Helping Afghans who got out — and those who didn’t
Joseph Azam’s path to the U.S. mirrors that of many Afghans who were evacuated — or are still seeking to flee — from the country.
Born in Kabul, his parents fled Afghanistan when he was a toddler, worried for their safety as Russia invaded.
It’s a journey that Azam, 40, carries with him as he advocates for the swelling Afghan diaspora in the U.S., as well as the needs of those now living under Taliban rule.
The Afghan American Foundation, whose board Azam chairs, came together with the help of some who initially started Afghan Americans for Biden-Harris, a group formed in the hopes of electing a team that would battle anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. and secure the best possible military drawdown in Afghanistan.
“We sort of assumed that the withdrawal would happen, right? But how was something that we thought we could influence, in terms of timeline, in terms of the ongoing commitment, in terms of how committed the U.S. government would be in supporting the Afghan government and the Afghan people from a security and humanitarian and economic perspective,” Azam said.
Those hopes were dashed in the chaotic evacuation last year.
While the military successfully evacuated 78,000 Afghans to the U.S., they remain in the country under a tenuous status, with many required to adjust their immigration status within two years in order to avoid risking deportation.
Meanwhile, an estimated 100,000 vulnerable Afghans were left behind after aiding U.S. efforts or otherwise participated in the democratization of the country, including work advancing free speech and women’s rights.
Many have little chance of leaving the country — usually a requirement for applying for refugee status — as Afghanistan grapples with an economic crisis and widespread hunger.
The lead up to the withdrawal, and the challenges faced by Afghans afterward, has led the Afghan American Foundation to join forces with a number of refugee, veteran and immigration groups to form the Evacuate Our Allies Coalition. While initially designed to help Afghans get out of the country, it now aids those in the U.S. as well as advocates for those left behind.
Chris Purdy, director of Veterans for American Ideals at Human Rights First, one of the coalition’s members, credited Azam with helping them better connect with the Afghan community and rethink how to approach some of their advocacy.
“He brings a fresh perspective to the work, and we’ve been able to learn more about the Afghan experience and work together to provide real solutions to those seeking refuge. He’s been a voice that challenges us to think and advocate differently, and we are all better for it,” Purdy said.
Azam knows the experiences — and persecution — some newly arrived Afghans will undoubtedly face in the U.S.
“I’m worried about hate crimes; I’m worried about just the general tenor Afghans are going to be facing here that I think is completely unwarranted but almost expected at this point,” he said.
A longtime compliance and ethics lawyer, Azam left his job at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp., working in the same building with Fox News hosts he heard forwarding anti-Muslim sentiment, in 2017. Azam initially left quietly, but disclosed his reasons for leaving in 2019.
He said speaking out “still comes at a cost” from both the right and the left, as some liberal-leaning critics ask why he would ever work there.
“It was my decision to stay there; it was my decision to leave,” he said.
“The reason I spoke out though was because I recognized that no one ever spoke out, right? No one ever actually — as a participant in this marketplace of ideas — no one actually ever said, ‘Hey, you guys are acting like rabid racists. Some of your on-air personalities are saying really racist, horrible, antisemitic, anti-Muslim things.’”
It’s a sentiment Azam worries could stymie one of the main goals of the coalition — securing a pathway to citizenship for the 78,000 Afghans evacuated in August.
The group was brought into the country through the humanitarian parole process, which allows for the temporary waiving of immigration requirements. But the status only lasts for two years at most, and many Afghans will have no other method for securing a legal way to remain in the country.
“I don’t think people fully understand — Afghans either — fully understand how tenuous their position is,” he said.
The Biden administration granted Temporary Protected Status for Afghans in the U.S., but those protections expire around the same time as humanitarian parole status for many.
The coalition has pushed for the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would essentially allow for Afghans to qualify for green cards after one year in the U.S. and apply for citizenship four years thereafter.
But even with initial broad support for Afghan evacuees, many advocates are nervous that a vote on the act just hasn’t materialized — something Azam worries will be even harder to secure as the midterm elections approach.
“I don’t see urgency,’ he said. “I don’t see urgency around this with members of Congress.”
“I’m really worried about Afghans being demonized, being scapegoated and being used as a cudgel by the right against Democrats,” Azam said, adding that early calls from both sides of the aisle to support allies cannot be “gutted by hatred.”
“What happens to them if there’s not an Adjustment Act? They’re going to get ground up in our machine of an immigration system. That’s really hard, because explaining to people who basically at this point would be on kill lists if they went back to Afghanistan that they’re not permanently here actually, from a legal perspective yet, that’s psychologically very damaging,” he said.
Those who remain in Afghanistan are dealing with their own avalanche of problems, from a steep climb in the price of basic goods to a drought that has worsened already severe food insecurity.
The economy has spiraled as assets are frozen and aid has dried up, leaving some so destitute and saddled with debt they’ve turned to a black market for organs to settle them.
Even for a country that has faced decades of war, resisted and outlasted foreign influence from a number of countries and struggled with the rise of terrorism groups, the current challenges feel overwhelming.
“This is the most perilous moment in the history of Afghanistan,” Azam said.
“I really think that from a strategic value perspective, from a moral perspective, from an economic perspective, from a political perspective, I feel like the world is on the verge of giving up and truly letting it become a failed state.”
The U.S. has rolled out several refugee programs to help Afghans, but many require leaving the country or supplying documents that may have been destroyed out of fear of being seen as a U.S. ally.
But the U.S. government hasn’t outlined any plan to help those who are not U.S. citizens or residents leave Afghanistan. And it’s denied more than 85 percent of the handful of applications it has reviewed from some 40,000 Afghans still in the country seeking to enter via humanitarian parole.
On the financial front, President Biden froze $7 billion in Afghan assets, pledging to return half as aid while setting aside the other half for the families of 9/11 victims.
“Why are we being so sheepish? We still carry a lot of economic leverage in the world and political leverage. Choosing to use that capital to help on humanitarian issues, I think it’s something that we are capable of doing and we decided not to do,” Azam said.
That’s been weighing on Azam and other members of the coalition who remain focused on efforts to find pathways for at-risk Afghans to exit the country. It’s a mission that has relied heavily on other Evacuate Our Allies coalition members’ connections with the administration and knowledge of immigration pathways.
“These are people who have been with us, losing sleep with us, on calls with us, in meetings with us, for months, even before we got involved actually. … None of this would happen without those people,” he said.
“They’ve sacrificed nights and weekends for the last year to help Afghans — having no prior connection to Afghanistan.”
—Updated at 12:29 p.m.