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Opinion: Our moral duty to help Afghan refugees

Helping people resettle is one concrete way Americans can assist people from Afghanistan in securing a better future

Volunteers sort items donated to refugees from Afghanistan.
Nick Peavy, left, and Annie Osborn, right, and other volunteers, receive, sort and pack thousands of items on Friday that were donated to refugees resettling in the Washington region who are fleeing Afghanistan. Supporting resettlement programs is one way Americans can show they share the commitment to freedom and democracy.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

As someone who has spent the last decade and a half working with Afghan colleagues, my heart hurts as I receive desperate messages from respected co-workers and friends in Kabul who are watching their dreams for a free Afghanistan shatter. Their messages convey grief, fear and hopelessness.

In 2005 I joined the State Department and was assigned to help establish the rule of law in Afghanistan. I spent the next 10 years directing a team of dedicated public servants, Afghan and American, in both Washington and Afghanistan. We supported government reform but also created programs to help improve educational opportunities and support civil society groups, such as shelters for victims of domestic violence.

After leaving the State Department, I spent the next four years directing a master’s degree program dedicated to teaching about democratic governance and the rule of law, including to dozens of Afghan scholars supported by scholarships

During these 14 years, I met many brave Afghan citizens who were committed to a better future for their families, neighbors and communities. They believed in the power of public service. They believed Afghans were also entitled to the rights we as Americans take for granted, including specific rights for women: To be educated, to be free from violence, to choose who they marry and to make other basic decisions about their lives. My students shared my deep convictions about freedom and democracy and individual rights.

It is these Afghans I’m hearing from today, and the news is heartbreaking. One contact told me, “My dream for my country and my poor people was big and gorgeous and while I am writing this message, I can’t prevent my (tear)drops.” A variation of this grief can be told by thousands of other frightened men and women who not only believed in a better future for their country, they organized their lives around supporting that vision.

They believed they could make a difference for Afghanistan, and they moved forward with hope and determination, supported by our foreign policy and foreign assistance funding. Now, their worlds are falling apart. They are left in a violent situation, without recourse inside their country, uncertain if they can escape.

These people — the ones I know and the ones I don’t know — deserve to be safe. They have made significant sacrifices to support and build a just and democratic Afghanistan, and this very support now puts them at great risk.

As Americans, we no longer have the opportunity to support the society they dreamed of, but we can exercise our own rights and privileges to bring them to safety and to secure for them a future where they, too, can be free. We owe them this.

As citizens, supporting refugee resettlement programs is the most concrete action we can take to demonstrate that we share the Afghan activists’ commitment to freedom and democracy. This is not just the responsibility of our elected leaders and our military — it is our moral duty as citizens. There are two clear ways we can each make a difference.

First, speak up. Write to President Joe Biden asking that the administration immediately reprogram all unspent Afghan foreign assistance funding to support refugee and immigration programs for at-risk Afghans. This is money that has already been authorized for Afghanistan, but now it would be directly spent on those who most supported our efforts there.

Also, let both the Biden administration and your members of Congress know you support efforts to bring Afghans to safety, and ask that they continue until we get our allies out. Convey that the administration must secure avenues for escape — including supporting escape to the airport in Kabul, funding additional and immediate relocation aid, increasing the refugee ceiling, implementing the use of humanitarian parole. and broadening current emergency immigration avenues to include at-risk Afghan women activists and their families, whether or not they were employed by U.S.-funded projects.

Second, act locally. Our government has a role to play in resettlement, but the most important and lasting work will be done by average Americans like you and me. We can demonstrate community support for refugees by contacting our states’ resettlement agencies and local refugee nonprofits and offering to help in meaningful ways that can be identified by those organizations.

When our new Afghan neighbors arrive, we should welcome them as friends. Those who will receive special immigrant visas and refugee status have long worked for values and goals that we share: freedom, safety and the rights of women to self-determine their futures. In my experience, these shared values make it much easier to find common ground and build friendships.

The tragic truth is that every humanitarian crisis affects individuals — real people with families, hobbies, favorite music and birthdays. We lose track, sometimes, of that fact. My tears are for the faces that are in the camera roll of my phone. Real people who bought me pomegranates from the local market when I lived in Afghanistan. Real people who played with my children when they came to my house for dinner. Real people who wrote eloquently and passionately about the law, conveyed to me their values that women deserved safety and dignity, and told me what they were willing to do to achieve that.

These lovely, kind people are in danger and living in desperate situations. In this time of upheaval and desperate need, every one of us has the opportunity to help.

Karen Hall is a member of the board of directors of Mormon Women for Ethical Government.