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Columbia University researcher helps evacuate LGBTQ people from Afghanistan

Taylor Hirschberg working with Belgian lawmaker

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Taylor Hirschberg (Photo courtesy of Taylor Hirschberg)

NEW YORK — Some of the 50 human rights activists that a Columbia University researcher has helped evacuate from Afghanistan since the Taliban regained control of the country are LGBTQ.

A press release the Los Angeles Blade received notes Taylor Hirschberg — a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar — has worked with Belgian Sen. Orry Vandewauwer to help 50 Afghan “activists leave the country.”

“The refugees included those who identify as LGBTQI+ or gender non-conforming and their families,” notes the press release.

The Blade has seen the list of names of the more than 100 people that Hirschberg and Vandewauwer are trying to evacuate from Afghanistan. These include the country’s first female police officer, the independent U.N. expert on Afghanistan and a number of LGBTQ activists.

“There are many more human rights advocates we are still trying to get out of the country,” said Hirschberg.

Hirschberg has previously worked in Afghanistan.

He and Vandewauwer were also once affiliated with Skateistan, an NGO that works with children in the Middle East and Africa. The documentary “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone” features it.

Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital on Aug. 15 and toppled then-President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

A Taliban judge over the summer said the group would once again execute gay men if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

The U.S. evacuated more than 100,000 people from the country before American troops completed their withdrawal from the country on Aug. 30. It remains unclear whether the U.S. was able to successfully evacuate LGBTQ Afghans from Kabul International Airport, but Immigration Equality earlier this month said it spoke “directly” with 50 LGBTQ Afghans before the U.S. withdrawal ended.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sept. 13 during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing expressed concern over the fate of LGBTQ Afghans who remain in the country.

The Human Rights Campaign; Immigration Equality; the Council for Global Equality; Rainbow Railroad; the International Refugee Assistance Project and the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration have called upon the Biden administration to develop a 10-point plan to protect LGBTQ Afghans that includes prioritizing “the evacuation and resettlement of vulnerable refugee populations, including LGBTQI people.” Canada is thus far the only country that has specifically said it would offer refuge to LGBTQ Afghans.

Hirschberg on Monday told the Blade that he and Vandewauwer have charted an airplane to evacuate Afghans, but they have not secured a “third country” to which they can bring them.

“Currently, we are working towards a multi-country collaboration for resettlement,” he said. “Our work has now expanded to include election officials and women activists, including those from the LGBTQI+ community.”

Hirschberg also urged the U.S. and humanitarian organizations to do more to help evacuate LGBTQ people, human rights activists and others from Afghanistan 

“I understand that this is complicated and that I do not have all the working pieces but why does the United States ignore those who helped in building their agenda in Afghanistan. The same goes for multilateral organizations,” he told the Blade. “Why are neither funding charters and creating agreement with partnering states? If they are why have the not contacted the countries that we are creating collaborations with?” 

Editor’s note: Hirschberg is a Blade contributor.

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Southern-Central Asia

Petition urges White House to protect LGBTQ Afghans

Taliban regained control of country on Aug. 15

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Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

WASHINGTON — More than 10,000 people have signed a petition that urges the Biden administration to do more to help LGBTQ Afghans who remain in Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country.

The Human Rights Campaign; the Council for Global Equality; Immigration Equality; Rainbow Railroad; the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and the International Refugee Assistance Project on Friday presented to the White House the petition that urges the administration to adopt “a 10-point action plan … to expedite and ease the refugee and asylum process for LGBTQI Afghans.”

The same six groups last month urged the Biden administration to adopt a plan that would “prioritize the evacuation and resettlement of vulnerable refugee populations, including LGBTQI people, and ensure that any transitory stay in a third country is indeed temporary by expediting refugee processing.” The groups, among other things, asked the White House to “speak out forcefully against human rights abuses by the new Taliban regime and any increased targeting of vulnerable communities, including LGBTQI people, and use existing mechanisms to sanction and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights abuse.”

The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15 and regained control of the country.

A Taliban judge in July said the group would once again execute people if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

Rainbow Railroad and Immigration Equality are among the other groups that have continued their efforts to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans since American troops completed their withdrawal from the country on Aug. 30. Some of the 50 Afghan human rights activists who Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, has been able to help leave the country are LGBTQ.

“We reiterate our call for President Biden to adopt the 10-point policy plan which will expedite and ease the refugee process for LGBTQI Afghans,” said Human Rights Campaign Senior Vice President for Policy and Political Affairs JoDee Winterhof in a press release. “The 10,000+ people who signed our petition have demonstrated that they want the United States, long a beacon of refuge for those fleeing persecution, to take action to protect LGBTQI Afghans—a vulnerable group who risk oppression, even death, simply for who they are or who they love. Now is the time for action.”

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Southern-Central Asia

Transgender activist in Pakistan fights for change

Jannat Ali attended 2018 HRC summit in D.C.

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Jannat Ali at WorldPride 2021 in Copenhagen, Denmark (Photo courtesy of Jannat Ali)

LAHORE, Pakistan — A pioneering transgender activist in Pakistan continues her fight for change in her country.

Jannat Ali—who describes herself as an “artivist”— is the executive director of Track T, a trans rights organization that is based in Lahore, the country’s second largest city that is the capital of Punjab province.

Track T in December 2018 organized Pakistan’s first-ever trans Pride march that drew nearly 500 people. A law that permits trans people to legally change the gender on their national ID cards and other official documents, allows them to vote and bans discrimination based on gender identity in employment, health care, education and on public transportation took effect earlier that year.

“That was an opportunity (for people) to celebrate their real true identities,” Ali told the Los Angeles Blade on Aug. 19 during a telephone interview from Copenhagen, Denmark, where she was attending WorldPride 2021. “People were shaking hands because we did it so beautifully.”

Jannat Ali, left, with Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride at WorldPride 2021 in Copenhagen, Denmark (Photo courtesy of Jannat Ali)

Ali in March launched “Journey with Jannat”, an “inclusive infotainment show” with episodes on Instagram and YouTube. She is the first openly trans person to host her own program in Pakistan.

Ali in 2018 traveled to D.C. to participate in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Global Innovative Advocacy Summit. Track-T last year received a $5,000 HRC grant.

“They changed my life,” Ali told the Blade, referring to HRC. “They helped me to fulfill my dreams in my life and make me be able to share my work.”

Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2009 ruled in favor of recognizing trans people as a third gender on identity cards. The Pakistani government in July opened the country’s first school for trans people.

Section 377 of Pakistan’s colonial-era penal code that criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations remains in place. Ali told the Blade that implementation of the 2018 trans rights law— especially in the country’s tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan and in rural Pakistan — remains a problem.

“The government doesn’t (make it a) priority,” she said. “It’s a responsibility of other provinces to adopt or to amend it and present their bill in their own provinces.”

Ali said violence based on gender identity remains prevalent in these areas.

Alisha, a trans activist who worked with Trans Action in Peshawar, a city in Khyber Pakhtunkwa province that borders Afghanistan, died in 2016 after a man who reportedly raped her shot her several times.

Activists said staff at a local hospital delayed treatment because she was trans. The province’s then-governor ordered personnel to place Alisha in a private room, but she died a short time later.

“We are thankful to the governor,” a local activist told the Blade after Alisha’s death. “This was the first time that a government executive showed support.”

Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan ‘really sad’

Ali spoke with the Blade four days after the Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, and regained control of the country.

A Taliban judge in July said the group would once again execute gay men if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

Some of the 50 Afghan human rights activists who Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, has been able to help leave the country are LGBTQ. The Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad and Immigration Equality are among the other groups that have continued their efforts to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans since American troops completed their withdrawal from the country on Aug. 30.

“I was really worried,” Ali told the Blade when asked about the plight of LGBTQ Afghans in Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country. “I was really sad.”

Ali this week said she is now “in touch” with LGBTQ Afghans who have fled to northern Pakistan.

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Southern-Central Asia

‘I don’t want to die’ in Kabul

Gay person desperate to leave Afghanistan with family

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Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munhazim)

KABUL, Afghanistan — A gay person in Afghanistan says the Taliban will kill them if they and their family don’t leave the country.

“I don’t want to die,” they told the Los Angeles Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview from Kabul, the Afghan capital. “I have a lot of dreams in my life.”

The person, 25, said their mother and sister are currently living with a relative after they fled their home when the Taliban came into their neighborhood. The Blade is withholding their name and gender identity in order to protect their identity.

“I’m 100 percent sure that my life is not safe any more … they will definitely kill me,” they said. “Being gay is not a good thing in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15 and toppled then-President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

Dr. Ahmad Qais Munhazim, an assistant professor of global studies at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia who is originally from Afghanistan, in an op-ed the Blade published last month wrote the Taliban hanged men in soccer fields who had been accused of having same-sex relationships when they controlled the country from 1996-2001. A Taliban judge in July said the group would once again execute people if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

“People were going to work, people were going to school,” said the person when the Blade asked them what Kabul was like before the Taliban regained control. “We were living in freedom. We never thought we would be under pressure.”

“I’m scared,” they added. “I can’t go outside … everything has totally changed. Nobody is happy here.”

They told the Blade that men have repeatedly raped them and threatened to kill them. They said the perpetrators have also told them they would report them to the Taliban.

“They are still doing this because they think we have another pervert,” they told the Blade. “They will kill you. They will cut off your hand, your nose.”

Taliban ‘will definitely kill me’

The U.S. evacuated more than 123,000 people — including upwards of 6,000 American citizens — from Afghanistan since the Taliban regained control of the country until American military operations ended on Aug. 30. Dozens of members of Congress have urged the U.S. to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans from the country, but it remains unclear how many of them have been able to leave.

Canada thus far is the only country that has specifically said it would offer refuge to LGBTQ Afghans. Immigration Equality, the Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad, ILGA Asia and other groups continue to try to assist LGBTQ people who remain in Afghanistan.

The person with whom the Blade spoke said Immigration Equality has contacted them. They also said they have reached out to American and European politicians, but they said “we can’t help you.”

“I texted everywhere,” they said. “I called everywhere.”

“I’m just trying … to leave as soon as possible Afghanistan because of the situation I’m facing,” they added. “I’m getting death threats from people and now it’s especially hard for me … I’m suffering. My mom is suffering. My sister is suffering.”

They added the current situation in Afghanistan is “very difficult, not just for me, but for everyone who is facing these kinds of issues.”

“I’m 100 percent sure that my life is not safe any more … they will definitely kill me,” they said. “Being gay is not a good thing in Afghanistan.”

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