'We Are All Very Devastated': Bay Area Afghans Scramble to Contact Family After Earthquake

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Several people stand and sit near to bodies covered in blankets
Burials of quake victims continue in the second day, in the district of Giyan, in Afghanistan on June 23, 2022. A powerful earthquake struck Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province on June 22, killing more than 1,150 people. The bodies collected from the rubble were brought to the Giyan Central Mosque, where the funeral prayer was performed, and then they were distributed to the villages and buried.  (Photo by Bilal Guler/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Bay Area Afghans are scrambling to contact family members in eastern Afghanistan, after a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck southwest of the city of Khost Wednesday, killing more than 1,000 people. Community leaders here say they fear that, under the Taliban government, the relief effort will be challenging.

Fouzia Azizi, the director of refugee services for Jewish Family and Community Services- East Bay, said she learned of the earthquake early Wednesday morning from the Facebook post of a relative in Afghanistan. Then she and her staff started reaching out to Bay Area clients originally from the affected region, including one man whose wife and children are still living there.

“Thank God his family is doing fine, but they felt the earthquake really bad,” Azizi said. “And they confirmed it’s extremely chaotic there; it's just chaos.”

The mountainous eastern provinces of Paktika and Khost, where the earthquake hit, were Taliban strongholds even during the U.S. occupation, and the region was a war zone for many years, she said.

Since the U.S. withdrew and the Taliban took over the national government in August, international aid has dried up and food is scarce. As of last month, 20 million Afghans – nearly half the population – were facing acute hunger, according to the United Nations. To suffer a devastating earthquake on top of that is another layer of unimaginable hardship, said Azizi.

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“Right now in Afghanistan, people are already starving, children are starving. There is not enough food,” she said. “Such a crisis at this point is just heartbreaking.” Other Bay Area Afghans were also struggling to come to terms with the impact of the quake, which destroyed entire villages and left hundreds of people trapped under collapsed buildings.

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“We are all very devastated,” said Freshta Kohgadai of the United Afghan Association. “We feel the people of Afghanistan can’t catch a break. Their situation just continues to worsen.”

Rather than her own local organization, Kohgadai suggested channeling donations to Aseel, an e-commerce marketplace for Afghan artisans that has pivoted in the past year to distributing packages of food and medicine in Afghanistan.

A lot of Afghans in the Bay Area are still just trying to be sure their relatives back home are okay, said Hayward City Councilmember Aisha Wahab, who’s the daughter of Afghan refugees.

When it comes to sending aid, local grassroots groups are likely to fundraise, but larger international organizations are better equipped to handle the logistics of disaster response, she said.

“The problem is that a lot of these institutions left Afghanistan and kind of turned their back on it,” said Wahab.

Wahab fears the emergency response will be slow unless the U.S. decides to set aside its hostility toward the Taliban and help with relief.

“The United States must stand on the right side of history,” said Wahab. “It’s important to step up when a natural disaster takes place, and there are millions of people currently already starving.… This is a test of everybody's diplomacy and making sure that we are prioritizing human life over politics.”

In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “U.S. humanitarian partners,” were sending medical teams and other assistance. The United States suspended diplomatic relations with Afghanistan last August but has continued to channel humanitarian aid through non-governmental and international organizations.

How to Help:

Here are some organizations with a track record of working in Afghanistan, and what they say they’re doing to respond to the earthquake.

Aseel is assembling tents and packages of food and emergency supplies to distribute in the earthquake zone.

Doctors Without Borders runs a large maternity hospital in Khost province, and is coordinating with authorities and other groups on earthquake response.

International Rescue Committee has deployed mobile health teams and is working with authorities to distribute support, including cash assistance.

Red Cross is supporting the Afghan Red Crescent, which has branches in every province, including Khost and Paktika, and is sending ambulances and truckloads of food and relief supplies to the affected areas.

UNICEF has dispatched health and nutrition teams to the affected provinces and is distributing tents, blankets and hygiene supplies.

WISE Afghanistan is an Afghan-led women’s empowerment organization that has health brigades in all five regions of Afghanistan.