Catholics from Afghanistan Wait in ‘Purgatory’ for Visas

Advocates for Catholic Afghan Family Say Not Enough Is Being Done to Get them Out of Refugee Camp.

By Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — An Afghan Catholic family of five in a refugee camp in the Middle East fears being returned to Afghanistan while they await processing to go to a welcoming country, say advocates trying to help the them.

The family’s names were not disclosed to Catholic News Service for fear of harm coming to them if their identities were revealed.

These refugees wait each day at an Afghan refugee camp in the United Arab Emirates for an interview that advances their processing, hoping their current host won’t return them to Afghanistan. With each passing day without such an interview, the anxiety grows that they’ll be returned to the home they so desperately sought to leave.

“If the Taliban found them, they’d probably kill them,” said Mark Pfeifle, president and CEO of Off The Record Strategies, whose website bills itself as “force multipliers who offer superior personalized service and innovative problem solving while operating under total confidentiality.”

The refugees have “applied for Special Immigrant Visas, but the State Department is extraordinarily slow,” Pfeifle said in an email to CNS. Such visas are given, he said, for extenuating circumstances for people employed by the U.S. government under the Armed Forces chief of mission. Until that interview, “they’re just in purgatory, waiting,” he said.

In a Jan. 4 phone interview, Pfeifle listed obstacles to getting this family approved for visas.

“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, he said.

“The second thing is the overload of the system,” Pfeifle said, adding U.S. immgration officials weren’t prepared for the huge influx of Afghans coming to the U.S. “Because of the challenges overall with immigration, DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and enormous challenges on the U.S. southern border, you add to them tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, they’re absolutely overburdened,” he said.

Pfeifle worked for the National Security Agency in the White House of President George W. Bush as deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and global outreach.

Adult members of the refugee family, who served as translators and interpreters in Afghanistan, spent Christmas in their refugee camp, “which makes my heart hurt,” Pfeifle said.

After World Mission Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand Church, pastor Father Jason Torba and Cardinal Blase Cupich greet the congregation, including all those who do mission in Chicago. (Julie Jaidinger, Chicago Catholic/U.S.)
A Taliban fighter guards a street in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 16, 2021. (CNS photo/Ali Khara, Reuters)

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

Getting these refugees to a safe place has also stymied Jill Kelley, whom Pfeifle called “a diplomatic fixer.” Kelley, a socialite in Tampa, Florida, is president of Military Diplomacy Strategies, an international advisory firm.

Kelley, who is Catholic, was born in Lebanon and knows firsthand the peril of being targeted in the country of your birth by unfriendly elements.

“We would’ve been killed if we weren’t able to come to the United States,” Kelley told CNS in a Jan. 5 phone interview. “People don’t understand people coming from non-Catholic and non-European countries” and how they can be “targets” in a civil war.

On Aug. 15, 2021, she was first drawn in to the effort to rescue Afghan helpers who were terrified at being left behind, Kelley said.

“I started calling a couple of VIPs in Afghanistan and they were so receptive to helping me,” she recalled. “I did not know the people I was helping. All I knew were the relatives.” Her contacts signaled they were willing to help, she said.

Spiriting people out of a country now hostile to some of its own citizens is not cheap, Kelley said, adding she spend her own money in the effort. But the biggest problem was not the airport itself, but that the Taliban had already been ceded control of the roads leading to the airport in Kabul, the capital, she said.

When she heard in late August that “America was pulling out … and of the airport, too,” Kelley recounted, “I remember saying, ‘Oh, my God. Thank God I got out the people I got out.’ … Imagine what it will be like when we don’t even have people at the airport.”

She found out soon enough.

Kelley told CNS she got a call from an active-duty Marine telling her, “We need to save this family.”

After World Mission Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand Church, pastor Father Jason Torba and Cardinal Blase Cupich greet the congregation, including all those who do mission in Chicago. (Julie Jaidinger, Chicago Catholic/U.S.)

Afghan men ride a motorcycle near Kabul, Afghanistan, July 13, 2021. (CNS photo/Mohammad Ismail, Reuters)

Along with the Afghan Catholic family, the group Kelley was helping included an 80-year-old U.S. grandmother and two active-duty U.S. military families, she said. With the help of her operatives in Afghanistan, she moved them all from safe house to safe house, trying to stay a step ahead of the Taliban.

Then, Kelley said, the 80-year-old grandmother got sick. “She was diabetic and she needed her medicine,” she said. Members of the Afghan Catholic family — in “a dangerous mission to undertake in the midst of chaos,” Pfeifle said — found the medicine the elderly woman needed and got it to her. “I thought to myself, ‘My God. If I didn’t have this Catholic family in the safe house, she would be dead,'” Kelley said.

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.”

Despite a series of middle-of-the-night escapes from one safe house to another, the Taliban broke into one safe house, Kelley said. They beat up the Christians but let the 80-year-old alone.

Kelley finally found the right strings to pull to get them out of Afghanistan where they waited at the UAE refugee camp.

The active-duty military families are back in the United States, as is the 80-year-old grandmother, Kelley said. But not the Afghans.

“Everybody got their final interview but these Catholics,” Kelley said.

Pfeifle said their “religious minority status” doesn’t automatically qualify them for expedited treatment.

“If they were sent back, they are not going to survive. This is the last hope for them,” Kelley said. “Somebody help me help them. I cannot do it by myself anymore.”

Featured image: Children fly a kite in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 10, 2021. (CNS photo/Ali Khara, Reuters)

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