ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — While thousands of Americans and Afghan allies have left Afghanistan, what about those who have been left behind?
According to the Association of Wartime Allies, an estimated 65-thousand Special Immigrant Visa applicants, or SIVs, and their families are still in Afghanistan. These are people who have assisted the U.S. government over the past two decades, many as interpreters or translators.
Ellen Smith, the Executive Director of Keeping Our Promise, a local organization that helps resettle wartime allies, says many SIV families are desperate to leave.
“In a matter of two days, we had 2,186 requests to get out,” Smith said.
With the Taliban now in control, many of these SIV families fear for their lives because they have helped the U.S. government. The danger is even greater now that American troops have left.
“They knew exactly when the U.S., when the last plane took off, because the Taliban started firing celebratory gunshots all through the streets of Kabul, Smith said.
Smith said SIV families in Rochester have already seen their loved ones targeted in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban have already killed family members of our SIVS here in Rochester. And they just go into the houses, they take the men and shoot them, and they did this right in front of one of the wives,” Smith said.
“They’ve burned out their houses,” she continued. “They’ve arrested family members for being affiliated with the Americans. So I do not see how you can trust the Taliban on safe passage or a way out of Afghanistan given their behavior.”
Keeping Our Promise has helped 13 SIV families recently resettle. They have had 6 families that were supposed to come to Rochester and were not able to evacuate.
“The Taliban is not to be trusted. They’re not an organized, you know, military, like the US military. There’s no orders passed down,” Smith said.
Smith said it’s also bad for families who are in other provinces outside of Kabul.
“The Taliban started taking over the roads leading into these smaller cities, and nothing was done. Airports were still open, so you could fly out, but you couldn’t get out through ground transport to Kabul,” she said.
President Biden said Tuesday that the U.S. is committed to helping SIV families. More than 5,000 have been evacuated. Yet there are still many questions about how this assistance will happen. For one, the application process for SIVs can take a months, or even longer.
“Right now, the biggest stumbling block and that we helped on was people getting a human resources letter to verify their employment. And a letter of recommendation from their employer, it was a two-step process, just to get what was called chief of mission approval, just to get through that very first step,” Smith said.
As of this week, Smith said the system will begin using biometric data. Ellen said advocates have asked for over a year for this data to be used to help speed up the process.
“The people who have worked for the U.S., they’ve got Iris scans and fingerprints on them. This isn’t rocket science, there’s a database somewhere,” Smith said.
Once families do leave Afghanistan to come to the United States, they go through a vetting process. Many are brought to countries like Qatar or Kuwait first.
“For those who have gone to Qatar, there was a letter that it could take nine months to process them. And these are our SIV applicants who just filed their initial paperwork and did not have an interview. And then we have some wives who are in Qatar and have been told the same thing,” Smith said. “What I’ve said to people in Rochester is just realized that right now they’re safe. It may not be the best conditions, but at least they’re safe from the Taliban.”
While Keeping Our Promise and other organizations like the Catholic Family Center wait for more families to arrive to Rochester, Smith says she is grateful for the community and how they have stepped up to help during this time.
“I’m just really proud of what the people of Rochester have done, and I just want to say from my heart to the people of Rochester, thank you so much for being so kind and reaching out.”
To find out how you can help Keeping Our Promise, click here.