Dozens of Afghan English Teachers Living in Fear as They Hide From Taliban: 'We Will Die'

Dozens of English teachers and their families in Afghanistan fear for their safety and hope to evacuate the country, but remain stranded without resources and adequate support to escape in the wake of the Taliban's swift takeover last month.

The Taliban regained near total control of Afghanistan in mid-August, resulting in a dramatic evacuation led by the U.S. military of over 122,000 Americans, green card holders, U.S. allies and Afghans who worked with America and its allies during the two decades-long Afghanistan War. But many Afghans, and some Americans, were unable to evacuate before the full withdrawal of U.S. forces.

In the case of the Afghan English teachers—who are in direct communication with several U.S. academics who spoke to Newsweek—some were attempting to complete the Priority 2 (P-2) designation visa under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program through the State Department prior to the troop withdrawal. However, with the U.S. completely out of the country, they are stuck without resources to finish the process or leave Afghanistan.

"These teachers were the public faces of their language centers and are now being harassed and threatened, or at minimum fired and told they no longer have a way to earn their living. Several have received death threats—a few on official Taliban letterhead," Laura Holland, a senior Instructor at the American English Institute at the University of Oregon, told Newsweek.

Taliban commander
One of the military commanders of the Taliban, Mullah Sanaullah Sangin Fatih, speaks during an interview with AFP along a road in Malaspa area, Bazark district, Panjshir Province, on September 15, days after the hardline Islamist group announced the capture of the last province resisting to their rule. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Holland first connected with many of the Afghan English teachers through a program during the summer in which she met and taught them English as a second language (ESL) teaching methods through virtual lessons. She and other academics in the U.S. remain in contact with the group of more than 50 Afghans through a secure channel, where the teachers express their daily fears and concerns for their uncertain futures.

"The ESL teachers are highly visible targets in their communities with known association and ties to the United States. They are in hiding with many of them having received death threats, and many of their Language Centers trashed and they were told they are not allowed to work anymore," Kara Lawrence, a PhD student at the Department of Public Administration in the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University, told Newsweek.

Lawrence said that she, Holland and others have been working hours each week to find ways to assist the stranded teachers. They've contacted lawmakers, the State Department and other government channels, as well as anyone they could find through social media who has been working to evacuate people from Afghanistan.

"I have been contacting the State Department since late July and never heard back once. I write representatives of Congress and the Senate who are working for this cause weekly but just get back messages that say, 'thank you for your interest,'" Holland explained. "Same thing from the White House."

"We have hit wall after wall, even when we have had individuals saying they would look at their cases," she added.

A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that the U.S. continues to work to assist vulnerable Afghans, but did not specifically address concerns for the English language teachers when reached for comment.

"We continue to identify ways to support U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and Afghans who have worked with us and who may choose to depart.  We have no illusion that any of this will be easy or rapid.  We recognize that there are many Afghan citizens at risk who do not qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa," the spokesperson said. "We will continue to assist Afghans who may be eligible for referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and at-risk Afghans. This effort is of the utmost importance to the U.S. government."

In a letter addressed to the U.S. embassy written by a group of the English teachers, they expressed their serious concerns for their safety, according to a copy reviewed by Newsweek.

"It has been more than a month we are hiding ourselves from one place to another place. Our money has ended. We cannot support our family for more than a single week," they wrote. "Our families are also in danger because of us. If this situation continues for more than a month we will die..."

Lawrence said that one of the teacher's family had been tortured in his home while he was away. His father was also taken by the Taliban and beaten severely before he was returned two days later. Newsweek reviewed a photo of the father's back covered in welts from the beating. Lawrence said the teacher told her that "he sees his death every moment" and "dreams of his death because of the situation he is in."

While the U.S. government maintains that it is attempting to assist vulnerable Afghans, it has struggled to provide support without troops or other resources on the ground in the country. NPR reported on Monday that thousands of Afghans attempting to flee Taliban control remained stranded near Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport, in the north of the country. But the Taliban has reportedly been delaying or blocking planes from taking off.

Many of the English teachers attempted to evacuate from Kabul's international airport before the full withdrawal of the U.S. last month. Holland explained that some of them had spent "weeks and all their money" in a bid to escape through the Afghan capital.

"They were told to go by their directors and await evacuation, but the deadline passed, and they had to go back into hiding," she said. Holland said that some made "terrifying trips back to their cities often with Taliban in their cars accompanying them from checkpoint to checkpoint."

Taliban fighters
Taliban fighters stand guard at the entrance gate of Panjshir Province on September 15, after the hardline Islamist group announced the capture of the last province resisting their control. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Although the Taliban insisted that it aims to build an "inclusive" society and forego the oppressive and violent actions the group is known for internationally, there have already been many concerning reports of torture, revenge killings and repression from within Afghanistan since the group retook power. The Taliban's interim government does not include any women, and women's rights protests have been violently broken up. Journalists have been tortured as well.

"Taliban security forces have broken up most of these recent demonstrations by beating protesters, confiscating and damaging cameras, and threatening reporters," Human Rights Watch reported this month. "On September 7 the Taliban announced that protests, in general, are illegal unless approved ahead of time. Journalists covering some protests have said that Taliban officials have told them that reporting on protests is also now illegal."

For now, the English teachers remain stranded under Taliban rule along with thousands of others hoping to leave Afghanistan. "Everyone is stuck at various points on the vicious circle," Holland said. She pointed out that under the current State Department policy "there's no guarantee that even if they get to a third country they will be approved for a visa."