For years, I made a living writing about sports and the outdoors. For years, my colleagues have written dozens of versions of the same story about Afghan women overcoming decades of discrimination to climb mountains, run and ride bikes. Last month, while Afghanistan was falling apart, the outdoor media covered Afghan refugees’ participation in the Tokyo Olympic Games as a feel-good feature. We regularly shared these atypical stories while totally failing to reflect on the ongoing challenges of everyday life for many Afghan women.
I asked an Afghan female cyclist what she wanted people to hear as they looked on at the chaos in her country. She said, “Please, please don't stay silent."
These stories were unquestionably inspiring. In the case of bike racing, the sport I know best, a women’s cycling team sprang up in the early 2010s after the daughter of the coach of the Afghan National Cycling Federation asked him if she could try it out. Shannon Galpin, a women’s rights activist and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award winner, helped him coach the emerging team starting in 2012 and bringing a cargo of cycling gear to help more girls ride, both for competition and for fun.
A generation of girls grew up admiring those first brave Afghan women who rode, and they began to do the same themselves. In 2016, the Afghan women’s national cycling team was even nominated for a Nobel Prize by a group of Italian politicians. They had begun to compete abroad and had hopes of traveling to the Olympics to represent their country in Tokyo before the devolving security situation disrupted their participation.
A few weeks later, the Olympic stories about the female refugees who did compete unwittingly put their families back home in Afghanistan in mortal danger from the Taliban, who see women’s sports as sacrilege and the families of these women as traitors. And our work in highlighting those incredible women still in the country, who broke countless barriers to do what most of us take for granted, has placed a target on their backs as well.
We now have a moral imperative to help these athletes and their families get to safety. But even as news conferences and reassuring tweets from the Biden administration continue, the immigration system has continued to throw up a series of logistical hurdles that stand between these women and the future our politicians promised them, which was used to justify two decades of fighting and dying.
With American troops leaving Afghanistan in the coming days, the U.S. has been prioritizing the evacuation of U.S. citizens and NATO allies, and after that Afghans worked for the U.S. For myriad other Afghans, including some 50 female cyclists from the team and their families, whom Galpin says are still in Afghanistan, this means they are facing a very dark future. According to Galpin, who is leading fundraising and evacuation efforts for the group, women are hiding or burning their bikes, clothing and diplomas in an effort to conceal the fact that they once dreamed of a better future while their nation has been plunged back into a terrible past. Some female athletes are hiding themselves.
Others who have managed to leave the country haven’t all been able to reach the United States. One female cyclist I know is now trapped in a neighboring country, also not a terribly safe place for her to be, waiting for her visa to process. “If the Taliban come to my house for searching and see my bike and all my achievements, I'm sure they [will] destroy all of them, so I said to my family, hide ... everything in somewhere safe,” she told me. She described her plans for the future as “to go somewhere safe because I can't come back to Afghanistan” and then “continue my education and cycling, to do my best” in both.
It’s easy to say that this chaos was inevitable, that the Biden administration is doing its best and that we can't save everyone. But the writing has been on the wall for months, and Galpin has been trying to expedite evacuations since April. Yet it took months of browbeating for President Joe Biden to even fulfill campaign promises about increasing refugee admission caps above the extremely low levels established by the Trump administration. Now, with just days left to exit the country by air, the administration is leaving desperate Afghans behind. According to The New York Times, at least 250,000 Afghans who may meet the criteria to come to the United States are trying to get out by the Aug. 31 U.S. withdrawal deadline, an impossible task.
This was a situation the CIA predicted and the government did little to stop. Eleven members of Congress expressed concern with Biden’s withdrawal plans in May, writing a letter to the White House to which they say they never got a response. In June, the National Immigration Forum reported, “If those [evacuation] flights had started May 20, it would have taken three flights per day to hit the September withdrawal deadline.”
But the flights did not start in May or June. Instead, the U.S. evacuated just 5,000 people in July and early August. It’s now evacuating more than that every day, but it’s too little, too late. The panicked airlift, requests to third-party nations like Uganda to host refugees and visa limbo that will leave Afghans who trusted us stranded could have been avoided — but the president was focused on electric cars and infrastructure. Biden tweeted three times about electric cars in June and just once about Afghanistan.
The Biden administration has done far too little legislatively to prepare for the disaster it is now facing as well. The Special Immigrant Visa program, which is offered to Afghans who worked with the U.S. military, has been underfunded and backlogged for years. Only 8,000 additional SIVs were authorized in an emergency security act enacted July 30, bringing the total to 34,500 visas that have been allocated to interpreters and their family members since 2014. Yet the BBC estimated as many as 50,000 interpreters have needed a safe place to live because of their interactions with the U.S. But even if the visas become available to them in theory, roughly 18,000 were pending in 2020, and they can take up to several years to process.
Other visa options for Afghans include Priority 1 refugee visas, but they must be cases that are specifically identified and referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a U.S. Embassy or a designated nongovernmental organization. In 2019, 16,744 were issued globally. The Priority 2 visa for Afghans who work for U.S. NGOs, media and government-funded programs was announced Aug. 2, less than two weeks before Kabul fell. It requires significant paperwork, all in English with no obvious Pashto instructions, and it must be submitted by U.S. government officials and senior NGO staff, who are likely now evacuated or desperately trying to get their employees to safety. Humanitarian parole, essentially the right to stay in the U.S. for a year while you work on a more permanent visa, costs $575 and the U.S. denies about 75 percent of applications. They could start by waiving that fee.
Visa backlogs were a known issue, made worse by the fact that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul restricted visa interviews due to Covid-19. This backlog was raised at news conferences in June before the U.S. abandoned Bagram Airfield, which could have been used to evacuate these people. Now, those visa applicants are stuck in Kabul and even when they reach the city’s airport, they are often prevented from entering.
I asked an Afghan female cyclist what she wanted people to hear as they looked on at the chaos in her country. She said, “Please, please don't stay silent, because it's not the life of one person or a woman but it's the life of thousands of people that need your assistance, especially the women. Please help us to live in a safe and better place because we don't have any hope in Afghanistan.”
After 20 years of war, we have left this country no better than we found it. Young Afghan women will wake up tomorrow with no hope, and at the end of this month, we will wash our national hands of the mess we made and forget about them. We owe them better than that.