The wrong plane out of Afghanistan

HËNGJIN, Albania — The 21-year-old university student did not realize it at the time, but he got on the wrong plane out of Afghanistan.

How was he — or any of the other 780 Afghans approaching their first anniversary at this Albanian beach resort — to know then what they know now?

What he did know last August was that amid the Taliban’s return to power and the chaos of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, an escape was an escape. An evacuation plane was an evacuation plane. A safe place was a safe place.

And it still is. Certainly here, on the gentle, sun-drenched coast of the Adriatic Sea, in a tiny European nation more than 2,600 miles from home where — unlike many larger ones —the government and community, welcomed the Afghans with open arms. But a year after the valiant efforts of so many helped tens of thousands of Afghans escape their country as their government collapsed, many other things have become clear.

For one, an evacuation was not necessarily a path to refuge in the United States, as many expected. And it may never be forthousands of evacuees whom the government estimates boarded chartered flights in their escape and landed in other countries like Albania, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Mexico, Greece and Uzbekistan.

The Biden administration, which faced intense criticism for the way it ended the U.S. war in Afghanistan and failed to evacuate many of its Afghan allies, says it never promised to provide refuge for everyone. That response does not sit well with evacuees and their supporters who note that President Biden said the United States would not leave its Afghan allies behind.

The most important factor in determining which Afghan evacuees found quick paths to the United States was not the strength of their U.S. connections. It was whether they made it onto what government officials call a “gray tail” — a U.S. military aircraft — vs. a “white tail” — a commercial or chartered aircraft; a normal airplane.

More than 76,000 Afghans ultimately landed on U.S. military bases abroad last fall, and were transferred onward to the United States for resettlement, in an effort the administration named “Operation Allies Welcome.”

Most of those Afghans who boarded “white tails” did not land on U.S. bases. Theylanded in other countries. It was the opening act of a year-long bureaucratic mess that is only now moving toward a resolution — for some.

For the student, his siblings and hundreds like them who were taken to Albania, a country they had never heard of — and to a beach resort, no less — it has become the strangest of limbos.

For nearly a year, they have lived in a sprawling beach hotel in Shëngjin, a resort town with a long, wide swath of sand on Albania’s north coast, a little over an hour’s drive from the capital, Tirana.

“The food is good, and the room is good,” said the student, whose brother had worked for the Americans, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relatives in Afghanistan from possible retaliation by the Taliban. “But we are in a psychological prison because we don’t know what will happen.”

Afghanistan was not Albania’s war, and Albania was not an obvious destination for fleeing Afghans.

During its 20-year war in Afghanistan, the U.S. government had spent trillions of dollars to build a government, civil society and armed forces in the central Asian country. It had deployed some 800,000 U.S. troops and thousands more government workers and contractors.

The student’s brother had served as an interpreter for U.S. Special Forces, and became a U.S. citizen. Their sister presided over a religious minority Hazara girls’ school, funded by foreign aid money. And the family had benefited from the liberal ideals and institutions that America brought.

The student had no memory of an Afghanistan without America. And America is where he — and many of the other evacuees, who had worked for American organizations, studied at American universities, or received U.S. government-funded training — thought they were heading.

As one of NATO’s smaller and poorest member states, Albania sent just over 4,100 troops over 20 years in Afghanistan. But early in the U.S.-led evacuation, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said his country, a staunch U.S. ally, was prepared to welcome thousands of fleeing Afghans.

“The NATO member states need to take care of the people that were there for us and worked for us, believed in what we were bringing there and aligned with what we wanted for the future of Afghanistan,” he said in an interview this month. “And 30 years ago, frankly, we were like the Afghans. We were escaping and we needed shelter, and we were sheltered.”

There were far more trying to flee Afghanistan in those final, frantic three weeks of the U.S. withdrawal than there were seats on U.S. military flights — if they could even get inside the airport.

So American nonprofits and veterans groups that were struggling to evacuate their Afghan partners turned to the handful of other countries that had agreed to take them.

Many called Rama.

Within a few months, Albania had taken in some 2,500 Afghans.

The evacuating organizations expected that Albania would be a stopover, a temporary landing pad as evacuees were processed for permanent resettlement in the United States, representatives of the groups said in interviews.

“Our expectation, given our conversations with the Department of Homeland Security … was that everybody was going to be out within the first couple of weeks of December,” said Jason Kander, an Afghanistan veteran and former Missouri secretary of state, whose Afghan Rescue Project evacuated 380 Afghans to Albania.

He had another good reason to think so. Operation Allies Welcome in early fall was beginning to resettle the 76,000 gray tail Afghans. They included not only some of America’s allies and partners — but also taxi drivers, cobblers and businesspeople who had simply been able to fight their way through the chaos to get inside the airport at the right time.

Certainly, the groups who arrived in Albania would be resettled the same way, Kander reasoned.

Rama, who had initially said that Albania was to serve as a “transit place for a certain number of Afghan political emigrants who have the United States as their final destination,” later said there was never an agreed-upon timeline for those departures.

But he decided early on that he was not going to put them in a refugee camp. He wanted to give them dignity and calm, he said. He wanted to give them “what we wanted when we were the Afghans once upon a time.”

The towering beach hotels of Shëngjin, which clear out for the winter months, seemed perfect. And the Rafaelo Resort, a sprawling five-building, three-pool retreat on the water that can accommodate 2,300 guests, said it would house most of them.

The accommodation was conditional. The Rafaelo signed agreements with the American nonprofits and affiliates that brought the Afghans to Albania, with each group pledging to cover the room and board for its evacuees for a daily charge of about $30 per person.

The organizations ranged from the Hillary Clinton-founded Vital Voices to the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. military-allied Spirit of America and even FIFA.

By December, 485 of the Rafaelo’s 657 rooms were occupied by more than 1,700 Afghans, said Bledar Shima, the hotel’s general manager, and the Rafaelo had come to resemble a contained Afghan community.

It was their “own sort of village,” said Alyse Nelson, the president and CEO of Vital Voices, who visited her organization’s group of about 1,100 Afghans at the hotel last November.

Children kicked soccer balls across the pool deck. Families strolled the empty boardwalk, and shopped for groceries in the nearby town of Lezhë.

The university student, who shared a suite with his brother, sister and sister-in-law, forged friendships with other young Afghans. Various organizations set up a health clinic, as well as educational and counseling services on the hotel’s ground floor.

For a while, the Rafaelo was simply a relief. The Afghans there had escaped the Taliban. They had food, shelter and safety.

An evacuee in her 20s began teaching kids at the hotel how to skateboard. Artists worked on murals. Teachers led classes for evacuee children and adults. And a few culinary entrepreneurs began selling prepared food in town.

But months passed, and no one at the Rafaelo seemed to be getting “processed” for their new lives in America.

Then, in December, the State Department delivered some news: Anyone who left Afghanistan on a charter before Aug. 31 and was waiting in Albania or another country would be included in Operation Allies Welcome — meaning they were eligible for U.S. resettlement.

But the news applied only to a minority of the Rafaelo Afghans. Most had left Afghanistan on chartered flights after Aug. 31 — when military flights were no longer an option. If they wished to come to America, they would have to try their luck through the complex and backlogged U.S. immigration system or refugee program.

Suddenly, many — along with their organization sponsors — realized they had no clear pathway to the United States.

The news coincided with a sudden, tragic death in the student’s family in Afghanistan, and the young group felt hopeless and scared. It was their first time away from home. They were all under 25.

“We didn’t know what [we] should we do,” he said. His sister began sobbing so incessantly and uncontrollably that they made multiple trips to the public hospital in nearby Lezhë, and their U.S. citizen brother scrounged up the money to visit them in Albania.

The despair reverberated around the resort.

“What happens if our cases are rejected? What shall we do in Afghanistan? We lost everything,” said Parigul Nabizadah, a teacher who had worked for a D.C.-based nonprofit, the American Councils for International Education, and was evacuated with her husband and two young children. “What will happen to us if we go back?”

Not long after that, Kander’s Afghan Rescue Project told the hotel it had run out of money — and it stopped paying its bills.

“Just to be clear: Everybody knew this was coming. We had a finite amount of money,” said Javad Khazaeli, the group’s attorney.

The hotel says the Afghan Rescue Project now owes it well over $2 million for the 380 people it signed on to sponsor. The Afghan Rescue Project says the U.S. government, which in December approved a $7 billion bill to fund Afghan resettlement, should be responsible for the bill. And the State Department said that will not happen.

“The U.S. government has no responsibility for these people,” said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity under guidelines set by the department. The organizations signed letters to support their evacuees in Albania, the official said. “The U.S. taxpayer isn’t going to take over.”

“What should we do? Should we give them only one meal per day?” said Shima, the hotel manager. That wouldn’t be fair, he said. “They are victims too.” But there’s also a limit. “How long can someone afford to give hotel [rooms] for free?”

The Biden administration says it never encouraged the American groups to take their people to Albania, and that it sent a clear message last fall that any private entity evacuating Afghans would bear responsibility for them — and that those Afghans would not have a guaranteed path to the United States.

But veterans, U.S. service members, and others — including officials — who took part in the evacuation, said the collaboration of people across government and the civilian sector amid the rush of the evacuation also blurred the lines of expectation.

“We were all working our contacts in these networks of people both inside the government and outside the government that were teaming up to get people out of Kabul,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former CIA and Pentagon official. “Those days were so chaotic … you just had people across the world who were trying to do right by the people who risked their lives to help us.”

In her struggle to evacuate Afghans she had worked with, Slotkin instructed a staffer to “Google all the ambassadors” to the few countries that were taking Afghans.

The U.S. ambassador to Albania, Yuri Kim, had worked with Slotkin in Iraq. So Slotkin called her, pleading: “Yuri, you got to help me out here. I’ve got Afghans. I hear that Albania is willing to take them,” the congresswoman said.

The ambassador connected Slotkin with Rama. Slotkin collaborated with former national security adviser H.R. McMaster to arrange a charter. Kim and the Albanian foreign minister then met the flight on the tarmac, Slotkin said.

In the summer months, Shëngjin’s beach fills with lounge chairs and umbrellas packed in side by side. Tourists in skimpy swimsuits flood the resorts. Pop and techno music blasts at constant highs from restaurant speakers, and shops hawk sun hats and inflatable dolphin and turtle tubes. In the evenings, the vacationers throng the boardwalk, taking in the ice cream parlors, carnival games and live music.

Shëngjin has long since lost the atmosphere of an Afghan village. More than half of the Rafaelo’s original evacuee population has now departed — including Slotkin’s group, which had access to resettlement through Operation Allies Welcome because they left Afghanistan before Aug. 31.

Even so, most of those who have left the Rafaelo have gone to Canada. Even some with strong U.S. immigration cases found that Canada was simply quicker than the United States to offer them permanent resettlement, evacuees and their sponsors said.

Nearly 800 Afghans remain. More than two dozen babies have been born in Albania since the group arrived. At least one person has died. And at least two families gave up and returned to Afghanistan, on-site coordinators for the groups said.

Soon, tourist season will give way to another quiet Shëngjin winter, and the evacuees wonder how many of them will still be there to see it.

On Aug. 15 — the anniversary of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban — officials from the Departments of State and Homeland Security held a conference call with the organizations still sponsoring Afghans at the hotel.

“We told them we’ve decided to expand eligibility for consideration for entry into the United States,” said Elizabeth Jones, the State Department’s coordinator for Afghan relocation efforts. The cutoff was no longer Aug. 31.A team of officials would arrive in Albania in September to begin processing the remaining Afghans.

The administration hopes that most will be in the United States by June 2023.

Writing by Abigail Hauslohner. Ted Muldoon, Anja Troelenberg and Ilir Tsouko contributed to this report. Photos by Ilir Tsouko. Videos by Ilir Tsouko and Apostolis Giotopolous. Design and development by Beth Broadwater.

Editing by Efrain Hernandez Jr. Photo editing by Natalia Jimenez. Video editing by Jayne Orenstein. Copy editing by Dorine Bethea. Additional editing by Madison Walls and Courtney Kan.

The wrong plane out of Afghanistan