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Despite our prayers, the war in Ukraine will not end any time soon. Putin’s savage heart and his callous disregard for human life has led to the worst humanitarian crisis Europe has seen since World War II. And there will be much more bloodshed in the weeks to come.
While Ukraine has understandably grabbed our attention, there’s another humanitarian crisis ongoing that was caused by the way America left Afghanistan. We cannot forget about the people we promised to help, and the administration must be pressed to deal with these problems.
When President Biden followed through on his promise to withdrawal all troops by August 31st, the decades-long war in Afghanistan was largely deemed ‘over.’ But it wasn’t over. Not for the Afghans, not for some Americans, and definitely not for Jen Wilson.
Jen Wilson is the chief operating officer of Army Week Association, a nonprofit organization founded to ease veterans’ transition from military service. When she saw the mismanagement of our botched Afghanistan withdrawal, she knew we needed to do more.
We made a promise to our Afghan allies — notably to the teachers and the interpreters — that if they stood by us, we’d stand by them. The day the Taliban took over, each and every one of our Afghan friends had a target placed on their back. They were vulnerable and we knew it. We had a duty and an obligation to get them out. Someway, somehow. When it didn’t look like our government could lead the evacuation effort on their own, Jen stepped up and #ProjectDynamo was born.
For the first few months after the Taliban took control, much of what they did was in the public eye. What place would they have in the international community? Could we trust them? Would women have rights? The whole world was watching.
Jen helped “America’s Newsroom” show our viewers what was unfolding. Two of those stories — one about Carl and the other Bilal, have stuck with me. I follow up on them often. I’m dismayed by how our State Department can’t get these brave men and their families to safety and, in Bilal’s case, home to America. He’s a citizen.
Now — out of the world’s watch – the Taliban sees an opening. We cannot forget the promise we made.
Read on to see what Jen is doing to keep our allies safe – and about Carl and Bilal:
JEN WILSON’S UPDATE ON CARL AND BILAL
This week marks 9 months since I started working the evacuations in Afghanistan. What started as an attempt to help trapped friends and friends-of-friends get out of the country amid the Taliban’s swift takeover soon exploded into a globalized movement. A multi-national and multi-organizational effort comprised of veterans, active duty military, civilians, lawmakers, and journalists working day-and-night, around the clock, to save as many Americans and Afghan allies as we possibly could.
Many people assume those efforts stopped when the U.S. military went wheels up for the last time on August 31, 2021. Not a crazy assumption. But in reality, in many ways, our efforts actually doubled after the U.S. left.
During those first few weeks of chaos, we formed relationships. We built databases. We were in daily contact with people that we had come to know – and more importantly to love. They needed shelter and safety until we could find a way to get them out. They were vulnerable. After years of us needing their help during the war, they needed ours.
It was past time to return the favor.
While I still get about a dozen or so requests per week from those needing evacuation, the realities on the ground right now are such that if you are not already out of Afghanistan, there is no clear pathway for you.
While the world has been distracted by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine/Russia, the Taliban has taken advantage and shuttered all manner of movement by air or by land. Hundreds of veterans and global organizations spent the winter trying to keep their “flock” warm, fed, and safe until something changes. But unfortunately it’s not getting any easier.
Speaking purely of my own experience, I’ve been very blessed and lucky to have evacuated all those I was close to. Therein lies but one single hurdle cleared. Arguably the biggest, but by no means have things been smooth sailing once that first step is complete.
There are two cases in particular that I’ve spoken about quite publicly. They constantly tug at my heart and my soul, day in and day out.
Meet “Carl” and Bilal.
Part 1: Carl’s Story
Some of you may recall seeing a guest featured on Fox News Channel the day of the Kabul airport suicide bomber attack. His name was Carl and he joined you live on air just moments after a newborn baby died in his arms.
Carl was the personal interpreter for a very good Marine friend of mine named Charlie. We’ve been working on Carl’s case together since August 13th. We spent weeks trying to get him and his family into HKIA (Hamid Karzai International Airport), charting clean paths and moving them around checkpoints. We thought we finally succeeded when we got him inside, only to have him thrown back out due to a paperwork issue.
The next day was the airport bombing. Carl was there that day – in the airport, in the exact spot the bomb went off. We were trying to work out his paperwork dilemma. Just minutes before the explosion, Charlie insisted he go charge his phone so we didn’t lose contact. Little did he know that would save his life.
I want to show Carl and Bilal that this is a great country. We just have to give them strength. Help them believe there is hope.
We spent the months to follow building exfiltration plans, utilizing every asset we could find, while also getting a legal team together to fight the paperwork monster. He’s been in the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for more than 5 years.
I can’t say much more about his case right now, but know it’s been a month-long, multinational evacuation process that remains ongoing. And that we have him in a safe place right now while he waits. (Also – he and his wife are expecting a new baby due any day).
The Taliban hunt for anyone that worked alongside the US/allies and their ruthlessness continues unabated. In January, they got to Carl’s family. Still searching for him, they beat his grandfather to a pulp and kidnapped two of his cousins.
There is no insight as to how long this SIV paperwork process will take or even what stage his paperwork is in. As with everyone in the SIV process right now, there is no answer and no update. Just silence.
And while this drags on, we continue to personally fund his day-to-day housing, care, and needs for him and his family because he cannot work where he’s currently hiding.
Part 2: Bilal’s Story
Bilal in an undated photo
Bilal should have a Disney movie made about him. He’s such an inspiration. An Afghan-American war hero living in New York City who then flies back into a war zone to rescue his wife and his five-year-old son amid America’s withdrawal. …Only to get trapped there, fighting to get out with his family intact.
After months of failing to get Bilal and his family out together vis-à-vis three different countries, we finally got them out on a State Department charter flight to the UAE Humanitarian City Refugee Camp in October 2021.
Bilal holds a United States of America passport. He is an American citizen. His wife and son have been in the green card process since 2018. So how is it that we have an American trapped in a refugee camp in the UAE and the only way for me to get him out is for him to leave his family behind?
We have immigration lawyers, members of Congress, US Senators, journalists, and civilians all working on this case. And yet for the past six months, we’ve not found success. None of us have been able to get the correct paperwork needed for his family to enter the US. Not enter alone, but enter with their husband, father that holds a U.S. passport.
In February, still unable to return, Bilal lost his job and his apartment here in New York City. At that point, they had FINALLY gotten to the last stages for their interview and medicals. But nothing. Zero. They waited for two months with no feedback, still trapped in that refugee camp. Turns out the decentralized data systems of the Embassy/State Department hadn’t been tracking their progress correctly.
Bilal’s five-year-old son
On four separate occasions, Bilal’s family was called back to do medical appointments. But these had already been completed months before. There was just no record of it. Go figure.
Just last week, we finally received one of the visas…but we still await the other. No telling how long until it comes. But when it does, I’ll be ready to put them on the first flight home to New York.
For both of these men, the journey is long from over. Yes – they’re out of Afghanistan. Step one complete. But we promised to bring them home. Here—to freedom. To America. To the greatest country on earth.
“I’m just gonna go back to Afghanistan.”
I’ve heard these words more times than I can count. It pains me to my core. Even after everything they’ve gone through, the process has been so twisted that somehow it seems like it might be easier to just go back to where you may have friends or family.
Bilal, in particular, feels betrayed. How could he not? America has left him in a refugee camp where the only exit option is to abandon his wife and his son. What message does that send?
In a conversation just the other night, he asked me why I keep working so hard to help him. I told him I can’t stop. And I won’t stop. I refuse to give up on him. I want him to look at the American flag and think back to what it meant to him that day he took his oath of citizenship. I’m not going to let this situation bastardize his sacrifice nor what the colors on that flag mean. Nor the oath that every one of the men and women that stood beside him for years on the battlefield made.
Americans don’t leave our own behind. So I’m not going to stop until he’s home.
It’s taken many “Miracle on Ice” pep talks to keep the fight alive. And I’ve done my best to channel my inner Herb Brooks: “GREAT MOMENTS ARE BORN FROM GREAT OPPORTUNITY.”
I want to show Carl and Bilal that this is a great country. And a great opportunity.
We just have to give them strength. Help them believe there is hope.
“Hope” we’ve learned is a double-edged sword. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Do you believe in miracles?
Because I do.
Jen Wilson is Chief Operating Officer of the Army Week Association. As COO she maintains close working relationships with local, state, federal, and international governments, and military contacts to ensure an effective and efficient bridge of the civil-military divide. It is in this role that Jen has been working tirelessly for months on the evacuations of Americans and our allies out of Afghanistan from her living room in Manhattan.
To learn more, visit: https://www.projectdynamo.org/about-us