Catholic Afghan refugees’ scary wait

Robaird O’Cearbhaill
Hong Kong Correspondent

Despite successfully escaping anti-Christian, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, a family in a refugee camp in United Arab Emirates is scared of being sent back. Their story was reported by Mark Pattison of Catholic News Service (CNS).

   They need a safe future. “If the Taliban found them, they’d probably kill them,” Mark Pfeifle, head of Off The Record Strategies told CNS. “They’re just in purgatory, waiting,” he said.

He also gave CNS the details of the tough obstacles for the family who prefers not to be named to get their cherished US visas. Understandably, they may still have  relatives or connections in Afghanistan who could be traced, and in danger, if their names are revealed. More so if they are sent back home. 

Pfeifle is formerly a senior White official of the US National Security Agency under President Bush. 

 Pfeifle said that the family “applied for Special Immigrant Visas, but the State Department is extraordinarily slow and disorganized.” The visas are only for those who have worked for US military missions in extraordinary circumstances. 

However, the report does not mention the family having direct links to the US military, whereas others who did were green lighted for the crucial visa interviews. While they are reported as translators, US military connection has not been shown publicly. 

“Since we did a full and immediate withdrawal, it took almost all the resources out of Afghanistan. An immigration status background check is far more difficult” as there is “no capacity to interview relatives and community members” about applicants, Pfeifle said.

“The second thing is the overload of the system. It’s just not prepared to do a successful withdrawal. They similarly weren’t prepared for the huge influx of Afghans coming over from Afghanistan to the US,” Pfeifle added.

He explained further that “because of the challenges overall with immigration, DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and enormous challenges on the US southern border, you add to them tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, and they’re absolutely overburdened,” he said.

Pfeifle spoke about how much their Christianity and their lives were at stake under Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. 

He said that the Taliban would go to them looking for their information. “Who are you? Are you Muslim?” “And they would have to lie and say they were, which goes against my Christian upbringing,” Pfeifle, also a Christian, said.

“My upbringing” makes you “talk proudly about your religion and you try to bring other people to it. You just cannot tell people who could harm or kill you that you’re a proud Christian and a proud Catholic.”

The family escaped from the Taliban, and out of the country, CNS was told by Jill Kelley who helped them and  others before them. Afghans looking to escape execution for their religion, reminded Kelly, a Catholic, of how she was nearly killed for the same reason in Lebanon. 

“We would’ve been killed if we weren’t able to come to the United States,” Kelley told CNS by phone.    

“People don’t understand people coming from non-Catholic and non-European countries” and how they can be “targets” in a civil war.

Kelley spoke of the great expense to herself to finance a team of “the operatives that I had, they were truly martyrs. They were wearing Red Cross badges They were wearing journalist badges,” Kelley said, but really “they were (Special elite) Forces guys. When the shootout happened at the Taliban checkpoints I could hear the screaming, I could hear the shooting. It was like a horror movie.”

Kelley described how courageous and generous the Catholic family was at home in the Afghan capital Kabul. They looked after a US grandmother in their house, who ran out of diabetic medicine that kept her alive. 

In a chaotic zone, after 20 years of civil war, with hardline fundamentalists’ sudden takeover, for non-Moslems to go out to find medicine was brave and charitable. 

That was “a dangerous mission to undertake in the midst of chaos,” Pfeifle said. They did find the medicine she needed and got it for her. Kelley added, “I thought to myself, ‘My God. If I didn’t have this Catholic family in the safe house, she would be dead.’”

She added she was astounded by “how much they were helping everybody else when they didn’t have their own parachute,” seeing as how they were “giving medical care and translating at the same time.”

Pfeifle asked: “Who from the U.S. State Department is in charge of Afghan refugees and making sure they’re safe and healthy? … Who wakes up every day and says, ‘I’m committed to getting this stuff done?’”

(Photo: A man waves an Afghan flag during Independence Day events in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 19, 2019. Rafiq Maqbool/AP)