in the country. The nature of their work meant they were well-known faces in their communities for working with an American organization. A quick Google search would immediately reveal YouTube videos of their projects, or even photos of some of them with the U.S. ambassador. Some of them have already fled their hometowns after the Taliban went door to door asking about them, she said. “We received praises from people, from officials, with everyone saying they appreciated the work that we were doing, but now we find out that this will actually give these employees a death sentence,” says Ahrar. (The Taliban has vowed not to retaliate against those who worked for foreigners, but few trust the promise with reports of reprisal killings emerging in areas they now control.)

Now, Ahrar and others say they fear time is running out as they watch the hasty evacuations continue with little clarity as to whether the visas will come through. They say they haven’t been reassured by Biden’s remarks. On Monday, the President claimed “some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier” because they were “still hopeful for their country.”

Mustafa stood in the rain outside the White House while Biden spoke that day, huddled with a small group holding Afghan flags. She has a cousin whose special visa application has been pending since 2016, and who has been posting on social media about feeling abandoned. “My family and I were able to escape from that, right?” says Mustafa. “Why her and why not me? She is me.”

With reporting by Kim Dozier/Washington

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com