As suicide bombers struck the Kabul airport in Afghanistan on Thursday, killing at least 60 Afghans and 12 U.S. service members, a dozen men and women gathered outside the modest offices of the Center for Refugee Services in northwest San Antonio, pleading for help for extended family members left behind.
“It’s because of me” they are in danger, said Alex, who had worked for three years as an interpreter for the U.S. Army before he was issued a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) in 2017. His wife and two children accompanied him to San Antonio and a third child was born here. The San Antonio Report is not using Alex’s full name or the full names of others quoted in this article in order to protect the identity of their family members.
“I was the main person to work with the Army — I did everything for them,” Alex said. “That’s why [they target my family], and they really hate interpreters. They say we are like eyes for [the U.S.].”
Alex fears for the safety of his parents and two siblings, along with an uncle who had also worked as a driver for the U.S. government. The Taliban recently broke into his brother-in-law’s home, demanded money and weapons, and beat him. The family is in hiding, afraid to venture outside, said Alex.
Like other people with ties to Afghanistan, Alex has stayed in touch with family members there by phone and social media apps. Every day since Aug. 15, when the capital city of Kabul fell to the Taliban, trapping Americans and others, at least 20 men and women like Alex have lined up at the refugee services center, where the nonprofit’s two staffers and several volunteers are trying to help.
Most days, CRS provides basic services with education, health care, and employment to legally settled refugees from around the world, stepping in after federal aid ends and helping families integrate into the community.
The organization has continued its work through the pandemic by limiting the number of people who can enter its offices, assisting people in a small outdoor courtyard, and encouraging clients to wear face masks and be vaccinated, though many are reluctant.
The crisis in Afghanistan has prompted a new challenge, said Margaret Costantino, co-founder and executive director of CRS.
“We’ve been here since 2010 and we’ve seen many major international crises, but nothing like the fall of Kabul,” Costantino said.
About 20 people a day visit the CRS office asking how they can help stranded family members in Afghanistan. CRS provides them with a form to document names and ID or passport numbers and submits the information to the office of U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio), whose office is working with the State Department to help evacuate eligible Afghans.
“We don’t have a magic wand to get their families out faster,” said Aaron Tilt, who has been a CRS volunteer for three years. “All that we can do is take their information down and forward it to the U.S representative for this area.”
Castro’s office is making a list of the people who really need help, he said, the ones who need to leave the country as soon as possible. Tilt said he’s been helping SIV holders bring their families to the U.S. The process usually takes about a year, “which was no big deal when everything was stable there.”
A press secretary for Castro’s office confirmed it is tracking a number of cases, including those involving U.S. citizens, permanent residents, family members of San Antonians, and Afghans who worked with the U.S. military.
“San Antonio has a large military and veteran community that have forged close ties with Afghans during the war,” stated Alexis Torres in an email. “San Antonio also has a large Afghan refugee and immigrant community with family still in Afghanistan.”
Castro’s office has secured the evacuation of a number of families who are on their way home to San Antonio, but for security reasons, Torres could not provide specific numbers of those who remain in Afghanistan or the number of people who have been evacuated.
President Joe Biden said Wednesday the round-the-clock evacuation mission is a “tenuous situation.”
In San Antonio, one woman is watching the situation closely; her son is a U.S. Army service member deployed to Afghanistan in June for what was supposed to be a peaceful mission but is now engaged in helping people evacuate.
He is currently safe, she said, and not in an area where the bombings occurred Thursday. “We are all worried for him,” she said.
When a man named Safi came to the U.S., he didn’t think his family would ever be at risk.
“Everybody’s family is in danger” now, said Safi, who worked for the U.S. Army from 2011-15 as an interpreter based in Kandahar.
A month ago, Taliban fighters shot his brother, a taxi driver, then forced him out of the hospital where he was receiving care for the wounds. “America is not doing enough,” Safi said, concerned as much for his family as those who will be left behind, especially the women, he said.
In some cases, CRS allows clients to use a computer to complete forms the government requests. When Basir arrived at the office early Thursday morning, he told the staff that although he has a college degree in computer science and has lived in San Antonio for four years, he doesn’t have a system he can use to complete the online forms.
Basir’s entire family — a wife, two daughters, three brothers, five sisters, their children, and his parents — are in hiding a short drive from the Kabul airport. He told them to wait there until he completes their documents. The Taliban is stopping anyone who goes outside if they are trying to leave the country, Basir said.
Of the 2,500 clients registered with CRS, more than 600 are from Afghanistan, mostly people who hold SIVs, Costantino said. That number doesn’t include their children.
Locally, Catholic Charities and RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) hold contracts with the federal government to resettle refugees, securing housing and providing food assistance for six months. Costantino said the current crisis in Afghanistan could result in about 400 people being resettled in San Antonio in the coming weeks.
To prepare, CRS is accepting donations of new bedding, towels, diapers, and toiletries to assist the refugees when they arrive. Donations can be dropped off Friday at Resurgent Church, 8134 Fredericksburg Rd.
For Costantino, the aftermath of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan is the most heartbreaking thing she has ever seen.
“But I also know that once the refugees do arrive and they start a new life, their lives will be different,” she said. “These are our neighbors. Why shouldn’t we try and help them be successful?”