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The Heroes Left Behind

One year ago today, on August 15, 2021, Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul was captured by the Taliban as American military forces withdrew from the country. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was toppled by nightfall, marking a bitter end of a twenty-year "golden age" of modernization within the country, a period that saw the Afghan people benefit from rising incomes, decreased poverty, better educational and health care infrastructure and, crucially, a marked advance in women's rights.

Within days of the collapse, fundamentalist Taliban leaders had proclaimed the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and immediately set to work erasing the advances of the previous two decades.

Among those most affected by the collapse of the country's capital, and the seemingly endless violence and turmoil that has followed, are a group of veterinarians and their families who'd worked at the Kabul Small Animal Rescue (KSAR) shelter, and who've risked their lives to ensure that the animals in their care survived the upheaval.

The plight of the animals of Kabul became a world story during the withdrawal of western forces last August, with thousands of animal welfare advocates watching round-the-clock on social media as rescue organizations on the ground fought to evacuate animals before the Taliban takeover.

Many of the dogs and cats in shelters in Kabul were strays, or abandoned pets, or compassion cases, maimed or disfigured by conflict or simple cruelty. Some of the animals had owners, whether Afghan families who'd managed to flee the country, or American or western civilians, contractors, or military personnel who'd adopted them while working in Kabul, and who now couldn't bring them home.

After months of negotiation, false starts, and danger, the world watched as nearly three hundred dogs and cats were airlifted out of Kabul to a temporary shelter facility in Vancouver in February. There, I had the privilege of working with hundreds of volunteers and dedicated staff members to care for the animals while local rescues found foster care and forever homes for nearly all of them. It was a life-changing experience for so many of us, and the rescue mission of a lifetime.

As my group cared for those 285 dogs and cats in Vancouver, however, the former staff of the Kabul animal shelter were awaiting rescue themselves. Many of them still are, and their situation is dire.

Many of the former shelter staff are women, including Dr. Tahera Rezaei, who graduated from the Kabul University's Faculty of Veterinary Science in 2011 and became the first female veterinarian to open her own clinic registered by the country's Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry.

Dr. Rezaei trained many more female veterinarians and veterinary assistants at her clinic in Kabul. With the resurgence of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, none of them are permitted to continue to work. Women in the country have seen their personal freedoms almost completely erased; they're banned from secondary or higher education, restricted from traveling without a male relative, ordered to wear face coverings in public, and forbidden from working.

Almost literally overnight, these animal rescue heroes lost nearly all of their personal agency, including the ability to support their families.

Dr. Rezaei and her husband were able to evacuate from Afghanistan. Much of her family, and nearly all of her colleagues, were not. Some of the former shelter staff chose not to board the evacuation planes last August, while others were coerced, threatened, or forced to stay, and they did, at tremendous risk to themselves and their families.

The situation has only continued to deteriorate, even as the animals of the Kabul shelter have been airlifted to Canada and found homes, and loving families. In addition to the restrictions placed on women by the Taliban, many of the staff are Hazara, an ethnic minority long subject to violence and persecution by groups like the Taliban, and are now risking torture, disfigurement and death by simply remaining in country.

Still other members of the shelter's former staff have been targeted for working with American or coalition forces before the withdrawal, or for having family who did, while others have been targeted for reasons only the Taliban knows.

Earlier this month, a veterinarian and beloved former member of the Kabul shelter staff was stabbed to death outside of his clinic as he awaited evacuation to somewhere safer. His former KSAR colleagues are demoralized, and terrified for their own lives; many have given up hope that they will ever escape.

I traveled to New York in July on rescue-related business, and while there I had the honour of meeting with Dr. Rezaei, and with Meredith Festa, the founder of a Long Island, New York-based animal rescue and rehabilitation centre called Paws Unite People (PUPs).

Festa's organization has singlehandedly taken responsibility for the wellbeing of a large group of former Kabul Small Animal Rescue staff members and their families. All told, PUPs is currently caring for 169 women, children, and men, nearly half in Afghanistan and half in temporary housing in a neighbouring country, where they await refugee visa processing by the United States government.

The cost of this care amounts to thousands of dollars every month, and PUPs has exhausted its fundraising avenues. Festa is courting personal bankruptcy to keep these families safe, and has staked her house, her rescue shelter, and her own mental wellbeing on the survival of the former Kabul shelter staff. She's doing it because if she doesn't fight for these people, nobody else will.

After meeting with Meredith and Dr. Rezaei, I returned to Vancouver hoping that the staff and volunteers at the temporary Vancouver shelter would sense the urgency, and want to help. We'd fallen in love with the animals of Kabul, after all, and in my mind, we owe a debt to the folks who stuck it out to keep those dogs and cats alive.

The response from our group was immediate, and incredibly encouraging.

Our "Mission Possible" shelter team has worked tirelessly to organize ways to help, launching an online fundraiser, soliciting donations, and calling in favours from friends and contacts in media, rescue, and humanitarian lines of work.

If you're in Vancouver, we're holding an in-person fundraiser--with an incredibly well-stocked silent auction--at the Irish Heather on October 14th. Tickets will be available soon.

But it's not enough.

Part of my role has been trying to pitch the story of the former shelter staff and their families to media, both in Vancouver, across Canada, and, crucially, in the United States. Right now, the story seems to exist in a bit of an echo chamber, with a small and dedicated group of individuals pouring everything they have into trying to save 169 lives, but our contributions are really only a drop in the bucket compared to the expenses PUPs is incurring trying to keep these families alive.

Even those in temporary housing outside of Afghanistan aren't out of the woods; if PUPs is unable to cover rent, those families will be deported back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban has promised swift reprisals, including torture and death.

I believe this is a story that needs a wider audience. And I believe that folks are ready to listen. The modern news cycle is brutal; Afghanistan seems to have disappeared from cultural relevance, erased from public view by the war in Ukraine, by the continuing American political circus, by whatever else happens to catch the media's eye.

It's unfortunate, but it seems that even animals in need have an easier time attracting public attention than the brave women and men who put their lives at risk to save them, and who are now in desperate need of help themselves.

But the situation in Afghanistan is just as grim as it was when the country was front-page news. And this small group of us who care about these 169 men, women and children in peril aren't going to be able to singlehandedly save their lives--or the lives of the countless others in distress who reach out to us every day, desperate for assistance.

Paws Unite People have shouted themselves hoarse for nearly a full year trying to advocate for their cause. Those of us who knew and loved the dogs and cats at the "Mission Possible" shelter are adding our voices to the chorus. But damn it, we need someone to listen.

I'll keep sending out pitches and press releases. We'll keep badgering our friends on social media. We won't shut up about it, and hopefully someone, somewhere will see the merit in a story about a group of incredible and tenacious women and men who put their lives and the lives of their children at stake to rescue and reunite animals belonging to American military personnel, and who still live lives of terror and desperation, one year after the American flag disappeared from their homeland.

Please consider donating to Paws Unite People to assist in their efforts to help former Kabul shelter staff. PUPs is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization headquartered in East Patchogue, New York, whose mission is to support animals and the people who love them when they need it most. PUPs assists shelter, abused, and neglected animals in finding purpose in life through rehabilitation and training; and they help the people who care about animals when they need help, however they can.

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