Edmonds resident Lisa Herb has been leading an effort to help women leaders from Afghanistan “find a path to a new future” after their country fell into the hands of the Taliban last month.
A Seattle-based attorney, Herb founded the Alliance for International Women’s Rights (AIWR), in 2005. The organization has worked with women and girls in Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan and Kazakhstan, but since 2008 has primarily focused on Afghanistan. It mentors women attorneys, judges and law professors, as well as running a long-distance English language program for women in high school and universities. (Learn more in our earlier story here.)
In February of 2020, the U.S. government and the Taliban signed a peace agreement that would establish the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan with a timeline of full withdrawal within 14 months. Last month, Taliban forces entered Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, triggering fear and chaos as U.S. and Afghan citizens scrambled to evacuate the country amid increasing unrest. Hundreds flocked to the airport hoping to get on planes that would take them and their families to safety.
Herb and the AIWR team, including Gayle Zilber and Nancy Arnold-Hunting, have been relentlessly addressing the urgent need for evacuation efforts for AIRW mentees and their families since the Taliban coup in August.
“We’ve been working with about 50 different women and their families, so probably over 150 people total.” Herb said. “About 22 or 23 of the women and their families working through many different means were able to leave and are now in the process of trying to find a path to a new future.”
Most of them, Herb acknowledged, had to leave with just one small bag and are literally starting a new life with only a few changes of clothes. “They are immensely relieved to be temporarily safe,” she said, “but they are filled with grief at what they’ve left behind. A destroyed country, destroyed hope and grief that they’ve left behind so many of their family and friends, who are still in terrible danger.”
The women who were not able to be evacuated are in hiding. Herb explained. “The Taliban are going from home to home looking for them, literally hunting them. They are not able to work, they are not able to go outside – they are basically in prison, often moving from place to place to stay safe.”
She continued, “In many cases we’ve worked with a lot of women leaders, women attorneys, prosecutors, judges, law professors and people who were very high profile, and are being hunted because they were women in power, and that is enough for the Taliban to want to take them out.”
Herb said the Afghani women were advocating policies that many in the U.S. take for granted but that the Taliban opposes, including following the country’s constitution and the rule of law. The women were also using their skills and experience to promote women’s rights.
Herb said that AIWR receives urgent pleas daily from women asking when the evacuation efforts are going to start again, and she has to tell them the truth.
“The large group evacuation efforts that were occurring before Aug. 31 have basically stopped, and there are no more desperate flights out of the airports,” she said. “There are no more large-scale evacuation efforts where we can direct these women to.”
Of the many international organizations that worked on the evacuation, Herb credits Vital Voices for their role. “We’re a tiny grassroots organization and were lucky during the initial rush of evacuations that we had a tremendous partnership with Vital Voices, an international women’s rights group, which did a phenomenal job of stepping in,” she said. “Like us, it’s not their expertise, but they jumped right in and did everything they possibly could to try to charter planes and get people on buses to the airport as well as getting visas.”
While Vital Voices was able to get AIWR women and their families to the airport gates, they were stopped by the Taliban and not able to get through to waiting planes. However, Herb said, the organization did have success in saving the lives of many other Afghan women and their families.
Over the years, AIWR has poured all of its resources into Afghanistan because, as Herb said, “It felt like the most pressing need was to build up the women leaders so they could help keep the country strong.”
Now, AIWR has “been busier than ever,” Herb said, “because we are continuing to help those who did get out find pathways to employment or to get visas.”
During the next six months AIWR plans to focus on helping the women who were in the program as much as it can with limited resources. After that, AIWR will regroup and decide how to move forward.
For those wanting to help, Herb offered several options. “At this point, help for those left in Afghanistan has to come from our federal government,” she explained. “There has to be a change in policies and rules that would allow people in Afghanistan to apply for visas or humanitarian parole from within the country.” (Humanitarian parole allows people who are otherwise inadmissible into the U.S. for a short time due to an emergency.)
The challenge is that right now, people in Afghanistan can’t leave the country without a visa, but they can’t get a visa unless they first get to a third country. (A third country national is a term that refers to individuals who are in transit and applying for visas in countries that are not their country of origin.)
“There needs to be some type of process that would give them valid travel documents to be able to get out of the country in a quick and streamlined way that will not take months or years but weeks to a month,” she said.
Herb suggested that people continue to advocate for their senators and representatives to change the rules to allow for an in-country process for obtaining visas. “There are thousands and thousands still in Afghanistan who are at terrible risk who need to be able to get a visa to leave,” she said. “The U.S. also needs to continue to pressure the Taliban to provide some type of humanitarian corridor out of the country both by land and via safe passage to the airport.”
People can also help by pressuring the U.S. government to support neighboring countries who are taking in refugees. This means supporting the refugee camps and ensuring they have food, adequate housing and sanitary conditions.
An individual or a group of people working together can be a financial sponsor to an Afghan family who wants to apply for humanitarian parole or for a visa. “A financial sponsor is needed for people in Afghanistan to even submit an application,” Herb said.
The filing fee to submit a humanitarian parole application is $575 per person, which is more than a month’s salary for most people in Afghanistan. Those interested in sponsoring one of the women in AIRW’s program can contact Herb at email@example.com.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)’s Washington chapter is also trying to raise funds to cover those filing fees and is working with volunteer attorneys who will be matched with families they can help.
“We will be working with CAIR to try to get our women in their program so they can start working on their own humanitarian parole applications, so a donation to CAIR would directly benefit us as well,” she said.
Sending letters to your senators and representatives, pressuring the U.S. government to support countries accepting refugees and supporting CAIR are all vital things that can be done to change people’s lives, but Herb’s final emphatic words resonate as something everyone can do.
“Don’t forget those who were not able to leave,” she said. “Don’t forget as we are living such an amazingly comfortable life here in Edmonds — we have safe homes and streets. Don’t forget those who have exactly the opposite. Don’t take for granted what we have.”
— By Misha Carter