NY AFGHAN GROUP HELPS AFGHANISTAN WOMEN TO SAFETY

The recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan raises concerns that there will be a return to strict, Islamic law that harshly limits the freedoms of women and girls, as was the case when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, twenty years ago. Sunita Viswanath, co-founder and Board Chair of Women for Afghan Women, joins us to discuss what her organization, which operates both in Afghanistan and in New York City, is doing to support women in Afghanistan who currently fear for their lives and futures, as well as the Afghan American community here in New York, many of whom have relatives still in Afghanistan.

TRANSCRIPT

> GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

I'M JENNA FLANAGAN.

THE WORLD WATCHED IN SHOCK LAST WEEK AS THE TALIBAN SEIZED MUCH OF AFGHANISTAN, RECLAIMING CONTROL OF THE COUNTRY FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 20 YEARS.

WITH THE REMOVAL OF U.S. TROOPS, THE TALIBAN HAD PROMISED TO INSTALL AN ISLAMIC GOVERNMENT, LEAVING THOSE STILL IN AFGHANISTAN WORRIED ABOUT HOW THIS WILL IMPACT THEIR CIVIL LIBERTIES AND POTENTIALLY PUT THEIR LIVES AT RISK.

WOMEN AND GIRLS HAVE PARTICULAR CAUSE FOR CONCERN DUE TO THE TALIBAN'S HARSH RULE SURROUNDING WHAT WOMEN CAN AND CANNOT DO.

THE LAST TIME THE TALIBAN WAS IN POWER, WOMEN WERE BARRED FROM MANY ASPECTS OF PUBLIC LIFE INCLUDING WORKING, RECEIVING AN EDUCATION, AND SERVING IN THE GOVERNMENT.

WOMEN FOR AFGHAN WOMEN, A WOMEN'S ORGANIZATION OPERATING IN AFGHANISTAN AND HERE IN NEW YORK CITY, IS FIGHTING TO PROTECT AFGHAN WOMEN AND EVACUATE AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE.

JOINING ME NOW TO DISCUSS THE ONGOING SITUATION IN AFGHANISTAN AND WHAT THE ORGANIZATION IS DOING TO HELP IS SUNITA VISHNAVAD, CO-FOUNDER AND BOARD CHAIR FOR WOMEN FOR AFGHAN WOMEN.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US ON 'METROFOCUS.'

THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR HAVING ME.

I WANT TO SPEAK ABOUT THIS WORK AT THIS CRITICAL MOMENT.

AND OF COURSE I THINK OUR VIEWERS WOULD BE VERY INTERESTED IN LEARNING WHAT IT IS THAT YOUR ORGANIZATION HAS BEEN DOING AND NOT JUST IN REGARD TO THIS CURRENT CRISIS, BUT YOUR ORGANIZATION HAS EXISTED FOR A WHILE NOW.

WHAT IS IT YOU WERE DOING EVEN PRIOR TO THIS CURRENT SITUATION WITH THE TALIBAN?

THIS ORGANIZATION, WOMEN FOR AFGHAN WOMEN, WAS FOUNDED BEFORE 9/11 RIGHT HERE IN NEW YORK CITY,WHERE I AM NOW.

A NUMBER OF US, AFGHAN AND NON-AFGHAN, WERE DEEPLY CONCERNED ABOUT THE NEWS COMING OUT OF AFGHANISTAN UNDER THE TALIBAN AT THAT TIME.

AND WE WERE WORKING ON WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN, AND FINALLY IN APRIL 2001 WE CREATED OURSELVES WITH THIS NAME.

WE DIDN'T KNOW THAT 9/11 WAS SIX MONTHS AHEAD OF US.

SO WE REALLY -- YOU KNOW, IT WAS VERY SURREAL THAT WE WERE ORGANIZING FOR SOMETHING THAT WE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WAS AHEAD OF US.

BECAUSE IN THE BEGINNING, BEFORE 9/11, WE WERE CONCERNED ABOUT AFGHANISTAN AND WHAT MEN AND WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN THOUGHT NOBODY WAS LISTENING TO US.

WHEN 9/11 HAPPENED, ALL OF A SUDDEN THE WHOLE WORLD KNEW WHERE AFGHANISTAN WAS, HOW TO BEST SELL IT, AND THERE WAS A LOT TO TALK ABOUT AND A LOT TO DO.

WOMEN FOR AFGHAN WOMEN HAS GROWN OVER 20 YEARS.

WE FIRST STARTED IN NEW YORK CITY BECAUSE THIS IS WHERE WE WERE AND BECAUSE THERE IS A BIG AFGHAN COMMUNITY RIGHT HERE IN QUEENS.

OUR FIRST PROGRAM WAS RIGHT IN QUEENS.

IT'S CALLED THE QUEENS COMMUNITY CENTER.

IT STILL EXISTS.

RIGHT NOW, THAT CENTER IS VIBRANT AND DOING SUCH IMPORTANT WORK IN THE COMMUNITY, IN THIS MOMENT OF CRISIS BECAUSE THE COMMUNITY MEMBERS ARE TRAUMATIZED, REALLY PANICKED ABOUT FAMILY BACK HOME.

AND THEN THE COMMUNITY CENTER ALSO OVER THE YEARS HAS BEEN A SITE FOR REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT.

AND WE HOPE TO BE DOING A LOT MORE OF REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT.

REFUGEES COMING IN IN THIS CRISIS ARE COMING INTO VIRGINIA.

THE VIRGINIA AFGHAN COMMUNITY IS EVEN LARGER THAN THE NEW YORK AFGHAN COMMUNITY.

WE'RE DOING WORK AS I SPEAK TO CREATE THE VIRGINIA WOMEN FOR AFGHAN WOMEN COMMUNITY CENTER.

SO THERE'S A LOT GOING ON IN THE STATE FOR AFGHAN WOMEN RIGHT NOW.

THE FIRST PROGRAM WAS THE QUEENS COMMUNITY CENTER, BUT THEN OUR STAFF LEADERSHIP THAT BUILT THAT CENTER TOOK THE WORK TO AFGHANISTAN.

AND THE FIRST PROGRAM THAT WE OPENED IN AFGHANISTAN WOULD HAVE BEEN 2005.

THEN WE STARTED IN KABUL.

OVER THE YEARS, 15 YEARS NOW, WE'VE EXPANDED FROM ONE PROVINCE TO 14 PROVINCES ACROSS AFGHANISTAN.

AND THE WORK THAT WE DO, WHETHER IT'S IN QUEENS OR IN ANY OF THOSE PROVINCES, THE STAFF THAT WE HIRE ARE AFGHAN, AFGHAN COMMUNITY MEMBERS IN QUEENS OR AFGHANS FROM THE PROVINCE, WHEREVER WE'RE TALKING ABOUT.

AND THEY'RE ALL MUSLIMS.

AND THE PEOPLE WHO COME TO THE ORGANIZATION WHO HAVE HAD HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS ARE ALSO OBVIOUSLY FROM THE COMMUNITY.

SO THIS IS IN EVERY WAY, SHAPE, AND FORM A COMMUNITY-BASED ORGANIZATION AND EVERYTHING HAPPENS WITHIN THE CULTURAL CONTEXT AND THE RELIGION.

OTHERWISE NOBODY WOULD COME, NOT THE PEOPLE WHO NEED THE SERVICES OR THE STAFF.

SO IT IS ABSOLUTELY AN ORGANIZATION THAT HAS BEEN FUNCTIONING WITHIN AN ISLAMIC CONTEXT.

AND THEN YOU SAID ABOUT THE TALIBAN TAKEOVER, THAT THE TALIBAN, YOU KNOW, HAS TAKEN OVER AFGHANISTAN AND IT'S GOING TO BE AN ISLAMIC COUNTRY.

FOR THE LAST 20 YEARS IT HAS BEEN AN ISLAMIC COUNTRY.

AND SO IT HAS BEEN THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF AFGHANISTAN.

WE HAVE HUNDREDS OF STAFF ATTORNEYS IN AFGHANISTAN.

OVER THESE 20 YEARS, OUR STAFF IN AFGHANISTAN GREW TO 1,200.

WE WERE THE LARGEST -- OR ARE THE LARGEST WOMEN'S ORGANIZATION SERVING, YOU KNOW, AFGHAN WOMEN IN THE WORLD.

BECAUSE OUR INFRASTRUCTURE WAS SO GREAT, THE MOST EXTREME CASES OF VIOLATIONS CAME TO US.

AND THE WORK THAT WE DID ABSOLUTELY SINCERELY RESPECTED THE FAITH OF THE PEOPLE IN OUR ORGANIZATION AND THE FACT THAT WE'RE WORKING IN A MUSLIM COUNTRY.

SO THAT PART HASN'T CHANGED.

IT'S JUST -- AND I WAS SAYING ABOUT OUR LAWYERS, OUR HUNDREDS OF STAFF ATTORNEYS COMING OUT OF THE LAW SCHOOLS OF AFGHANISTAN, THEY STUDY CONSTITUTIONAL LAW AND SHARIAH LAW.

THEY'RE EXPERTS IN SHARIAH LAW AND CONSTITUTIONAL LAW.

AND THEY WORK WITH BOTH IN THE COURTS TO GET THE BEST RESULTS FOR THE PEOPLE, YOU KNOW, THEY'RE REPRESENTING.

SO NONE OF THAT IS NEW FOR US.

IF IN THIS NEW AFGHANISTAN, THE THINGS THAT ARE COMING OUT OF THE TALIBAN'S MOUTHS RIGHT NOW, IF THE WORDS COMING OUT OF THEIR MOUTHS RIGHT NOW ARE TRUE AND THE PROMISES THEY'RE MAKING THAT GIRLS CAN GO TO SCHOOL AND WOMEN CAN GO TO WORK AND AMNESTY IS BEING GIVEN, IF ALL OF THAT IS TRUE, IT'S NOT CRAZY TO THINK WE CAN KEEP WORKING IN AFGHANISTAN BECAUSE WE ALREADY HAVE A TRACK RECORD FOR WORKING WITHIN THIS ISLAMIC CULTURE.

AND THE JURY IS OUT.

WE DON'T KNOW IN A WEEK OR A MONTH OR WHENEVER IF THE TRUTH WILL COME HOME THAT THESE WORDS ARE NOT TRUE AND WE ARE ACTUALLY HEADED BACK TO THOSE DAYS THAT YOU WERE DESCRIBING PRE-9/11.

THERE IS NO WAY FOR US TO KNOW AT THIS MOMENT.

BUT WHAT I WILL SAY ABOUT WHAT WE ARE DOING AT THIS MOMENT, OF THOSE 1,200 STAFF AND TENS OF THOUSANDS OF CLIENTS, WE HAVE ALREADY EVACUATED, YOU KNOW, AS MANY AS WE CAN OUT OF THE PROVINCES TO KABUL.

AND MANY OF OUR ORGANIZATION MEMBERS, STAFF, CLIENTS, HAVE GONE UNDERGROUND INTO THEIR FAMILIES' COMMUNITIES AND STAYING SAFE, LYING LOW, WHERE THEY CAN.

WE HAVE WITH US THE 500 HIGHEST RISK CLIENTS, STAFF MEMBERS, AND STAFF MEMBER FAMILIES.

AND THAT IS THE GROUP OF PEOPLE WE HAVE BEEN WORKING NIGHT AND DAY TO GET OUT OF AFGHANISTAN BECAUSE THEY TRULY ARE AT RISK.

AND WE ARE WORKING WITH THE U.S.

GOVERNMENT, THE STATE DEPARTMENT IS OUR BIGGEST FUNDER, THEY'RE ALSO WORKING AROUND THE CLOCK TO HELP GET OUR FOLKS AND PROBABLY MANY OTHER ORGANIZATIONS AND ENTITIES TOO, WE'RE JUST ONE OF MANY.

BUT OUR WOMEN BEING THE LARGEST WOMEN'S ORGANIZATION, OUR STAFF AND OUR CLIENTS, I WOULD SAY ARE THE HIGHEST RISK.

AND I HOPE THAT ALL THE WORK THAT'S BEEN DONE TO PREPARE LISTS AND LISTS OF OUR PEOPLE TO GET ON A PLANE, IT'S BEEN A WEEK.

THE TALIBAN HAS SAID THAT AUGUST 31 IS THE DEADLINE FOR EVACUATIONS AND THEY'RE NOT EXTENDING IT.

SO IT'S BEEN A WEEK OF NOTHING.

WE HAVEN'T EVACUATED ONE OF OUR PEOPLE.

AND THERE'S NEWS ABOUT EVACUATION IS ESCALATING OR IS ACCELERATING.

WELL, I WOULD LIKE TO SEE OUR PEOPLE, THE WOMEN, THE WOMEN WHO ARE THE HIGHEST RISK, AND THEIR FAMILIES, GET ON A PLANE TO GET OUT BEFORE THEY ARE KILLED.

THAT'S MY APPEAL TO THE U.S.

GOVERNMENT.

THAT'S MY APPEAL TO ANYBODY NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE.

IF YOU HAVE ACCESS TO SOMEBODY IN THE GERMAN GOVERNMENT, IN THE UK GOVERNMENT, IF YOU HAVE AN IDEA FOR HOW TO GET A PLANE TO KABUL TO GET OUR 500 PEOPLE OUT, PLEASE CONTACT ME.

THAT IS OUR NUMBER ONE PRIORITY RIGHT NOW, TO GET OUR HIGH RISK PEOPLE OUT BEFORE THERE IS A DISASTER.

AND THAT WAS ONE OF MY QUESTIONS, WAS WHAT IS IT THAT PEOPLE CAN DO.

BUT YOU OBVIOUSLY HAVE GIVEN US A WAY TO CONTACT YOU DIRECTLY.

CONTACT ME IF YOU HAVE AN IDEA FOR HOW TO GET -- AND MAKE SURE IT'S A REAL LEAD, YOU KNOW, IT SHOULD BE SOMETHING -- BECAUSE IT'S URGENT.

I DEFINITELY -- AND I THINK EVERYONE IS GOING TO GET THAT, BECAUSE IT ABSOLUTELY COMES ACROSS IN YOUR VOICE.

BUT WITH, YOU KNOW, OUR REMAINING TIME, THE OTHER CONCERN THAT'S COME UP IS WHERE THIS LEAVES THE U.S./AFGHAN RELATIONSHIP.

THE U.S. RELATIONSHIP WITH THE MIDLE EAST IN GENERAL.

ENTIRE REGION, BUT FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE AT LEAST, FROM THE REFUGEES THAT YOU'VE MET, WHERE DO YOU FEEL AS THOUGH THEIR TRUST LEVEL IS IN TERMS OF WHO IS GOING TO BE THERE TO HELP THEM IN THIS MOMENT OF CRISIS?

SO I MEAN, I'M REALLY IN A CRISIS MODE, USUALLY I WOULD BE ABLE TO COLLECT MY THOUGHTS AND GIVE SOME ANALYSIS.

I CAN'T DO THAT RIGHT NOW.

WHAT I CAN TELL YOU IS ON THE U.S. SIDE, WE HAVE MAJOR INSTITUTIONS THAT HAVE FUNDING, BIG FUNDING, FOR REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT.

AND WOMEN FOR AFGHAN WOMEN IS BUILDING OUR CAPACITY IN THAT ACQUIRE.

AND NONE OF THOSE ORGANIZATIONS WILL BE ABLE TO TAKE CARE OF THE INCOMING REFUGEES WITHOUT SOMEBODY LIKE US BECAUSE OF THE LANGUAGE, BECAUSE OF THE CULTURE, BECAUSE OF THE TRAUMA THAT THESE PEOPLE HAVE GONE THROUGH, BECAUSE THERE ARE CHILDREN ARRIVING WITHOUT THEIR PARENTS.

MAYBE THEIR PARENTS ARE ON ANOTHER FLIGHT OR MAYBE THEY'RE NOT COMING, WE DON'T KNOW.

SO OUR ORGANIZATION, OUR STAFF AND OUR VOLUNTEERS, ARE CRITICAL TO HELP THOSE CHILDREN, FAMILIES, PEOPLE WHO ARE ARRIVING, YOU KNOW, HAVE SOMEBODY WHO -- I'M SURE EVERYBODY IS VERY CARING BUT SOMEBODY WHO UNDERSTANDS WHAT THEY'RE SAYING AND CAN GIVE THAT KIND OF CULTURAL WELCOME TO THEM.

SO THIS IS WHAT WE'RE -- AND THE FACT THAT THERE ARE ORGANIZATIONS THAT HAVE THE FUNDING TO DO THIS WORK IS SOMETHING THAT THIS COUNTRY CAN BE VERY PROUD OF.

AND I WOULD SAY, YOU KNOW, I'M AN AMERICAN CITIZEN, AND MY ORGANIZATION, WOMEN FOR AFTER AGAIN WOMEN, HAS BEEN GENEROUSLY FUNDED BY THE U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT OVER ALL THESE YEARS.

WHAT I WOULD SAY IS PRESIDENT BIDEN AND THE AMERICAN PUBLIC IS PLEASE, DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN, PRIORITIZE WOMEN.

I SEE TRANSLATORS, OF COURSE THEY'RE A PRIORITY.

MAKE WOMEN THE PRIORITY AND HELP GET THE MOST AT-RISK WOMEN OUT.

I WOULD ALSO SAY YOU STILL HAVE LEVERAGE WITH YOUR VOICE AND POWER.

DO ANYTHING YOU CAN TO PUT PRESSURE ON THE NEW GOVERNMENT OF AFGHANISTAN TO RESPECT HUMAN RIGHTS.

THAT'S SOMETHING IN THE POWER OF THE U.S.

PLEASE DO THAT.

AND THEN COUNTRIES AROUND THE WORLD, THIS IS A TIME TO OPEN THE DOORS.

PLEASE LET AT-RISK AFGHANS INTO YOUR NATIONS.

THOSE WOULD BE MY PLEAS AT THIS MOMENT.

ABSOLUTELY.

LISTEN, I WANT TO THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TAKING THE TIME TO SPEAK WITH US ON 'METROFOCUS.'

THE CO-FOUNDER AND BOARD CHAIR OF WOMEN FOR AFGHAN WOMEN.

YOU HAVE MADE A VERY POWERFUL CASE FOR THE URGENCY OF THIS MOMENT AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, WHAT PEOPLE CAN DO SHOULD THEY HAVE ANY IDEAS, TO REACH OUT.

THANK YOU SO MUCH.

AND OF COURSE I SHOULD ALSO SAY WOMENFORAFGHANWOMEN.ORG, ANYONE WHO HAS THE ABILITY TO DONATE, I WILL VOUCH FOR YOUR MONEY SAVING A LIFE.

PLEASE DONATE GENEROUSLY.

THANK YOU SO MUCH.

©2021 WNET. All Rights Reserved. 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019

WNET is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Tax ID: 26-2810489