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Los Angeles Activist Helps Afghans Find Refuge

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The process to leave Afghanistan and try to find refuge abroad is fraught with danger and confusion for many Afghans. Thursday's deadly bombing has only increased their challenges. Afghans living around the world are trying to console family members and friends on how to leave and reach safety. One of those trying to guide people through the process is Arash Azizizada, who is a community organizer in Los Angeles and co-founder of Afghans For A Better Tomorrow. He joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

ARASH AZIZIZADA: Hi, Scott. Thanks for having me on.

SIMON: What are you hearing?

AZIZIZADA: I'm hearing desperation and pleas for evacuations both on the phone, on every inbox that I have, whether that's email or social media. I'm hearing about folks who are being targeted for a variety of reasons - member of civil society, members of the queer and trans community in Afghanistan, journalists, entrepreneurs, outspoken women, as well as folks from the Hazara and Shia community, who are especially vulnerable. They are conveying to us this sense of hopelessness because of the situation, A, at the airport, but also the impending deadline that is happening on the 31.

SIMON: August 31, of course, is the deadline when President Biden says all Americans will be out, and the U.S. operation has to be over.

AZIZIZADA: Yeah. I mean, these folks are desperate for evacuation and refuge somewhere else. I think they are feeling the effects of what it means to live under repression in what's going to be an authoritarian force. We're hearing from across the country that the new Taliban is the same as the old Taliban. So these folks are fearful of what's going to come next and are trying to live in some type of human dignity somewhere. And that currently is not under Taliban.

SIMON: Can you give us some appreciation of what an Afghan who feels in danger for their life has to go through to try and get out? Paperwork, going someplace, talking to people - what do they have to do?

AZIZIZADA: There's just a variety of obstacles. The U.S. has failed to kind of act decisively, which means the perimeter at the airport is not secure, as we saw. And the city of Kabul is in control of the Taliban who are harassing people and beating people at the airport but also at the checkpoints are harassing and intimidating anybody who even looks like they are attempting to make their way to the airport.

And on the American end, there's a variety of different mechanisms to seek asylum in the United States. The humanitarian parole application, for example, costs $575 per person. So for a family of five, that's a huge cost that we are currently trying to privately fundraise. They are also supposed to show a threat letter for the SIV or P-2 applications, which is if you've worked for the U.S. military or if you worked in some capacity for a media outlet or a U.S. government-funded agency. You have to file a variety of different paperwork, and we're not even speaking of how to exactly evacuate yourself or make it into the airport and then to make it onto some kind of flight to safety.

SIMON: Are Afghans deterred from coming back to the airport after the bombing on Thursday?

AZIZIZADA: I want to give people an insight into the mind of the average person right now who is so fearful and so desperate to escape Afghanistan. If Afghans think that they are more safe at the site of a suicide bombing, if vulnerable Afghans think that they are more safer to hang on to the wheels of a military cargo plane that is flying somewhere, what does that tell you about how they currently are feeling?

SIMON: Mr. Azizizada, of course, we're hearing a lot about the capital, but I wonder if you've been hearing anything from other areas and border areas in Afghanistan?

AZIZIZADA: The Afghan people find themselves increasingly desperate, and they're also trying evacuation, obviously, and finding refuge by ground. And that means often going through Pakistan. But the word that we are hearing from the ground is that border crossing at Spin Boldak is worse than the situation at the airport. But at this moment, we are exploring ground options in terms of a way that folks can flee. But there is nothing really set in stone and, there's no good advice that we can give them that is a secure way of leaving Afghanistan at this very moment.

SIMON: What can you do?

AZIZIZADA: The Afghan American community and the Afghan diaspora at large has sprung into action to try to facilitate evacuation. This means communicating and figuring out which gate at the airport is open, to figure out which Taliban checkpoints to avoid and to come up to speed on what the immigration system looks like. We've become kind of immigration lawyers overnight, and we are doing the job that the United States government is failing to do, unfortunately.

SIMON: People hear your voice, and I suspect many will want to help. Is there anything that can be done?

AZIZIZADA: We need you to speak out, and we need you to assist. And the way to do that is to pressure our policymakers and the people in charge to say this is not acceptable. We made promises to these people. They are merely seeking safety and refuge. Every human being deserves to live in a place where it is not violent, where they can send their kids to school and safety, where they don't have to live under a repressive rule. The United States government made promises to the Afghan people, and it should live up to them.

SIMON: Arash Azizizada is a community organizer in Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

AZIZIZADA: All right. Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.