The lightning Taliban takeover of Kabul has left people hiding in homes and armed men patrolling the streets in cars.
Bashir is in there somewhere.
And a local Quaker congregation is desperate to get him out.
His work as an interpreter for the U.S. military has put his life in danger, as the Taliban intensifies its hold on the capital and the country. His support from the Plymouth Quaker Meeting in Montgomery County, which helped build a girls’ school in Afghanistan, offers hope and contact with the outside world.
“If we could just get him on a plane,” said David DiFabio, an Air Force veteran who met Bashir years ago when he worked as a civilian communications contractor in Afghanistan.
He and others at the Meeting said they’ve contacted Pennsylvania elected officials, pleading with them to help. U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean has actively stepped up, they said, her staff identifying a paperwork error that apparently blocked Bashir from getting a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, which qualifies interpreters for evacuation to the United States.
At Sen. Pat Toomey’s office, spokesperson Magdalena Jagla Ciccone said the senator “has received a number of requests regarding Special Immigrant Visa applicants in Afghanistan. We are working diligently to notify the State Department of individual SIV applicants seeking to leave the country.”
Sen. Bob Casey’s office shared letters he’s written to the Defense Department, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security urging the fast, safe evacuation of Afghan allies and other “targeted and vulnerable Afghans at risk of Taliban retaliation.”
The Inquirer is withholding Bashir’s surname for safety reasons.
As of Monday he was in hiding but still in touch with the church, sending photos of the Kabul streets by phone. The Quakers here continue to discuss what they could try to bring him out of the capital of 4.3 million people and to safety in the United States or another country.
“My hope is he hunkers down,” said David Miller, a Meeting member who is helping in the effort. “There’s no helicopter coming to pick him off a roof.”
Bashir, who is in his 30s, worked with U.S. armed forces at the Kandahar air base for more than a decade. His visa paperwork, including multiple recommendations from military supervisors, was submitted but found to have an error that undercounted his years of service.
During these frantic last days, the Meeting has been unable to get U.S. government officials to provide travel documents to enable Bashir to go to a safe country where he could work on having his application corrected.
“This man [has] high recommendations from members of our armed service,” Miller said. “He needs to get out now, as he has been identified and notified by the Taliban that he is on their list.”
At most only a few thousand Afghan interpreters have been rescued so far, a tiny percentage of the 88,000 allies and family members in the SIV process, according to Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
“If that’s the best we can do,” she wrote on Twitter, “it will be a permanent stain on our nation’s reputation.”
At least 300 interpreters and family members have been killed in recent years because of their ties to the United States, according to the nonprofit No One Left Behind. Under SIVs, translators are being moved to three destinations: the United States, American facilities in other countries, or homes in countries where they can more safely finish their applications.
People may think all the interpreters are fatigue-clad soldiers, working beside American troops to translate communications and conversations on the battlefield. Many do that, but thousands also work in scores of jobs for U.S. federal agencies and contractors.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told CNN that the Defense Department is seeking to bring up to 30,000 Afghans to the United States under SIVs, a reversal of President Joe Biden’s assertion that such an increase was barred by law. The goal is to transport several thousand people quickly, with tens of thousands to follow, the spokesperson said, though it was unclear how that would be achieved.
What’s clear is that Bashir’s life is in danger. He helped the American war effort at the Kandahar Air Field and at Camp Nathan Smith, a military base there, serving more than two years as a translator. U.S. military officers supported his SIV application, saying he worked hard and faithfully as an interpreter.
“He served patrol leaders and supported their interactions with tribal leaders and Afghan military forces,” Lt. Col. Elliot Harris wrote in a 2016 memo. “These efforts placed him in grave danger with the Afghan population that supported the Taliban, however he continued to provide good support to the military.”
The Taliban also noted his work, leaving Bashir a threatening note that identified him by name.
“For many years you have been working for infidels and their puppet government,” the note said, warning Bashir to start supporting the Taliban with guns and money.
Instead he stayed with the Americans.
And now, DiFabio said, the Americans need to get him out.
“He’s done multiple projects for the military,” DiFabio said. “I just want to get him the hell out of the country.”