Three families from a school district near San Diego, California, who were stranded in Afghanistan after traveling there to visit family over the summer have been evacuated to safety, officials said Thursday. Five other families are still trying to leave.
There were previously 24 students and 16 parents, among about 1,000 Americans still stuck in Afghanistan amid a desperate surge to escape the country since the Taliban took control.
“Many of them were stranded because they couldn’t get to the airport,” Cajon Valley Union School District Director of Family And Community Engagement Mike Serban said.
Howard Shen, a district spokesman, said one family with five children arrived in San Diego on Wednesday night. The two other families were out of Afghanistan, but Shen said he could not confirm exactly where they were — only that they are safe.
“That’s all we want,” he said.
Counseling was being made available for the families and for their children’s schools.
Hashemi said the family back in San Diego was still shaken after their harrowing experience. "They are OK now," he said. "They need to calm down and forget what they’ve seen."
The Pentagon said Thursday it is continuing its missions to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan even after a pair of bombings and gun attack killed at least 13 U.S. service members.
President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the U.S. is on track to evacuate all American and allied citizens by a deadline of Aug. 31. In order to meet that deadline, U.S. military forces will need to stop evacuating people out of the airport days before their final troop withdrawal, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday.
That means the window for evacuating refugees and others is even closer than the official end of American presence on the ground.
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The Cajon Valley Union School District said in a statement that it first learned students were stuck on Aug. 16, when a family reached out to alert the school that their student would not be present for the first day of classes on Aug. 17 and asked to hold a spot for them.
Since then, the district said: “Students and their parents who traveled to Afghanistan this summer to visit their extended family reached out to their community liaisons for assistance when the crisis in Afghanistan started."
The students and their families are part of a large community of refugees in El Cajon, California, and went abroad on trips to visit relatives, according to Serban. Serban told USA TODAY that the families are all refugees, all with legal status in the U.S., and some could have gotten their citizenship.
The 28-school district is home to a large resettlement community with origins in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, Serban said. According to The Los Angeles Times, the families from El Cajon trapped in Afghanistan are on a class of immigrant visas that make them allies to the State Department. They attend several different schools within the district.
Serban said the families who resettle in El Cajon are nuclear families with extended relatives remaining in their home countries.
“Like any nuclear family, they want to see their family,” he said. “I’m sure they thought it was safe.”
Many of the families left in early May and June, months before the crisis unfolded and the president of Afghanistan fled as the Taliban seized power, officials said.
The district has been in direct contact with the families and was working with Republican Rep. Darrell Issa's office to try to help get them out safely.
“I’m working diligently to determine the best ways to help those trapped return home safely. I won’t stop until we have answers and action,” Issa said on Twitter.
Fraidoon Hassemi, the district’s community liaison and an Afghan who came to the United States in 2015, told the Associated Press that he has been in direct contact with the families.
“Nobody is doing well," he said. “The situation is very horrible."
“I’m sure they are going to be affected emotionally," he said, adding: “Their teachers miss them. We all miss them. We hope to see them all back to school."
Cajon Valley school board president Tamara Otero said it's been stressful too for those waiting for their return.
“It’s killing us right now," Otero told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We are so worried about our students that are stuck there. We’ll do the best we can to get them out.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 3 California families stranded in Afghanistan evacuated to safety