With no official U.S. presence left in Afghanistan and little communication from the State Department about the status of processing visa applications, more than 80 people from the Santa Barbara-based nonprofit organization, Afghanistan Dental Relief Project, are still stuck in the Taliban-controlled country.
“Nobody has heard anything,” said Dr. James Rolfe, ADRP’s founder, referring to Priority 2 (P-2) refugee admissions visas for certain Afghan nationals and their eligible family members.
“The difficulty that we’re having is that we just have to tell our people, ‘OK, you have to stay and be subject to whatever the Taliban wants to impose on you.”
The dental relief project aims at improving the infrastructure and economy around Afghanistan by providing dental treatment to locals.
Rolfe said he and the ADRP team built a dental clinic in Afghanistan and use it to teach Afghanis how to provide dental services so they can improve their technical abilities and provide a higher level of care.
Because the ADRP employees are Afghanistan citizens and do not have U.S. passports, they were unable to get out during the abrupt U.S. withdrawal last month. Their only way out is if they hold a P-2 visa, but Rolfe said the approval process for those admissions is stagnant and cloaked in mystery.
Last week — before President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. pullout — ADRP sent a group of five people to the Kabul airport with their P-2 visa application documents to see if they would be able to get through the airport gates with them but were unsuccessful.
“All along we were told through the process that these applications would be processed, so everyone expected that they would be on one of those planes leaving from the Kabul airport,” Rolfe told Noozhawk.
“We haven’t been given any information about what was happening, and the P-2 visas had to be approved to even access the gate at the airport.”
On Aug. 2, the State Department announced the P-2 designations.
“The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,” the department said in a statement. “However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States.”
Among the groups eligible for the P-2 designation are Afghanis who are or were employed in Afghanistan by a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, such as ADRP.
All the ADRP employees have P-2 visa applications in, but Rolfe said there have been no new developments as to their status.
He has contacted the office of Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, to find out more information about the applications, and has even tried going through other states, but said he has had no luck.
“It’s all the same, it just goes to the State Department and just disappears,” Rolfe continued.
The State Department said Wednesday that while the government has withdrawn its personnel from Kabul, it will continue efforts to help “the many Afghans who have stood with us over the years.” Consular services, including visa services, remain available outside of Afghanistan, according to the department.
Most of the people trying to flee Afghanistan have the P-2 designation, Rolfe said, but all of the countries surrounding Afghanistan have closed their borders to refugees.
Rolfe said there are still U.S. citizens and people with green cards or special immigrant visas left in Afghanistan who will “probably get priority if any further evacuation occurs.”
Most of the ADRP-trained staff members in Afghanistan are women, which is of even greater concern because of the Taliban’s history of harsh treatment of women under Islam’s Sharia law, Rolfe said.
“They’re really concerned because they are not able to come to work by themselves and they have to dress a certain way when walking in public,” Rolfe said. “They’re worried about having some kind of abusive and restrictive treatment.
“It’s really hard for them because they have endured 20 years of freedom to be like women in other countries around the world. They’ve got children and other family members that feel like they would be in jeopardy as well.”
Rolfe said ADRP staff and their families are faced with really only two options: leaving Kabul and going north to Tajikistan to live in a refugee camp or reopening the clinic and trying to continue to work.
“Who knows if or when they will be able to flee north because they don’t have passports or visas yet,” he said in defeat.
So, ADRP is focusing on reopening the clinic, but even that is a challenge because the Taliban has set up 18 checkpoints along the way from Kabul to the clinic, Rolfe said.
“The employees are really worried going through that because they’re mostly women,” he said. “The Taliban won’t allow you to travel by yourself if you’re a woman, and you certainly can’t drive a car.
“They’re worried about how they are going to continue to work. How can we get our staff to come to work and let them feel like they are going to be safe?”
Rolfe said he has been trying to send money to his employees in Afghanistan so they can remain safe and fed, but all the banks are closed so he is “just kind of stuck.”
“It’s pretty hard to even know what to do,” he said. “We want to help everybody who can be helped with whatever we can do, but we really only have the option of bringing people back to the clinic and we can’t even do that right now.”
Rolfe said he is trying to stay positive but the magnitude of the challenge is enormous.
“I’m working on it so much to the point where I can’t sleep at night,” he said.
— Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.