For Hastings Mayor Niki Armacost, the Afghan people are more than anonymous faces in news reports. Beginning in childhood and then over the course of her career, Armacost traveled to Afghanistan multiple times and established lasting relationships there. For that reason, she is among the elected officials trying to help evacuate and resettle Afghan citizens in the wake of the Taliban takeover.
“When I’m in Kabul with my friends, we talk,” she said on Sept. 4. “We have dinner parties. You can find a way to connect. Ordinary people are probably more similar than they are different.”
Armacost was born in London. Her first memories of Afghanistan were formed in the early ‘70s, when her family lived in Pakistan, where her father worked as an irrigation specialist. “We would go to summer holidays in Afghanistan beginning when I was 8. And then I didn’t go back until March of 2002, when I was part of a delegation of women who were there to celebrate the first International Women’s Day after the fall of the Taliban in 2002.”
At that time, Armacost was working for the Women’s World Bank, a global microfinance network. She helped local women start a microfinancing organization to fund their businesses, rather than relying on support from fathers and brothers.
“We met all these amazing women who had run businesses — bakeries, tailor shops — under the Taliban,” Armacost said. “They were incredibly inspiring and we decided we would create this microfinancing organization.”
From New York, Armacost helped establish the first women-led microfinance organization for Afghans, run by Afghans. It was called Parwaz, which means “to fly,” and it began in 2003.
In 2008, she established Arc Finance, Ltd., which focuses on promoting and expanding access to financing for clean energy and water in underserved areas of the world.
Armacost also served on the board of the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan, or MISFA, from 2011 to 2017. MISFA was formed in 2003 at the invitation of the Afghan government, to coordinate funding from international donors to support microfinance institutions in Afghanistan.
When visiting Afghanistan on business, Armacost hired the same driver, Hamid (whose last name has been omitted for his own safety). She last traveled to Afghanistan in 2018. Then, as Kabul fell last month, he sent her a message asking for help. He was having problems securing a visa for the U.S., despite having driven for clients whose interests had been aligned with American ones. He is still trying to get out.
Armacost has also heard from women she worked with over the years.
“The key thing is that the people I’ve been dealing with are a little bit further removed than the people who work for the U.S. government and contractors,” she explained. “Some are working for NGOs [non-governmental organizations], not working for the U.S., but doing a thing the U.S. was promoting, like women lending money to other women. Lending money is critiqued as a way of doing commerce, and these people are in danger.”
Armacost is also trying to help women in the Afghan parliament. “This idea of promoting women as decision-makers in government is something the U.S. supported,” she said. “Everyone in Afghanistan knows what these women were doing, and now their lives are in danger. What they’re doing is not considered Afghan values — not the role of women, according to Taliban hard-liners.”
Some of Armacost’s contacts have been moving from place to place, because people know where they live. “Some of them have had the Taliban check their houses several times,” she said. “The women parliamentarians are particular concerns, for their own safety and the safety of their families.”
She also knows a government minister who has gone into hiding. “He and his family have been harassed because he worked for a ministry having close dealings with the U.S. So he is considered suspect, because he was promoting the interests of the U.S. In the case of my driver, everyone knows he’s a driver who drives foreigners around.”
Under such circumstances, securing paperwork for visas can be difficult, and some applicants don’t know whether they submitted the right documents after they applied. “They submit the papers and don’t hear anything,” Armacost said. “So, part of what we were doing is helping them get their documents straight, and make sure they were ready to get evacuated. And each person’s situation is unique.”
The situation has become more complicated now that there is no American presence, and no U.S. Embassy, in Afghanistan.
The would-be refugees face difficult choices. Armacost has heard from women parliamentarians who wonder if they would be jeopardizing their chances of entry to the U.S. by first going to another country, such as Uzbekistan or Iran, or if they should stay in Kabul, where they are in danger.
“We’re trying to get clarity,” Armacost said, adding that Rep. Jamaal Bowman, whose 16th Congressional District includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester, has been trying to help. “He feels very strongly that the U.S. needs to help all of these people who’ve helped us in the past.”
The Afghan people Armacost is trying to help have support systems in the U.S. “I have a bunch of women who were loan officers and who worked in the microfinance organization that want to get out. They have a large contingent of relatives on the West Coast,” she said. “Hamid has a relative. Someone else was accepted into Ohio University. All those have sponsors. One of my former clients is a finance expert who worked assessing microfinance organizations... it would be relatively easy for him to get a job.”
The implications for Afghanistan’s future, however, are worrisome. “Many of the people leaving Afghanistan are among the most educated people,” Armacost noted. “So there is a brain drain happening at the moment that will have other consequences that we don’t know.”