World Relief’s Jenny Yang on Afghan Refugees: The U.S. ‘Could Have Done More’

The Taliban have seized power in Afghanistan two weeks ahead of the U.S. military’s complete withdrawal from the region following 20 years of war. Though over a trillion American dollars were spent on a campaign to remake the nation, the U.S.-backed government and U.S.-trained security forces crumbed under Taliban assault in a matter of days.

Following the takeover, thousands of Afghans fled to the Kabul airport in an attempt to escape Taliban rule. Chilling footage of Afghan people clinging to a military jet as it took off before falling to their death shone a ghastly light on how dire the situation has grown.

Jenny Yang is the Senior Vice President of Advocacy and Policy at World Relief, a faith-based organization that helps the U.S. government resettle refugees. World Relief is racing to help Afghan families fleeing the Taliban find a safe place. Yang spoke with RELEVANT via email about what just happened in Afghanistan, what needs to happen next and how Christians can get involved.

RELEVANT: By now, most of us have seen images and read stories about an overwhelming number of people fleeing Afghanistan in droves. Why was America not better prepared to help these people resettle? 

YANG: The United States should have been better prepared to respond to the humanitarian fallout in Afghanistan especially when the humanitarian community laid out specific recommendations of how to do so in the summer when plans were first announced of the draw down of U.S. troops. It’s frustrating to see the lack of planning when we knew and could have done more before. We are however encouraged that the U.S. seems committed to ongoing evacuations of vulnerable Afghans although the ability to do so now will be much more limited than what it was before.

What do the Afghan people who are fleeing expect will change under Taliban rule? 

Most Afghans will not flee and will remain in Afghanistan. We are concerned about the millions of women and children who have in the past been subject to violence and will have limited opportunities because of their gender, and others who may be targeted and killed because they are religious and ethnic minorities.

When the Taliban was in power 20 years ago, they banned nearly all women and girls from attending school. They targeted and violently attacked those who defied their wishes. While the Taliban has in recent days given some indication that they would be more open to supporting women’s rights, there are ongoing concerns due to past experience that they will violently attack and kill those who disagree with them. Recently, we also have heard reports of Afghan Christians who are afraid to stay in Afghanistan and some who have already left Afghanistan. There is definitely a fear amongst the Afghan Christian community that they will be targeted and killed.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 550,000 Afghans have now been internally displaced in the country since the beginning of the year, in addition to 2.9 million Afghans already internally displaced at the end of 2020. They expect a large number of Afghans to leave Afghanistan as refugees or be internally displaced.

Many Afghan people have spent years aiding the U.S. in Afghanistan. Is there a plan to help them? 

There are many Afghans who helped our troops and now are in grave danger because of their association with the United States and applied to come to the United States as Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). There are approximately 18,000 Afghan SIVs who are in process right now, and we have been calling on the United States to evacuate all of them and their dependents.

There are others who worked for a U.S. based NGO or media company and also need to be evacuated along with family members of Afghans currently in the United States who filed petitions for their family members in Afghanistan to come. The Pentagon has been saying that they plan to evacuate up to 22,000 at-risk individuals over the next few months, but it’s unclear when and how they will be able to do so. The U.S. government needs to make a full fledged effort to evacuate as many SIVs and others as possible who are extremely vulnerable.

On Monday, President Joe Biden said that “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave early, still hopeful for their country. And part of it is because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.” From World Relief’s perspective, is this a fair assessment of why so many Afghan people were unable to evacuate before the Taliban takeover? 

We don’t believe the President’s remarks square with our experience helping Afghans on the ground. Not only are there 18,000 Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants who themselves applied and desire to come to the United States, but every Afghan individual we’ve talked with in the United States who has their family members overseas want their family to come to the United States.

We are now working to try to evacuate vulnerable Afghans who have reached out to us and are desperate to leave. What’s evident now is there is a crisis of confidence in U.S. leadership in the world and people questioning our ability to keep our word to those who fought alongside of us.

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Given the state of the crisis, what are the best steps forward to help as many people as possible? 

There first needs to be increased resources and coordination with the international humanitarian community to help vulnerable Afghans in Afghanistan. The United States and other countries need to continue to press the Taliban to support women’s rights, equal opportunity for education and protection for religious and ethnic minorities. Neighboring countries around Afghanistan and others need to welcome, assist, and protect refugees fleeing Afghanistan.

In addition, we are asking the United States for a full evacuation of all Afghan SIVs, their loved ones and Afghan immigrant visa applicants to U.S. territory (approximately 18,000 SIVs and their dependents).

Lastly, we are asking the United States for a robust implementation and expansion of the U.S. refugee admissions program and processing capacities in the region to help vulnerable Afghan refugees who cannot return to Afghanistan or locally integrate in the country to which they fled. The United States has a historical precedent in evacuating vulnerable people from crisis situations, like we did in Vietnam and Kosovo, and we can do it again.

How can Christians who care about the Afghan people get involved at their local and national levels? 

We need to speak out and ask President Biden to fully evacuate all Afghan SIVS, as well as Afghan immigrant visa applicants and other vulnerable populations to be processed on U.S. territory. In the United States, we need volunteers to assist Afghan families who are arriving in small numbers. The major cities that are receiving Afghans right now are Sacramento, Seattle, Modesto, and northern Virginia. You can find your closest refugee resettlement office here.

Please also give to organizations like World Relief that are at the front lines responding to this crisis, advocating for Afghans and also helping process and resettle them to the United States.

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