A trio of parakeets fills Masuma Sayed’s home in Portland with soft tweets as she recalls her recent visit to Afghanistan.

She returned to her native city of Kandahar in May, her first trip back in 28 years. She visited her mother’s grave, where as a teenager she would release birds that she bought in a shop on the way to the cemetery. Her mother loved birds, and so does she.

Sayed, 43, did not release birds when she was at her mother’s grave in May. Her heart was heavy, burdened by the memory of the evening that Taliban members burst into her family’s home and killed her mother and older sister, leaving behind their bullet-riddled bodies. Her sister was targeted because she was about to marry a soldier in the ruling government.

Her mother’s last words were whispered pleas to cover her sister’s face and bring her a cup of water.

Through the years, Sayed has lost 10 family members at the hands of the Taliban, including a brother-in-law and his brother, who were killed in June because they worked as contractors with U.S. forces. She’s trying to save more than 20 family members from a similar fate.

“Now I am the voice of my family,” Sayed said. “They cannot speak for themselves.”

Sayed is among a small but committed group of Afghan Americans, immigration lawyers and other Mainers who are anxiously trying to help evacuate people from Afghanistan by Tuesday’s deadline. There are about 50 to 70 Afghan families in Maine, or about 500 people, some of whom came here after helping U.S.-led forces oust the Taliban from power in 2001.

It’s a frustrating, confusing and rapidly changing situation that has called for extraordinary collaboration and sharing information across the country and the globe. Social service agencies and church groups in Maine are pitching in, doing what they can to provide assistance from 6,500 miles away.

“We know there is a huge humanitarian crisis going on and a lot of people in need,” said Sally Cloutier, chief operating officer at The Opportunity Alliance, a social service agency in Portland.

The Opportunity Alliance hosted a Zoom meeting last Thursday with Afghan Americans and other Mainers who are desperately trying to assist in the evacuation. Cloutier and her staff offered to support Afghan families in their efforts and pledged to hold a follow-up meeting this week to learn what more can be done.

“I am hopeless,” Masuma Sayed said during the meeting, after she listed several family members who were killed by the Taliban.

“Do not lose your hope. We have to support each other,” Ghomri Rostampour responded. An Iranian Kurdish immigrant who is an Alliance board member, Rostampour helped to organize the Zoom meeting through her many contacts in the Afghan community. About 25 people took part.

As of Sunday, the United States and its allies had evacuated about 113,500 people from Afghanistan in the past two weeks, but tens of thousands who want to go will be left behind, according to Reuters. Among the evacuated were at least 5,100 U.S. citizens and their families, with an additional 1,000 civilians at the airport still waiting to get out.

The U.S. military was expected to continue evacuating people from Kabul’s airport until Tuesday, if necessary, but U.S. troops and military equipment would be the priority in the last couple of days, the Pentagon has said. On Saturday, there were fewer than 4,000 troops left at the airport, down from 5,800 at the peak of the evacuation mission.

President Biden has pledged to evacuate all Afghans who have helped U.S. forces, but exactly how, who and where they are, and how many remain, is unclear. The State Department had approved 345,000 special immigrant visas for Afghans who assisted the U.S. military over two decades, but more than 20,000 applications for special visas were waiting for approval as the Taliban assumed power two week ago, The Washington Post reported.

During Thursday’s Zoom meeting in Maine, participants learned there had been a suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport, where 13 U.S. service members and at least 169 Afghans were killed, and many more were injured. In that moment, the challenge of evacuating loved ones grew even more urgent.

“This is a rapidly evolving and extremely fluid situation,” said Jennifer Atkinson, an immigration lawyer in Damariscotta who is helping a Portland family that is trying to get loved ones out of Afghanistan.

“We’re certainly learning every day, every hour,” said Philip Mantis, legal director at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland.

Jennifer Atkinson, an immigration lawyer based in Damariscotta, is working with a Portland family that’s trying to help loved ones flee Afghanistan before the Aug. 31 deadline. Photo by Michael Tatro

Without necessary paperwork, financial resources and commercial flights, getting out of Afghanistan is extremely difficult and dangerous, the lawyers explained.

Atkinson, who is helping her Portland clients pro bono, said she was discussing various options with them, including how their family members might “go to ground” and stay safe while in hiding. Trying to get out through Pakistan or other border crossings would be extremely “dicey,” Atkinson said.

One Afghan woman spoke tearfully during the meeting through an interpreter. She said her husband and son were waiting at Kabul’s airport, and that a nephew had been seriously injured but was unable to get medical care amid the chaos.

Immediately after the meeting, Atkinson put the woman in touch with an organization that is connecting Afghans who need medical care with doctors and nurses who are still in Afghanistan and willing to help. As of Friday, the boy was on his way to a hospital. Further information was unavailable.

“People are coming out of the woodwork to help,” Atkinson said. “We’re all trying to do everything we can to get people out.”

Atkinson said an email network has developed, including immigration lawyers and others across the United States and beyond, who are trying to expedite evacuations. All are searching for clear, verifiable information on how to get documentation and secure a safe flight out of the region.

“We’re getting information second or third hand, so we’re never sure exactly what’s going on,” Atkinson said. “Many of us are acting as travel agents as well as attorneys.”

One person providing clarity and straight answers on that email network is Margaret Stock, an immigration and citizenship attorney in Anchorage, Alaska. She’s also a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a top expert in noncombatant evacuation operations like the one that’s been happening in Afghanistan.

Stock said the U.S. government has spent million of dollars developing strategies and training personnel to properly plan and execute evacuations of U.S. citizens and allies when ending a military action or withdrawing from a threatened area. The Department of Defense published a 200-page manual on how to do it in 2010 and updated it in 2015.

“They don’t seem to be following the manual,” Stock said Thursday in a phone interview.

Stock said the manual calls for various government branches and nongovernmental organizations to form a planning task force as soon as an evacuation date is known. The Trump administration negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 that excluded the Afghan government, freed 5,000 imprisoned Taliban soldiers and set May 1, 2021, as the final withdrawal date.

Stock said she helped the Department of Homeland Security organize the first task force-type planning meeting for the Afghanistan operation, which was held last Wednesday. The Department of Defense wasn’t included, she said.

“They should have had that meeting a long time ago,” Stock said. “I was asking them to have it back in February. The minute (former President Trump) said we were going to pull out, they should have started planning.”

Some aspects of the evacuation seem to have gone relatively well so far, Stock said, such as the actual military airlifts out of Kabul. But the United States shouldn’t have given up Bagram Air Base, which would have been a more secure airlift center than Kabul’s airport, she said. And it should have developed a comprehensive roster of everyone who needed to be evacuated and how best to get them out.

Stock also questioned why U.S. citizens were allowed to travel to Afghanistan as the evacuation date neared, including a group of exchange students. And she noted the lack of planning for special circumstances, such as young children who might lack necessary passports. Last week, an Afghan woman was turned away at the airport because her baby, a U.S. citizen by her American husband, didn’t have a passport, Stock said.

“There’s a lot of fear right now,” Stock said. “People are facing a terrible decision to sit tight and hope things get better, or try to get to the airport and hope to get out.”

Back in Maine, those helping evacuees include members of the church Atkinson attends, which is the First Universalist Church in Rockland.

Atkinson’s Afghan clients are seeking so-called “humanitarian parole” for five family members after Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last week he would grant the special status to some Afghans who lack permission to enter the United States. Humanitarian parole allows people to come here for a temporary period, usually one or two years, during which time they can apply for permanent status.

Church members raised almost $3,000 to cover the application fee for humanitarian parole, which is nearly $600 per person. And one church member volunteered to be the family’s financial sponsor when they get here, which must be indicated on the application for humanitarian parole.

“Every day the deadline gets closer, it gets more terrifying,” Atkinson said. “Right now, Afghanistan is losing some of its best and brightest people. My hope is the end of the evacuation isn’t the end of everybody’s life there.”

In Portland, hope remains elusive for Masuma Sayed, who is married and has three children and three grandchildren. She cannot eat or sleep as she struggles to help two sisters and their families flee Afghanistan – nearly 25 people in all. When she visited them in May, she had planned to stay for a month, but she left after nine days.

“It was too overwhelming for me to be there,” Sayed said. “I thought I would stop breathing if I stayed.”

Sayed said she has been afraid and depressed for so long, she feels emotionally numb. She blames politicians here and in Afghanistan whose lies and disregard for human life have hurt so many. The Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan has reawakened past trauma that Sayed thought she had grown strong enough to contain.

Again she sees the blood that flowed from her sister and her mother. She remembers running out into the night and wandering the streets of Kandahar, afraid to return home for hours after they were killed. She fears the same thing will happen to her family members now that the Taliban is back in power. She has seen it happen before with her own eyes.

“For some people, war is like a movie,” Sayed said. “For me, war is reality. I have lost everything. I’m not just sad for myself. I’m sad for everybody.”

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