A group of more than 100 U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who escaped from Afghanistan on Tuesday are being held in custody in the Abu Dhabi airport after American agencies denied their charter flight’s entry into the U.S., according to leaders of Project Dynamo, a civilian rescue organization.
The group flew out of Kabul on Tuesday afternoon after getting clearance to leave from the Taliban, Bryan Stern, a U.S. military veteran and a co-founder of Project Dynamo, told National Review in a telephone interview on Wednesday morning. He believes their’s is the first private rescue flight to leave Kabul since the American military left the country on August 31.
There are 116 people in the group, mostly U.S. passport and green card holders, along with a small number of Afghans with special immigrant visas, Stern said. Photos of the operation provided to National Review show many young children are part of the group.
The plan was to fly out of Kabul on an Airbus A320 jet to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, transfer the passengers to an Ethiopian Airlines charter plane, and then fly to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
They were able to fly out of Afghanistan around 2 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
When asked how they got the okay from the Taliban, Stern would only say “carefully.” He said that by design he refuses to work with criminal organizations, or other “bad or negative or otherwise complicated” groups, but instead worked with people who got the Taliban’s sign-off on the flight through intermediaries.
“We had the flights all set up. We understood we had clearance all the way through, into the United States, with permissions to land,” said Stan Bunner, a lawyer and another member of Project Dynamo who has helped organize the operation from his home in Naples, Fla.
When the rescue group got to Abu Dhabi, they learned that they no longer had permission to land in New York. Because of that, their second plane was still grounded in Africa.
“They say a charter of our size and type cannot bring Americans to America from an international location,” Stern said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
There also were concerns about measles, though Stern and Bunner said all of the people being rescued have been vaccinated for measles and COVID-19.
After their permission to fly to New York was denied, they received approval to fly into Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. That got the Ethiopian Airlines plan off the ground and flying to Abu Dhabi, but that permission was revoked as well, Stern said.
“Then what happens is they apply for (Philadelphia), and the response the plane gets for Philly is that this airplane with this manifest is banned from all U.S. ports of entry,” Stern said.
Stern said Project Dynamo has been working with Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department on a solution. “They’re not going back to Afghanistan,” he said of the people they’ve rescued.
In the meantime, they’re stuck in the airport.
“They put everybody in like an airplane hangar, in a passenger terminal thing,” Stern said of the authorities in Abu Dhabi. “We are in custody, surrounded by cops with guns. We cannot leave. We cannot do anything. We don’t have our bags. No one here has showered in like four days. We are in this weird spot. We’re in transit, but we can’t leave.”
In an email to National Review, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said “all U.S.-bound flights must follow the established safety, security, and health protocols before they are cleared for departure. This process requires flight manifests to be verified before departure to the U.S. to ensure all passengers are screened appropriately.”
A spokesperson for the State Department told National Review that “our embassy staff in the UAE has been working around the clock to verify the accuracy of the passenger manifest and is coordinating with DHS/Customs and Border Protection on the ground to ensure the passengers are screened and vetted before they are permitted to fly to the United States. We expect the passengers to continue onward travel tomorrow morning.”
The plan, at the moment, is for the group to fly into Chicago on Thursday on a commercial flight, Stern said. Looking at the big picture, the members of the group are in a better situation than they were. “They woke up in Afghanistan surrounded by the Taliban,” Stern said. “They went to bed in the Emirate with McDonald’s. Like, it’s okay.”
But Stern was critical of the response from Customs and Border Protection. He said it is “insane” that a group of Americans coming out of a warzone is being denied entry into the U.S.
“How dare you, CBP, deny entry to Americans who are under threat and duress,” he said. “Why should the government get in the way of getting Americans to safety?”
Project Dynamo, which is entirely donor-funded, is one of likely dozens of civilian groups that emerged during the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan with the goal of helping to rescue American citizens and allies from the chaos and from a new reign of Taliban barbarism. They’ve become a key lifeline for tens of thousands of people still hoping to escape the country.
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