On eve of withdrawal deadline, Roots of Peace CEO remains faithful
August 30, 2021
After unsuccessfully working at a safe distance to get the most vulnerable of her nearly 400 employees out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31, Roots of Peace CEO Heidi Kuhn still has 24 hope-filled hours left.
“Right now I’m coming home empty handed,” Kuhn told Catholic San Francisco in a late night phone call from Istanbul where she traveled eight days ago with her husband Gary to direct their evacuation. “In four minutes, it will be the last day of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the longest war. I have exactly 24 hours to evacuate these good people.”
Kuhn, a Catholic mother of four from San Rafael, is the founder of Roots of Peace, a Marin County organization that since 1997, has helped convert fields of war in Afghanistan and other regions of conflict into productive farmland with thriving exports.
On Aug. 15, the Taliban took over the organization’s Kabul compound when it became the ruling force in Afghanistan. Kuhn has worked since then to find safe passage for 76 of the most vulnerable of her Afghan employees by the withdrawal deadline. She is most concerned about the women, who throughout the country have been warned by the Taliban to stay indoors because its soldiers “have not been trained to respect women.”
Kuhn appealed to U.S. President Joe Biden last week for help in prioritizing her staff and their families in the evacuation of Americans and Afghans who have worked for or with the U.S.
Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, assigned her chief of staff to personally work with Kuhn on a daily and sometimes hourly basis to assure that “our dangerous attempts to get through the South Gate of the Hamid Karzai International Airport were not in vain.”
Nonetheless, Kuhn described a nightmarish weekend that had started out a few days earlier with great hope. After completing all the required paperwork and protocols for those on board, the bus arrived at the airport on Aug. 27 as planned. It was left stranded at the gates for over 10 hours.
It returned the next day, Aug. 28, at a new time, and again the refugees were left waiting in the hot and crowded bus for hours without bathroom access or water.
All on board were required to hand over their personal credentials to the Taliban at the airport, Kuhn said, and it remains in its hands.
Kuhn was particularly pained by reports from the parents of one-year-old Sedra Zia, a little girl born in Sacramento. She, her Afghan parents and little brother were together in the bus when a U.S. official informed the family that only the little girl — the American — could go with a Taliban escort to the gates.
The father refused to separate the family. The bus left the airport again when it was warned of an imminent ISIS-K terrorist threat, said Kuhn.
“I’m bewildered that as the CEO of one of the most successful, long running NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in Afghanistan, I could come back home tomorrow without a single person,” she said.
She is “praying for a miracle” and counting on America’s “better angels” to find another way to get her employees and others out by the end of Tuesday if they can’t safely or logistically do it at the airport.
“If water doesn’t go over a rock, it can go around the rock,” she said.
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone issued an Aug. 25 statement on the Kabul-based employees of Roots of Peace rootsofpeace.org and high school students from San Diego County trapped in Afghanistan. Read his statement here.