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Meeting Urgent Afghan Refugee Needs In ‘Heartbreaking Situation’

Hanna Barczyk
The U.N. Refugee Agency plays a key role in assisting refugees around the world.

Washington University Professor Liberty Vittert receives at least 50 emails a day from Afghans seeking help, desperate messages that often go something like this: “You might remember me from a conference a few years ago. I’m afraid for my life and my family. Can you help?”

Afghanistan. Displaced Afghans relocated as Taliban advance on Kabul
Yama Noori
Afghans displaced by the advance of the Taliban on Kabul are moved out of the city’s Shahr-e Naw park where they had been staying in this photo taken August 13, 2021.

Vittert said she feels crushed. She serves on the board of U.S.A. for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the North American arm of the UN Refugee Agency, which is focused on helping Afghans as the crisis in that country worsens. But despite her role, she cannot do much beyond forward the email to someone at the United Nations who might be able to take action.

“It is a heartbreaking situation, to think that people are having to reach out to random people that they might have met five years ago, begging for protection,” she said. “And really the best thing that I can do is ask people, ask Americans to help in whatever way that they can.”

Vittert said the UNHCR has raised approximately half of the $400 million budgeted to help Afghan refugees around the world. The money pays for everything from shelter to hygiene kits, blankets, sleeping mats and emergency shelter kits.

Media attention has focused on former translators and other Afghans approved to come to the U.S. on Special Immigrant Visas, Vittert explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. She highlighted the much bigger number of refugees without such connections.

“The crisis is just so much bigger than we even can imagine,” she said, “because you have hundreds of thousands, and what will very likely be millions, of people who are in fear for their life from from the Taliban, but do not have a way to get one of those coveted seats on a plane to America and are going to have to go through the entire asylum-seeking process.”

Liberty Vittert joins St. Louis on the Air

The UNHCR’s $8 billion budget is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, with 85% coming from governments, including the European Union. Eleven percent comes from the private sector, including foundations, corporations and the public.

Those interested in contributing to the agency’s relief efforts can make a donation here.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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