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More than 44,000 Afghans tried for a fast track to the U.S. About 200 have gotten it

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan last year, American officials made assurances that at-risk Afghans would still be able to get out. In the following months, tens of thousands of Afghans made a kind of emergency application to come to the U.S., but almost none have been approved. And that is drawing comparisons to the very different treatment of Ukrainian refugees in Europe, as Laura Benshoff of member station WHYY reports.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Alaha Abdul Faruq is a full-time graduate student living in northeast Philadelphia. And while she hasn't lived in Afghanistan since she was a baby, Abdul Faruq is proud of where she's from.

ALAHA ABDUL FARUQ: Can I show you guys one thing?

BENSHOFF: Yeah.

ABDUL FARUQ: Just because I try to get an opportunity to share our culture to anyone who listens.

BENSHOFF: She pulls out her phone and shows some pictures of herself dressed in traditional Afghan clothing.

ABDUL FARUQ: These are all, like, our dresses - vintage, like, back hundreds and years ago.

BENSHOFF: Abdul Faruq has also become the spokesperson for her family as they try to get two of her cousins out of the country. The men worked as personal bodyguards for the family of a high-ranking official in the old U.S.-backed government. That makes them targets of the Taliban now. Abdul Faruq says one of their coworkers was shot last year.

ABDUL FARUQ: And he was killed. His dad sent them the picture, told them, like, you have to get out because this could be you if you don't.

BENSHOFF: So her cousins went into hiding, moving from safe house to safe house. They changed their appearance. Abdul Faruq's family frantically looked for a way to get them out safely, so she says they applied for something called humanitarian parole.

ABDUL FARUQ: Humanitarian parole was the thing that kept popping up. Everyone was suggesting that because everything else takes a couple of months, a couple of years, even.

BENSHOFF: The U.S. immigration system is slow, but humanitarian parole is a fast track to enter the United States. You have to show you're in danger, so many who applied from Afghanistan worked in human rights, with the old government or U.S. allies. Mahsa Khanbabai is co-chair of the Afghan Response Task Force for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

MAHSA KHANBABAI: So humanitarian parole became the go-to not only because it's kind of efficient; it's also accessible to many, many different people.

BENSHOFF: Another thing that gave them hope - tens of thousands of Afghans whom the U.S. evacuated as it was withdrawing did end up receiving humanitarian parole. But after that, the bar to qualify stretched higher. First, you have to get yourself out of Afghanistan because the U.S. no longer has an embassy there. You also need a lot of documentation showing you're being persecuted, which is hard to come by even when people are not on the run. Khanbabai says advocates and Afghans had hoped it would work more like what the European Union is offering Ukrainian refugees right now.

KHANBABAI: Humanitarian parole is essentially the equivalent of Europe throwing open its doors for the Ukrainians, saying, hey; we're going to let you come here and stay here temporarily until we figure this out.

BENSHOFF: In the end, more than 44,000 people in Afghanistan have applied for humanitarian parole since last summer, but only about 200 have been approved, according to the federal government. A spokeswoman for the federal agency processing requests said it was never intended to replace refugee resettlement, a slower, more established pathway to safety. As conditions in Afghanistan worsen, the State Department is trying to get some at-risk groups out, starting with U.S. citizens, green card holders and those who worked directly with the U.S. military. Alaha Abdul Faruq's cousins and thousands of others don't fit that bill. They're still in hiding, and she says her family just wants more information.

ABDUL FARUQ: Them or my aunt - every time, they ask us, like, do you have any news? Do you have any news? And it's the worst thing. We have to tell them no.

BENSHOFF: She says they want to leave Afghanistan to see if that would give them a better chance of being approved. But they can't afford it right now. For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.