Five years ago, Wyoming cowboys and Afghan horsemen met on a pitch in Kyrgyzstan to toss a goat carcass into a goal.
Buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan, was being played in one of the first ever World Nomad Games, and Jackson resident Candra Day, who helped organize the match as a cultural exchange, stood among the spectators. Afterward, she left the gift of a cowboy hat and her business card with the head of the Afghan team, Mr. T, who kept both.
Editor’s note: The News&Guide is not using the family’s full name due to risks to their safety.
Then last fall, days after Kabul fell to the Taliban, Mr. T emailed Day asking for help escaping the country. Day runs a nonprofit called Vista 360 but had no experience working directly with refugees.
“I have no idea how to help you,” she responded.
“I understand, but you’re the only person that I know,” he replied.
Since that correspondence, Day has worked tirelessly to raise funds and link to resources to get Mr. T and his family out of the country and toward resettlement in Wyoming. Her efforts show how private citizens and informal groups globally are working to rescue Afghans — one or two families at a time — while states like Wyoming show little interest in aiding their mission.
Tens of thousands of Afghans and U.S. citizens living in Afghanistan made it out in an August evacuation as the longest war in U.S. history came to an end. During that evacuation mission as the country fell to the Taliban, Jackson native and Marine Rylee McCollum was among 13 American service members and more than a hundred Afghans killed in a suicide bombing near Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26.
Mr. T’s family, meanwhile, was among the many Afghans unable to flee to safety. He had no ties to the U.S. government and no visa to make it out of Afghanistan.
When the Taliban took over, his family, including his wife, six children and two of their spouses, feared for their lives.
Mr. T’s wife Rahima was a surgeon and assistant professor at a teaching hospital where she practiced for 35 years. Three of her children or their spouses are doctors, including two women. Another three are in medical school, including two women. Those roles and the family’s previously outspoken opposition to the Taliban made them potential targets. So they reached out to the only American connection they could think of, Day.
They also connected with Jason Motlagh, a freelance journalist working in the region who has known Mr. T since he started writing about Afghan buzkashi five years ago. Motlagh described the patriarch as “a pillar of the sport” and said Mr. T’s family is one of dozens he has helped counsel and resettle in cities around the U.S.
“It’s a massive effort, with many good people involved,” he said via text.
No resettlement program in Wyo.
Unlike almost every other state, Wyoming has no refugee resettlement program. Neighboring states have used federal support to welcome hundreds of Afghan refugees.
Gov. Mark Gordon’s office in August told the Cowboy State Daily “the governor has no interest in accepting refugees.” Some legislators pushed for the opposite.
“We should set up a refugee resettlement plan for Wyoming,” Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, said in a tweet the same month. There are no related bills on the floor this session.
“Having a state resettlement program would be helpful, because it’s the way that federal resources are channeled,” Jerry Fowler, University of Wyoming Assistant Law Professor and director of the law school’s International Human Rights Clinic, told the News&Guide this week.
The program isn’t a blanket fix, he said, because Afghan evacuees fall into different legal categories and not all qualify as refugees. In the absence of a formalized, federally-backed system, he said, “ad hoc groups” have sprung up to help.
These are individuals and organizations responding to an urgent humanitarian crisis, sometimes working with veterans who served in Afghanistan, to meet a heightened need that the U.S. government can’t reach through its existing programs.
In the Cowboy State, the Episcopal community in Casper made national headlines for its efforts to sponsor an Afghan family. Unlike efforts in Jackson, the community in Casper is supported by Episcopal Migration Ministries, one of nine agencies that are part of the federal refugee resettlement program. Their effort appears to still be underway. Last Fowler heard, they were trying to route resettlement to Laramie.
“You look at the effort of the Episcopalians and it shows that there are a lot of people in different parts of the state who really care about this,” Fowler said.
Day said the lack of comprehensive support systems, especially in Wyoming, forces the rescue effort on “people like me who know nothing.”
Struggle to get them out
Through her cultural exchange circle, Day raised $17,500 for Iranian visas to get the family out of Afghanistan — a harrowing process full of setbacks and close calls. The Jackson Hole Quaker community pitched in immediately and generously, said Sandy Shuptrine, who helped organize the response.
The family’s Iranian visas are expiring at the end of February, after which it will become far more difficult to book a flight.
“We are all enormously relieved because now they are all safe,” Day said. “But this is just the beginning of the journey for this family.”
With the help of an immigration lawyer in Boston, Mahsa Khanbabai, Day’s team began the process of filing for Humanitarian Parole (a temporary status that allows Afghan citizens to enter the U.S. and apply for asylum or other visas.)
They paid an additional $5,500 from funds raised from the Vista 360 network, covering a $550 per person filing fee for each of the 10 family members. Those applications are now submitted, Day said.
“What I’ve learned in the last five months is there’s people all over the world who are doing just what I’m doing with just as much ignorance,” Day said. “They’re saving one or two families.”
What’s still needed
Despite the assistance from Jackson, Mr. T’s family remains in a perilous position. Vista 360 is asking Jackson Hole to “adopt them” by offering financial assistance through the organization’s newly-created Afghan Friendship Fund. Expertise in refugee resettlement is also welcomed.
“Jackson Hole is a connected place,” Day said. “We need that research, those contacts and connections.”
Those looking to get involved can email Day at firstname.lastname@example.org.