Hosnah Safi waves an Afghanistan flag at a protest outside the Colorado Capitol on Aug. 19, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)
After Thursday’s storm clouds broke over the Colorado Capitol in Denver, about 200 protesters gathered with signs and flags to call for resources and raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
“We’re here to show solidarity to those who have been stripped to the bones of their humanity for far too long,” said Samiya Azizi, who began her address to the crowd by acknowledging the rally fell on Afghan Independence Day — under normal circumstances, a time to celebrate.
“I’ve been having a really hard time expressing the magnitude of pain that I feel for my birthplace and for my people,” Azizi continued. “Yet … my roots are the only thing that are helping me stand grounded at the moment.”
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A Facebook event labeled the gathering an “emergency protest.”
“We demand an end to the killing, displacement, and suffering of Afghans, and to end all proxy wars,” the event description said. “We ask the (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and refugee host countries to create an expedited refugee resettlement process for all Afghans, and the US government to reconsider its agreement with the Taliban.”
The event organizers sought to avoid making geopolitical statements in speeches at the rally. This sentiment was put to the test near the beginning of the rally.
The group of young adults who organized the protest and their supporters in the crowd successfully drowned out the shouts of at least two men who called for sanctions on Pakistan — apparently because of that country’s role in providing a safe haven for the Taliban.
“The point isn’t to bash a certain side,” Zainab Hashem, an organizer, explained after the tense moment was over. “The point is to get help for our people. Because when we start dividing up our people, fighting will happen. We are all here for the common purpose of peace.”
One of the men, Aurangzaib Sharifi, told The Denver Post he felt that many young Afghan Americans did not understand the history or political context behind what is happening in Afghanistan.
Immigrants caught in a backlog
On Sunday, Taliban forces swiftly recaptured Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, following the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from the country. In recent days, thousands of troops were deployed to Kabul to help secure the airport and evacuate American citizens and Afghan allies — bringing the total to roughly 5,000 U.S. troops.
Thousands of Afghans who assisted the U.S. military during its 20-year “war on terror,” many in roles as translators or interpreters, fear retribution at the hands of the Taliban. But as of late July, an estimated 18,000 Afghan people seeking special immigrant visa status based on their work assisting U.S. troops were caught in a paperwork backlog.
Those 18,000 principal applicants were also seeking protection for approximately 53,000 family members in Afghanistan.
Hosnah Safi, a Denver native whose parents fled Afghanistan, was waving an Afghan flag outside the Colorado Capitol on Thursday. Safi said she has friends and family members who are trying to leave the country, because “nobody wants to live under the Taliban rule.”
“I’m hoping that (the U.S.) will help remove any Afghan citizens who want to leave, especially high-risk women, children, LGBT, journalists, photographers, artists,” she said. “The people who have worked diligently to rebuild Afghanistan over the last 20 years are those of the highest risk right now.”
Eventually, that should expand to “anybody who wants to leave,” she added.
Elected officials urge evacuation of Afghans
Colorado’s U.S. Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, both Democrats, were among a bipartisan group of 46 senators who signed on to a Monday letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, urging them to create a humanitarian parole category for “women leaders, activists, human rights defenders, judges, parliamentarians, journalists and members of the Female Tactical Platoon of the Afghan Special Security Forces.”
Despite the Taliban’s claims that their government will be more inclusive of women than the last time the fundamentalist militant group controlled Afghanistan, many in the U.S. and abroad remain skeptical.
“We are gravely concerned about the safety of women leaders, activists, judges, parliamentarians and human rights defenders,” the senators wrote. “In areas captured by the Taliban, there are reports of war crimes including summary executions, public beatings and flogging of women, sexual violence and forced marriage, as well as clampdowns on media and other forms of communication.”
U.S. governors from both major political parties, including Colorado’s Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, offered to help resettle displaced Afghans.
“I am saddened and troubled by the news out of Afghanistan, and I want you to know that Colorado stands ready to provide safety and opportunity to Afghan refugees and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders,” Polis wrote in a Wednesday letter to Biden. “I urge the Biden administration to act quickly to evacuate and resettle eligible Afghans as there are lives at stake.”
Colorado stands ready to provide safety and opportunity to Afghan refugees.
– Gov. Jared Polis
The U.S. provides special immigrant visas for Afghans who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. military or International Security Assistance Force as interpreters or translators, and those who performed “sensitive and trusted activities” for the U.S. military. Congress authorized 4,000 visas for this program in December 2020.
Colorado as of mid-August was still seeing “small numbers” of special immigrant visa arrivals, Madlynn Ruble, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Human Services, s said in a Monday email.
“We’re not anticipating a huge increase in the immediate term,” Ruble said. “That can change quickly, but as of right now, that’s what we see.”
Around half of all refugees and special immigrant visa holders who arrived in Colorado from October 2020 through July 2021 were people originally from Afghanistan, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center that’s operated by the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
Colorado accepted 113 Afghan SIV holders from Oct. 1 through July 31, the data show. In July alone, 42 of those people arrived in the state.
Another four Afghans — who were approved as refugees outside the SIV program — arrived in Colorado in May, the data show.
Amid the chaos as thousands attempt to board flights leaving Afghanistan, 12 people have been killed in and around Kabul’s airport since Sunday, Reuters reported on Friday.
It’s unclear how long the U.S. military will secure the airport and assist with evacuations, though lawmakers including Democratic U.S. Rep. Jason Crow of Aurora have urged President Joe Biden to help for as long as needed.
“All of my mom’s side is in Afghanistan right now, and they all want to get out,” said Maryam Aryan, who was born in the U.S. but has visited Afghanistan several times. “They’re in a very difficult situation where they want to leave. They have to leave a country that’s the only country that they’ve known.”
Aryan fears for her family’s safety under the Taliban. It’s unclear when, if ever, they will be able to leave the country, she said at Thursday’s rally.
“Recently my uncle has passed away, and so he leaves behind his wife and four daughters — so he has no sons or anything,” she said. “The Taliban is attacking women, especially younger girls, so I’m very worried about them and worried for their safety the most. And then I have a bunch of other young cousins that I’m just worried about.”
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