By Kelsey Wicks
In August of last year, the world watched as crowds of Afghans surged outside the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport, hoping for an exit from the soon-to-be Taliban-run government.
Among the throngs were women, translators, musicians, Christians, and other religious minorities, deeply cognizant of what was about to befall them under Taliban rule. By the end of 2021, Afghanistan would become the number one most dangerous place to be a Christian according to an Open Doors Report.
While initial efforts were largely successful in rescuing thousands of the country’s estimated 13,000 Christians, thousands landed in “lily pads” — a term that refers to temporary landing grounds on military bases or at safe houses in nearby countries — throughout the Middle East.
Some of those lily pads have been emptied and Afghan refugees resettled in the U.S., Albania, or Brazil. But in other places, the Afghan refugees, including the Christians, are effectively stranded for legal, bureaucratic, and financial reasons, according to those trying to help them.
“Their bright visions of a welcoming new life have darkened as they receive contradictory messages from various authorities, or worse — no messages at all,” said Lela Gilbert, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom and the Hudson Institute who was involved in several Afghanistan rescue cases.
“They’ve endured months of COVID quarantines. They’ve heard false but frightening rumors about being sent back to their country of origin. They have virtually no control over their future,” Gilbert added.
Afghanistan’s rapid fall to the Taliban contributed to the chaos of evacuation efforts. The scenes are well-remembered: babies handed over barbed wire, bodies falling from jet wheels, and the images of Abbey Gate outside the Kabul airport before and after the destruction caused by a suicide bomber.
Less widely known is the daunting predicament thousands of those lucky enough to escape now face because they had no time to go through the legal steps required to permanently resettle somewhere else.
As a result, many of these Christians and other refugees now cling to crowded lily pads that are in danger of sinking.
Sarah Teske, a Harvard graduate, single mother of two, and retired marine became involved in the evacuation efforts in August of 2021, first for Americans stranded in Afghanistan, then for at-risk Afghans.
Now she heads one resettlement effort for Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan. She does so in conjunction with two other nonprofits operating in the region: Shai Fund and the Vulnerable People Project, both aimed at providing humanitarian relief for refugees and internally displaced persons who face disasters from war to weather.
Teske was initially slated to deploy with her Marine unit to Afghanistan after 9/11 but as it turned out, women were barred from combat roles there until 2013.
Teske turned to the faith nurtured by her upbringing and parochial Catholic school as she struggled with survivors’ guilt, asking God why she trained for Afghanistan but didn’t go.
“And I always wondered, you know, what if it would have just been me, you know, instead of them,” she said about her fellow marines who died in combat in Afghanistan.
Now retired from the Marines after 23 years of service, Teske thinks her training for Afghanistan and her interior struggles over not fighting there alongside her comrades have taken on new meaning.
“Fast forward to when Afghanistan fell in August. I just had it in my heart that perhaps God was preparing me for something bigger.”
According to Teske, that something bigger would be her involvement with Afghanistan at the end of the war rather than the beginning; an experience that would require her 23 years as a marine, but also as an operational planner and strategist, as well as her extensive network within the military, Department of State, corporate world, and geopolitical contacts in other countries.
“When Afghanistan fell, I had it on my heart to kind of lean in and be part of a solution rather than turning our backs and saying there’s nothing we can do,” Teske said. “That wasn’t acceptable to me, so like many, many, many, many countless veterans we all leaned in to make it right to change the trajectory of history, and that’s kind of become my role and my mission and my passion.”
She immediately began working as the strategic director for the Human First Coalition, then assisting Pineapple Express, Sanctuary, and other paramilitary operators evacuating Americans, Christians, and other vulnerable people from Afghanistan.
“So I was leveraging my network with the Department of State teams and agency teams that were on the ground to basically ask for personal favors,” said Teske about her initial involvement. “I was …able to geolocate them, give them their points and get them pulled. I also had contact with Marines that were at the gates and teams that were at the gates, so I was calling them directly, giving them identifying markers to pull people out and bring people to safety.”
According to Teske, that launched her into the rescue operations field with numerous groups who eventually each began to focus on one area on the ground— some providing safe houses, other evacuations, others food.
But even as various NGOs and nonprofit organizations were developing niche operations, the world’s attention was about to shift.
‘We had 72 hours’ notice’
Getting people out of Afghanistan and away from the Taliban was only the first hurdle, however.
The next phase has proven just as complex, as many organizations struggle to come up with the funding and other resources to shelter, feed, and protect refugees stuck in legal limbo.
“The rescue is sexy, right?” said Teske. “But how long can you afford to keep them alive before they’re sold as slave laborers? Or they’re sent back to Afghanistan or extradited?”
That possibility became reality for 250 Afghans last week when Jason Jones, who heads the humanitarian charity Vulnerable People Project, was given 72 hours’ notice that an organization providing safe housing for refugees in Pakistan was folding due to insufficient funds.
“We had 72 hours notice that we had 250 people that were going to be let out onto the street sent back to Afghanistan and probably be killed, so my team and I began to prepare to move them,” said Jones, who ultimately partnered with Teske in the move. She handled the logistics while he tackled the fundraising — an overwhelming task when lives are a stake.
“Death is on the line. I had to raise $31,000 in 72 hours,” said Jones, who says it costs roughly $6,000 to resettle each refugee after the costs for safe houses and food for months are calculated.
The sudden collapse of NGOs dedicated to Afghan refugees is not something new. At the beginning of July 2021, the Vulnerable People Project partnered with around 12 different groups, a number that has continued to dwindle to less than half. While these groups celebrated the initial evacuation of refugees, long-term difficulties of resettlement began to emerge, and the funds to sustain these operations began to dry up. Some humanitarian organizations shuttered operations completely.
“When Ukraine went to war all eyes went only to Ukraine and it dried up the interest of potential donors and currently contributing donors,” Teske explained. She added that the single greatest help that can be given at this point is the resources that can help these exiles find a permanent solution.
Jones agreed, noting that his organization puts up $10,000 every four days for shelters in Ukraine. In addition, it assists 7,000 vulnerable Afghans within and outside Afghanistan, he said. Some 500 of those have special immigrant visas (SIV) which makes them eligible to resettle in the United States eventually. The rest need to find somewhere else to go.
“I always tell people that fundraising is like digging a hole with a spoon. No one is good at it and it stinks,” Jones said. “Grab a spoon and start digging.”
Persevering to the end
Teske heard on May 25 that 250 individuals were in danger of extradition back to Afghanistan, and after that, likely torture and death. In response, she took out a bridge loan, a short-term loan to be repaid as soon as permanent financing from a company or investor can be found, so that the immediate bills to keep her contacts alive could be paid. The Shai Fund and Vulnerable People Project, also committed to seeing the Afghan refugees through to safety, stepped in to help her finance the operation.
“Until I can move them on to a third country and they can stand up new lives for themselves, I am dedicated and 100% will be walking hand-in-hand with these people until we get them safe,” said Teske, who regularly tells her children, ages 5 and 8, they will “have their mommy back one day.”
Youngest son Asher knows his mother is engaged in important work. A recent worksheet filled out in advance of Mother’s Day at his school asked the five-year-old “What is your mom really good at?” His response: “saveing refu-gs” (sic). He also noted that his mother, who often stays up nights in addition to working days to coordinate projects across the Middle East “on hre fon (on her phone),” likes to relax by sleeping.
Jones, whose organization is paying to provide security for girls to attend school in Afghanistan and has funded wells and medical clinics for women there, also remains committed to the cause. “I tell my team we’re never leaving the people of Afghanistan. We don’t do big things, we do small things …and that’s what saves lives.”
Teske, whose life became intertwined with Afghanistan after 9/11, thinks the work is preventing another 9/11. According to her, “It’s not just about saving lives, it’s about changing the trajectory of history.”