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A Dangerous Battle to Evacuate Afghan Nonprofit Workers

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Roya was the face of the modern young Afghan woman. As the leader of a girls’ club funded by the US government, she gave her troops a script for their lives that their mothers couldn’t emulate: They were just as powerful as boys in their ability to change their communities, she taught them. She worked for another small non-profit organization and helped build bonds between American and Afghan girls.

“I taught them that no one could shut us up or tell us something wasn’t possible just because we were girls,” she said.

After the Afghan government fell into the hands of Taliban insurgents, Roya and some of those she worked with knew they could be targeted. But without direct ties to the US military, they had no hope of boarding a government evacuation flight from Kabul. Instead, their non-governmental organization partners in the United States plotted a harrowing escape for Roya and some of her friends and family to neighboring Pakistan.

“The Taliban were looking for people who had worked with foreigners, and they captured them,” Roya, 20, said. “I had to save my life and that of my family.”

Among the vulnerable Afghans left behind after the US withdrawal last month were thousands of people who worked for small non-profit organizations, many of which were funded by the State Department or agencies such as the US Agency for International Development to promote women’s rights, education and promote social engagement. Because many of their employees are just as threatened as those directly employed by the US government, these tight money organizations have had to find their own ways to get people out.

Thousands of miles from Afghanistan, using their phones and laptops, US NGO leaders have scrambled to raise money, secure documents, find lawyers and arrange travel for employees and their families. They also help evacuate women whose jobs have put them on the Taliban’s list of potential targets, including some women who have trained Afghan police officers, lawyers and politicians.

“It’s like an underground railroad,” said Stephanie Sinclair, a photojournalist who founded Too Young to Wed in 2014 to empower girls and end child marriage. She arranged safe passage last week for 45 people from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where they awaited transfer to Albania, a way station for those hoping to resettle in the United States, Canada or another country.

Among them was a lawyer who had prosecuted divorce and child abuse cases, a girls’ rights campaigner who had received death threats, and a woman who had served on the gender unit of the National Election Commission.

“Small, grassroots NGOs are the ones who move mountains and do the heavy lifting to get people to safety,” said Ms Sinclair from New York.

Roya and her colleagues turned to Ben Schumaker for help, who had hired them in Kabul for the nonprofit he runs out of his garage in Madison, Wisconsin. “Our group is trying to fulfill our government’s promise to bring them to America,” he said.

With others from his organization, the Memory Project, Mr. Schumaker secretly transports Roya and the others to a hiding place in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. All in all, he managed to get 27 people affiliated with non-profit organizations to escape.

Several leaders of these groups said the Biden administration had raised false hopes when it announced in early August that it would expand access to the U.S. refugee program for their Afghan workers who did not qualify for the special immigrant visas offered to people such as interpreters, who had worked for the military. These workers could apply for a new “Priority 2” designation, the State Department said.

“They were excited to get on a plane to the US,” Schumaker recalled. “The reality was that they were never eligible for an evacuation flight. It was an empty promise.”

To even qualify for the program, applicants had to be outside Afghanistan, they were later told, and they would have to wait at least a year for US authorities to review their cases.

“The program was a huge red herring; a public relations stunt,” said Marina LeGree, founder of Ascend, a mountaineering program that aims to develop the physical and mental strength of teenage girls and young women through athletic activities and community service, such as mentoring orphans and learning to read from illiterate women. The government has recognized that resettlement can be a lengthy process.

Ascend managed to place eight female instructors prominently featured on the group’s website, along with some family members, on an evacuation flight to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on Aug. 22. veteran whose sister is a rock climber. Two of the families have been accepted by Denmark; four others through Germany. Two others hope to reach the United States.

Ms. LeGree then expanded her efforts to include others at risk, such as the organization’s driver and security guards, as well as athletes, many of whom are members of the Hazara minority.

The mother of small children, Ms. LeGree, has always been up, she said, calling every personal and professional contact she’d ever made, counting on the goodwill people have felt for her organization’s mission.

Sixty-eight people have been evacuated so far. Eighteen arrived in Chile on Wednesday, which offered them permanent residency. Ireland has said it will accept 20 girls, and Ascend hopes Poland and New Zealand will accept others.

“With Hook and Crook we get people out,” she said.

The Taliban has not banned non-governmental organizations from working in Afghanistan, and most groups hope to remain there even after removing staffers who believed their work promoting gender equality would be banned under the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam , who frowns on the public roles for women.

The Memory Project of Mr. Schumaker has been using portraits for 17 years to connect American youth and peers in more than 50 countries; he took the initiative to Afghanistan four years ago.

Photos of Afghan students are distributed to high school students in the United States, who then create handmade paintings and drawings of them, which are sent to their peers with a photo of themselves on the back.

Every year, about 1,000 portraits were shipped to Roya in Afghanistan, who, in addition to being the leader of a girls’ club, also organized ceremonies in schools for the delivery of the artwork. The high-profile events were festive, often attended by senior government officials.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, Roya Schumaker said she had been so outspoken in recent years that she feared reprisals.

In recent television appearances, she had said that her work with troupes from girl’s clubs to carry out community service projects, such as painting neglected city properties, might be opposed by some “close-minded” people. Roya had also said she wanted a “free and independent Afghanistan”.

When the Taliban invaded Kabul, the university where she studied journalism was closed and the non-profit organizations that employed her ceased operations. Secondary schools eventually reopened, but only boys were allowed to attend.

“Everything was shattered,” Roya said. “My life was in danger.”

She and her family had to flee.

Back in Wisconsin, Mr. Schumaker sent an email to his network of friends and family. The donations poured in, $5 to $5,000 each. Within a week he had $50,000.

On August 24, a group of nonprofit workers and their families, totaling 50 people, boarded a bus chartered in Kabul to take them to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Mr. Schumaker tapped a trusted contact to meet them on the other side.

He communicated with Roya via WhatsApp throughout the journey, which lasted 32 hours, including stops at Taliban checkpoints where the passengers never disclosed their true destination.

The scenes at the border resembled those at the Kabul airport earlier this month, with thousands of people huddled together for hours under the blazing sun, waiting to cross. At least one person was trampled.

Pakistani guards demanded permits to pass. Roya remembered crying as she begged, “Please let us in. Please. Our lives are in danger.”

Amid the chaos, the group split up. Several families, after assessing the risk, decided to return to Kabul.

Roya was distraught. She wrote to Mr. Schumacher that she would rather be shot than not cross the road.

On their fourth attempt, most families managed to cross, including Roya, her mother, sister and brother.

Their guide took them in a van to reach a guest house in the city of Quetta to get some rest before traveling to Islamabad, where they would live until they could be resettled in another country. They were stopped on the way by the police, who ordered them to turn around, and the guide appealed to the humanity of the officers and pointed to the tired women and children.

Twenty-seven people in six families, including 13 children, arrived in Islamabad this month. About 10 days later, Mr. Schumaker made a lightning visit to Islamabad to meet Roya and the others in person for the first time, with wads of cash to pay for rent, food and other basic necessities.

He’d had the illusion of taking them out for a nice meal, but everyone thought it was too risky to go out. Instead, Mr. Schumaker got takeaway food from an Afghan restaurant.

Back in the United States, Mr. Schumaker enlisted a childhood friend, a lawyer, to expedite the immigration paperwork for Roya’s family.

It was not clear how long that would take and Roya has already grown impatient.

“Let me fight again, let me work again,” she said.

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