Matt Zeller & Janis Shinwari
Riding The Afghan Underground Railroad
A year after the fall of Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. allies are still trying to escape the Taliban and certain death. Meet the Americans fighting to save them.
While some 122,000 people were airlifted out of the country during that time, tens of thousands of other U.S. allies were left behind.
Many were interpreters. Others helped the U.S. presence through seemingly innocent means, like providing IT support to bases or buildings. All of them - and their families - are now marked for reprisals.
Their situation is dire, but not without hope. In this episode, we'll speak with two people working on behalf of U.S. allies who remain stranded in Afghanistan today.
Meet 'The Afghan Underground Railroad'
Matt Zeller and Janis Shinwari are making their second appearance on Crazy Good Turns.
In 2018, we featured them for co-founding No One Left Behind, a nonprofit supporting Afghans and Iraqis who served as interpreters or in other roles essential to U.S. military troops.
Matt is an Army veteran and former CIA analyst, among many other accomplishments. And as you heard during our 2018 episode, Janis is the Afghan interpreter who saved Matt's life.
In fact, during nine years of service, Janis helped untold numbers of U.S. soldiers and at significant risk to himself.
Both Janis and Matt are courageous, thoughtful people who are dedicated to doing the right thing.
And in this episode, they're going to share with you the story of what happened to our Afghan allies when Kabul fell.
They estimate that some 88,000 allies needed evacuation at the time, and most of those people did not make it onto a plane.
Which is why today, Matt and Janis are working on what they call the "Afghan Underground Railroad" to transport translators and their families to the United States, and help them get settled.
MATT ZELLER: Sure. So in the fall of 2020, my dear friend, Kim Staffieri, who is the founder and executive director of an organization called the Association of Wartime Allies, or AWA, she contacted me right before the 2020 election. And she said, “Matt, I’ve done the math. It doesn’t matter who wins in November, be it Biden or Trump. We are leaving Afghanistan. Both campaigns have committed to our withdrawal within the next year. Simply put, there isn’t enough time left on the clock to be able to get all of the people who have applied for something called the Special Immigration Visa process through the system and to the United States, before we leave. It just, the system at that point works too slow.”
FRANK BLAKE: This was in the fall of 2020?
MATT ZELLER: This was in the fall of 2020. She calls me up and she says, “We have to sound the alarm. We’ve got to start this process now. We’ve got to start evacuating now before it’s too late. There is a storm coming.” I used to tell people it was like watching a train that you knew was about to derail. You could see the train was going to run into a portion of the track that was messed up and that the train was going to come off the tracks and there was going to be a horrible accident that none of us could stop. But what we could do is if you were looking at the situation, you also realized that the train was going to, as it came off the tracks, it was going to crash into a village and it was going to wipe out all the buildings in the village as well.
And while we might not be able to prevent the train from crashing, if we started evacuating the village now, we could probably get everybody out. But if we waited to, as the train was coming off the rail, that was it. It was going to take out the village with it. And so to try to evacuate the village ahead of time, we wrote, I said to Kim, I said, “Look, the way that you get people in DC to pay attention is you write a white paper and then you send it around to the right people and you try to get an audience and you make your point.” So we wrote this white paper in which we said, the line that still haunts me is “when collapse occurs in Kabul, it is going to happen faster than Washington DC can respond.”
We agreed to write it in fall 2020. We finished writing it over Christmas of 2020. We delivered it to the Biden administration on February 9th of 2021.
And I’ve got the email receipts to prove it. And it wasn’t like I just shot it off to White House, at [email protected]. I know people in the administration. I sent it to, it’s very, very senior folks. And I heard crickets. I didn’t get a single response. And I figured these people had inherited the dumpster fire of all, dumpster fires. Like, they had a lot of other problems going on, not just with Afghanistan. Perhaps, my warnings weren’t making it to the top of their inbox and so I politely reached at again and I heard nothing. So by end of March 2021, Kim and I decided we had to sound the alarm more publicly. That maybe by taking this to the media, we would force a conversation with the people in the Biden administration we were trying to get them to pay attention to.
Because I got to tell you, again, Frank, if they had listened to us, there’s this alternate earth where we were paid attention to. And in that alternate earth, they began this evacuation in January of 2021 when we still controlled every airfield in Afghanistan, when we still had 2,500 troops protecting that critical infrastructure, when we still had helicopters that we could easily have flown out to disparate villages, quietly picking up vulnerable families one or two at a time. We would’ve had months to do this. We would’ve spared ourselves the chaotic exit that we all witnessed last August, but we weren’t listened to. They ignored us.
FRANK BLAKE: Well, just to be clear, you ran for Congress as a Democrat. So this isn’t a party. You’re not being partisan. This is just a frustration with the administration. Not just, this is a massive frustration.
MATT ZELLER: You’re right. Publicly, a declared Democrat and yet I am profoundly disappointed with what occurred. And so we were spending the majority of this time last summer, basically, it was in hindsight, the most futile of conversations. In talking now with folks at the State Department and the Department of Defense who were heavily involved in the evac, they were won over. They were convinced as we were. And some of them were internally making the case as early as we were that an evacuation should have been begun in earnest then. And at every attempt for them to try to do something, to try to do the right thing, to try to prevent the chaos that we all saw coming. They were simply put in check and prevented from being able to do the right thing by the highest power in the land in terms of our executive authority.
FRANK BLAKE: So Matt, describe for our listeners your work on the Wartime Allies podcast. So those stories are so compelling. Give a little background to that and what you were trying to do, and whether you got any traction from that either.
MATT ZELLER: So Wartime Allies is a podcast that I guess still technically exists, but I’ll be honest, I haven’t had the heart to do another episode since the fall. We recognized that is part of our efforts to try to get the administration to take this seriously and to pay attention that perhaps we needed to humanize the issue. Frank, the scale of the problem that we were looking at on the 15th of August last year, which was the day Kabul fell, was that we were tracking some 88,000 individuals, interpreters and their family members who had already at that point applied for the Special Immigration Visa and likely needed relocation assistance.
So we started this podcast, again, trying to humanize it. We had sent out to several thousand Afghans, a request to be guests on the podcast. If you want to tell your story and share what’s going on, fill out this form, let us know where you are in Afghanistan, how to get in contact with you and sort of what you want to talk about. As the cities started to fall, because they pretty much would fall one by one each day or a couple each day. It wasn’t like they were all just falling all at one day. We would pull out the list and so for example, the day Mazār-i Sharīf fell, which was the northernmost city, I pulled out the list and I sent an email to anyone who had ever sent, filled out a form from Mazār-i Sharīf saying, “Hey, do you still have internet connections? And if so, would you like to talk?” And only one person responded, this gentleman by the name of Hamid. And I called him up and recorded our conversation and in the background, you can hear the Taliban shooting their way through the city.
A lot of these podcasts, we would speak to the person one time and never hear from them again. But the day after I spoke with Hamid, he called me back and he said, “Can I talk to you?” And I said, “Sure.” And so I called him up and he said, “Look, I want to let you know. I told my wife that I spoke with you yesterday. And she told me that you’re going to save our lives. You’re going to get us out of Afghanistan.” And I said, “Hamid, you’re in a city that’s a 10 hour drive, north of Kabul. There is a Taliban army that has just taken over your city and also has positioned itself all the way between your city and Kabul. I’m not sure how anybody can get you out. No one’s coming to get you. I don’t think they’re going to reopen Mazār-i Sharīf as an airfield. Your best bet might be to get to Kabul, but you’re a wanted man. I don’t know how I can help you.”
We began these series of conversations. It came to a point where I would just talk to the guy because I needed someone to talk to throughout all this. And I think he needed someone to give him hope and I just needed to have a human voice on the other end of the line to just talk to somebody going through this. And early on in the evac, this must have been around the 17th or 18th of August, Kabul has fallen at this point. He calls me up and he says, “I have a plan. I’m going to execute my plan in a day. And if I make it to Kabul, I’ll call you. And if not, know I got caught trying to execute my plan and I’m probably a dead man.” And then he said to me, one of the most powerful things anyone’s ever said to me, he said, “I just want to thank you and the American people for a wonderful life. We had a really good 20 years, the best that we’ve had in a generation. And none of that happens without what you and your country did for us. I have no grudge. I have no ill feelings. This isn’t your fault.” He forgave us. It just, it broke my heart.
FRANK BLAKE: It makes it worse in an odd way. Doesn’t it?
MATT ZELLER: Right?
FRANK BLAKE: Yeah.
MATT ZELLER: Because now this guy has to live. So Frank, the long story short is he dressed himself up as a woman and hid in a burqa. He got his brother to pretend to be his husband. And he and his wife pretended to be his brother’s two wives and his children pretended to be his brother’s kids. And they got on a bus. They went all the way, sat in the very last row. And I’m going to tell you when I’m going to tell you next, you’re going to say, Matt, it’s too perfect, it’s like out of a movie. But hand to God, if he hadn’t told it to me as it happened, I would say the same thing. He gets in the back seat of the truck, the bus, and he’s waiting there for the bus to hopefully pull out of the station and begin its journey to Kabul.
And a Taliban fighter gets on the bus and he says, “How’s everybody doing? I’m so and so from the Taliban, pull out your phones and prepared to be inspected.” And he starts walking up person by person. And he’s literally lifting up their burqas, which is a cultural no-no. This is it. He is as trapped as a human being can be. And he is watching this person go seat by seat, getting closer and closer.
And he finally gets to the seat in front of him and he’s checking the individuals in front of him. He’s next. That’s it. He’s going to be caught in front of his wife and his kids. The last thing his kids are ever going to see is dad getting dragged off the bus and probably shot. Just as the guy is about to get to him and to talk to him, his friend, the Taliban fighter’s associate from outside yells, “Hey, I need you out here.” And he gets off the bus. And the driver pulls away thinking that the whole bus has been searched. And every checkpoint that they ran into after that, he said there was some other nine other checkpoints between there and Kabul. So basically one an hour. He said, every checkpoint they ran into at that point on the assumption had been that they had been thoroughly searched when they first all got on the bus and said, there wasn’t really a need to get on and really give a good hard look at everybody.
So he makes it all the way to Kabul. And I got him into a safe house and it took a couple of days, but by some miracle I was able to get him and his wife and his kids onto the airport. And so Hamid made it. He now lives in Manchester, New Hampshire. I’ve never met him.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow. What a story. What an amazing story.
MATT ZELLER: I hope to meet him in two weeks, actually, for the first time, him and his wife and his two kids and his wife is pregnant and they’re about to have their first American-born child in August, actually. So that’s a life that doesn’t exist without any of this.
FRANK BLAKE: Officially, the U.S. war in Afghanistan is over. Matt, I’ve heard, described the work today as the Afghan underground railroad. What can you safely tell us about those who are still trying to get out and what the mission is today?
JANIS SHINWARI: We are facing a really different situation right now.
Every day, every day, I receive hundreds of messages. Each member of my team receive hundred of messages and these people are begging for help. These people are now begging because they are away from their family. They cannot visit their family. They lost their job. There is no work. These people were the only breadwinner for their houses. They’re unemployed.
An interpreter sent me a picture of their food that they had within a few days. After a few days, they just found a little bit of bread. Just a small portion of bread to feed their family. After a few days, these are those people who served for this country. This is unbelievable. These are those people who lost members of their family, who put their life and their family’s life in the high risk to serve our country, United States. Now, those people are in a really, really bad situation and we cannot do anything. We try our best, but this is, again, up to the government.
FRANK BLAKE: Are you still able to get people out?
MATT ZELLER: There’s one functioning airfield still. You’ve got to get the Taliban’s permission to get on a plane and they’ve got a list of people that they won’t let out of the country. So the vast majority of our efforts are quite frankly done quietly on the ground overland. Buses, cars, sometimes people literally walking out of Afghanistan, usually into a neighboring country, such as Pakistan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan. From there, ideally they’re hopefully put on a flight to one of the still existing lily pads. So the lily pads are at this point, there’s something called humanitarian city. It’s something that the government of Qatar built in their capital city of Doha.
My guess is that we signed a yearlong lease with them last August to use it and that lease will run out in the next month. And when that happens, we’re going to actually have a major problem because we will no longer have what’s called a lily pad. So the way that this works, even now to this day, as an Afghan gets on a plane, either presumably in Afghanistan or a neighboring country, and chances are their permanent visa to come to the United States has not been approved at that point, but it’s too dangerous for them to remain in Afghanistan while we adjudicate their visa. So we bring them to what we call the lily pad. Back in August of last year, there were many lily pads. There were lily pads in Germany, Albania, Kosovo, Italy, Spain, Kuwait, Qatar, The United Arab Emirates, all over. Now, there’s only one lily pad and-
FRANK BLAKE: Really? Just, they’re all gone?
MATT ZELLER: They’re all gone. The only lily pad that still exist is in Doha. So everybody’s brought to Doha and they live in this, again, humanitarian city. Basically, think of it as like a collection of Holiday Inn Expresses. And they live there until their visa is ultimately adjudicated and processed. And then once it’s approved, they’re relocated to the United States. They’re flown from the United States to DC, to Dulles, and then they go to something called the National Conference Center or NCC, which is in Leesburg, Virginia. And they live out of, it’s a government-run, basically, conference center that has like a Holiday Inn Express there. And they all live in this place for a couple of weeks while it’s figured out, one; where are they going to permanently resettle in the United States, like which city they’re going to go to, which organization is ultimately going to step up to a system of that resettlement. And also most of the Afghans don’t come vaccinated. And I don’t just mean COVID. I mean, for everything, measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, you name it. So they’ve got to spend about three weeks in isolation in the United States while all of their vaccines are administered and they’re made safe to be in the general public.
How long that process from, again, being able to get people out of Afghanistan, fly them to a lily pad, get their visa adjudicated, then bring them to the United States, I think we have about another month, maybe two of that process going on. And then we’re going to lose, my guess is we will likely lose our lily pad because, well, one; I don’t know what the terms, no one knows what the terms of the agreement the Biden administration made with the Qataris to use it but our guesstimate, it’s a pretty good educated guesstimate at that is that it was a yearlong agreement.
And in that year, the Qataris have quite frankly really come to be annoyed. There’s no other way of putting it at the Afghans presence. They’re a difficult bunch. A lot of the Afghans at humanitarian city thought that they were going to be there a couple of weeks. And they’ve now been there almost the better part of a year. And some of them have been told that it’s going to take years still to adjudicate their visas and that they might be living in this place for a while. And the Afghans decided to protest and stage sit-ins and really make a public stink over it as anyone I think in their situation would. And the Qataris don’t have the same First Amendment standards as we do and don’t like to have their good will be embarrassed like this. So I have a real concern as do other advocates that at the end of August, again, when we presume the agreement to use the lily pad runs out, there’s nothing to prevent the Qataris from deporting these Afghans back to the Taliban.
FRANK BLAKE: And so you’re going through trying to make the same effort to forestall that train wreck as you were the prior one, and do you feel like you’re getting some traction on that people paying-
MATT ZELLER: No. Afghanistan’s last year’s yesterday’s news. That the world’s worst famine is right now in Afghanistan. People literally are selling their children to buy the rest of their family food. Daughters go first, then sons. I’ve lost count of the number of Holocaust-like photos of skeletal children that have been sent to me in the last four months
JANIS SHINWARI: I will be really honest with you. Since the Ukraine war started, everybody forgot about Afghanistan. Everybody forgot about what happens and what those people are suffering. Yeah. Even no one listened to us because everybody’s busy with Ukraine war. We are emailing. Especially, I’m trying to go, again, to the Congress and speak to these member of the Congress to pass the law and get these people as soon as possible to Afghanistan, but unfortunately, nobody has time to see us, to talk to us about those people who are still in Afghanistan. Every day, they are counting when their life is coming to end and when somebody is coming to kill them, because Taliban are looking for these people. They killed a lot of them. A lot of these people, they got killed within this one year. They’re killing more.
MATT ZELLER: On top of that, the Taliban have instituted one of the worst social prison states on the planet. You know, it’s draconian to a fault. Women have no rights whatsoever to exist outside of the home. They can’t work. They can’t attend school. They’re not allowed to exist outside of the home unless they’re escorted by a male relative and then they’re fully burqa’ed. It’s back to as abhorrent of the conditions as they were in the late ’90s.
FRANK BLAKE: So one of the things I’ve read that you’ve said from all of this tragedy is that while you’ve lost your faith in the government, which is understandable, given everything you’ve described, it’s restored your faith in humanity. And how so? Why?
MATT ZELLER: I can’t think of another period in American history where we are as…seems to be primed to tear each other apart like we are now other than 1860, 1861. We seem pretty much at the precipice right now.
I had gotten to the point when the evac began, when Kabul collapsed, where I really truly believed that there wasn’t another issue that could possibly unify such disparate factions in the United States, that just that the differences were too pronounced, too profound. The echo chamber of social media has made it such that no one wants to even give the other another, the other side of chance to have a reasonable discourse. It is all just about shouting and being angry. And then the evac happens, then Kabul collapses. And the next thing I know I’m on group text chats with bipartisan members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle who normally would never work together. And if you were to get any other topic between us in a conversation, we would’ve vehement disagreements.
And yet for this three week period, two, three week period in August last year, all of that got put on the shelf. It wasn’t any anger at the president, or political discussions was shut down by everybody. It wasn’t just the Republicans and group or the Democrats rallying around their person. No. Everyone’s, “we’re not getting involved with that. We have a mission to do.”
And that, again, Frank, it comes to a real profound belief of mine, which is that I think shared experience is the most powerful bonding tool that human beings have. That if you go through a particularly traumatic experience with somebody that you come out of it as a more unified group or at least with a bit more empathy and understanding for your fellow person who went through it. That’s what I keep coming back to is that since the evac, I didn’t let those relationships die by the wayside.
My biggest fear at the end of last August was that, okay, most people are going to think mission accomplished and think that we’re done. And we barely got the majority of the people that we are trying to get out. Again, the numbers are clear. We evacuated some 130,000 individuals, but of those 130,000 who made it onto U.S. planes, only 78,000 were Afghans. And of those 78,000, only 3,000 were Special Immigrant Visa recipients. Everyone else were just people who were lucky enough to make it to the airport and get on. If we were prioritizing people on scarce seats in limited flights, they should have been the interpreters and their families and they didn’t make it to the airport. Really, my biggest concern was that at the end of last August, there’d be such fatigue, there’d be such an inclination, a natural inclination for people to go, “okay, that’s a job done now on to the next crisis” that there wouldn’t be the infrastructure or the energy or the efforts needed to see this properly through and to get everybody who still needs to get out, out.
I’m so pleased and thankful to be able to tell you that fear never came to pass. We have regularly scheduled coalition calls where we all get on and it’s the same people who have been showing up since last August who continue to show up because they know that this mission is not complete and there’s still people that we’re trying to help.
I’ve been so remarkably surprised by who cared and how long they’ve cared. And I have to, I’d be remiss if I didn’t steal my friend Susannah Cunningham, who is an amazing policy guru and advocate and one of the leaders of this movement. She works for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. She has a really amazing way of explaining this. She said for 20 years, we’ve had successive administrations tell the American people that we should care about Afghans and their lives. And you know what? The messaging worked. The American people care about Afghans in their lives in a way that I know for a fact, they didn’t in the summer of 2001.
It’s our longest war. They’re our longest wartime ally. And Frank, this is where I’d be remiss if I didn’t point something out. Given that they are our longest wartime ally you’d think we would do right by them. But the sad reality is that this administration in particular has proven just how little we do for Afghans and how much we could do if we chose to.
And what I mean by that is in April of this year, the administration announced a program called Uniting for Ukraine. I’m a big fan of this program. What it does is it allows any Ukrainian who has been displaced from their home since the 24th of February of this year to apply for something called humanitarian parole. It’s the legal term that we give to someone quite for, have you ever heard someone say, “I want to seek asylum.” What they’re actually seeking is something called humanitarian parole, which is the ability, permission to come into the United States and remain in the United States while their asylum application is considered.
Now, for an Afghan to seek humanitarian parole, which at this point, some 48,000 have applied for it since last August. It’s pretty arduous step. One, you got to get out of Afghanistan. They won’t process your humanitarian parole application unless you make it out of the country and you make it to the United States and you, the Afghan are responsible for that. The second thing is that there’s an application fee. It’s $575 a person. That’s more money than the average Afghan makes in a given year. And then finally, there is the most arduous national security screening that takes place, period, the end, in our immigration system before an individual is given permission to come to this country. Since August of last year, some 48,000 Afghans have availed themselves to the humanitarian parole system. Of those 48,000, the government has currently processed just under 5,000 of their applications and of the 5,000 that they’ve processed, they’ve approved 297. They’ve collected over $30 million in fees. These fees are, by the way, not refunded if their applications are denied.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow.
MATT ZELLER: Now, back in last August, we asked the government, “Hey, could you waive the application fee, pretty arduous to the Afghan? Could you be willing to process their applications if they still remain in, if they’re still currently in Afghanistan?” Because most of these people can’t get out in the first place. “And would you be willing to waive some of the screening requirements to make it that they’re pro… Not make them spend three or four years waiting for their application to be… Can you at least bring them to a lily pad or something while you do it?” And what we were told is no, not possible, don’t have the authority.
Frank, let me tell you about the Uniting for Ukraine program again. Uniting for Ukraine stipulates that any Ukrainian with a pulse who has been displaced from their home since the 24th of February of this year is automatically granted humanitarian parole to come to the United States. The application fee is waived and there is no background check. They just have to apply for it. And then it’s approved and they’re put on a plane. And I can prove it in the numbers. Uniting for Ukraine was announced in April of this year. Since mid-February to now, since they announced it, they have welcomed 60,000 Ukrainians into the country under Uniting for Ukraine. 60,000 Ukrainians.
Yet since last August, 48,000 Afghans, our longest wartime ally, most of these people are the family members of interpreters who don’t qualify for the SIV because their mom, dad, brother, sister, et cetera, which the Taliban, by the way, doesn’t care, the Taliban have a very North Korean sensibility about how they punish people. They can’t get ahold of the individual they want to punish, they punish the entire external family, which is why most Afghans who work for us are desperate to get their mom and dad and siblings out of the country because they also face persecution. All of those Afghans, they’re not given the same standards as Unite the Ukrainians are. And I don’t want to play the two groups of refugees off of each other –
FRANK BLAKE: No, of course. You’re not begrudging the Ukrainians. You’re saying, why not our oldest allies?
MATT ZELLER: Correct. If we can do it for Ukrainians, why can’t we do it for Afghans? Why the double standard?
FRANK BLAKE: So Matt, so for people who are listening to this and just hear your passion, understand just, I mean you can only say this is a moral blight for our country and they want to help. What should they do?
MATT ZELLER: Couple of things. All right. So first off, welcome.us is the website we try to send everybody to because that’s where all of the organizations involved in helping to resettle Afghans congregate. So if you want to get involved in your local community, I highly recommend you go to welcome.us and there’s a tool on the website you can use to search. You’d say, I live in Des Moines. It’ll let you know all of the services that exist in Des Moines that currently exist to help Afghans, the organizations that do it and how to get in touch with them if you want to volunteer with them in their efforts. But what really is needed is this. The Afghans that were evacuated last August when they arrived in the United States, from August to about December, they lived on U.S. military bases all around the country and they only got off those military bases in December and January.
They were given anywhere from three to six months of government assistance and support to get their new lives started. Most of them are now finding that that assistance is expired and most of these people were not properly resettled. And what I mean by that is they now find themselves in housing situations where they can’t afford rent, employment situations where they don’t earn enough money to cover their cost of living expenses and a culture that quite frankly is very unfamiliar to them. A lot of people think, oh, there’s a refugee settlement organization in my local area, they must be helping these people daily. That refugee settlement organization is overburdened with cases and severely understaffed. They don’t have the personnel to properly handle their caseloads. So they depend on volunteers like me and your audience.
And so what I’m doing with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is we have been quietly building a movement of veterans among around the country in particular, to offer ourselves up in a reverse role. When we served in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was the interpreters who are our cultural ambassadors and bridges to the world around us. It’s now our turn to be theirs. And I have to tell you that the evac exacerbated a festering moral injury that had been there for quite some time. That moral injury is now pretty pronounced and profound amongst most veterans. We don’t, it doesn’t sit well with how we ended this or how we left people behind. A moral injury is really insidious because it’s an injury of the soul so it’s the hardest to treat you. You can’t take a pill for it. Talking with folks might help. But what I have found is the only way to truly heal from that injury is through acts of service, is through doing good deeds for others in need. And the best way I know how to address this moral injury is by continuing to help Afghans in their journey to the United States and getting resettled.
And so what I tell veterans is if you really want to play a part in this or citizens in general really want to continue to help Afghans and they’re trying to think, well, how do I do this, I don’t know how to get people to a lily pad or anything about getting folks out. They need you, when they get here. They need you to be what we call it your first friend. They need to be that 3:00 a.m. phone call in the middle of the night because they don’t know to dial 911 and they have a relative who has medical emergency. They need the American who looks at them and realizes that they’re driving food delivery for Uber Eats and Instacart for grocery shopping and they’re working all these jobs and they’re not making enough money to pay their bills. And yet the American looks at and goes, well, I have somebody who I know has got a company who you’d be perfect for, and it would actually double your salary and reduce your commute. They need that level of community integration and support. They need someone to be there to quite frankly, let them vent when they’re worried about their families back in Afghanistan and they just feel like they need to appeal to somebody who’s from this culture that might be able to tell them, hey, this is, this is normal, it doesn’t work here like you think it does.
We’re not… Everybody looks at America and go, oh, you went to the moon, you must be able to do anything and everything all at once without any of the same sort of stupid stuff that we suffer in our own society. And we’re just as human as the rest of them as everybody else. We have our own societal drawbacks, but if you’ve never lived here, those can seem pretty overwhelming. And so again, we need people to step up and be these Afghan’s first friends. And so if folks really want to get involved, I’d encourage them to go to welcome.us. And if you would like to sign up to be a first friend with these Afghans, my work with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is how we’re spearheading that. They can email me. My email is really simple. It’s my first name, Matt, M-A-T-T dot Z-E-L-L-E-R, [email protected]. So MATT [email protected]. Email me and I will personally help connect you to an Afghan.
This is what I tell folks. You’re going to meet these people thinking that you’re going to help them. And in turn, they’re going to help you just as much back. I guarantee anybody who gets involved with these people within a year, not only is the Afghans that you’re assisting going to be at your Thanksgiving dinner table, but you’re going to end up joining them for what’s called iftar, which is the meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan. It’s what I call Muslim Thanksgiving. It’s amazing. That’s the level of life interaction that I see transpire every single time I’m able to pair up an American with a newly arrived Afghan.
FRANK BLAKE: Matt, I’ve got to just say thank you so much. Before we started this interview, I said that your 2018 podcast was in the end, very optimistic in terms of what you were doing to pay back a debt to Janis and all of the interpreters and others who help U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. These circumstances are even more trying and difficult. And I can tell from just listening, you haven’t flagged in your determination to do right. And it’s inspiring and I thank you for it and I hope you get a great response from our audience. It’s a wonderful example of living not only our country’s values, but broad human values. So thank you for that.
MATT ZELLER: I really appreciate you saying that. I’d be remiss if I didn’t share one final thing, which is in this work, I’ve had the privilege of being able to work with genuine heroes, as far as I’m concerned, like truly just the best of America. There’s no one I consider more of a hero and she’s got to be the quietest hero out of all this than somebody at the State Department by the name of Molly Montgomery. Molly is currently the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and you can imagine just how difficult Molly’s life has been over the last couple of months considering what’s going on in Europe, but Molly’s previous postings had also been in places like Ukraine and Afghanistan. So she’s had a heck of a thing, but Frank, I have this belief that God places the right person at the right place at the right time to potentially pull off miracles. And as far as I’m concerned, Molly is my hero of the evac and my miracle worker. And let me explain why.
Within 36 hours of Kabul falling, a critical event transpired that most people are not aware of, which is that when we started flying people out in those first hours, the only places that had been identified at that point where we could land Afghans with the authority and permission of the country that we were going to allow us to do was Qatar and Kuwait. We didn’t have permission to go anywhere else. And within the first 36 hours, you know what ended up happening? All of the infrastructure, meaning literally the tents in which they were receiving and bedding people down while they figured out, where do we bring these people, in Qatar, Kuwait were full. There was nowhere else to put people. You couldn’t fly people out because there was nowhere to put the new, the people that you were bringing out because there were no available beds. It was just, it was all, it was full up. The inn was full.
Going back to the days of Vietnam, the DOD in looking back at what went wrong in Saigon said that, if this ever happens again, we need to maximize what’s called throughput. Meaning, we need the ability to constantly just keep moving people. The only reason, the only reason we were able to begin flying people out was because Molly got on the phone and exercised all of her personal relationships and basically got Europe to open up its borders for us. Kosovo, Albania, Germany, Italy, Spain, they all let us use airfields where we could bring people in and house them there temporarily, which means we were able to maximize throughput and continue to move people.
FRANK BLAKE: So that’s so great. I’m so glad you did that, Matt. I usually ask folks who has done a crazy good turn for them in their lives. And it’s great to highlight Molly. That’s exactly the kind of person who’s a hero and we ought to be celebrating. So thank you.
MATT ZELLER: Everyone should know her name. I’ve I told this to her face. I said, “I don’t know if you realize that it’s not just the 78,000 Afghans that you personally help get out because of this. It’s all the kids they’re going to have. And the kids that those kids are going to have.” And who knows what miracles and good deeds that those people are going to pull off in their lives, but they all get the opportunity to, because of her.
Molly Montgomery. My personal hero.
FRANK BLAKE: Matt, thank you so much. As I say, I take just an inspiring example for all of us, so thank you.
MATT ZELLER: My pleasure.
While researching for this episode, Brian and his daughter happened to visit a park in greater Cleveland. They were eating sandwiches at a pavilion when they heard music playing at another pavilion close by - melodies that were unfamiliar, with lyrics sung in a foreign language.
Brian's daughter began dancing enthusiastically to the music, and soon a man from the nearby pavilion approached them, carrying naan bread topped with grilled goat meat.
The kind stranger invited Brian and his daughter to join their family meal.
Using his son to translate, the man explained that the people gathered at the pavilion were from Kabul, and the family was safe in the United States thanks to an interpreter who had spent five years working for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Brian tried to thank that interpreter, who's name is Moktar. Moktar's response left Brian in awe. Hear why when you tune in.