Mohammad's arm bore a long scar, an emblem of the struggle the 21-year-old has been through as a gay man living in Afghanistan.
"Always — I see this now and it makes me stronger," he said of one of his attempted suicides.
A refugee who still fears for his life and that of his family, Mohammad (a pseudonym used to protect his identity) is pulling his life together in the San Francisco Bay Area, putting in long hours in a restaurant. Besides working for his own survival, he is sending money to his family to purchase passports and documents so they can flee to a safe country.
Under Sharia law, persons who aren't gender conforming are to be stoned to death. Since the Taliban returned to power on Aug. 6, 2021, many LGBTQ+ people have been arrested, tortured and murdered. The Taliban also try to force family members to purge loved ones who are LGBTQ+ by "honor killing," refugee advocates said.
Refugees have reported horrific abuse suffered by LGBTQ+ Afghans: Two men spent five months on the run after their father tried to hunt them down to kill them. A civil engineer had a death warrant issued against him because of his sexual orientation; family members were imprisoned or tortured because they didn't execute their own son or brother. Families are starving because the only male breadwinner was taken to prison — women and gays aren't allowed to earn a living.
Americans for Afghans, a humanitarian startup co-founded by Palo Alto Human Relations Commissioner Michelle Kraus and San Francisco tech executive Joe Rodriguez, is on a mission to help to save their lives. Kraus and Rodriguez provide grant funding directly to LGBTQ+ refugees for paperwork, travel documents and travel out of Kabul to safe countries. The refugees await rescue by other nonprofit humanitarian organizations that help evacuate them to a new home country.
Americans for Afghans has directly aided nearly 50 people in the past two years, but now they are scaling up their efforts. Kraus and Rodriguez are trying to raise $5 million or more in the next year to help get 100 LGBTQ+ people and their families out of Afghanistan per month to a safer country. They would most likely be evacuated to Germany, the country taking in the most Afghan LGBTQ refugees in the world, Kraus and Rodriguez said.
"It's an opportunity for people in the Valley who are committed to human rights to do something like Oscar Schindler did. This is an opportunity for someone to save lives and to change lives," Rodriguez said.
Kraus and Rodriguez are part of a vast underground network spanning multiple countries and continents. Largely supported by technology, the encrypted network connects the underground partners to each other and to the refugees.
Every step of the refugees' journey is perilous, and safety isn't guaranteed even after they arrive in a new home country. With death warrants on their heads, many fear being tracked down and executed or that their families will be harmed. Harassment, arrest and a push for families to hunt down the so-called perpetrators of the "crime" of gender nonconformity — wherever they might be — remain constant threats, some refugees said.
For this article, the refugees' names have been changed and their faces are obscured in photographs to ensure their safety. The names of some network participants and some details about the network have also been omitted as conditions for interviews, to guarantee security.
Hope amid trauma — Mohammad's story
Mohammad sat at a Palo Alto coffeehouse taking in his surroundings. At nearby tables, carefree conversations flowed among friends meeting for breakfast, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs discussed their latest business plans.
Slender and handsome with short, dark hair and a gentle smile, Mohammad was impeccably polite and gracious. He held a precious stack of photographs from his time in Afghanistan. Mohammad is smiling in the photographs; playfully hugging his workmates, sharing a meal with friends, celebrating milestones with his family, waiting for his evacuation at the airport; refugees and soldiers swarmed the tarmac. In one photo, Mohammad stared into the darkness at the lights of Kabul for the last time.
The grainy computer printouts are all he has preserved since he lost his phone, he said.
"Behind these smiles, there's something hidden," he said as he flipped through the pictures.
Mohammad was about 15 or 16 years old when he was horrifically betrayed by one of his closest friends. He was raped by the friend and another man because he is gay. After the assault, Mohammad plunged into a very bad mental state, he said.
"I couldn't share it with anyone. If I go to the police, they will abuse me again. I couldn't tell my family. They would blame me," he said.
His father later described his son's harrowing circumstances in a statement requesting asylum for the family.
"He was assaulted by two men who wanted to make him a boy prostitute. He refused, but they continued to pursue him. They later went to prison for killing another boy they raped when he also refused to be a boy prostitute, but after they were freed by the Taliban they again went looking for my son," his father wrote.
The family faced additional peril. Mohammad and his father had worked for Western governments while the Americans occupied Afghanistan. When the Taliban returned, the authorities would seek to capture and execute them, his father said.
The Taliban came back to Kabul in 2021, putting his family at extreme risk, he said. They received multiple threats and were marked for death. Mohammad's sexuality added to the family's danger. When the two men who raped Mohammad couldn't find him, they reported to the Taliban that he is gay.
"Not only will the Taliban kill anyone in Afghanistan who is gay, they will also kill everybody in a gay person's family because they say it brings shame to them and everybody in their community," his father said in his asylum application.
Escape, he said, is imperative.
Mohammad recalled the day he left Afghanistan. Kabul had just fallen to the Taliban in August 2021 after the U.S. withdrawal. He was at work when his cell phone rang.
"Get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible," his father said.
He fled on the first plane out.
"I was shocked and crying," Mohammad recalled.
For more than a week he stayed in a hotel in a nearby country. But Mohammad wasn't free. He was surrounded by military guards because he and others had entered without a visa. On the eighth day, he was forced to return to Afghanistan, landing to an uncertain fate at the Kabul airport.
Safe — the most powerful word
Mohammad deplaned to chaos at the airport. Taliban forces were moving in. At first Mohammad didn't know what he would do. U.S. military personnel were evacuating people when he arrived. Mohammad sought their help. A military officer informed him he would be evacuating with others to another Middle Eastern country.
"You're safe," the officer said. Mohammad and the officer hugged, crying.
"This word never gets old for me. It will forever be the most important word to me," he said.
But Mohammad's ordeal would still not be over for many months. When the aircraft landed, the passengers were taken to a jail that was converted to a refugee "safe home." It housed 13,000 people. Three to four people lived in each room, he recalled.
"We were not allowed out of the facility. I lost 10 to 11 kilograms (22 to 24 pounds). Every day, people were in the hospital because the food was so bad," he said.
Gay refugees weren't treated well and were often harassed by members of the Afghan military, who had also left Kabul and were now guarding the jail, he said. Mohammad was afraid to speak to strangers out of concern they would take notice of his mannerisms or speech.
"A lot of feminine guys were treated badly. People who were different were persecuted" by the guards, he said.
Those nine months began to take a toll on his mental health.
"I was very depressed and I couldn't sleep. The hospital doctor gave me one sleeping pill a night," he said.
But finally, a Seattle-based philanthropist privately sponsored Mohammad. He arrived in the U.S. in May 2022. Then Michael Failla, vice president for LGBTQ refugee affairs with SCM Medical Missions, took Mohammad in to live with him.
Two months later, in July 2022, Mohammad moved to the Bay Area, where he met Rodriguez. He introduced Mohammad to a new apartment mate.
Kraus, meanwhile, looked for resources to help Mohammad have a better, more stable life. She located Afghan-American car dealers who wouldn't take advantage of him when he needed to buy a car. She is trying to get Mohammad into hotel management, which will pay better than his current wait-staff position at a restaurant.
Also helping him is a tutor, a Filipina immigrant who was in the same situation 30 years ago, Kraus said.
Mohammad is grateful for the help he has received.
"It's hard being an immigrant in this country. Starting from zero is really hard with no family and no friends. If I don't have the support of these people, I'm lost, I'm homeless, I'm … everything," he said.
Mohammad's family went into hiding in August 2021 and finally left Afghanistan in February 2022, he said. Americans for Afghans is assisting the family with grants for their travel documentation and expenses.
The family is waiting for approval to emigrate to a country in the northern European Union, but policy changes there have limited the intake of refugees. Now they are searching for another country for his family to enter, Kraus said.
"Even when you set things up, a change in regime upends everything," she said.
Mohammad works seven days a week as a restaurant server. He's sending $1,500 a month to his family so they can stay alive. It will cost an additional $3,000 per family member to obtain visas and passports, he said.
He worries about whether he can find another nation for his family before their current visas expire. His father has kidney problems and his mother isn't eating. The family's unity is at stake, he said.
Mohammad became tearful and anxious.
"My family is in really bad mental condition. Have you seen a father who is crying in front of his son? I tell him we have not forgotten. Every night we are talking over WhatsApp (an encrypted, private network owned by Meta).
"Seeing your father, your brothers — I feel shame because I'm not going to be able to do anything for them. Next year, my brother is going to be 21 and then he can't come with the family because he will be an adult," he said.
Kraus said that's the paradox. To stay means persecution, torture, imprisonment or death. Yet, conditions can deteriorate even if one is able to escape. Two years in hiding and uncertainty have exacted a toll.
“They're alive, but they are crumbling under the pressure," she said.
To learn more about nations that offer asylum to Afghan refugees, read this story.
The new 'underground railroad'
But Kraus doesn't hear the word "no," according to Rodriguez. Where others despair, she maintains her cheerful disposition, always questioning, even-handedly searching for answers.
As a child, her father ran a delicatessen in her hometown of Kearny, New Jersey, a working-class community of Scots and Irish. People of influence gathered at the shop.
"I thought it was normal to know the mayor, the city council and judges. Everybody came to our front lawn. I used to discuss the issues I heard with whoever was at home. I was walking around the neighborhood at 7 years old: 'The judge told me blah, blah, blah,' so I had to find out what people thought," she recalled.
Kraus became highly experienced in government affairs and understood how things in the government functioned, she said. She has decades of experience financing political campaigns. Kraus has worked to help multiple Democratic presidential candidates, including for President Joe Biden. She was the first female finance co-chair for John Kerry's presidential campaign.
There are pictures of Kraus with Biden and other political luminaries such as the U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and presidential candidate and former Sen. Hillary Clinton; there’s also a picture of Kraus getting a warm hug from President Barack Obama.
In the Bay Area, as a tech executive, she spent 25 years working with major donors and merged her expertise in tech and politics. She was head of government and regulatory affairs for one of the Hyperloop companies and is currently CEO of Technology & Politics, a global technology and government affairs advisory firm.
Many people want her help. When her phone rang two years ago in August 2021, she wasn't considering taking on another project, even from a Silicon Valley tech executive and gay rights activist she's known for 20 years.
"I told him, 'Go away — I have to make a living’,” she recalled.
Although she had many contacts in D.C., she didn't know anything about Afghanistan nor its politics, she said. But after a bit of persistence, the tech executive introduced her to Joe Rogriguez, a tech entrepreneur who worked on three startups and is co-founder of San Francisco-based strategy and social impact firm Gardner Rodriguez.
Rodriguez recalled his own introduction into the world of LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees. He was sitting in a Tucson, Arizona emergency room in 2021 while his father was being treated for a heart attack. Scrolling on his cell phone, he learned of the plight of LGBTQ+ Afghans through a Twitter account.
He volunteered to help; then he and a gaggle of tech friends began trying to get LGBTQ+ people out of Afghanistan. But he didn't have any congressional connections.
Kraus did, and she was all in, learning of the immediate dangers the LGBTQ+ Afghans faced. She studied all that she could about immigration in the United States. Then-U.S. Congressman Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey), who also served as assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Obama administration, became her mentor on immigration, a complex issue to navigate, she said.
"I had the right lawyers to tutor me," she added, noting that they also needed to steer clear of violating the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a federal law prohibiting payments and gifts to foreign officials to secure any improper advantage. "I want to be clear that we Silicon Valley techies became very wise in forming this humanitarian startup."
Getting people into the U.S. in 2021 was difficult, she said. Instead, Americans for Afghans partnered with nongovernmental organizations such as Rainbow Railroad for access to Canada and with Seattle-based Michael Failla and his SCM Medical Missions for his knowledge.
Americans for Afghans doesn't supply these organizations with funding. Independently, the organization issues grants for paperwork and travel directly to the refugees.
Kraus and Rodriguez screen for refugees; Rodriquez then develops profiles to document the atrocities against and plight of each individual refugee. The profile becomes the basis of acceptance or nonacceptance by organizations for possible evacuation.
Americans for Afghans finds the LGBTQ+ refugees by word of mouth, online through encrypted sites and through people who are known in certain circles, Kraus said. Realizing that the situation is fluid, they are now directing more people to Canada and Germany, and the numbers are quickly rising, she said.
Fatima’s escape from execution and sexual slavery
One of the most sensitive operations Kraus and Rodriguez engaged in was aiding Fatima, a mother and her five daughters, ages 7 to 19. Fatima legally divorced her husband, and she had legal custody of the five children. She also came out as lesbian. When the Taliban returned to power, her ex-husband wanted to sell the daughters for profit and turn Fatima in to be executed.
"We moved the girls around to hide them in Afghanistan and got humanitarian asylum granted for the six of them — a modern miracle," Kraus said.
Trying to move women who were unaccompanied by a man was dangerous and nearly impossible. Still, she didn't give up.
The family received travel grants from Americans for Afghans for their visas and passports. They were put into a safehouse and given room and board.
The mother and daughters arrived at a Canadian airport two months ago on July 11 for a reunion with their uncle. For minutes, the mother and her brother clung tightly, a mix of smiles and tears in a video they shared with Kraus.
Kraus wiped her eyes.
"I have tears in my eyes all the time. As a Jew, this is heart-wrenching. People don't deserve to be persecuted for who they are or what religion they practice," she said.
At the Pink Triangle Memorial installation in San Francisco in June, Kraus and Rodriguez spoke about the plight of the Afghan LGBTQ+ community, surrounded by an arch of pink balloons. A nearly acre-sized, giant pink canvas triangle loomed above from the viewpoint of Twin Peaks.
Used by Nazis during the Holocaust to identify gay concentration camp prisoners, the pink triangle has been changed by gay-rights advocates into a symbol representing solidarity and positive identity. It's an emblem that resonates deeply with Kraus. Nazis used different colored triangles to identify Jews and other groups of people they held captive and persecuted.
Kraus reflected on the dangerous times she sees unfolding again and her commitment to preventing a repeat of such persecution.
"I know all about triangles — particularly yellow ones," Kraus said of the concentration camp emblems used to form a Star of David to mark Jewish prisoners.
"You cannot turn your head away when people are being persecuted. That's the responsibility of our time — to not turn away. I connect our time to the Holocaust. And now we're faced with huge state-sponsored murder," Kraus said. "How can you turn your head away?"
The effort to save people takes an emotional toll. The long, arduous wait, the years of persecution, the guilt over families left behind — all wear people down, including those in the rescue community.
Rodriguez said the intense effort has taken a toll on his health. Five men he's worked with were at risk for suicide. A young cobbler they call "the old man" has been waiting nearly two years to be evacuated. He finally reached a crisis state.
Kraus and Rodriguez went into high gear trying to get him out as quickly as possible, letting the rescue organizations know he had to be a priority. He was finally evacuated to Canada on July 19.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but it's the most rewarding," Rodriguez said.
For all of their hard work, Kraus and Rodriguez have never met the people they have helped. To Rodriguez, meeting those people face to face is an important part of his personal health.
In the week of Sept. 11, his wish was finally fulfilled with the support of his aging parents. They said they wanted to be part of the legacy to save lives, so they paid for a trip to Canada for Rodriguez and his brother. The brothers are now touring to meet the refugees he and Kraus have helped save.
Anyone seeking details on Americans for Afghans and information on how to donate can contact email@example.com or visit a special fundraising URL set up for Americans for Afghans by Rainbow Fund Network. Silicon Valley can also help by donating tech — cell phones or laptops and pads. Individuals are also needed to act as sponsors to help move more refugees.