Skip to main content

Assisting allies: How a Hudson Valley mayor, congressmen are helping Afghans evacuate

September 1, 2021

Nicola Armacost began receiving WhatsApp messages from Afghanistan on Aug. 15.

The mayor of Hastings-on-Hudson and her husband were with his family in rural, northern Minnesota. Aug. 15 was their 28th wedding anniversary.

It was also the day Taliban forces took control of Kabul.

Her former driver, Hamid, messaged her from Kabul, where Armacost worked for nongovernmental organizations in the country, focusing on such areas as microfinancing for women entrepreneurs.

In addition to working as her driver, Hamid also worked for an American subcontractor. But, he said, he hadn’t received a response from the U.S. Embassy for his special immigrant visa application, which allows certain Afghans who helped the American government to flee to the U.S. with their families.

“The situation is very bad here,” he wrote. “I am okay now but Taliban is everywhere.”

“Please if you can help me,” he wrote. The Journal News/lohud is not using Hamid's last name in the interest of his safety.

Armacost, who vacationed in Afghanistan as a child while growing up in Pakistan, wrote that she was trying to find ways to help.

For now, Hamid remains in Kabul. But, the mayor has been working with Rep. Jamaal Bowman's office to process paperwork that will help many U.S. allies with whom she is in contact escape the country. Some families have been evacuated to other countries, such as Germany, with some individuals coming to U.S. Rep. Mondaire Jones' office is likewise seeking solutions, working with several dozen stranded.

Thousands of Afghans have scrambled to get their paperwork and belongings to the Kabul Airport, in the hopes of fleeing the country. Many fear they’d be persecuted for working with the U.S. or perceived as being connected to other foreigners.

More than 100,000 people have been evacuated. On Monday, American military forces left Afghanistan just before midnight Tuesday, ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw aftera 20-year war.

But many more who want to get out still remain as their paperwork is processed.

“To me, it’s just basic human decency,” Armacost said. “These were people who helped all of us when we were there. Now they’re in need and it’s our turn to help.”

Armacost has received texts and emails from more than a dozen people ranging from close acquaintances, like Hamid, to two women parliamentarians who are Hazara, ethnic minorities, that Armacost believes are hiding in a safehouse.

Dozens working with congressmen

Bowman, a Yonkers Democrat, has worked with Armacost to process paperwork for visas to leave the country as soon as possible. The congressman is working with a number of other organizations and groups, including retired soldiers, people with friends or coworkers in Afghanistan, and nonprofits.

As of Monday, Bowman’s office had 51 cases from Afghanistan, according to spokesperson Georgia Parke. Out of 10 cases evacuated, seven are families and three are individuals, the latter of whom landed in the U.S. in such areas as Virginia and North Carolina. The families, meanwhile, are waiting for their special immigrants visas to be decided.

The remaining 41 cases include 15 families who were still waiting in Afghanistan as of Tuesday morning.

“The Biden administration’s top priority must be to continue to evacuate as many Americans and Afghans as possible over the coming days and avoid any additional violence,” Bowman said in a statement after suicide bombings last Thursday at the Kabul Airport, “and we stand ready to help however we can.”

Meanwhile, Jones’ office has helped process over 40 people to get out of Afghanistan, according to George Flynn, his spokesperson. One person will go to his district, encompassing Westchester and Rockland counties.

Congressional offices across the country are helping in the effort. California House Democrat Ro Khanna, whose district includes a large Afghan American community in Fremont, told ABC 7 that 50 Bay Area families are waiting to hear from the Justice Department to process cases.

In addition to processing efforts, a bill to expand the number of special immigrant visas by an additional 8,000 has passed the House and expected to be taken up in the Senate.

From October through July, approximately 460 refugees settled in New York State, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office. This included 140 people from Afghanistan and 83 people on special immigrant visas. The state has promised to resettle 1,300 refugees and special immigrant visa holders during the 2021 federal fiscal year.

Allies in need

In a televised address Monday evening, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the U.S. and allies will continue helping Americans still in Afghanistan. He put the number of those remaining at “likely closer to 100.”

For Afghans who worked with the U.S. or its allies, Blinken said the State Department would continue trying to get them out.

Armacost looks to those who don't have a direct connection to Americans but who may nevertheless be targeted by the Taliban because they are women or ethnic minorities.

Two Hazara parliamentarians in hiding, for example, face even greater risks because they are women, in government, and an ethnic group that has historically been persecuted by the Taliban, Armacost said.

Another with whom Armacost is in contact, whose first name is Idrees, isn't eligible for a special immigrant visa because he worked as a financial specialist for a microlending organization with Armacost. Instead, he applied for a separate refugee program prioritizing Afghans at risk because of their affiliation to Americans.

After the last American planes left Kabul Monday night, Idrees worried about the women in his family — a wife, daughters and mother.

For now, he and his family are stuck.

“I even can’t imagine what will happen,” he messaged Armacost.