A Talisman Against the Taliban

17 minute read
Klay, a National Book Award-winner, is the author of Missionaries and teaches at Fairfield University's MFA program. His new book is Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless War

Our Lady of the Manifest, who has travelled across continents from one volunteer for refugees to another, started with an atheist. When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Sara Gilliam, an Ontario-based working mother, volunteered to help at-risk Afghans navigate the global refugee system. 

When most people think of the Afghan evacuation, their minds turn to those critical days in August of 2021, when crowds surged around Kabul’s airport, desperate and doomed Afghans clung to the sides of planes taking off, and a suicide bomber murdered scores of Afghans and 11 U.S. Marines, one soldier, and one Navy Corpsman. But the evacuation of Afghans never ended. There was a pause in flights out of Kabul after August of 2021, but that was time volunteers like Sara used push paperwork through so that in a few months when flights were once more permitted, at-risk Afghans could get on planes.

It was around this time, in November of 2021, that an Afghan family who had arrived in Ontario finally got resettled in a house. Gilliam asked her local community for donations to furnish the home and one family offered a shelf and, well, something a bit more difficult to describe. It had a doll’s legless torso, about the size of an outstretched hand, blankly staring from a pale white face, draped in the blue and white robes of the Virgin Mary stretching down five and half bodiless feet. Perhaps the long robes were meant to give the sense of the Holy Mother ascending into Heaven, but she looks more like an unusually fashionable ghost. Which, even if the relocating family had been pious Catholics rather than refugees from a Muslim country that frowned on religious iconography, would have been bizarre. Better than a bacon-wrapped bust of Mohammed, but still not great. 

“Of course, I declined,” Gilliam said, “I felt like they’d been through enough.” But Gilliam, a joker and a gift-giver who sees laughter as a crucial element in keeping people going, posted a photo to a Slack channel for evacuation volunteers—and they were delighted. How hilarious! How creepy! How horrifying and sweet and inappropriate she was! And then Peter Lucier, a former Marine and Catholic volunteer, chimed in. “That’s not creepy. That’s Our Lady of the Manifest. She’s who we pray to, to get people on flights.” 

Yeah. OK. Why not? Getting someone on a manifest was the holy grail, and sometimes it seems to require divine assistance. “Everyone immediately got it,” Sara said, and Holy Mary, the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, Queen of Mercy, Queen of Martyrs, was bestowed a new name.

Objects such as Our Lady—devotional statues, charms, mascots—aren’t uncommon in violent places. The war correspondent Michael Herr recounted how in Vietnam American soldiers kept a dizzying array—five-pound Bibles from home, St. Christophers, mezuzahs, pictures of JFK, Che Guevara, Jimi Hendrix, a plastic wrapped oatmeal cookie. In World War I, there was the famous Notre Dame de Brebières, a Madonna atop a battered basilica who had originally held the Christ child in outstretched arms, but had been bent low above her artillery shattered church, giving the impression of a mother about to throw her child to the ground in disgust. Or sacrifice. “Our Lady of the Limp,” as she was called by the skeptical, gathered myth around her with, as writer Paul Fussell put it, “an urgency born of the most touching need.”

Our Lady of the Manifest doll
The Our Lady of the Manifest dollPeter Lucier

Our Lady of the Manifest, though, hasn’t been circulating through war zones but through small town Ontario, big city London and D.C., and the St. Louis suburbs. Her caretakers aren’t at risk themselves, but live a split screen existence where, through the terrible magic of technology, they get the horror and complacency of modern life all at once, receiving photos of friends released from Taliban custody in Afghanistan while running the local carpool for their kids after school. 

There are no genuinely good times in refugee work. Even when you’re successful, that only means that you have helped refugees lose everything but their lives—possessions, home, business, fortune, job, purpose, land, mountains, fields, mosque, community, neighbors, streets, language—successfully.

Nevertheless, there are gradations of suffering, and while it is not exactly happy work to help people flee the land of their childhood impressions, first loves, and native tongue, it is better than failing to help people flee. And so as January of 2022 came around, and flights out of Afghanistan stalled, a more difficult period began. Which is when Gilliam sent Our Lady overseas to Laura Deitz.

Deitz is also a working mother, with a job in London’s financial sector. She’d met Gilliam years before, working on the Syrian refugee crisis, but had found her way into the male-heavy world of the Afghan evacuation. Together they’d created Task Force Nyx, a small volunteer group attempting to aid at-risk women fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of the country. There were plenty of groups focusing on Afghans who’d worked for the U.S., especially former interpreters, but they wanted to reach out to people they considered “the bravest women’s rights activists in the world.” The pair had a shared sense of humor. Unlike Gilliam, though, Dietz is a believer, a pastor’s kid and a church-going Protestant from a Southern Baptist background.

Faith can be an asset in such work. You can get every necessary document in order, push your case through the sluggish and unresponsive refugee system, get every name of the family you’re working with on a flight manifest, and somewhere between that Afghan family’s home and the airport they can run into the “18-year-old with a gun” problem—a young Afghan running a Taliban checkpoint who doesn’t have much respect for international agreements or paperwork and who might be in a bad mood, or struck by how a woman is dressed, or acting, or who just doesn’t like the idea of a family who wants to flee the country. Everything can fall apart in a moment, and even Gilliam the atheist was known to demand prayers while Afghans were passing through checkpoints (“I’ve never been commanded to pray so much by an atheist,” Deitz jokes).

But at first, religion had very little to do with Deitz’s relationship with Our Lady. She was a source of humor. And so as Deitz was working difficult cases, like the Afghan whose recommendation for visa status couldn’t be verified because his former boss been taken captive by the Haqqani network, she was also bringing Our Lady to Maddam Taussad’s to have Our Lady take a selfie with a wax statue of Donald Trump, to post on volunteer forums and to generate a few laughs.

And then, in January of 2022, about five months into her work with Task Force Nyx, something shifted. At that point a breakdown in negotiations had stopped government sponsored flights out of the country for over a month, and four of the women whose cases Nyx had been working on had been rounded up. “It was our first experience of having any at-risk Afghans that we were in contact with arrested and tortured by the Taliban,” she said. There was very little she could do. And so, half as a joke, she turned to Our Lady of the Manifest. 

“I’m trying to come up with a prayer,” she told Peter Lucier, the Catholic veteran who’d given Our Lady her name. And that night Lucier responded with a new version of a four hundred year old Catholic hymn, the Salve Regina. “Hail, Holy Queen of Manifests, to you do we cry,” he wrote, “To you do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” For a moment, Our Lady felt a little less like a joke, and more like a companion on a painful road.

Discussing Our Lady now, Deitz is at pains to note that the goofing around she’s done doesn’t suggest a lack of seriousness about the horrors Afghans are facing. “There is a real isolation among volunteers who are doing this work,” she explains. “We aren't trained to interact with torture survivors. And not only is it the immediate trauma that people experience, but it's the fact that you know people with a dedicated U.S. pathway still languishing in a country run by terrorists 18 months later, so I probably can't underscore the toll that this mentally and emotionally takes on anyone who's trying to help.”

Humor is a response to that—not just a point of connection but a reflection of priorities. Kathleen Stokker, in her survey of humor during the Nazi occupation of Norway, notes that while Norwegians rarely made jokes about Nazi treatment of Jews, Danish humor is full of jokes about Nazi anti-Semitism. Stokker thinks it is no accident that, while half of Norway’s Jews were murdered, over 99% of Denmark’s Jews survived the Holocaust, the result of widespread resistance in which the Danish resistance helped evacuate 7,220 Jews and 686 non-Jewish spouses to Sweden. As Stokker notes, “What a country jokes about, it also takes most seriously.”

The Our Lady of the Manifest doll with a wax statue of Donald Trump
The Our Lady of the Manifest doll with a wax statue of Donald TrumpPeter Lucier

Eventually flights resumed, but cracks were appearing in the overall health of the evacuation community. So in the summer of 2022, Laura Dietz sent Our Lady to Kate Kovarovic, then the Director of Resilience Programming for the Afghan Evacuation Coalition, a group of 200 volunteer organizations working toward the safe resettlement of Afghan allies.

Kate, a lawyer in D.C. who grew up in a religious household but considers herself agnostic, was helping set up virtual support groups, developing a network of therapists offering 30 free minutes sessions for people in crisis, organizing training for how to deal with trauma victims and get help specific to this kind of work, and trying to create resources for Afghans as well (while also working cases with Task Force Nyx and other groups…she was busy).

“The amount of human suffering in our chat rooms is unimaginable to people who haven’t witnessed it,” Kate says. Veterans who served and bled with Afghan interpreters are watching former allies be left behind by an indifferent nation. Occasionally, Afghans are murdered. Jeff Phaneuf, Director of Advocacy for No One Left Behind, the largest volunteer organization working to assist Afghans who served the U.S. as interpreters, noted that when the organization surveyed it’s 16,000 contacts in August 2022 it found 180 clear instances of Afghans killed while waiting on a visa, with a 80 further possible murders they’re looking into. One of Peter Lucier’s colleagues at Team America, an Army veteran moved to do this work because of the translator who saved his life, had a case early on with a woman on a kill list who had been severely beaten by the Taliban and was in a hospital under a false name. With fluid in her lungs and a chest tube inserted, she would send him voice memos, pleading for her life, asking, “Why are our lives not worth saving?” To which he had no good answer. Why was his government so indifferent?  

“This isn’t just, we’re a little stressed,” Kate explains. “We have volunteers who have experienced repeated cardiac events because of stress. Women who have experienced miscarriages because of stress.”

At the very mention of Our Lady, though, Kate throws her head back and laughs. “Oh, she’s done so much for me,” she says.  And what exactly does she do? She startles Kate’s guests, provides a companion for her semi-feral cat from Kuwait, receives beer offerings, and occasionally speaks to something a little deeper. 

“When Pete wrote that prayer I was surprised by how moved I was,” she says. “We need her. We need those moments when we can recognize that our best hope is prayer. We can help with paperwork and moving people and pickup up their texts in their time of crisis, but we are extremely limited in what we can do in this realm. And we hit the end very quickly and it’s such a blunt force to your spirit.”

A year’s worth of blunt force to the spirit had left Peter Lucier in need of help. In January 2023 he sought VA mental health care for the first time since he’d left the Marine Corps a decade before, when he’d served as an infantryman in Afghanistan’s violent Helmand Province. And strangely, fortuitously, maybe or maybe not miraculously, the very week he sought therapy Our Lady arrived in the mail. 

In addition to his own mental health issues, another dark period had set in for evacuation work, with flights stalling out and mounting fatigue and frustration about the lack of progress. There wasn’t a lot to feel good about. “I opened up the package,” he said, “and just had the biggest smile on my face.”

At this point, it’s hard to say exactly what Our Lady is. A joke, a memento, a meme, a devotional object? When asked about the prayer, at first Lucier dismissed it, calls it “a parody,” and then said he was embarrassed by it. But reading the words aloud, he choked up. 

“I suppose I’m embarrassed because it’s sincere,” he said, noting how the line about sending up sighs of mourning and weeping in this vale of tears has always meant a lot to him. “Doubt and despair is a part of this. And there’s a good tradition of Catholic prayers that recognize pain in the world.”

There’s also a good tradition of sacred objects of varying strangeness, from miraculous medals and blessed rosaries to alleged pieces of the true cross and severed body parts. Catholicism is not a religion purely of the head, or a set of propositions one assents to. It is a religion of the body, of the material world infused with the sacred. As the great Catholic poet and World War I veteran David Jones noted, “Angels only: no sacrament. Beasts only: no sacrament. Man: sacrament at every turn and all levels of the ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’, in the trivial and the profound, no escape from sacrament.”

So perhaps Our Lady, absurd and grotesque and touching and beautiful and silly, coming to believer and nonbeliever alike in a guise meant to provoke laughter, is a fitting respite in hard times, inviting ironic devotion while every once in a while making space for something more sincere, more desperate, a prayer than cannot be fully admitted to in a world that rarely answers prayers.

“In the first few weeks, we were sort of able to get support,” Kate says, noting the surge of enthusiasm for Afghan refugees as Kabul was falling and Afghans were literally clinging to the sides of departing aircraft in their desperation and terror. “And then over the past year and a half that's waned to a point where it's practically non-existent.” 

No One Left Behind estimates that there are close to 200,000 people still in Afghanistan eligible for visas set aside for Afghans and their family members who are at risk because of work they did for America. That doesn’t count the women’s rights activists Task Force Nyx is working on. And those who do make it out often exist in an indeterminate legal space because of the inaction of governments to give them permanent status. “Within any given month, we're providing financial support to 60 to 80 or more people,” Dietz says, along with emergency micro grants to activists, pay for safe movement within country, and other expenses that arise.

Many of the people evacuation volunteers are trying to help are literally starving. In August 2022, when No One Left Behind asked Afghans applying to leave about the conditions they lived under, only 5.5% reported being able to feed their families. “Those numbers are likely worse now,” Phaneuf said. 

As Lucier was starting therapy, Kate was working on the case of a 5-year-old girl with what the State Department has classified as a “skin condition,” making her a lower priority. Her whole body is covered in in blisters, which get infected, requiring hospitalizations. Her esophagus is so scarred that she can't eat solid foods. “She's currently the size of an 18 month, old and she is starting to lose her vision,” Kate siad. “But because the State Department classifies this as a skin disability, we haven't been able to get any movement. So she is still living in a refugee site without access to even clean bandages, let alone consistent health care. I am actively watching a 5-year-old lose her childhood.” 

There’s nothing special about Kate or Sara or Laura or Peter that singled them out for this work. Two working moms. A lawyer in D.C. moved by how betrayed veterans felt by the abandonment of our allies. A recent law school grad trying to deal with his mental health before taking the bar exam. Anyone with an internet connection could have done this. No travel necessary. Training happened on the fly, in the midst of an unfolding crisis where the rules changed daily. In the modern world it’s easy for any of us to reach out and connect with the desperate.

Mostly, we don’t. It’s hard, and Afghanistan doesn’t leave much for Americans to feel good about. A failed war and a failed evacuation and no easy partisan blame to go around, with a Democratic administration that activists complain has dragged its feet and a set of Republican immigration hawks in Congress who have blocked even modest efforts to help Afghans who have fought for America and who have faced genuine threats, been attacked or sent into hiding or had the Taliban roll a grenade into their home where their 18-month-old daughter was sleeping.

Nevertheless, those with a personal connection have kept working the issue. Congressman Jason Crow from Colorado, a former Army Ranger who claims, “Had it not been for our Afghan partners I might not be here,” has a variety of proposals, from improvements to remote processing capabilities, helping interagency coordination, and, crucially, expanding the number of visas.

“I believe in this new honest American patriotism which allows us to have more honest conversations about the unfulfilled promise but also opportunity of America,” he says. “Therein lies our essential greatness, to self-correct, and to improve.” Which means that, while he argues the decision to withdrawal from Afghanistan was a courageous one, that doesn’t mean mistakes weren’t made in how it was done, and especially in how we treated our partners. In June he helped introduce bipartisan legislation that would increase the number of visas for Afghans, and earlier this year he proposed an amendment to the last National Defense Authorization Act to create a centralized database for tracking local partners in future conflicts. That amendment failed. Maybe next year.

To those within the community, such proposals seem obvious and sensible. But those in the community know better than most how little room we leave for the obvious and the sensible. The grotesque and the absurd demand their place in the halls of power, too.

Until then, they’ve got Our Lady, grotesque and absurd as she is, touching and earnest as she can be, to help atheist and believer alike deliver prayers into the charnel-house we’ve made of the world.

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