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In the largest community of Afghan refugees in America, anger and frustration is boiling over about the U.S. withdrawal and a return to Taliban rule.
"There was not a strategy. There was no plan. There was nothing,” Rona Popal, executive director of the Fremont, California-based non-profit Afghan Coalition, told Yahoo News.
Since 1996, Afghan Coalition has provided a range of services to refugees from Afghanistan, helping settle thousands in the Bay Area town that is considered a part of Silicon Valley. But when reports began coming in over the weekend that Taliban fighters were quickly taking over as U.S.-trained security forces melted away –– in some cases without a fight –– the non-profit's phones began ringing non-stop.
“They’re calling in 24 hours: What’s going on? What they should do? And especially mostly they are calling [for] how they can bring their family members to the United States,” Popal said.
Like many Afghan-Americans, Popal said she is struggling to understand the sudden reversal of U.S. policy in her former homeland.
“The United States already said they can’t do anything, they just want to bring those people. But how you going to bring them and how many of them are you going to bring?" she said. "There are the whole people who lived in Kabul, working with different agencies, NGO’s, embassies. How many of them you can bring? It doesn’t make sense and it’s not right.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., whose district includes part of Fremont, has acknowledged the anger and dismay being expressed by my Bay Area residents of Afghan descent.
Today I heard from my Afghan-American constituents who weren't able to submit assistance requests on the @StateDept website.
“Maybe they ought to have a functioning link on the website with a direct way of processing all these requests.”https://t.co/YcUN5wzuxs
— Rep. Ro Khanna (@RepRoKhanna) August 16, 2021
Popal confirmed that the communication between U.S. officials and the Afghan community had been almost non-existent in recent days.
“We just got one message from the United States from their embassy that they gave them one link to go ahead and fill out a form for the ones who want to bring family members or if they are SIV [Special Immigrant Visa]," Popal said. "The people don’t usually understand how to get them here and they need help.”
More than 60,000 Afghans have relocated to the Bay Area over recent decades, with most settling in East Bay communities like Fremont, Hayward, Union City and San Jose. Popal and her husband fled Afghanistan ahead of the Soviet invasion in December of 1979 and eventually founding Afghan Coalition in Fremont.
“They love Fremont," Popal said of the recent arrivals. "They feel at home because there is a lot of restaurants, grocery stores, banquet halls so that they can do their weddings.”
The immigrants from Afghanistan have come in four waves, Popal said: following Russia's invasion, during the civil war of the 1990s, when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, and this year's expansion of the SIV program.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., also represents a district that includes part of Fremont, and tweeted Sunday that his office was ready to help those seeking to help family members escape Afghanistan.
The East Bay is home to the largest number of Afghan-Americans in the country.
If you have a loved one waiting for a Special Immigrant Visa, my team and I are here to help. Stop by my office at the times below or call and make an appointment with one of my caseworkers. pic.twitter.com/B8tJFvUj91
— Rep. Eric Swalwell (@RepSwalwell) August 15, 2021
Yet Swalwell has also been sharply critical of the Trump administration for brokering a deal with the Taliban for the exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
— Rep. Eric Swalwell (@RepSwalwell) August 17, 2021
With the Taliban poised to re-impose strict Islamic law in Afghanistan, the urgency of helping loved ones get out has become palpable. On Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid vowed that the religious group now running the country would honor women’s rights in as much as they were covered under Islamic law. For Popal, that assurance rang hollow.
“We don’t believe it right now, because we’ve seen what they have done to woman before,” she said.
For Bay Area resident Naid Fattahi, the Taliban's return to power is proving especially traumatic.
She fled Afghanistan in 1994, when the Taliban assumed power. She was 14, and entered into a marriage with a foreigner so as to be able to get out of the country.
"My life changed as a result of them, their policies and their agendas," she told NPR of the Taliban in a recent interview. "And what I'm fearful for is that the lives of many teenage girls and woman will change for the worse as well."
The first Afghan immigrant elected to public office in the U.S., Hayward City Council member Aisha Wahab echoed those misgivings.
"I think women and children are going to be the biggest casualties," she told NBC News Bay Area. "They have made the strides and made in education and the workforce will be lost if the Taliban does not phase pressure from the international world."
While Popal also laments that the progress women have made will evaporate, she also blames what she sees as a fundamental disconnect in how foreign countries view Afghanistan.
"The United States really does not understand our culture, our people, what’s going on in Afghanistan. In the beginning when they came and said ‘we want to bring democracy. We want to bring women’s rights.’ And what’s the woman’s rights? To take off the burka. That’s not OK in a country that is 99 percent Muslim, in a country that is very conservative, how can you go and do that?" Popal said. "And now they say, ‘we want to go and negotiate with Taliban about your peace.’ Excuse me? You told us for the past 20 years that Taliban is a terrorist group and now you want to go negotiate with them? I think the whole world betrayed the Afghan people and it’s really sad.”
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