COLORADO SPRINGS – Nearly three months after the United States Military and Coalition forces left Afghanistan in a pre-ordained exit, a number of American citizens and people who helped our military during 20 years of war, remain trapped in the country. And their families overseas fear for their safety, citing the group now in control of the country as one with ties to terrorism and insurgency.
Sam has lived in the United States for eight years. FOX21 News is not publishing his last name for his family’s protection.
Sam gained his citizenship through the Special Immigrant Visa program after serving as an interpreter for the U.S. military.
“The amount of support you got from [service members], it’s amazing. It’s like they protect you, they teach you,” Sam said. “I have been taught a lot of stuff by them, because I was right there with them for every single fight.”
Sam began working as an interpreter before he turned 18. He remembers picking up English by watching the TV show “Pimp my Ride.”
“I didn’t know the meaning of it until I met a U.S soldier and asked them,” Sam said. “They burst out laughing.”
Sam said he was motivated to take the job after years of living under the Taliban rule.
“I know [the] Taliban government. I was a kid, I still remember stuff they did. I still remember the beating, beating my relatives, my dad, my neighbors. It was just such a horrible experience,” he said.
The town he grew up in, located in a northern province of the country, was near a Taliban stronghold at the time, Sam recalled.
He said he remembers it was a warm night when America’s longest war began, because whenever it was warm at night, his family would sleep outside.
“I remember my father waking me up, and I see, like, the sky is red. It’s like bullets are flying everywhere. I was a little kid, and that was the regime change,” Sam recalled. “I know, in a way, that it was excitement for us. Like hey, you know, these guys are being kicked out right now. You know, they’re being killed by the good guys.”
Sam remembers his father telling him they would be able to live free. He would be able to go to school and so would his sisters.
When Sam and his wife left the country in 2013 under the SIV program, it meant leaving his mother and sisters behind. His wife left her family as well, including her father, a colonel in the former Afghanistan guard.
For years, Sam felt that his family back home would one day live freely and safely. That hope disappeared this summer, along with America’s presence in the country.
With the unforgettable images of Afghani’s clinging to an American military plane, desparate to leave the country, the rush began for Sam to get the rest of his family out of the country.
His sister and brother-in-law along with their toddler-aged daughter made the first attempt. They had the proper documentation needed to get on the plane and their names were on the manifest. But when they arrived at the airport, they were greeted with crowds and chaos. Their entire family was teargassed.
“My brother-in-law, he was scared and said, ‘this isn’t worth it, I don’t want to lose my kid over this.’ And I kept telling him, ‘Hey, look. I understand this, but we need to get you in,'” Sam said.
So they kept trying.
The family crawled through muddy ditches surrounding the airport try to find their way inside. They got the attention of a U.S service member and grabbed for their documentation to prove they actually had a spot on the plane.
After hours and hours of waiting, the family safely boarded the plane.
One day later, a bombing at Abbey Gate – the checkpoint outside the airport – killed 192 people, including 12 U.S Marines and one Navy Corpsman.
“It’s one of the worst nightmares anyone can see,” Sam said. “And that is the desperation of people trying to not get killed,” Sam said.
Sam said that he knows his service as an interpreter could prompt the Taliban to put crosshairs on his mother and sisters.
“We’ve seen young men thrown in the trunk of a car, and it takes off. We’ve seen, from our partners, videos of the Taliban searching house to house in neighborhoods, looking for people that worked with us. So, that’s our sense of urgency,” said Retired Lieutenant Perry Blackburn.
Blackburn founded Afgfree.org in August after receiving a slew of calls from people hoping to leave the country. Blackburn said he limits his help to those who have documentation of previous vetting by the U.S. Department of State.
Blackburn says his organization helps provide safe passage, ensures resettlement, and keeps people out of refugee camps.
“We’re not trying to make their life worse, we’re trying to help them make it better and further them to another area of the world to resettle in,” Blackburn said. He added that many refugees are not planning to settle in the United States.
Blackburn said donations to Afgfree.org help people survive harsh Afghan winters, buys plane tickets, and much more – such as helping those in danger – hide.
Sam’s father-in-law found himself in that situation. He was a colonel in the old Afghan guard and, during his last nights in Afghanistan, he never stayed in the same house for two nights in a row. He thought he was being tracked by the Taliban.
Sam’s own father died in 2019 from a heart attack and, since then, he has grown closer to his wife’s father.
“We were just losing our minds. Like, what if we lose him? Our entire family will be killed, when?” Sam said. “He has personally captured a lot of Taliban commanders who, by the way, right now, are in charge.”
Through various means, Sam’s father-in-law was able to escape the country and make it to the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s not an uncommon case. What’s uncommon about it is how they pursue it, and what they were willing to risk to get out of Afghanistan, and the strength it took for him and his family to be able to do that,” Blackburn said. His organization helped facilitate the escape.
Still, however, Sam’s mother and sisters remain in Afghanistan.
Sam said he remembers hearing his mother talk about a different Afghanistan. One where she wore heans and went to the movies. It’s not the Afghanistan he knows now, which has spent decades restricting women under Taliban rule. And living conditions have deteriorate during years of near constant war.
“I just want them to live. Literally, at this point, I just want them out of that country, because I know that because of my service, they will eventually be captured, and they will eventually be killed,” Sam said. “I know that for sure.”
Sam’s worry is compounded by a state department that, he thinks, has been ineffective at processing Visas, SIVs, or other applications for Afghans seeking refuge.
For months, he says he’s filled out applications to try and get his mother and sister a status that allows Afgfree.org to get them out of harms way.
“I am losing hope every day,” Sam said. “I have filled out dozens of these links of these forms online, and all you get after is, like, a copy-paste of what is on the State Department website. I can go there myself. I can see it myself. You don’t have to send it to me.”
Sam’s situation is one of hundreds, potentially thousands of families are facing.
“It’s just unfortunate. The state department is dealing with paperwork and processes, and we’re dealing with humans, and we’re also dealing with time,” Blackburn said.
“It’s grim,” Blackburn said of Sam’s family’s situation. “It’s long-enduring, and Sam knows this.”
In response to inquiries by FOX21, a state department spokesperson acknowledged that the “suspension” of services at the embassy in Kabul has made it impossible to conduct in-person requirements of the visa process.
The state department said it will continue to expedite the part of the processes that can be done remotely.
“We continue our diplomatic efforts to ensure safe passage for U.S. citizens and for any Afghan partners or other foreign nationals who still want to leave Afghanistan. While we are currently unable to provide consular services for immigrant visa applicants, including Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), in Afghanistan,” the department wrote, in part, in a statement.
Read the entire statement here.
The department says it is working with advocacy groups and nonprofits to help people currently in Afghanistan, get to safety.
Blackburn said he hopes for more cooperation – akin to a public-private partnership – as his organization has worked to fill the gaps he says the U.S. Government has left behind.
“As Americans, it says a lot for who we are as a people and our humanity, when the people that our government turned their back on are still hopeful that we will help them,” he said. “They have hope because of us.”