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Advocates fret Ukraine war will overshadow Afghans trying to flee their country


New immigrants from Afghanistan are settling into their lives in the United States, while thousands of others wait for a way out of Afghanistan. Advocates worry that as the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine absorbs much of the world's attention, Afghans who supported the U.S. military in Afghanistan may be forgotten. Steve Walsh is with member station KPBS in San Diego. And he's got our story.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Jawid Karimi watches on his phone a recent news report out of Afghanistan. It shows a group of girls being turned away from a school.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We are also human beings.

WALSH: He interprets the video for me.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We have a right to education.

WALSH: Five months ago, Karimi arrived in San Diego with his wife and two boys, part of a growing number of Afghan refugees. The world watches as the Russian invasion of Ukraine produces millions of refugees almost overnight. But Karimi and other Afghan refugees are still focused on the plight of their country. Many are nervous that the U.S. will move on, leaving thousands of people who work with the Americans stranded. Some remain in hiding.

JAWID KARIMI: They change their house, going from this house to another house, to hide them. This is a big concern if they are forgetting that something bad may happen to them.

WALSH: Shawn VanDiver is part of a coalition of mainly veterans groups trying to bring Afghans who work with the Americans to safety. AfghanEvac has been working with the Biden administration. But Vandiver says the White House has said very little publicly in months.

SHAWN VANDIVER: We're willing to bend over backwards to help Europeans that we haven't served with in the scale that we have with Afghans - and that we've kind of taken our time on Afghans, folks with whom we served for 20 years, folks who stood by us on the battlefield.

WALSH: Afghanistan didn't come up during the president's State of the Union address. VanDiver was particularly frustrated after the Biden administration announced that the U.S. would allow 100,000 Ukrainian refugees into the country.

VANDIVER: Nobody's saying that we shouldn't be helping Ukrainians. We all agree. What we're saying is that it would be nice if folks who didn't look like us got the same help as folks who look like us.

WALSH: Advocates are still waiting for the administration to get behind a permanent status for thousands of Afghans, like Jawid Karimi. He was given a temporary status called humanitarian parole. Naomi Steinberg with the refugee aid group HIAS says it doesn't fix their situation.

NAOMI STEINBERG: It's not a permanent status in any way. It is not an immigration status. It was very important in that it allowed a lot of people to get here very quickly. And obviously, time was of the essence. But what has happened now is that they are here with no path to permanency.

WALSH: Steinberg says the biggest problem isn't the shifting focus from one refugee crisis to another. She says the previous administration gutted the U.S.'s refugee resettlement program.

STEINBERG: It's a lot easier to wreck a program than it is to rebuild. And so that's where we are now, slowly but surely, building up. And extraordinary progress is being made. But it feels painfully slow for the individuals who are directly impacted.

WALSH: Javid Besharat just received his green card, which will allow him to use his degree in computer programming in San Diego. He was beaten by the Taliban as he made his way to the Kabul airport with his family. This was just days before the last American flight left.

JAVID BESHARAT: One of them had a one-meter pipe in their hand. And they were beating on my back and my foot. We escaped from them. And somehow, we entered to the airport.

WALSH: He left behind two brothers who also worked with an American company. He says the Taliban has searched their homes, looking for proof that they work with the U.S.

BESHARAT: Our solution is that - for the American government is that, please, help the people or for the family of those who are helping the Afghan government that - and also the American troops in Afghanistan.

WALSH: Because for many Afghans, time is running out.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.

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