A group of 50-70 people marched in Fremont on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. (Annelise Finney/KQED)
Updated 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 23.
Nearly a week after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul, Afghan Americans in the Bay Area are feeling the toll. Many are asking elected officials and residents to support those seeking refuge in the United States.
“I have people contacting me just because I’m a lawyer,” Roya Massoumi said. She is an attorney and an Afghan American working on employment discrimination issues. For the past week, she’s barely slept and her phone has been inundated with messages from people attempting to leave Afghanistan.
Instead of sitting at home, she decided to organize a protest in Fremont.
Dozens of Afghan Americans and their allies showed up in Fremont on Saturday, demanding that local representatives pressure President Biden to ensure military-led evacuations from the Kabul airport continue beyond the expected Aug. 31 withdrawal date.
The stakes are high: People have told Massoumi, "'I’m lesbian, I’m gay, I’m a musician, I’ve gotten death threats from the Taliban.'” Some are U.S. citizens, have green cards or qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa, while others don't qualify under the current visa system, yet fear for their lives. Massoumi would like to see a new visa category allowing more people to qualify for a visa.
But she also noted that it’s important to support people in the long term. “How are we going to make sure that the Afghans that do come here are still supported, not just dropped off here," she said.
Wahab believes everyone has a role to play. "It's literally just being kind, compassionate and asking how you can help," she said. "Sharing and understanding our pain and making sure that this conversation doesn't die when the media stops paying attention to it."
Muzhdah Aziz, who lives and works in Fremont, also attended the march and rally to show support for her brother-in-law, who is currently stuck in Afghanistan. Her sister, who is four months pregnant, returned to the Bay Area from Afghanistan a month ago.
“He has a baby on the way and he's fighting every day, standing at the airport, getting beaten by the Taliban, just to come here to be with my sister,” she said. “We're just trying to show our support.” Her parents left Afghanistan 20 years ago. But the stress of watching from afar has taken a toll.
“We are all devastated and exhausted mentally because we feel so helpless,” Aziz said. “They have their visas in hand. They have their paperwork but they can't go through.”
Jane Pak, who works for Refugee and Immigrant Transitions in Oakland, also attended the march and said it's important to support community members with loved ones in Afghanistan.
“We're here to support our Afghan community," Pak said. She emphasized ensuring protections for women, children and human rights defenders fleeing Afghanistan.
On Friday afternoon, Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee briefly answered questions on the current situation in Afghanistan after an unrelated Berkeley event. "I'm very focused on evacuation, making sure that our diplomats, American citizens, Afghan allies, women and children are protected," she said.
"I feel almost the same way I felt 20 years ago, worried in many ways [and] sad from what I see taking place, but also recognizing that my job right now is to make sure that we save lives and get people out," she said.
Also on Friday, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell held a press conference moderated by Harris Mojadedi, who has been working with the Afghan Coalition in the Bay Area to share information on what’s happening and advocate for Afghan Americans' relatives abroad.Swalwell said that as of Thursday approximately 6,000 U.S. military personnel were at the airport to provide peacekeeping and safe passage for Americans and that, as of Thursday evening, there were approximately 4,000 to 5,000 people inside the airport waiting for their flights to take off.
As of Sunday morning, a panicked crush of people trying to enter Kabul’s airport killed seven Afghan civilians, the British military reported, showing the danger still posed to those trying to flee the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
The U.S. military is considering “creative ways” to get Americans and others into the airport for evacuation from Afghanistan amid “acute” security threats, Biden administration officials said, and the Pentagon on Sunday ordered six U.S. commercial airlines to help move evacuees from temporary sites outside of Afghanistan.