Almost 800 Highly Vulnerable Members of Civil Society Evacuated from Mazar-i-Sharif


October 7, 2021: When the last American forces departed Afghanistan on August 31, many Afghans who had supported the U.S. and its allies were left behind. They included employees of the U.S. Embassy, women’s rights advocates, fixers and interpreters for American newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, prominent local journalists, professors, student activists, government officials, musicians, and translators who had worked for the U.S. military. Some had Special Immigrant Visas or even held U.S. Green Cards. Others were dual-American citizens.

Sayara International, a global development firm that had worked in Afghanistan for almost two decades, evacuated more than three hundred such individuals from Kabul in late August. At the end of the month, however, some of Sayara’s employees remained in the country. At this point, a long-shot possibility arose to charter private flights from Mazar-i-Sharif, a small city ten hours north of Kabul with its own international airport.

Following arduous negotiations with the Taliban and the U.S. State Department, two planes organized by Sayara and supported by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal eventually managed to leave Mazar for U.S. air base Al Udeid in Qatar. One plane of 385 Afghans arrived on September 21; the second plane of 399 landed safely on October 3.

During the four weeks that it took for Sayara to secure both departure and landing rights for the two planes, it became evident that, for all the rhetoric and assurances of the West, no system whatsoever exists for the evacuation of Afghans who loyally served the U.S. over twenty years of war, and whose lives are now at grave risk as a result. The responsibility has fallen, instead, to ad hoc coalitions of volunteers and private organizations.

The path wasn’t easy. After a convoy of buses transported the evacuees through Taliban checkpoints from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif, they were moved from safe house to safe house while tedious negotiations proceeded. People were fed and received medical care. All of this was expensive and difficult, as operations in conflict zones always are. During the wait, two of the evacuees gave birth, several fell ill, and many began to lose hope and consider returning to Kabul. Last weekend, however, the second full plane arrived in Al Udeid.

Notwithstanding this success, thousands of at-risk Afghans remain trapped in Afghanistan, and for those now in Qatar this is just the beginning of their journey. Most fled with only a backpack and the clothes that they were wearing. They will have to resettle in a new country, learn its language, adapt to its culture, and build a community.

The story of these two planes is not the story of a single organization – it’s the story of a team of people who came together because government institutions failed them.

We are extremely grateful to the tireless group of volunteers who made this possible: journalists, human rights workers, ground operators, aviation experts, lawyers, diplomats, legislative aides, and development workers. We are also thankful for, and heartened by, the efforts of Sayara’s global staff for their dedication to their work throughout this difficult period.

Sayara also thanks its donors for their support and collaboration. Partners integral to these evacuation operations include the Rockefeller Foundation, Schmidt Futures, Operation Flyaway, Getty Foundation, and David Cowan.

In total, Sayara evacuated over 1,150 vulnerable Afghans from Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif.

“The bravery, determination, and sheer will displayed by these vulnerable Afghan evacuees over the past two months was the driving force behind this success,” said Scott Shadian, chief executive officer of Sayara International.

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About Sayara International:

Sayara International is a global development company that specializes in the design and implementation of rigorous research, social and behavior change communications, approaches to countering disinformation, governance strategies, and innovative programming in fragile, conflict-affected, and transitioning societies. Founded in 2003, Sayara operates in more than 30 countries across Eastern Europe, Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Sayara supports the programming of our clients and partners with complex and sustainable research, evaluation, data-driven policy change, socio-political analysis, strategic communication, countering violent extremism, crisis management, and humanitarian response in the most challenging environments, working with and for the most vulnerable communities worldwide. Sayara’s origins in conflict and the company’s evolution across fragile contexts have equipped us with a set of values, core operating principles, systems, and competencies unique in the global development industry.