The text messages, received in recent days by a Seattle-area refugee resettlement agency, are becoming increasingly desperate.
As the United States’ withdrawal and evacuation of Afghanistan progresses — there are fewer than 100 U.S. citizens remaining in the country, according to the State Department — there are still thousands stuck in the country who helped or worked for American forces and organizations over the years and now fear for their safety.
Jewish Family Service of Seattle, a refugee resettlement agency, says it is still trying to evacuate about 160 people from the country — clients of the agency or family members of agency staff.
“If they notice that you are working with any US-based organization, they will beat you,” says one text message, recently received by JFS staff. “To stay safe, I try to change my location every couple of days.”
“I can’t stop the tears, the world has forgotten us,” says another. “Before the US will do anything we will already be in the grave … I hope they don’t touch my family.”
The agency, and Washington’s two U.S. senators, have asked the Biden administration to do more to help facilitate the evacuations of green card and visa holders and others who aided American organizations over the years and now find themselves under threat from the Taliban.
Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, along with 11 Democratic colleagues, wrote to Biden this week asking him to create two new positions, one within the Executive Office of the President and one in the State Department, responsible for leading the ongoing Afghanistan evacuation efforts.
“There needs to be dedicated, overarching leadership at the highest level within the administration,” the senators wrote. “Rescuing Americans is a floor not a ceiling. A focus on evacuating Americans — to the exclusion of others we have promised to get out — is unacceptable.”
Cantwell said her office alone had 1,800 open cases of individuals in Afghanistan who they’re trying to help.
“To get their safe passage, we need to know that we have got somebody,” Cantwell said Wednesday. “We need to have an envoy or something like that.”
Among the questions she said she’s been asking is “who specifically is in charge” of the ongoing evacuation efforts.
That question, as the senators acknowledge in their letter, is complicated by the fact that the U.S. no longer has an embassy or any official presence in Afghanistan.
“What we must have is somebody who sits on the National Security Council who is appointed by the White House, by President Biden, specifically to focus on this evacuation effort, because it can’t just be a perfunctory position,” said Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO of JFS Seattle.
JFS is one of a handful of local resettlement agencies that’s been working with Afghan refugees. They help arriving families find a place to live, get furniture and food, enroll in school, and find jobs. To do this, they’ve hired, over the years, Afghani immigrants who speak the language and can help new arrivals acclimate to an unfamiliar society and culture.
But those staff, in turn, often have families still in Afghanistan, struggling to get out themselves.
JFS says it has about 160 clients or family members of staff still in Afghanistan and 13 currently stuck in other countries, between Afghanistan and the United States.
“They are trying to get their families out while simultaneously resettling others that have gotten out,” Berkovitz said of JFS staff. “They’re setting up apartments, helping kids get into schools … while simultaneously knowing and hearing from family that are hiding day after day, running out of money and scared.”
Or, as another text message from Afghanistan, recently received by JFS staff put it: “My family is my mother, my sister, and her kids and we are all in immediate danger because of my work. If anything happens to them I would never be able to forgive myself. So my request to the US government is to evacuate my family with me, not only myself.”