Inside the effort to extract a family from Afghanistan

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Two weeks ago at the Arizona State Capitol, Alma Hernandez, a Democratic representative in Tucson, watched Gov. Doug Ducey sign his long-awaited Holocaust education bill. For Hernandez, who is Jewish, the legislation was an achievement of profound significance, but for the moment her mind was elsewhere as chaos unfolded in Afghanistan.

Over the past few days, Hernandez has been in close and almost constant communication with an Afghan family with whom she has had a long-standing personal connection – working, to no avail, in a desperate and continuous effort to help them escape before a withdrawal. unhappy with the United States which would leave the country under Taliban control, unheard of since the early 2000s.

“It was very, very difficult to concentrate,” Hernandez said of the recent signing ceremony for the bill, “especially having conversations with one of the survivors who was there, who expressed how she thought it looked a lot like the Holocaust and what happened to her family.

As the last American soldiers emptied from Afghanistan, the family Hernandez assisted remained in hiding in a refuge in the capital Kabul, just one kilometer from the airport, with no apparent possibility of immediate evacuation.

Arizona Representative Alma Hernandez with Holocaust survivors in the Arizona House of Representatives in Phoenix last year.

Hernandez, for his part, struggles to ward off a growing sense of helplessness. Still, she hasn’t given up hope for the mining family in the north-central Panjshir Valley province, whom she got to know well during their annual visits to attend the Tucson Gem Show.

“They are here so often because of the work they do that they have become like family to us, and it’s really sad that they need this help and this help now and there isn’t much we can do, “Hernandez said in an interview with Jewish initiate Tuesday night. “It has been extremely frustrating.

Hernandez sighed. “There really haven’t been any instructions or guidelines on what to do now,” she said. “We’re not giving up trying to get them to safety, of course, but we’re definitely waiting at this point.”

“What is the plan?” she wondered aloud, looking more and more exasperated. “I know the president is saying we’ll do our best to take out our allies and those Americans who want to get out, but really, what’s the plan to do it?”

His open-ended question underscores a broader sense of confusion over the Biden administration’s exit from Afghanistan, as Democratic and Republican lawmakers, in the absence of clear White House guidelines, devised their own bailout strategies for save stranded people.

“We are certainly not the only ones,” said Hernandez, who has publicly documented his humanitarian efforts on social media in the hope of reaching potential allies.

“The number of times I had to call and say, ‘Hey, let me know, pack your bags, be ready’ – there was always a three hour window for some reason, so if they didn’t come. not pick you up in the next three hours, they don’t show up, ”she said. “Can you imagine having to tell the family not to sleep, please stay awake, you don’t want to miss that call, and then the call never comes?” I mean, it happened so many times that I lost track.

His experience of over 15 largely sleepless days and nights is testament to the immense emotional capacity and tolerance for uncertainty required even for unsuccessful extraction efforts. Coordinating with Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ), a personal friend, Hernandez has exhausted virtually every possible option in a mad race to save the family of 23 who she says are now stranded in Afghanistan at the risk of their lives. personal safety. .

Over the past two weeks, Hernandez has spoken to a number of organizations on the ground in Afghanistan and even enlisted the help of a Hasidic leader in Brooklyn who recently helped evacuate members of the team. Afghan National Women’s Football.

But Hernandez was not that fortunate, even as she broadened her search for help in securing visas as well as safe passage out of the country. “I contacted other groups, who first asked for a certain amount, and then later they wanted a lot more,” she told JI. “I wasn’t able to wire someone $ 75,000.”

“There is no guarantee with anything,” she lamented. “I have a group that I spoke to yesterday, late last night, who said if you can get them to Mazar-i-Sharif, we can put them on a list to get them out by plane. The only problem is that the journey is almost 10 hours, so if you can imagine putting 11 adults and 12 children on a bus, where there is so much uncertainty and so much danger, I just can’t pass. this appeal and this decision for the family. It’s something they need to do, and I don’t think they feel safe enough to do it right now.

Hernandez has made it clear that the bus trip is just one of the myriad of seemingly promising opportunities that have ultimately proved elusive in recent weeks.

“The number of times I had to call and say, ‘Hey, let me know, pack your bags, be ready’ – there was always a three hour window for some reason, so if they didn’t come. not pick you up in the next three hours, they don’t show up, ”she said. “Can you imagine having to tell the family not to sleep, please stay awake, you don’t want to miss that call, and then the call never comes?” I mean, it happened so many times that I lost track.

A ray of hope, Hernandez said, came recently, when two family members were able to board flights from Afghanistan and have since arrived in the United States.

“The rest of the family has actually been turned away,” she added.

The remaining family members – including a large assemblage of siblings and their children as well as a family matriarch – found only a momentary refuge in a friend’s house as a result of what Hernandez described as a heated altercation with the Taliban in which a brother, who worked as a military contractor for several years, was stabbed, but not fatally.

“The Taliban entered the house they were in, so they moved out and told them they would come back,” Hernandez said. “They can’t stay in one place for long. They are not safe.

According to Hernandez, the family is a prime target for the Taliban thanks in part to their military ties as well as their association with the Panjshir Valley, where armed resistance fighters are now engaged in a long battle to protect the only province of Afghanistan which has not yet fallen into the hands of the extremist group.

The family’s business relationship with the United States, Hernandez added, has also made them vulnerable to the wrath of the Taliban. “That you are doing business in the United States and your business has been successful,” she said, “I think it creates anxiety for everyone.”

For the most part, Hernandez has been in contact with a man she describes simply as Abdul, whom she has known well from her time in Tucson. She refused to reveal her last name for the sake of protecting her safety. Abdul and his brothers, Hernandez said, were supposed to be in Tucson for the Gem Show starting this week, but their flights were canceled when the Taliban took over.

“I don’t know what to say to them when they say to themselves, well, what do we do, we applied, we did that, we did everything right, what will happen next ? ” Hernandez said. “And my answer is, literally, I don’t know.”

“They are really great people. They are Muslims, and they were here sometimes during Ramadan, and they did their thing, ”she said of the family. “They are very aware that I am Jewish and that we all go to services and the like, and they are also very aware of my Zionism,” added Hernandez, who is a staunch pro-Israel advocate. “It has never been a problem because we are all very close friends.”

Recently, Hernandez said, Abdul texted her with a message that she found particularly touching. “I know the Jewish community will do everything possible to help us,” he told her.

“I think we have so much more in common than people think,” Hernandez said. “These are people who are really very close to their families. They are just very kind and loving and generous, and unfortunately they are caught in this situation which we cannot fix at the moment.

On several occasions over the past two weeks or so, “I have given up hope and they have given up hope, and we are all trying to stay sane and hopeful,” Hernandez told JI. “But it’s really hard to keep faith and hope when you feel that all the doors are closed on you.”

This sentiment has only grown stronger since the withdrawal of US troops ended and the Taliban took control of Kabul airport. “Right now, at this point, we’re just waiting, just waiting to see what happens, what the next steps will be,” Hernandez said. ” No one really knows. “

“Honestly, they are all very scared,” she said of Abdul and his family members. “I feel bad.”

“I don’t know what to say to them when they say to themselves, well, what do we do, we applied, we did that, we did everything right, what will happen next ? ” Hernandez said. “And my answer is, literally, I don’t know.”


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