Afghan Dental Relief Project Workers Sequestered in Kabul, Awaiting Evacuation

Employees of Santa Barbara–Founded Dental Program Are Waiting in Afghanistan for Visas to Be Processed

Afghan Dental Relief Project founder Dr. James Rolfe (center) is pictured in Afghanistan in 2010 with one of his first classes of dental assistants. | Credit: Jay Farbman

The 20-year war in Afghanistan seems to finally be coming to an end, at no small cost to the Afghan people. The viral videos of citizens clinging to planes as they take off, babies being passed to soldiers over barbed wire, and tens of thousands of people running through the streets to escape the Taliban have become the poster images of the longest war in American history.

Among the thousands trying to leave are employees of a dental relief group founded in Santa Barbara known as the Afghan Dental Relief Project (ADRP), which has about 25 employees sequestered in Kabul, waiting to be  evacuated. Many in the group are with their families, which makes the total group number around 50 people, according to Dr. James Rolfe, the ADRP founder who is currently working out of his office in Santa Barbara. 

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Rolfe, who created ADRP back in 2008 to provide critical dental care that would otherwise not be available. 

Rolfe said all employees are currently sequestered in their homes with food and water, and the dental clinic is locked with the keys hidden. The location of the keys is also hidden from the soldiers guarding the clinic, should any Taliban soldiers come and ask them to unlock it. 

The group in Kabul is made up mostly of women, as the ADRP focuses on training Afghan women in this field. The Taliban has an ugly history with its treatment of women. During its takeover in the 1990s, women were not allowed to be enrolled in schools or take most jobs, could not leave the house without a male escort, and were forced to cover their faces in public. Any woman caught breaking these rules was met with severe punishment. 

Despite assurances from the Taliban that this will not be the case again, many, including Rolfe, do not believe them. 

“These women aren’t used to that or wanting to conform to that,” Rolfe said, also stating that some women who have been caught leaving their homes without these coverings have been “beaten in the street.”

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Rolfe said although all P2 visas have been filed, the processing time is much longer than a week, which might keep the group in Kabul past the U.S.’s August 31 deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Saher Popal, who sits on the board of directors for ADRP and is working out of Virginia, also said it is not likely that the group will be evacuated before this deadline. 

“As far as we know, they won’t be,” she said. “There’s been no contact with the embassy.”

Popal has been the driving force behind getting everything in order for the group, gathering vital information and documents and filing and sending applications to the state department.

Though a few staff have reported to Popal that they were threatened by the Taliban, she said no member of the Taliban has entered the clinic grounds or the homes of those sequestered. 

Popal has communicated with members of the group daily, and although they are “scared and frightened,” she has told them to be patient.

“It’s a very fluid situation,” she said. “But right now, our priority is to help our staff as much as we can.”

Popal and Rolfe have also been collecting donations to give once the group is evacuated, though they do not know when banks will be opened again. Once the group is taken to a refugee camp, most likely in Kuwait or Qatar, they will work to make arrangements to move them to another country. 

President Biden addressed the nation Tuesday and gave an update on the American efforts to evacuate citizens from the city.

“As of this afternoon, we’ve helped evacuate 70,700 people,” Biden said. “Just in the past 12 hours, military flights carrying 6,400 and coalition flights carrying 5,600 people have left Kabul.”

Although there has been some fighting between American soldiers and the Taliban, and between the Taliban and ISIS, Biden said the country is on track to meet the deadline. 

“The completion by the August 31 date depends on the Taliban’s cooperation and allowing access to the airport for those we are trying to transport,” Biden said. 

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