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With Loved Ones Stranded In Afghanistan, Afghan Families In Fresno Face An Excruciating Wait

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An Afghan woman who asks to be called Sana places a spread of dried fruit and nuts on the dinner table in her small apartment. It’s in keeping with Afghan culture.

“When we have guests, it's must,” she says, getting ready to pour a cup of tea. “You should serve them green tea or black tea.”

She is still following tradition for the guests in her home tonight, even though all she can think of is her mother, sister, brother and sister-in-law. Sana’s family has been making the dangerous trip to the Kabul airport every night since mid-August, desperately trying to get inside, ahead of August 31, the U.S. deadline for withdrawal.

“My sister-in-law is pregnant now. And they went there and then they had very trouble and bad time there because it was gun shooting everywhere,” she says. 

TheKabul airport is the only way out for civilians trying to flee the country. All the borders are closed.

“So the flight is the only way that they have right now and I don't know what's going to happen,” she says.

The timing is urgent. After August, no one knows what will happen with Taliban rule. The Islamic militants have been searching for and targeting Afghans with U.S. ties.

Most of Sana’s family are Green Card holders, except her brother, who is still waiting for his visa to be processed.

“If they can get into the airport, then yeah, Green Card is helpful because my sister-in-law, she can take my brother with her,” Sana says. 

Sana says the Taliban takeover caught everyone by surprise. She and her family had just gone to Kabul to celebrate her brother’s wedding in July. Sana and most of her family returned to Fresno in early August and the rest had planned to fly back in September.

“Just everything changed very suddenly and Taliban just took all of Afghanistan in just a week,” she says. 

Dalya Hussein, a peer support specialist with FIRM or Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, knows these stories all too well. She escaped Iraq and ISIS in 2005.

“I was really attached to the stories of the families back there, it was really similar to the Taliban's policy. It’s all about killing,” she says.

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Dalya Hussein of FIRM helps an Afghan woman fill out paperwork for Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office.

Hussein has been in contact with four Afghan families in Fresno, going through similar situations. Tonight, she is in Sana’s apartment helping another Afghan woman, who asks to be called Batoul. She’s filling out papers petitioning to bring a sister and her children to the U.S. Right now, they are in Turkey and Batoul fears they will be sent back to Afghanistan. 

“Your address please, whole address,” Hussein says, pointing to a line on a form.

One of the papers is a release of information for Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office. They’re hoping Feinstein will advocate on her behalf to the U.S. State Department.  

“This one, you can write your name again here please,” Hussein says to Batoul. 

Batoul also has three other sisters and a brother trapped in Kabul. She says she hasn’t been able to sleep, or get her schoolwork done at Fresno City College. Batoul says she’s been glued to her phone.

“I call my family and I ask them, ‘you're ok? You have something to eat? How's your daughter?’” she says as her voice breaks into tears. 

The feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming, she says. “I'm not relaxed here. I feel I'm inside Afghanistan.”

It’s especially dangerous for women and girls right now in Afghanistan who could be forced into marriage with Taliban soldiers. 

“The Taliban rules abuse our people,” Batoul says.

Christine Barker is FIRM’s executive director. She says she and her staff have been paying close attention to the developments in Afghanistan.

“We've been deeply afraid and also just intensely aware of the importance of time right now,” says Barker.

She says FIRM has been calling for a number of responses to the crisis. First, the need for the international community to work on safe exits. She says Afghans who are afraid for their lives and have a legitimate fear of persecution should have access to multiple ways out and not just the airport. Second, the U.S. needs to rapidly process visas that have been held up for years.

Barker says FIRM has been writing multiple letters of support for Afghan individuals, submitting the letters to congressional offices to pressure the state department for their safe exit.

“There are people who have every right to come back to the U.S., who have Green Cards, who have citizenship, who can't come back here and because of the status that they already have, are incredibly at risk,” Barker says.

For now, she says hope is the best thing they can offer to families. 

“Hope and write letters. Hope and get other people to write letters. Hope and listen. Hope and keep going,” she says. 

Sana says she turns to her Islamic faith for hope. “We believe in prayers, so we are just praying for my brothers and other Afghans out there to be safe and come safely home,” she says.

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Afghanistan flag hangs inside Sana's home.

All around Sana’s home are signs of her connection to her culture: hand woven rugs that cover the floor, and a hand woven map of Afghanistan that hangs on a wall.

“It's our nation and we really love our nation. Taliban not only destroyed Afghanistan, but our feelings,” Sana says. 

She says the Taliban is trying to change the identity of Afghanistan.

“Even they change our flag, you know, and it’s very hard. I can’t even explain. They change our flag,” she says with tears.

Still, she says the Afghan people are incredibly resilient even in the midst of what feels like hopelessness. They have a will to survive, she says, if only given the chance.

*Editor’s note: As this story was going to air, KVPR received word that Sana's family, including her brother, had been safely evacuated to Qatar.