By Kelsey Wicks
In August Over the past year, the world has seen throngs of Afghans pouring past the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport, hoping for an exit from the future Taliban-led government.
Among the crowd were women, translators, musicians, The Christians, and other religious minorities, deeply aware of what was going to happen to them under Taliban rule. At the end of 2021, Afghanistan would become the number one most dangerous place to be a christian according to a Open house report.
While initial efforts were largely successful in saving thousands of the country’s estimated 13,000 Christians, thousands landed in ‘water lilies’ – a term that refers to temporary landing grounds at military bases or shelters. in neighboring countries – throughout the Middle East.
Some of these water lilies have been emptied and Afghan refugees resettled in the United States., Albania or Brazil. But in other places, Afghan refugees, including Christians, are effectively stranded for legal, bureaucratic and financial reasons, according to those trying to help them.
“Their bright visions of a welcoming new life have clouded as they receive conflicting messages from various authorities, or worse – no message at all,” said Lela Gilbert, associate scholar at the Center for Religious Liberty and the Hudson Institute which has been involved in several rescue cases in Afghanistan.
“They endured months of COVID quarantines. They have heard false but frightening rumors about their being sent back to their country of origin. They have virtually no control over their future,” Gilbert added.
The rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban contributed to the chaos of evacuation efforts. The scenes are well known: babies being put back on barbed wire, bodies falling off jet wheels and the images of Abbey Gate outside Kabul airport before and after the destruction caused by a suicide bomber.
Less well known is the predicament faced by thousands of people who were lucky enough to escape because they did not have time to take the legal steps necessary to resettle permanently elsewhere.
As a result, many of these Christians and other refugees are now clinging to crowded water lilies that are in danger of sinking.
Sarah Teske, a Harvard graduate, single mother of two, and retired Marine, became involved with evacuation efforts in August 2021, first for Americans stranded in Afghanistan, then for Afghans at risk.
Now she leads a resettlement effort for Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan. It does this in collaboration with two other non-profit organizations operating in the region: Shai Fund and the Vulnerable Persons Projectboth aimed at providing humanitarian aid to refugees and internally displaced people facing disasters caused by war and weather.
Teske was originally scheduled to deploy with her Marine unit to Afghanistan after 9/11, but it turned out that women were barred from playing combat roles there. until 2013.
Teske turned to the faith nurtured by her upbringing and parochial Catholic school as she struggled with survivor guilt, asking God why she trained for Afghanistan but didn’t go.
“And I always wondered, you know, what if it would have been me, you know, in their shoes,” she said of her fellow Marines who died in Afghanistan.
Now retired from the Marines after 23 years of service, Teske believes her training for Afghanistan and her inner struggles to not fight alongside her comrades there have taken on new meaning.
“Fast forward to the fall of Afghanistan in August. I just had it in my heart that maybe God was preparing me for something bigger.
According to Teske, that something more important would be his involvement with Afghanistan at the end of the war rather than at the beginning; an experience that will require her 23 years as a Navy, but also as an operational planner and strategist, as well as her vast network within the military, the State Department, the business world and geopolitical contacts in d ‘other countries.
“When Afghanistan fell I was keen to lean in and be part of a solution rather than turn my back and say we can’t do anything,” Teske said. “It wasn’t acceptable to me, so like many, many, many, many countless veterans, we all leaned together to make sure it was right to change the course of history, and that’s what happened. kind of became my role, my mission and my passion.”
She immediately began working as the strategic director of the Human First Coalition, then helped Pineapple Express, Sanctuary, and other paramilitary operators evacuate Americans, Christians, and other vulnerable people from Afghanistan.
“So I was leveraging my network with State Department teams and agency teams that were on the ground to basically ask for personal favors,” Teske said of his initial involvement. “I was… able to geolocate them, give them their points and have them shoot. I also had contact with the Marines who were at the gates and the teams that were at the gates, so I was calling them directly, giving them ID markers to get people out and get them to safety.
According to Teske, this launched her into the realm of rescue operations with many groups eventually each beginning to focus on an area on the ground – some providing shelter, some providing evacuation, some providing protection. food.
But even as various NGOs and nonprofits developed niche operations, the world’s attention was about to shift.
“We had 72 hours notice”
However, getting people out of Afghanistan and away from the Taliban was only the first hurdle.
The next phase proved equally complex, as many organizations struggle to find the funding and other resources to shelter, feed and protect refugees stuck in legal limbo.
“Rescue is sexy, right?” Teske said. “But how long can you afford to keep them alive before they are sold as slaves? Or are they sent back to Afghanistan or extradited?
That possibility became a reality for 250 Afghans last week when Jason Jones, who heads the humanitarian charity Vulnerable People Projectwas notified 72 hours in advance that an organization providing safe accommodation for refugees in Pakistan was closing due to lack of funds.
“We had 72 hours notice that 250 people were going to be released onto the streets, sent back to Afghanistan and probably killed, so my team and I started preparing to move them,” said Jones, who eventually paired with Teske on the move. She took care of the logistics while he took care of the fundraising – an overwhelming task when lives are at stake.
“Death is at stake. I had to collect $31,000 in 72 hours,” said Jones, who says it costs around $6,000 to resettle each refugee after calculating the costs of safe houses and the food for months.
The sudden collapse of NGOs dedicated to Afghan refugees is not something new. In early July 2021, the Vulnerable People Project partnered with approximately 12 different groups, a number that has continued to dwindle to less than half. As these groups celebrated the initial evacuation of refugees, long-term resettlement difficulties began to emerge and funds to support these operations began to dry up. Some humanitarian organizations have completely halted their operations.
“When Ukraine entered the war, all eyes turned to Ukraine and that dried up the interest of potential donors and current donors,” Teske explained. She added that the greatest help that can be given at this point is the resources that can help these exiles find a permanent solution.
Jones agreed, noting that his organization donates $10,000 every four days for shelters in Ukraine. In addition, it assists 7,000 vulnerable Afghans inside and outside Afghanistan, he said. Some 500 of them have Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), making them eligible for possible resettlement in the United States. The others have to find another place to go.
“I always tell people that fundraising is like digging a hole with a spoon. No one is good at it and it stinks,” Jones said. “Take a spoon and start digging.”
Persevere to the end
Teske learned on May 25 that 250 people were at risk of being extradited to Afghanistan, and after that, likely torture and death. In response, she took out a bridging loan, a short-term loan to be repaid as soon as permanent funding from a company or investor can be found, so that the immediate bills to keep her contacts alive can be paid. The Shai Fund and Vulnerable People Projectalso concerned with ensuring the security of the Afghan refugees, stepped in to help finance the operation.
“Until I can move them to a third country and they can create a new life for themselves, I am dedicated and 100% will walk hand in hand with these people until we get them to safety” , said Teske, who regularly tells her children, aged 5 and 8, that they will “find their mum someday.”
Younger son Asher knows that his mother is engaged in important work. A recent worksheet completed before Mother’s Day at her school asked the five-year-old, “What is your mom really good at?” His answer: “save the refu-gs” (sic). He also noted that his mother, who often stays up at night in addition to working days to coordinate projects across the Middle East “on hre fon (on her phone),” likes to relax while sleeping.
Jones, whose organization pays to keep girls safe at school in Afghanistan and has funded water wells and medical clinics for women there, also remains committed to the cause. “I tell my team that we will never abandon the Afghan people. We don’t do big things, we do small things…and that’s what saves lives.
Teske, whose life became intertwined with Afghanistan after 9/11, believes work prevents another 9/11. “It’s not just about saving lives, it’s about changing the course of history,” she said.