‘Forever traumatized:’ Summit locals with ties to Afghanistan react to mounting humanitarian crisis

Summit County resident Shannon Galpin, an artist and activist, rides her bike in Afghanistan. Galpin helped to establish the first Afghan women’s cycling team. Now, she’s trying to help those same athletes evacuate the country.
Photo from Shannon Galpin

On Monday, Aug. 30, America ended its longest war.

The United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, loading the final troops stationed in Kabul into aircraft to transport them home and officially bringing an end to 20 years of American military involvement in the country.

But the citizens of Afghanistan face an uncertain future. Again confronted with Taliban rule, and the growing threat of the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate, many have tried to flee. Over recent weeks, a combined effort by the United States, United Kingdom and other allies have led to the evacuation of more than 100,000 Afghan citizens.

Some Summit County residents have stepped up to help, as well.

Local artist and activist Shannon Galpin has spent more than two years in Afghanistan over dozens of visits since her first trip in 2008. Among the other work she’s done in the country, she helped to establish the first Afghan women’s cycling team and has continued to support the effort ever since, serving as an adviser to the Afghan Cycling Federation and advocating to help the program grow.

Today, she’s in the United Kingdom working as part of a “digital constellation” of other activists, filmmakers, lawyers and veterans trying to evacuate as many at-risk Afghans as possible. On her list are more than 400 individuals, including athletes, human-rights activists and other Taliban dissidents. Many are members of the women’s cycling team.

“I’m in direct contact with many of them,” Galpin said. “I’m getting recorded messages, text messages and emails through every conceivable app begging, pleading, crying for help. Many of these athletes are in hiding. They’re burning their cycling gear; they’re burning their diplomas. They’re burning the records of their lives, as are the schools, so that there are no formal records if the Taliban come to seize them and search for students.

“The most heartbreaking thing, besides not being able to get these Afghans out to safety, is they’re burning their futures away. … These young people have created lives. They’re athletes. They’re journalists. They’re in med school. They have dreams, just like we do and just like everyone does, and they’re having to erase their identities so they don’t get killed.”

The work that Galpin and the Afghan women have put into the program over the past decade is now lost. But Galpin said she hasn’t yet had time to grieve. That time will come — as Afghan natives and those with ties to the country pore over the destruction of whatever societal and cultural progress has been made over the past 20 years following the Taliban’s fall from power — but for now, saving human lives is the only priority.

Summit County resident Richard Remias poses for a photo on the street in front of his office compound in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Photo from Richard Remias

The same could be said for Richard Remias, a lawyer and longtime Summit County resident. He spent a year in Afghanistan in 2006 working as a policy adviser to the Afghan government. During his time in the country, he worked with many translators, including one who Remias said earned his and his colleagues’ trust during a May 2006 riot in Kabul, sticking around to assist the foreigners as their compound was assaulted.

Remias said the translator was especially visible in his association with Americans, something that has now become particularly dangerous.

“He was visible, you could say, and that’s something that a lot of people that worked with us didn’t want, because if you’re working with foreigners, especially Americans, you’re deemed to be one of them,” Remias said. “… We hear about translators and translation, and why you hear about that now is (the Taliban) see that as treachery. That’s the key to get into their society is the language and the culture. … The Taliban don’t forget. It could be 15 or 20 years, but they don’t forget. That’s what they’re about.”

About two weeks ago, Remias received a message from his former translator, and since then, he’s been pulling whatever strings he can to help the man get out of the country. He signed off on the translator’s special immigrant visa as his former supervisor and reached out to Rep. Joe Neguse and Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper for assistance.

Remias said when they last spoke, he and the translator discussed a possible trip to the airport or trying to escape by land to Uzbekistan or another neighboring country. But all options carry heavy risks.

“A lot of people apparently see that as a one-way trip,” Remias said. “There are stories about how if you go to the airport, you might not get there. If you do get there and you get turned away, now you’ve got to go back through the Taliban who are going to be like, ‘Who are you, and why are you trying to leave? Did you do something against us?’ …

“If I were in his situation, I would be so scared. He has a wife and two kids. If he doesn’t leave, I don’t know what things are going to look like for him going forward. … They’re already starting to patrol neighborhoods, as far as he tells me, doing what they used to do: driving around in their trucks, interrogating people, going into people’s houses.”

On Monday, Remias said it had been a week since the translator’s last message. He called his former colleague’s silence unsettling, but he hopes it means he’s made his move and that he and his family have arrived in a safer place, perhaps without an internet connection.

Looking back, Remias said the current situation in Afghanistan represents a massive, but unsurprising, failure on behalf of American officials to bring any meaningful change to the country politically.

“When I left, I left being cynical,” Remias said.

“I didn’t go a second year, not only because of the danger but I just thought, ‘This is not working, and it’s not going to work.'” Remias said. “… I’ve worked in foreign countries and with foreign governments for a long time. Sometimes, you’d see the fruit of that if you had the best intentions to try and change things. But you have to understand, I guess, where you’re at. You have to understand you can’t import things like democracy. That was clear when I was there 15 years ago, and I think since then, it’s just been like a house of cards; it could tumble so easily. I’m surprised it lasted this long.”

As one of her projects in Afghanistan, Shannon Galpin facilitated a pop-up photography exhibit, pictured here, at Ahmad Shad Massoud's Tomb in the Panjshir Valley.
Photo by Tony Di Zinno via Shannon Galpin

Galpin got to see progress in the country firsthand through her work, and even since the Taliban’s resurgence earlier this month, there have been small victories: At least 12 cyclists escaped on charter flights to various countries and buses full of 189 at-risk people on her list made it through to the Kabul airport following the bombings Aug. 26. But generally, she feels the Afghan people have been abandoned to face Taliban rule on their own.

“This is a generation that will be forever traumatized,” Galpin said. “This is a country that has had four decades of war and has never fully had peace. … It’s really hard when I see how Americans who do not know Afghanistan see Afghanistan because it’s lensed through the broader news media. We’re covering politics and the military and things like that. We are forgetting that these are our allies. … Afghans were our allies, and we poured billions of dollars into the country to support it. And we’re abandoning it. … We have a moral obligation to evacuate as many Afghans as we can.”

Both Galpin and Remias said they wanted to share their stories, and the stories of those still at risk in the country, in order to make sure Summit County community members understand what’s really at stake — not the abstract politics of a country half a world away or a homogeneous group of foreigners with unrecognizable ideals, but the lives of a diverse people who share the same hopes, dreams and ambitions as us.

And while the tragedy continues to unfold in Afghanistan, and countries around the world brace for a new refugee crisis, Galpin called on Summit County and Colorado residents at large to do what they can to support the effort.

“In Colorado, Gov. (Jared) Polis and Sen. Bennet have already publicly declared Colorado should be taking refugees,” Galpin said. “We need to continue to give them the political will to follow that through because they see that the citizens of Colorado support that. We need to be loud, and we need to be relentless, and we need to make sure that all the other states are doing the same thing so that the White House has the political will … to take refugees. …

“Afghanistan deserves to be more than a footnote in America’s military story. Afghanistan deserves to be a country that we can continually support because we are culturally invested in this country. Abandoning it is not an option.”

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