Thursday, December 9

It was heartbreaking to get our NGO and its staff out of Afghanistan | View

They are mothers, fathers and children. Human rights activists, journalists, officials and artists. They dedicated their lives to building a more democratic and vibrant Afghanistan, only to be forced to flee in desperation when the government quickly fell. They are among the lucky ones who were flown to safety in Albania, even as the Kabul airport descended into chaos and violence. They are relieved to have escaped, but anxious for their loved ones, colleagues and neighbors who remain, and for the future of the country they love.

I had the privilege of visiting some 200 Afghan evacuees less than 24 hours after they landed near Durrës, a coastal city in Albania. Many were colleagues from the Open Society Afghanistan, whose offices were forced to close due to the Taliban takeover. Some shared how amazed they were at the speed of the government’s collapse – “like a house of cards,” as one put it – and were still processing what had happened. The children adjusted more quickly, playing ball, singing songs, and marveling at the sight and smell of the sea that many of them had never seen before.

It was a heartbreaking journey, involving inspiring cooperation between government agencies, civil society, and countless courageous Afghans operating in the most stressful circumstances possible. As the pace of the collapse of the Afghan government became apparent, colleagues at the Open Society Foundations jumped into action, doing their best to rescue our staff and partners, as many others have done with friends, family and fellow members. desperate to escape Afghanistan. .

A core group of foundation staff, in the US, across Europe and as far away as Australia, worked around the clock, joining with local and international partners to pool knowledge and resources to bring the greatest as many people as possible to a safe place. From negotiating with host countries to organizing convoys and planes, to compiling passenger lists and finding accommodation, colleagues worked with partners to find all leads to ensure safe passage.

His journey began with clandestine meetings, navigating checkpoints and gates patrolled by the Taliban. There were anxious starts and stops and grueling hours stuck in overheated buses outside the airport amid deteriorating security conditions. The evacuees spanned the gamut of human experiences, from a two-month-old to a septuagenarian in a wheelchair. A group arrived at the gate shortly before the first terrorist attacks threw the airport into utter chaos. Two hours later, they were in the air. In total, we were able to evacuate 158 of our staff and 112 partners by air, while supporting efforts that helped rescue hundreds more.

None of this would have been possible without the generous support of countries and leaders willing to temporarily host the evacuees, who worked with us to help us find shelter, provide COVID tests and vaccinations, and offer psychosocial support.

A huge credit goes to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, the first head of government on the world stage who offered refuge when the United States announced its withdrawal in April. He personally welcomed our staff members when they landed in Albania and tried to persuade them and many others to settle in the country, highlighting the contributions he felt they could make to society there.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia has also stepped forward, opening the arms of his nation to offer refuge to Afghans and civil society partners in their hour of need. North Macedonia, the newest member of NATO, has already accepted more people fleeing Afghanistan than many of its much larger European neighbors.

The welcoming approach shown by these Western Balkan countries should serve as an inspiration to other nations that need to see a step forward in welcoming Afghan evacuees. In Europe, welcoming those fleeing violence and oppression has become a toxic political issue. Rama and Zaev, by contrast, see welcoming these refugees as the right thing to do, which is remarkable given that Albania was one of the most isolated and repressive regimes in the world just 30 years ago. In terms of development, it is perhaps the country on the European continent that has come the furthest since the end of the Cold War.

As relieved as the evacuees I met with are to be safe out of Afghanistan, I know there is a lot of work ahead. They need to face all that they have left behind and begin to build new lives, not yet knowing their final destination, and with many of their family and friends still in danger.

Open Society Foundations will continue to do everything possible to help. We have launched a $ 10 million Afghanistan Emergency Humanitarian Fund to help expand access to safe pathways for Afghans in distress and to support host countries hosting Afghans fleeing the Taliban. The fund grows thanks to the support of other donors who have joined this effort. We are helping Afghan refugees in the United States and other countries and will continue to advocate for other governments to welcome as many Afghans as possible.

We owe no less to these evacuees. When I met the group gathered in Durrës, I heard their stories about the violence and chaos that has befallen their homeland, and the hardships they endured on the long and difficult journey to safety. But I was also struck by the hope in her eyes, as her thoughts turned to their new lives ahead. As the son of an immigrant, I recognized the power of dreams to forge new possibilities out of dire circumstances.

May your future be bright.

Alexander Soros is Vice President of Open Society Foundations

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