Hawaii Lawmaker Bats For Guam Option For Displaced Afghans

by Elpidio Estioko

In light of the Afghanistan crisis, I surfed the internet and found out that there are no Afghan Americans in the Pacific Islands, more specifically in Hawaii. There is a heavy concentration of Afghan Americans in Fremont, California, but none in Hawaii.

However, U.S. Representative Kai Kahele, a Native Hawaiian who is serving his first term in Congress representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District wants the Guam option to be the site of the Afghans who were displaced by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Rep. Kahele is a combat veteran, pilot and a commissioned officer in the Hawaii Air National Guard, U.S. Air Force where he continues to serve as a lieutenant colonel at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules pilot in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In a Honolulu Civil Beat article, he mentioned that veterans say Guam is the best option, in fact, the last chance to save Afghans who helped the US in the 20-year stay in Afghanistan.

“Empty hotel rooms in the Pacific island territory could serve as a way station for Afghans fleeing the Taliban,” the advocates say.

The U.S. military is more than halfway through its withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is set to be complete by no later than August 31, the deadline for evacuation. But many who fought in that war are worried about leaving behind thousands of Afghans who worked with the United States as interpreters and in other roles during the U.S. stay in the country.

One popular solution, according to Rep. Kahele, is the so-called Guam option — airlifting the Afghans to the Pacific island territory to provide a safe location to screen applicants for resettlement across the country.

“I am deeply concerned about our Afghan partners who risked their lives to assist and support the U.S. mission in the region,” Rep. Kahele said in an email. “We must do everything we can to provide immediate assistance and ensure their personal safety.”

Chris Purdy, Director of Veterans for American Idealssaid: “We need a plan to get these people out now, there’s no time. We have until early July at the absolute latest to execute a plan, otherwise, thousands of people are going to die. We are rapidly running out of time for a solution while we have resources in the country.”

The advocates are saying that if the military temporarily housed thousands of South Vietnamese refugees on Guam as they were processed for resettlement after the 1975 Fall of Saigon, then the U.S. can do it again for the Afghans today.

“If we did it then, we can do it again,” Pedro Terlaje, a senator in Guam’s legislature and a Vietnam veteran, said in an email. But he acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic poses problems, saying the “federal government must properly plan for COVID and social distancing of Afghan evacuees.”

Lawmakers who support the Guam Option say they want urgent action. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in collaboration with the Biden administration to support an immediate evacuation,” said Rep. Kahele.

Military officials did not respond when asked for comment on whether Guam is being considered. Some advocates have suggested alternatively using a Middle East country aligned with the U.S. such as Jordan or Kuwait. But there’s no indication the Biden Administration is considering them either.

“Should Guam be called on to save these people upon the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Guam will answer that call because we understand personally the toll of war,” said Terlaje.

Afghanistan, meanwhile, is dealing with a wave of COVID-19 deaths as vaccines that were supposed to arrive in the mountainous country in April have been delayed until at least August.

Also, some Guam residents worry that without careful planning, an influx of Afghan refugees could spread the disease throughout the small island. Just over 45% of Guam’s 167,230 population has received the vaccine.

“Decisions made by previous and current administrations have put the United States in a calamitous situation and swift, decisive decisions must be made immediately,” Rep. Kahele said in a press release as the situation deteriorated.

“I urge the administration to airlift our Afghan partners, their families and those who applied for Special Immigrant Visas to the United States Pacific Territory of Guam as was suggested two months ago.”

Over the weekend Biden ordered the evacuation of personnel from the embassy and sent 6,000 troops back to Afghanistan to secure the airport — more troops than were in the country when he took office.

In a public address, Biden stressed that his first priority is the evacuation of American diplomats, aid workers and other citizens. He defended his administration’s handling of the situation.

“I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner. Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier,” Biden said.

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono said in a press release: “We must prioritize the evacuation of American citizens and our Afghan partners and their families who supported us during this 20-year war. Afghan women and girls who will be targeted by the Taliban also urgently need our support. We should take whatever action is necessary to protect them.”

The Afghan situation is becoming worse, but there is hope at the end of the tunnel!

ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and a multi-awarded journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email the author at estiokoelpidio@gmail.com.

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