- Civilian-run groups are still evacuating Americans and visa holders out of Afghanistan.
- One of these groups is Project Dynamo, run by American civilians.
- The group is processing around 30,000 applications from people desperate to flee Afghanistan.
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The moment the wheels of the Kam Air charter plane left the tarmac in Kabul, Afghanistan, people were crying tears of joy.
That flight to the United States, which took place September 28, was carrying more than 100 US citizens, green card holders, and Special Immigration Visa (SIV) holders who remained trapped in Kabul when it fell to the Taliban on August 15.
Also there were two men working for Project Dynamo, an American civilian-run organization that has continued evacuation efforts from Afghanistan even after foreign forces withdrew at the end of August.
“It was just pure emotion,” Bryan Stern, who was on the plane, told Insider. “I was just so relieved and happy with what we had accomplished.”
That was the first private rescue mission from Afghanistan organized by a non-governmental organization, Stern said.
Stern, a former 9/11 responder and US Army veteran from Florida, said he felt “angry” seeing the chaos unfold in Kabul after the Taliban takeover because it reminded him of what happened in New York City 20 years ago.
“I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I saw people jump from the towers and now they were doing the same but from airplanes,” he said, referring to the photos that showed desperate Afghans falling out of planes as they tried to flee Kabul.
It was this anger, paired with a “feeling of helplessness,” that prompted him to set up Project Dynamo with a few friends, he said.
A ‘massive undertaking’
Several weeks later, Stern is still traveling across the world, coordinating efforts to get people out of Kabul, be it by foot, bus, or plane.
But with little help from the US government and funded mostly from donations, Project Dynamo is facing a “massive undertaking,” said Jen Wilson, one of the organization’s volunteers.
“When evacuations first started, it was obviously very frantic … but at least we had options because the State Department and the embassies were all at the airport, processing visas,” Wilson, who is based in the US, told Insider.
“But now, it’s obviously gotten much slower. We’re also hindered because there is no diplomatic presence from any country that we can utilize. So it’s just us.”
How it works
Here’s how the process works, according to Stern:
- Anyone wishing to leave Afghanistan can register on Project Dynamo’s website and upload their passport and visa information for their destination countries.
- Project Dynamo then vets and approves the documents with help from the relevant governments, and notifies them that an evacuation flight is being organized.
- Once there are enough people for a flight, the group sends them to a safe house.
- Everyone is then given a measles shot and a COVID-19 test before boarding the flight.
“A safe house is not as spooky it sounds,” Stern said. “Everything is controlled … you’re not smuggled, you’re not under a carpet. This is all legal.”
“We also have to remember these are not refugees, they’re Americans who are going home.”
Meanwhile, Project Dynamo works with fixers on the ground, arranging buses and provisions for the passengers.
The team also has connections to different private charter companies from around the world, Stern said, adding that Kam Air – the largest private Afghan airline – offered to help with last month’s evacuation.
Stern declined to say how much that flight cost. None of the passengers on board have to pay a ticket fee, he added.
It’s usually the charter companies that work with the Taliban to get clearance to fly, Stern said.
He said the idea that getting out of Afghanistan is an impossible mission was a “huge misconception”: “If you understand the rules and the process and the procedures, and you follow all this, you can get out,” he said.
Wilson, meanwhile, said the Taliban had posed “no problems at all” with Project Dynamo’s passengers because they “don’t want Americans in their country anyway.”
Still, the process is tedious, and things could go awry. Last week’s evacuation flight was delayed for 33 hours after the Department of Homeland Security briefly denied it entry into the US, leaving the evacuees stranded at the Abu Dhabi airport with little food and having to sleep on floors.
“There’s a lot of waiting around, but this is part of the process,” Stern said.
Project Dynamo has received around 30,000 applications to flee
It is unclear exactly how many Americans and visa holders are still in Afghanistan.
In an address to the nation on August 31, the day of the military-withdrawal deadline, President Joe Biden said that around “100 to 200 Americans” who wanted to leave Afghanistan were still there. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a Senate hearing last month that the number of remaining Americans “fluctuates daily.”
A State Department official also told reporters on September 1 that “the majority” of SIV applicants were left behind after the military withdrawal.
Project Dynamo has received around 30,000 applications from Afghans desperate to leave the country since August 15, Stern said.
But the majority of them don’t have the necessary paperwork to do so, and Project Dynamo can’t help them acquire these documents, meaning they can’t leave, Stern said.
Many have already fled through other means, Stern said, adding that Project Dynamo had already helped some families cross the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by foot. He did not give a specific number.
While the work moves slowly, Wilson said it still feels urgent.
“For the Afghans on the ground … they’re running out of food, they’re running out of money,” she said. “They don’t have enough water, the prices of goods and services in countries have skyrocketed. So they are really trapped there. And the winter season is coming.”
But the team has no plans of slowing down any time soon, Wilson said, adding they will do “whatever it takes” to get everyone out.