In a virtual town hall meeting Friday, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Castro Valley, urged Afghan Americans to keep hope alive and continue advocating for friends and family trying to leave Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control of the country.

Swalwell represents one of the largest communities of Afghan Americans in the country and said his office has been inundated requests for help from both inside and outside the district. During the online forum — which was organized by the group South Asians for America and the Fremont-based Afghan Coalition — Swalwell and others discussed the situation on the ground and how Bay Area residents could seek and offer help.

Throughout the event, attendees took to the chat to share personal stories of family members being stuck at the airport in Kabul or desperately seeking other ways to escape. Spojmie Nasiri, an immigration lawyer and speaker at the event, said her clients had been pepper sprayed and tear gassed while trying to secure space on a flight out of the country.

“These last five days have felt like five years.”

Harris Mojadedi

Like Swalwell, Nasiri said her office was balancing a mass of incoming requests for help with bureaucratic barriers to helping her current clients board flights.

“These last five days have felt like five years,” said moderator Harris Mojadedi, who said he himself has been trying to help family members in the country.

According to Swalwell, 4,000 to 5,000 people were awaiting a flight at the U.S. military-controlled airport in Kabul on Thursday night, many of them members of vulnerable populations like female judges, female journalists and interpreters who could be targeted for helping the United States.

However, the American military is currently facing an Aug. 31 deadline to evacuate everyone and then withdraw from the country. Swalwell said he and other congressmembers have been asking the Biden administration to keep troops at the airport until everyone with a visa or credible claim to asylum or refugee status could be evacuated.

Evacuation resources

Swalwell named three potential resources for Afghan individuals seeking to be evacuated by the U.S.: a special immigrant visa, which applies to Afghan nationals who worked with or for the U.S., the P-2 Program for Afghans who worked for U.S. media, nonprofits or government programs, and making an asylum claim.

But those without prior applications may not be able to get their paperwork in time, Nasiri said, and those who do may still have to spend long periods in other nearby countries like Qatar before being brought to the U.S.

Rep. Eric Swalwell. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House Office of Photography)

Swalwell encouraged Afghan Americans looking for assistance to first contact their congressional representatives. If they can’t find help there, Swalwell said his office would use its “subject-matter expertise” to help anyone regardless of location, and especially those seeking to check on the status of their application. The representative pointed anyone seeking help to email his office.

Mojadedi also emphasized the importance of contacting locally elected officials to organize community resources, such as a clothing drive, or to ask them to sponsor more Afghan refugees seeking resettlement.

The city of Fremont has been collecting donations to provide direct financial assistance to Afghan refugees arriving in the nearby area. Other organizations, such as the Afghan Coalition, South Asians for America and the American Immigration Lawyers Association have been spreading resources and engaging in advocacy to seek more help for Afghanistan.

“We have agency, we have power, we need to go to all of our elected representatives,” Mojadedi said. “This is only the beginning. We’re going to continue this work, it’s contingent upon all of us.”