After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, the lives of the country’s civil society leaders, women’s rights advocates, journalists, and political leaders faced a new level of danger. In response, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its core institutes, the Center for International Private Enterprise, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute, doubled down on efforts to support partners inside the country and coordinated the evacuation of over 1,024 Afghan grantees and their families. [Learn more about NED’s commitment to our Afghan partners.]
In August and September 2022, NED hosted several events welcoming and honoring Afghan partners resettled in the United States and Canada, such as a gathering for families at the zoo in Calgary Canada and workshops on how civil society leaders can continue their work from exile and thrive in their new communities. The events culminated in a reception at Mount Vernon, Virginia, with speakers including Afghan civil society leaders, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), and US State Department Under Secretaries Uzra Zeya and John Bass.
“Tonight we welcome you,” said NED President and CEO Damon Wilson, speaking to Afghan partners at Mount Vernon. NED has supported groups working for democratic progress in Afghanistan since 1984. “You are members of the NED family, and you begin a new chapter with your journey here in the United States. It’s not going to be easy for sure, but we’re eager to watch you flourish, to enrich your new communities, even as we stand by you and our partners who will one day host us in a free Afghanistan.”
Senator Kaine warmly welcomed the Afghans to Virginia and expressed his support for a path to citizenship for partners who want to remain in the US. “Immigration of talented people from every corner of the globe to this Commonwealth in this country has been and continues to be the transfusion into our bloodstream that helps the nation that’s nearly 250 years old to remain youthful and dynamic and vigorous,” said Senator Kaine. “I am completely confident that you’re going to be that transfusion that will give this nation wonderful new energy as we go forward.”
Undersecretary Zeya reiterated the administration’s enduring commitment to Afghan allies. “We deplore the Taliban systematic reversal of progress on advancing the rights of the Afghan people, especially women and girls’ participation in public life and education,” she said. “Yet we are encouraged and buoyed by the many Afghans continuing to press for an accountable, rights-respecting, and representative government. The aspirations of the Afghan people for free and inclusive governance cannot be extinguished.”
Several Afghan partners shared their experiences since leaving Afghanistan and their plans to continue their work. “Before even the Taliban announced their government, they painted over all the murals [ArtLords painted in Afghanistan],” said Omaid Sharifi, president and co-founder of ArtLords. “And I thought, they want to erase all the symbols of progress that we had in the last 20 years. Because these murals represented the new Afghanistan, aspirations and dreams of the new generation.” (Read how Afghanistan ArtLords use street art for change.)
Since leaving Afghanistan, Sharifi and ArtLords have continued painting symbolic works to express solidarity and promote healing. In December 2021, ArtLords painted a mural in Tirana, Albania, thanking Albanian citizens for their hospitality to evacuated Afghans. During the adaptation events, ArtLords hosted a live painting session for the Afghan partners, their families, NED staff, and other guests. The paintings were displayed at the evening reception at Mount Vernon alongside additional art pieces that were rescued from Afghanistan.
Elyas Nawandish, online chief editor of Afghan media organization Etilaat Roz, also said he is constantly encouraging his journalist colleagues who remain in Afghanistan not to give up. “Yes, we lost, the state has collapsed, but the media is still existing, and we are resisting the Taliban,” he said, emphasizing that today there are many trained journalists ready to tell the story of the Afghan people, unlike when the Taliban first took power in 1991. “I was telling my colleagues that we can do this. Let’s try our best.”
Throughout the events, Afghan civil society leaders expressed mixed feelings of sadness and hope about leaving Afghanistan and transitioning to live in new countries. “How ironic is this, that I consider myself so lucky that among thousands of Afghans, I got the chance to flee from where I once called home,” said Rokhsar Wardak, deputy director of the Human Rights and Eradication of Violence Organization (HREVO). “This is not a sob story, but the story of lingering hope, a story of rebuilding and a fresh start. As a Pashtu saying goes: After every darkness, there will be a light. I have made a promise to myself to stand tall again, start over my career, and rebuild myself.”
NED Board Chairman Kenneth Wollack underscored that NED will continue to support Afghan partners both inside and outside the country. “The Endowment and its family, NDI, IRI, Solidarity Center, and CIPE have been proud to have supported your courageous efforts over the past three decades,” he said. “I hope you can take some comfort in our continued partnership and in the knowledge that the NED family remains committed despite very serious obstacles to the democratic cause in Afghanistan.”