What It’s Like to Get Texts Every Day From Afghans Fleeing Taliban Persecution
The story is by now a familiar one: In May 2021—the original deadline for a full American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, as stipulated in the prior administration’s Feb. 2020 agreement with the Taliban—the United States began pulling out its remaining 2,500 troops from the country. The beginning of this withdrawal provoked the launch of an aggressive military offensive by Taliban fighters who in the following months would systematically seize control over the country’s districts. Their advance was violent and swift, and the Afghan government collapsed far more quickly than even U.S. intelligence analysts had originally predicted.
Kabul fell on August 15, 2021. With all other border crossings under Taliban control, Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) became the last route out of the country for anyone who wished to flee.
It’s all very digestible when presented this way.
But that August, those working to help our Afghan partners with relocation and resettlement were forced to reckon with the horror—and the trauma—that the headlines could only hint at. The reality we witnessed is that of an entire nation suddenly at risk as the Taliban took control. And with no other weapons in hand to defend themselves, Afghans resorted to the only one they had left: their phones.
As their world became more dangerous, they turned to their contacts in the United States—veterans, humanitarians, friends, and distant relatives—who found themselves facing the reality of the brutal civil conflict from half a world away. Many of us would quickly become de facto case managers, helping Afghans secure food and safe housing while simultaneously navigating an unkind and perilous immigration system. Some among us even purchased tickets to Kabul.
It’s important to note that case managers are volunteers; as such, we have no formal support infrastructure to rely on apart from the network of colleagues we’ve met along the way. While our work can be rewarding, its demands are unceasing. By necessity, we are in almost constant communication with the people we are trying to help.
The text messages we received every day—and continue to receive even now, a year later—convey the despair of people being hunted:
Yes I am in the bus. Oh my gosh, please help me. We are on the way, [there] is shooting. I will [die] in here.
My brother is hiding in the trunk of his car. Is there anyone you can call?
I will kill myself before I let them take me.
As other forms of recourse disappeared with American personnel and infrastructure, these text messages became the only lifeline still available to Afghans. They would send photos of their bloodied and crying children so that we could truly understand what was at stake. Case managers, in turn, went days without sleep, sifting through thousands of messages across multiple platforms to confirm intelligence, arrange for safe transport, and, in many cases, field calls from Afghans. Often we answered a call to hear the person on the other end being captured—or actively tortured.
All this as the situation across Afghanistan continued to rapidly deteriorate. As case managers began to realize that there were no remaining pathways to safety, dozens of Afghans clung to the wings of an ascending airplane at HKIA. Bystanders immediately sent images of what happened next to the phones of volunteers, who were powerless to intervene. Not long after, a suicide bombing at the gates to the airport claimed the lives of 13 American soldiers and over 160 Afghans, rendering the facility all but inaccessible.
As we received one message after another, all we could do was bear witness to human suffering so acute that it couldn’t possibly be real. But it was. The proof is still on our phones.
Surprisingly little has changed over the past year. An estimated 160,000 Special Immigrant Visa (SIV)–eligible Afghans await the processing of their applications, with only 8,000 SIVs awarded since last year. Some 40,000 additional Afghans are pursuing safety through humanitarian parole, with only 123—less than 2 percent—of the total number of processed applications having been approved since July 2021 (and this despite the U.S. government’s collection of nearly $20 million in fees). Nearly all P-1 and P-2 applications remain unprocessed, partly because of the untenable conditions deemed necessary to move them through the system.
Asylum requirements pose impossible bureaucratic obstacles: Most Afghans remain in-country, but they cannot have their visa applications processed until they relocate to a third country. It’s a deadly catch-22: Afghans can either (1) remain and face imprisonment and death, or (2) escape to a refugee camp elsewhere, where they might remain indefinitely and without the capacity to work towards their own sustainment. For many, it amounts to a choice between two kinds of death: a violent one, or a living one.
As they grapple with this decision, our Afghan partners and their families remain tucked away in the safehouses we’ve provided, unable to secure their own food or medical care for fear of being caught.
But the term “safehouse” is a misnomer. Functionally, these compounds are prisons, capturing the lives and livelihoods of their residents. Many have not seen daylight for months; their children cannot play outdoors. As the Taliban patrol the streets outside, the mood among these buildings’ hidden residents oscillates between fear and ennui.
The texts continue.
This is my nephew. He was whipped and beaten and possibly gang raped outside his home by a group of Talibs. He is 8. Can you help him?
I am scared. Please move my family before we are discovered.
I’m just 21 years old. [Much too] little to tolerate all [this] pain and difficulties. Why does [G]od test me like this[?]
Even as I write this piece, my eyes continually flicker back to my phone. The current crisis: A husband and his pregnant wife have been separated from their children and remain in hiding. This morning, the Taliban found the children. The house where the kids were staying is surrounded and their passports have been seized; the children’s uncle, their current guardian, has been detained.
One of my teammates is receiving messages from the eldest daughter in real time. While tending to her younger siblings, she sends my colleague photos of the soldiers posted outside her window. She texts her mother: “Don’t cry. This is a fight. You must fight.”
She is 11.
On this side of the world, we sit and wait for more messages, hoping the next will contain better news than the last. We tend to our needs at home while also remaining in constant contact with these children whose lives are being so ruthlessly threatened. We try to allay their fears with gentle words of love and support. From the outside, we look like everyone else waiting in line for the bus or the cash register: glued to our phones. The world around us carries on.
It’s difficult to convey the experience of a case manager right now. Even sympathetic friends and family can’t fully understand that we’re in the middle of an ongoing crisis—that even though the headlines have moved on, the plight of the people we are trying to help remains as dire as ever. And that means our work never stops.
In February 2022, only six months after the fall of Kabul, I was planning to spend the evening with my nephew, who had recently moved to Washington, D.C. We were delighted to finally spend some time together.
What he didn’t know was that very morning, a critical operation of mine had fallen through. Days earlier and with a skeleton crew of independent operators, I had arranged for the movement and protection of some thirty highly at-risk Afghans. Giving in to fear, someone in the group violated our strict operational security protocol and shared their location. Just hours later, the group was taken hostage by the Taliban.
I spent that evening attempting to balance quality time with my nephew with frantic calls to confirm the location of the hostages. Many of those who were captured still bore wounds from prior Taliban beatings and torture. In the weeks that followed, I would regularly work my full day job and then pivot to assist with ongoing negotiations for the lives of the captives. Sleep was optional, and often unattainable.
That evening with my nephew, I didn’t think about the weeks ahead. All I could think about was that I had failed. I had failed my Afghan cases by not protecting them from their predators. I had failed my colleagues by engaging in a failed mission, one that required extensive time and resources to save. I had failed my nephew, too, in not being present for someone who loved me.
It was on this night that I first connected with the women of Task Force Nyx, who reached out to me to offer whatever support they could, even though they weren’t involved in that specific operation. Their texts were tender and kind. They called me “habibi” and sat with me in my grief. They reminded me that I hadn’t failed. We were all navigating unknown and treacherous territory, and doing whatever good we were capable of doing in almost impossible circumstances.
This compassion ultimately saved me; I am honored to have since joined their team. But I couldn’t accept their care that night. Instead, as new messages from Afghanistan continued to ring out on my phone, I went home and wept.
Months later, my body continues to keep track of the trauma I’ve endured in the course of this work: I show signs of both short- and long-term memory impairment, poor gut health, panic symptoms in safe settings, and even a persistent eye twitch.
And as I have recently come to appreciate more fully, my story is far from unique.
In January 2022, I was asked to serve as the director of resiliency programming for the #AfghanEvac coalition, which unites groups working in relocation and resettlement for our Afghan partners. While supporting the mental health and resiliency of our members and volunteers, I have also become privy to their struggles—and some of their darkest moments.
I think of my teammates often. I think of the multiple women who have experienced pregnancy loss due to stress. Those who were hospitalized for cardiac events that turned out to be psychosomatic in nature. The veteran whose PTSD was so badly triggered that he now experiences dissociative episodes during which he perpetrates emotional abuse that he will not remember. Yet another whose panic attack in a foreign country led him to believe that he might die without seeing his family again. And the Afghan American who served with such distinction in the U.S. Air Force that there is a statue in her honor, yet who remains unable to rescue her own family from Kabul.
Most often, I think of the forty-plus volunteers who have experienced suicidal episodes because this work has overtaken them.
The catalysts for these events are numerous and complex. There’s moral injury (the distress that individuals feel when they perpetrate, witness, or fail to prevent an act that transgresses their core ethical beliefs); vicarious trauma (the emotional residue of secondhand exposure to the traumatic experiences of others through stories, images, and video); compassion fatigue (the cumulative effects of working with traumatized individuals that contribute to secondary traumatic stress of the caregiver); and, of course, burnout (a combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced work capacity caused by chronic stress).
These injuries can be sustained in a short period and remain for a lifetime. Today, I don’t know of a single volunteer working to relocate our Afghan partners who isn’t suffering from one or more of the above. And considering that our volunteers have experienced injuries of this kind almost unceasingly for the past year, it’s nearly incomprehensible that they are still standing. They have endured twelve months of constant crises and have collectively fielded hundreds of thousands of messages begging for help, all while balancing their own lives, too.
As our efforts drag on, our volunteers’ mental health becomes increasingly precarious. There are some who have not slept through the night in over a year, and others who have lost their jobs because of this work. Some who have fought to save families on the other side of the world while irreparably damaging their own relationships with loved ones. In the internal chat room we use to coordinate work, I have seen members argue against taking mental health breaks. According to an unnamed State Department employee who was swamped with personal requests for help from Afghans during the withdrawal, “This experience broke a lot of people, including me.” As volunteers in our community might add, the breaking doesn’t stop, even when you think you’ve already been broken.
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the ongoing mental health challenges facing our volunteer community. During our conversation, I admitted that I didn’t know many things for certain when it comes to our work—but
one thing I know for sure is that this past year has indelibly altered the mental health of both our allies and volunteers. And without institutional support, we will lose people who already feel that they have lost themselves.
In retrospect, I know a few other things for certain: I know that our country directed countless men and women to commit decades of their military service to stabilizing Afghanistan, only to withdraw without a comprehensive exit strategy. I know that in doing so, our country has left both Americans and our Afghan allies—friends who often became family—feeling hopelessly abandoned. I know that our government publicly praises our work, but does not offer the substantial mental health infrastructure both groups need. What we need is accessible mental health care—from providers who understand what we’ve been through and how to treat the resulting issues—and for the initiatives that already exist to be strengthened and better funded.
But more than anything, we simply need our country to understand: We are in trouble.
The dedication of our volunteers is total: We believe it is morally necessary for us to provide what help we can to those attempting to flee the Taliban. But continuing to operate as we do without support isn’t sustainable. I hope that, amid the death and suffering that attended our withdrawal from Afghanistan, we won’t have to add the name of any of our volunteers to the list of those we have lost. But if we remain on our current trajectory, I do not believe that outcome can be avoided.
For further reading, I strongly recommend these articles by Will Selber and Joan Barker, which speak to the experience of servicemembers and veterans.
The entire #AfghanEvac coalition owes a debt of gratitude to its partners at Give an Hour, who have shown relentless dedication to supporting the mental health of its volunteer community.