The Yakima group that helped evacuate an Afghan family after the fall of Kabul has continued its efforts under a newly formed nonprofit — Operation Shoulder to Shoulder.
The organization is led by Paul Garcia, a former U.S. Special Forces commander, and Roger Gavriluk, former Yakima Training Center commander. Their work is focused on war-torn areas and pushing forward on two fronts: evacuating high-risk persons from Afghanistan and supporting soldiers and refugees from Ukraine.
“We need action. We don’t have the luxury of time,” Gavriluk said.
He said the nonprofit is now looking for support from the Yakima community — specifically, donations of food or housing for Afghan families who are in danger, medical expenses and costs related to visa and passport applications, more general support for local resettlement of Ukrainian and Afghan refugees, and outreach to lawmakers who can advocate at the federal level.
Operation Shoulder to Shoulder is prioritizing outreach to a group of U.S.-trained aviators who worked for the Afghan military alongside U.S. soldiers and fled Afghanistan as the Taliban seized control.
Some of the aviators fled Afghanistan to seek medical care, while others left to escape violence by the Taliban or protect their families. The group is now marooned in a different country in the Middle East, where they don’t speak the language and don’t fit in, Gavriluk said. The airmen can’t work, leaving little money for food and essentials.
For some of the airmen, their temporary visas have expired and there are no immediate options for renewing them. If found, or if stopped on the street and asked for papers, the individuals face extradition to Afghanistan, where they will certainly be killed by the Taliban, Gavriluk said.
Their families, still in Afghanistan, have been subjected to home searches and threats by the Taliban, according to Garcia. Some families have burned the aviators’ military clothing and related documents to prevent further incrimination.
In all, the group and their families add up to more than 100 people who are hoping to obtain a Special Immigrant Visa to come to the U.S., Garcia said.
Garcia said progress on the group’s visas and other paperwork is stalled in the U.S. Department of State, which is experiencing an influx of visa requests related to both Afghanistan and Ukraine. He said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s office was helpful in expediting the applications before hitting the bottleneck at the state department. The immigration casework and outreach director for Murray, a Washington Democrat, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Gavriluk said many family members don’t have the supporting documents required to obtain a visa, which further complicates the process.
“This is just a small microcosm of what’s going on,” Gavriluk said. “There are thousands and thousands of folks who fall in the same (high-risk) category and are facing extreme violence.”
An ESL teacher from north-central Washington connected Operation Shoulder to Shoulder with a group of Afghan educators who she previously trained and worked alongside.
The group and their families are being targeted by the Taliban because they taught U.S. values, the Washington woman said. She requested that she not be identified in this article to help protect the identities of those in the group.
She said the group is made up mostly of women, some belonging to other minority ethnic or religious groups being persecuted by the Taliban. The educators are also at high risk because of their profession; schools have been the target of violence and threats by the Taliban.
“They put themselves at risk to represent the U.S.,” she said. “They fought for women’s rights. And now they’re limited and can’t even leave their homes. (They) can’t help their families earn money.”
Some have been separated from their families, some have received death threats and some were beaten by the Taliban, she said.
Operation Shoulder to Shoulder is helping the group secure passports and visas, with talk of resettlement in Yakima. The ESL teacher said she has talked to the educators about what their lives in the U.S. might be like. Some would need additional education to teach in the U.S. and may not receive the same pay, benefits or respect as they did in their home county, she said.
“Maybe they could come over here and have a fabulous life or have hardships, but I try not to sell a dream because I don’t know how they’re gonna fare here,” she said.
The ESL teacher has secured scholarships for some for teaching or other programs like computer science, and secured English college entrance exams for others. She has also asked around about teaching jobs.
“I wanted to make sure that this is something they could be eligible for as that is many of their passions,” she said.
In the meantime, she has been helping keep the educators busy.
She sends messages using a text app, and she helped one woman publish a poetry book under a pseudonym. She has been teaching them English and Spanish, giving them homework assignments. She is also co-authoring a textbook with a colleague in Afghanistan.
“A lot of these people were the main breadwinners in their families, and now they’re stuck at home, unable to leave, having to take on a completely different role,” she said. “Their mental health has been deteriorating, as reported by them.”
Operation Shoulder to Shoulder has also expanded its efforts to include support to Ukraine.
One initiative the group supported was OSS Forward, which sent retired Army medical service officer Spencer Cash to Poland to distribute medical supplies. Cash is a resident of Chula Vista, California, where he recently hosted a Ukrainian family who fled the war.
Gavriluk said Cash traveled to Poland with 16 duffel bags of medical supplies to distribute, from tourniquets to bandages that help control bleeding. While in Poland, he met with other organizations providing support to Ukrainian soldiers or refugees.
Operation Shoulder to Shoulder is trying to contract aircraft to move supplies in the future, Gavriluk said. The group is also trying to locate warehouse space to store supplies.
The nonprofit has also set a goal to create a resettlement community in Yakima.
Gavriluk said the differing situations in Ukraine and Afghanistan mean individuals might have different relationships with their home country or different mindsets when deciding to flee.
“Ukraine is fighting off an oppressive government or country,” he said. “In Afghanistan, the oppressor is the Taliban. The interim government is the oppressor.”
But both countries are both are facing war and violence, he said.
Garcia said the ultimate goal is safety and resettlement in Yakima County, where immigrants will have support from friends and advocates. Currently, the resettlement communities closest to Yakima are in Spokane or Benton and Franklin counties.
But the resettlement process for Afghan or Ukrainian refugees is a difficult one, and Operation Shoulder to Shoulder has started the work to make sure all the basics are in place, from medical and mental health services to housing and jobs. Garcia said local business contacts have been key, as have connections to the Yakima Training Center and other partners in aviation or education.
Yakima County has partnered with Operation Shoulder to Shoulder to apply for state funds specific to the conflict in Ukraine for Ukrainian refugees and resettlement. Yakima County Commissioner Amanda McKinney said the grant program has just over $2 million available for the first round of funding in June and another round of just over $1 million available for June 2023.
The county should know in early May whether the group has secured any funds from the first round. McKinney said the second round of funds next year could also be helpful.
“We’re just kind of dipping our toes and understanding how to help, and they’re finding out that there are resources available if you want to or choose to be a part of the solution,” she said.
When Gavriluk and Garcia came to ask for help, McKinney said she would support their evacuation and resettlement efforts.
“What struck me is that you have someone who’s served in the military, who understands the bond that is very important when we go into foreign countries and we have allies,” McKinney said.
She said Operation Shoulder to Shoulder is helping people who supported U.S. Military members when they were abroad. They are also helping people who have risked their lives in the face of war and made choices that could bring harm to their families, she said.
“Understanding that connection, it’s really important to me that we honor our military when they say to us, ‘We need to take care of these people,'” she said.
Operation Shoulder to Shoulder has also vetted the individuals, she said, and will take responsibility and offer support for any individuals who are resettled in Yakima.
Shoulder to Shoulder
Garcia and Gavriluk’s mission is summarized by the Dari phrase “shona ba shona,” which translates to Shoulder to Shoulder.
“It’s just a term to say we are shoulder to shoulder with (the Afghans) as we continue to fight for a democratic form of government,” Garcia said. “We are shoulder to shoulder with you.”
To learn more about the organization, visit bit.ly/YHR-OSS.
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