With Afghanistan in crisis, NJ volunteer scrambles to raise money to get refugees to safety
Sayed Qasemi worked for the US Army in Afghanistan and received a Special Immigrant Visa. NorthJersey.com
Ezatullah Ebrat commanded Afghan troops on the hunt for Taliban hideouts while working for the U.S. in Kandahar.
Today, Ebrat himself is in hiding, stuck with his wife and four children in a home in Kabul as they wait for help to arrive.
“Everything is really bad,” Ebrat said in a telephone interview this week. “Me and my family, we are really in a bad situation right now. We are changing our locations. Taliban are looking for us.”
“Please help us and save us,” he said in a plea to American leaders. “We are really in trouble.”
Nearly 7,000 miles away, Jim Keady of Spring Lake is trying to get Ebrat and his family on a plane out of Afghanistan, keenly aware that time is running out as the U.S. races toward an Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline and tensions ramp up in Kabul.
Keady, a former Asbury Park councilman who does humanitarian work, has joined with two Air Force veterans to launch Operation Afghan Extraction. They have been working to raise millions in private funding and secure U.S. clearances to get evacuees on rented planes to safety.
The odds of success appeared long as of Friday evening. The team had planned for multiple flights on six planes over five days, Keady said. But the violence and threats that erupted at the Kabul airport this week brought their plans to a halt. A major donor pulled out.
The partners, who wanted to stay anonymous, include an Afghanistan and Iraq war veteran from Pennsylvania who is CEO of a company that provides air and ground defense services. The other, from Florida, works in disaster preparation and first response around the world.
Their first plane was supposed to leave Kabul on Friday night for Bahrain, followed by a transfer to the U.S. for those on board, Keady said. That never happened, but Keady and his partners were trying to secure new funding and reschedule the flights. Working with U.S. officials, they have a list of 6,700 people to evacuate, with special operations teams on the ground ready to assist, Keady said.
“We still have thousands of American citizens or allies that are in Afghanistan,” he said. “We are committed to helping the official operation of the U.S. government as citizens deeply concerned about our fellow human beings trapped in the country.”
'Counting moments until they die': From Afghanistan to NJ, former U.S. allies fear revenge
Keady also is trying to line up documents and authorization to get Ebrat out, should passage become available. Because his supervisors were in the CIA, they used code names, making it difficult for Ebrat to find his former supervisors and secure the necessary paperwork and recommendation letters.
For seven years, Ebrat was part of the Kandahar Strike Force, a CIA-backed Afghan paramilitary force fighting against the Taliban. That work has made him a target.
The U.S. military and the CIA have been working to evacuate Americans still in the country along with thousands of Afghan interpreters and others who worked for the U.S. government and are at risk of retribution.
The night that Kandahar City fell, Taliban came to his home, Ebrat said. They tied his hands behind his back and beat him, he said. They took his pistol, searched his home, and then burned it down with fuel from his motorbike while warning him not to leave the neighborhood.
“We will deal with you after we bring everything under our control,” he recalled the men telling him.
He and his family fled and took the 13-hour bus ride to Kabul. They have switched homes three times in about a week to stay safe.
Ebrat and Keady were connected through a mutual friend who is an Afghan refugee and now lives in Germany. The refugee, who goes by the name Elvis, had fled to the Greek island of Lesvos, where Keady was working as a volunteer in January 2016. They stayed friends.
Through word of mouth and online information, others are also reaching out for help, Keady said. They include a military policeman who guarded prisons that held Tablian, a female tattoo artist and journalists.
In the hours after Thursday's bombings near Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport, evacuations restarted. But with just days left before the withdrawal deadline, fears remain.
Keady hopes Operation Afghan Extract can reschedule flights and get as many as possible to safety. At a minimum, the effort needs $1.5 million to get off the ground, Keady said.
“If and when funding shows up, that we have aircraft reserved now and hopefully we can hold them on reserve and we have teams in place. At the end of the day all of this comes down to money."
The Florida-based Global Water Foundation is a sponsor of Operation Afghan Extract for individuals and companies seeking a tax-deductible donation, Keady said. For more information, Keady can be reached at Jwkeady@gmail.com.
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, bias and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.