• The San Juan Daily Star

Online appeal quickly raises millions for Afghan rescue flights

By Michael Levenson

An online appeal for donations to organize flights to rescue vulnerable Afghans from the Taliban and resettle them in the United States has quickly found a large audience of Americans eager to help.

In one day, more than 100,000 people donated more than $5.8 million to the effort in Afghanistan, exceeding its initial goal of raising $4.4 million.

The question, according to some outside specialists, is whether the group behind the effort has the experience and organizational capability — let alone permission from the U.S. government — to rescue and resettle hundreds of desperate Afghans.

The GoFundMe campaign was organized by Tommy Marcus, who runs Quentin Quarantino, an Instagram account known for promoting left-wing memes and political causes, with nearly 770,000 followers. Others involved include military veterans, a former Republican operative and the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Marcus says in his appeal that he has been working with humanitarian aid groups, veterans and activists on the ground in Kabul, “fighting to save people who otherwise have no chance at survival in the Taliban-occupied Kabul.”

The mission, he said, is focused on men and women who have worked as human rights lawyers, champions of women’s and LGBTQ rights, journalists, government liaisons, artists and interpreters, “all of whom are at imminent risk of being executed by the Taliban, along with their families.”

“Get these people to safety!” a woman who gave $20 to the mission wrote on the GoFundMe page. A person who donated $25 wrote, “I wish I could give more — my heart is breaking for the Afghan people.”

The money, according to the campaign, will be paid to and distributed by Raven Advisory, a company based in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which says on it website that it has experience working in Afghanistan and provides training, risk management, security, consulting and other services.

The company’s CEO, Sheffield Ford, and chief operating officer, David Heldt, served in the Special Forces. The senior executive vice president, Philip Raveling, was in the CIA, according to the company website. The company had no immediate response to questions about the campaign. A Raven executive referred them to a spokesperson, who said he was still working on a statement.

All the Afghans who board the flights will have identification and access to the airport and be vetted and sponsored, according to the organizers.

“Everyone volunteering on this project is doing so for free,” the organizers wrote. “Every dollar goes back to these Afghan refugees. We are not taking a penny.”

The mission, however, has prompted concern from some refugee specialists. Karen Jacobsen, a professor of global migration at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said the effort “sounds crazy.”

“There are several large problems that immediately occur to me, but the most obvious one is that all these rescued people will immediately bump up against the U.S. immigration system” and may not be allowed to even enter the country, she said.

Eskinder Negash, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said the mission would have to be planned with the State, Defense and Homeland Security departments to ensure that the Afghans have clearance to enter the U.S., have medical screenings and have sponsors.

“It has to be organized and structured, and it has to be coordinated. Otherwise, it’s going to be a problem for the people who come in,” Negash said. “They may not be eligible to become special immigrant visa holders.”

He added, “It’s well intentioned. It’s wonderful. But as you know, sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

The State Department had no immediate comment. Marcus did not respond to messages on Instagram or at a phone number and email address associated with his name.

Phil Caruso, a board member at No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that supports Afghan war allies, said the GoFundMe group is one of many that have contacted his organization for assistance regarding trying to organize rescue flights.

The group, he said, wanted to know if No One Left Behind had flights that it could fund.

All the rescue missions, he said, are facing a thicket of logistical and legal challenges. The most immediate, he said, is ensuring that Afghans can clear Taliban and U.S. checkpoints along the way to Kabul’s international airport and get through the crowds of people outside.

Those boarding the flights must also have visas or be eligible for visas, and the private flights need permission from the State and Defense departments to land at one of several designated military bases, he said.

“We’re still trying to work through these logistics now, but there’s not a clear answer yet,” he said.

Caruso, a veteran who served twice in Afghanistan, said the U.S. has a “moral obligation” to help Afghans fleeing the Taliban.

“Like most veterans, I spent a lot of time working with Afghans, and I feel a kinship with the people,” he said. “Putting politics aside, we just want to help as many people as we can.”

GoFundMe said in a statement that the company had “fully vetted” the appeal, as it does with all fundraisers related to Afghanistan, to ensure that it complies with the law and global financial regulations. The company said it had been in contact with the organizers of all these fundraisers, including Marcus, “to ensure the aid is sent safely and securely to those in need.”

Becca Heller, executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said the GoFundMe is one of many similar efforts that philanthropists and private foundations are trying to organize to rescue people from Afghanistan.

“I see something like this, and I’m like, ‘Great. I hope it works,’” Heller said. “We’re talking every day to people on the ground who are so desperate to get out, and the pace of the U.S. government is not fast enough.”

Heller said the strong response to the GoFundMe effort should also send a message to the Biden administration about the depth of public support for refugee programs. “The outpouring of support from everyday Americans is a signal that there are activated people invested in things like this happening, and they’re paying attention,” she said.

According to the organizers, any money raised that is not spent on rescue flights will be donated to the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Charlotte Fox, a spokesperson for the foundation, said the group was working on the mission with other organizations, including the Journalists in Distress Network, which has experience extracting people and resettling them under difficult circumstances.

“We are working to get out as many people as we can, and it truly isn’t a single effort,” Fox said. “These people will need continual help.”

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