ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — For years, Afghan families have risked their lives to support U.S.-led missions in Afghanistan, but as U.S. troops leave the country, there’s concern over the safety of these families from the Taliban.
Many of these families rely on Special Immigrant Visas, or SIV’s, to get to the United States for safety. But local Afghans and organizations say these visas have to be given out quicker.
Walid Omid Habibi came to the United States with his dad in May. His father had a special immigrant visa after working for U.S. troops for more than a decade. It took him 14 years to get the visa and he was given three days to leave.
Habibi’s wife, three children, and his mother are still in Afghanistan.
“Our case has not still closed. My mom is in Afghanistan, she’s waiting for her visa for medical check up and her visa,” Habibi said. “It’s a long time and a very complicated process.”
Habibi says he’s concerned for his family’s safety because of their involvement with U.S. troops. He says the Taliban sees those who help American soldiers as enemies.
“We have some examples where the Taliban couldn’t find the person who worked directly for the U.S. army so they found the family members and just killed or arrested that person,” Habibi said.
That danger is why Habibi is one of many calling on the U.S. government to speed up the special immigrant visa process.
“The Afghanistan situation is getting worse and there’s lots of thousands of people waiting for their SIV visas,” Habibi said. “If there’s a way that we speed this process it would be much better for those people who serve for U.S. Army and right now, they need our help.”
Ellen Smith, the Executive Director of Keeping Our Promise, works around the clock to help these families find safety and resources in the U.S.
“These folks helped us. They thought they could make a difference for their nation, but the bottom line is the Taliban considers them infidels and that they should die. The Taliban has said this time and time again, they have said it on tape, they have publicized this,” Smith said.
Keeping Our Promise is a Rochester organization that helps Afghan, Iraqi and Kurdish interpreters and support personnel get to the city. Smith says families arrive with very little.
“Rochester is one of 25 cities listed by the State Department for SVI resettlement. So they eventually get help from Catholic Family Center as a refugee agency, but when they first come, they are not registered with the Catholic Family Center. They are not like a typical refugee, so they can leave Afghanistan as soon as they get their visas, but they need somewhere to go to,” Smith said.
Keeping Our Promise provides things like housing, transportation, and furniture to these families.
Habibi said he is so grateful for all the organization has done for him and his father.
“They are helping with some paper works, apartments, doctor appointments and some legal issues that we need so we are quite happy with our KOP,” Habibi said.
Tom Rusling, a local philanthropist who supports Keeping Our Promise, says this organization is very important to the Rochester community.
“If there is anything that is a hallmark of our country, it’s that people can come here and make something of themselves and be contributors to the general welfare of everybody else,” Rusling said. “There’s just so much need here and for us to be sitting here comfortable, safe, and secure in our homes… and there are people whose lives are at hazard… they are being burned, they are being beheaded. It’s awful.”
Smith said legally the SIV process should take 9 months, but some people who submitted applications years ago are still waiting.
“The process has sped up for those who are filling their paperwork in 2020, we’re getting some of them here now, but we have many people stuck in what’s called administrative processing, who filed back in 2015, 2016 and they are still not here today,” Smith said.
Smith is asking the government to provide immediate humanitarian parole for these families so they can leave the country quicker.
“What we are asking and pleading with the U.S. Government, with members of Congress, is please have a humanitarian parole process in place so people like Walid can get their family members over here,” Smith said.
President Biden mentioned last week that has given out 2,500 visas since becoming President, but only half of those recipients choose to leave Afghanistan. Smith says the cost of flying is expensive and many people don’t have the money for tickets. She also said sometimes one person in a family will be approved for an SIV, but not others. This can make it difficult for them to leave the country.
On Tuesday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced a new bill to protect Afghan civilians who supported U.S. troops. The Afghan Allies Protection Act would increase the number of SIVs, remove extra paperwork requirements and improve the program’s efficiency as troops withdraw.
According to a press release, the legislation would provide immediate improvements and strengthen efficiency of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program by:
- Increasing the number of authorized visas;
- Changing the employment requirement for eligibility from two years to one year;
- Postponing the required medical exam until the applicant and their family have arrived in the United States;
- Removing the requirement for a credible sworn statement regarding the threat an applicant faces;
- Removing the “sensitive and trusted” requirement for International Security Assistance Force and Resolute Support employment; and
- Providing for Special Immigrant status for certain surviving spouses and children of murdered applicants.
To learn more about how you can help the families Keeping Our Promise serves, click here.