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Pathways of Aid for Afghan Refugees: How the Documentary Community can Help

By Marjan Safinia

A young Afghan couple pictured in the snow. Image from Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei’s ‘Three Songs for Benazir,’ which was set and filmed in refugee camps in Afghanistan. Courtesy of the filmmakers.

For over four weeks, a small team of colleagues from the D-Word online community has been frantically working to help our list of 75 Afghan nationals; some are documentary professionals, some are extremely high-risk young people, some are single women who have worked in TV journalism and women’s rights, and some are folks who collaborated closely with the US and are in deep danger.

Over these four weeks, many of us have worked 18-hour days without a break to build pathways of aid. We have become deeply versed in the challenges, the evacuation options, the legal processes. We count as new friends a growing cadre of military veterans and special ops people. We have mounted a large Congressional pressure campaign. We have figured out how to get cash into the hands of desperate souls despite no banks functioning. We have watched our families throw themselves into danger for a shot at a better life. We have done all this with no financial support. We have put our own paid work aside to do this. These are life-and-death moments for people we care about.

Recently we have joined forces with a coalition of predominantly BIPOC and/or queer lawyers and Afghan organizers who have pulled together the Afghan Resources Project that is housed at Pangea Legal Services, a trusted Bay Area community organization of eight years.

The Afghan Resources Project is undertaking the immense task of filing Humanitarian Parole documents for many Afghans who are at risk, including our families. Ours are but a small portion of over 4,000 Humanitarian Parole requests they have received so far (the number grows by the hour). They are marshaling a massive team of legal volunteers (over 550 now) and application sponsors (over 600 now) across the country who are donating their labor for free to prepare these papers and send them.

While thousands are working around the clock for free like we are, the reality is, this is a giant humanitarian crisis, and there are hard costs involved.

Each application requires a few non-negotiable elements: a government filing fee of $575 PER PERSON (including each child) and a US-based sponsor for each application.

This is very much a rapid-response emerging crisis. They are building the plane as they fly it—a feeling we in the documentary community understand well. It is critically important that this work sits within culturally competent organizations. Much effort has been frittered this last month by many with good intentions but limited understanding of the direct threats to and cultural specificity of this population.

The Afghan organizers involved are all directly impacted and are also the key leaders in this coalition work. These organizers first realized the need for the Afghan Resources Project when they were researching ways in which they could assist their own families in Afghanistan. Realizing that most efforts related to Afghans are focused on US-allied or US-affiliated individuals, they saw a direct and urgent need to file Humanitarian Parole applications as their only option to ensure the safety of their loved ones.

Inside Afghanistan, the US investment has propped up most systems. With those investments leaving, prospects look dire at best, and mortally treacherous at worst, for so many Afghans who have been marked as collaborators with the US Government, or whose ideas about freedom and human rights, especially the rights of women, are in direct opposition to the Taliban. Over the last 20 years, they were encouraged to fight for freedom and democracy. And now, those very ideals put them under direct threat.

We in the United States owe a debt to these people. Unfortunately, our government systems have been slow and ill-prepared to respond to the scale of need. For us, these people are not names on a spreadsheet. We understand the peril they face, and we’re working fast using the legal tools at our disposal.

What is Humanitarian Parole? (A layperson’s explainer)

Humanitarian Parole is a pathway for entry to the United States for urgent humanitarian reasons. It is usually granted when someone has no other alternatives for entry. It's essentially a temporary permission to come to the United States, on a humanitarian basis, and stay for up to one year (as granted at USCIS discretion). For many of our families, that permission could allow time for their other pending SIV and P-2 visas to be processed. For some, it may be one of their only pathways to rapid safety. Typically, Humanitarian Parole applications are processed quicker than permanent status visas.

Humanitarian Parole is also important as a strategy because it might allow families to leave harm's way more quickly and also provide them with papers that would count as "onward travel" confirmation, which helps with evacuation efforts. Currently there are evacuation limitations for people with no documents and few countries still willing to take refugees. Humanitarian Parole could provide many families with an important missing stepping stone in their efforts to flee to safety.

What can I do to help?

The Afghan Resources Project needs support in a few key ways:

  • Donate directly to their fund to pay for filing fees.

  • Volunteer sponsors who are US Citizens and Green Card Holders for these applications. There is no enforceable ability for wages to be garnished like a permanent status immigration sponsorship. But it does require submission of a tax return to prove you have means at about 125% of the poverty rate, based on the number of people in your household. If anyone has access to a kindly mosque, church group, book club or workplace social responsibility program or some other kind of community of people who care, they could be transformative change agents in this effort. Bonus points if they are Muslims who understand the cultural specifics more readily.

  • Volunteer lawyers are also desperately needed. If you know people who are lawyers, or have firms, please encourage them to consider providing some pro bono hours, send them to the Afghan Resources Project to sign up. Training is provided.

Sign-up forms for each of these supports are available here.

Our amazing documentary community has done SO MUCH so far. There have only been a few bright spots in this experience. The kindness of strangers has certainly been one of them. Those of us who make documentaries for a living know that we are nothing if not resourceful, and that obstacles only spur us on. This is a moment for us to activate our superpowers.

Marjan Safinia is an Iranian-American documentary filmmaker whose films examine identity, community and social justice. Most recently, she co-directed the docuseries And She Could Be Next. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of Chicken & Egg, and co-hosts the preeminent online documentary community, The D-Word. She was formerly the long-time Board President of IDA.