Afghanistan and its myriad troubles seem like a long way away from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many of us have read newspaper articles and watched video footage of Taliban soldiers sweeping through the presidential palace in Kabul, human bodies dropping from the wings of airplanes, and refugee families marching toward border crossings with a few bags of food and the clothes on their backs. Many of us took a moment, or maybe two, to register the scale of the calamity. And then we went on with another day in paradise because Afghanistan is over there and nothing we can do about it in any case.
Or can we? For me, Afghanistan is never as far away as it seems, and for you it might not be, either. When I moved to St. Thomas from New York City in 2006, I brought with me a job I had just started for a Massachusetts-based non-governmental organization called Arghand Trust. Its mission was to create and manage into sustainability a small business cooperative in the southern city of Kandahar that would use local agricultural products such as almonds, apricots and fragrant herbs that grow in the desert to produce high-end soaps and moisturizers for export to the North America. It was the brainchild of my longtime friend, Sarah Chayes, who had covered the fall of the Taliban for National Public Radio in 2001, then stayed on to help rebuild the country. She wanted to — and did — expand the market for agricultural crops other than opium, while at the same time creating living-wage jobs for Kandahari men and women who could work together.
I joined the cooperative in 2006 and served until 2011 as its director of North American Operations. Although I traveled to Kandahar regularly during those years, most of the work I did was carried out in my home office on the north side of St. Thomas. From there, I took and processed wholesale orders, managed shipping logistics, raised money, wrote grants, kept books and gossiped with my Kandahari friends and co-workers over Skype. I also had the privilege of functioning as a kind of cultural bridge between Kandahar and St. Thomas by shattering assumptions about what life was really like in both places. I was delighted to discover how curious and supportive my new island friends were about my Afghan endeavors. One of the first people I met on St. Thomas, through a classmate of my daughter, was a veteran bookkeeper, Ginny Willis, who showed me (free of charge) how to use bookkeeping software to manage and track Arghand’s financial activities. Joyce Bailey, an accountant I met at Antilles gym, volunteered her professional services to file our complicated tax returns for several consecutive years. The owners of several shops, including Barefoot Buddha, Chelsea Drugstore and the boutique at Emerald Beach Resort sold our soaps, and by doing so shared our story with locals and tourists.
I moved on to different kinds of work after 2011, when Sarah and I left Arghand in the hands of Afghans, as was always the intent. But I stayed in close enough contact with a few of our cooperative members to congratulate them on the births of new babies and offer condolences when family members died. So, in early August, when one such friend and then another started to blast my cell phone with urgent calls and text messages over Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp about the imminent fall of Afghanistan back to the Taliban, I dropped what I was doing and tried to figure out how I could help them.
I am not going to wear you out with my opinions about the incomprehensible politics that spawned this horrific turn of events in Afghanistan. But I am going to ask you to be aware of how the outcome is affecting my Kandahari friends who treated me like family, and whose efforts many Virgin Islanders have supported and celebrated in the past.
First, they are terrified. The Taliban are best known for their brutality, and while they have made efforts to rebrand themselves in a more moderate light, nobody on the ground believes for a minute that they will honor any such promises. Already, the Taliban have stepped up door-to-door searches and inquiries into people’s past work and affiliations, and have reinstated barbaric practices such as amputations, executions, stonings and public lashings.
Fearful about reprisal killings (or worse) because of the years they spent working with our NGO, most of our former cooperative members have gone into hiding. This involves moving around frequently, not sleeping in the same place every night and certainly not working in shops or public places. Survival has eclipsed the ability to earn a living, which in turn has threatened survival — a cruel feedback loop.
Second, they are stuck. All of our former cooperative members are eligible for Priority 1 visas to the United States because of the work they did with Arghand. But the application process is tedious and so backed up that none of the packages we’ve submitted so far have even been assigned a case number. Additionally, it has become nearly impossible to obtain a visa to enter Pakistan. At the border crossing between Spin Boldak in Afghanistan and Chaman in Pakistan, Afghans are being shot at and beaten every day.
Third, they are limited. The Taliban have already prohibited girls from attending school past the sixth grade, have dismissed female civil servants, and have strongly advised women to avoid working outside the home. For somebody like my friend Nazia, who came to work for us as an multi-lingual administrator fresh out of high school, this is catastrophic. Now a 30-year-old mother of three, she became the family breadwinner following her husband’s diagnosis with an aggressive form of cancer called clear cell sarcoma. He can’t work. Now because of the Taliban, she can’t work either. Unemployment on top of food shortages, spiking prices, medical needs, bank lockdowns, checkpoints everywhere, a failing national currency and not being able to get out of the house has caused her to feel despondent. “Our economy is zero,” she said to me in a text message. “And this cancer has taken everything away from us.”
U.S. officials might feel fine about leaving 40 million Afghans — so many of whom assisted and protected American soldiers, aid workers and nation builders when we were guests in their country — to sink or swim inside the new Islamic Emirate. But I can’t live with that. So after countless discussions and much time spent researching visas and collecting documents, Sarah and I decided to do what we can to help.
St. Thomas has been my home for 15 years now, so it feels natural to me to reach out to this community which is already familiar with Arghand through its gorgeous soaps and compelling stories. Of course I hope the island will again support the brave men and women who risked their lives at the height of the insurgency to make something beautiful with us. But I also feel obligated to share their ongoing stories in this part of the world so we can all be in it together, if only for a moment.
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— Jennie Green, St. Thomas