Immigrant families from East County stuck in Afghanistan

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UPDATE: District officials announced one of the six families made it back to San Diego County safely Wednesday evening.

EL CAJON, Calif. (AP) — At least six families from a San Diego suburb with a large refugee population are among those stuck in Afghanistan after going back to the country over summer break to visit grandparents and other relatives.

The families, from El Cajon, were asking for the U.S. government’s help after being unable to board their flights back to California. They have been blocked by the throngs of Afghans at the Kabul airport desperately trying to escape following their government’s rapid collapse and the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The Cajon Valley Union School District became aware of the problem after one of the family’s relatives reached out to say their child would be late starting the school year, which began Aug. 17.

The district said it had identified 24 students from various schools and 16 parents who are with them. The children range from preschoolers to high school students.

Some have witnessed shootings and other violence in and around the Kabul airport in recent days, said Fraidoon Hassemi, an Afghan who works as the district’s community liaison and has been talking to the families

“Nobody is doing well,” he said. “They are trying their best to get to the airport, get to their gates and get on an airplane. The situation is very horrible.”

The families had each traveled on their own on different dates and were not part of an organized trip.

They now find themselves plunged into a harrowing experience, Hassemi said.

Many of the families arrived in Afghanistan in early May and June, months before the crisis unfolded and the country’s president fled as the Taliban seized power.

“What happened in Afghanistan was unexpected for everybody,” Hassemi said. “Everyone was shocked that in one week, everything changed.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that as many as 1,500 Americans may be awaiting evacuation from Afghanistan. It was unclear if that included all the El Cajon families. Some are U.S. citizens; others have U.S. residency.

Despite travel warnings from the U.S. government, many felt an urgency to go to the country after not being able to see their extended families because of travel bans from the coronavirus pandemic, Hassemi said.

Most of the El Cajon families came to the United States on a special immigrant visa after having worked for the U.S. government or U.S. military in Afghanistan, officials said. The visa allows in only the person and their spouse and children.

Hassemi, who came to the United States on a special visa in 2015 and is now a U.S. citizen, said he normally would have also gone back to Afghanistan for summer vacation so his four children could visit their grandma.

But they didn’t go this year because his son’s passport had expired during the pandemic. He feels fortunate now for having been inconvenienced.

Superintendent David Miyashiro said the families are particularly scared because of the upcoming Aug. 31 deadline for the United States to end its withdrawal.

“Just like you and I, they had used the summer to go back to see their relatives,” Superintendent David Miyashiro said. “No one felt that were going to be unsafe or unable to return.”

Miyashiro said he could not provide more details since the children and their parents could be in danger.

The district is working with Republican Rep. Darrell Issa’s office to try to help get them out safely. His office said they were working with the State Department and the Pentagon on confirming visas, passports and other paperwork of those trapped in Afghanistan.

“Congressman Issa and staff are aware of several American citizens who reside in our district and are as of this hour trapped in Afghanistan,” Jonathan Wilcox of Issa’s office said in an email. “We have also been in direct and consistent contact with them, they are scared and stranded, and they’ve been unable to reach the airport.”

Hassemi said the students will likely need a lot of support when they return.

“I’m sure they are going to be affected emotionally,” he said, adding: “Their teachers miss them. We all miss them. We hope to see them all back to school.”

Cajon Valley school board president Tamara Otero said it’s been stressful too for those waiting for their return.

“It’s killing us right now,” Otero told the newspaper. “We are so worried about our students that are stuck there. We’ll do the best we can to get them out.”

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