An Anchorage man took in 1 Afghan who needed help. Now he’s trying to rescue 17

Bill Barnes outside his house in Anchorage. Barnes took in Romal Safi, a student from Afghanistan, years ago. Now, they are working to bring 17 members of Safi’s family to Alaska. (Bill Barnes)

Even before Taliban rule returned to Afghanistan this summer, one Anchorage medical student was scurrying to get 17 family members out. He’s had steadfast support from Anchorage resident Bill Barnes.

Barnes, who is “semi-retired” from the IT business, has invested his heart, soul and savings account to get Romal Safi’s family to the U.S. on a temporary legal status known as humanitarian parole.

Barnes first met Safi in 2009, when Safi was an East High exchange student and Barnes was hosting a different exchange student. Safi went back to Afghanistan, so Barnes told Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin he was surprised to run into him in downtown Anchorage one day in 2011.

Listen to this story:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Bill Barnes: I was kind of smart alecky. I said, “So what are you doing, running from the Taliban?” And he said, “Well, that’s exactly right.”

So he studied at the University of Alaska. And, you know, when he ran out of money and was in danger of getting deported, I offered him a place to stay and helped him out with his tuition. And he graduated with a degree in biology about five years ago, six years ago now.

We applied for political asylum for him, and he’s now a green card holder. He’s on his way to becoming a U.S. citizen. And he’s always wanted to be a doctor, and he got into the WWAMI program here in Anchorage and he’s a first-year medical student now.

Liz Ruskin: And now he’s trying to get his family to Alaska?

Bill Barnes: Yes. In the spring, his dad started getting visits from Taliban agents at his dental surgery, which is just north of Bagram Air Base. And I think it was pretty alarming.

We hired — Romal hired — Margaret Stock of Cascadia Cross-Border Law, who has an office here in town. Margaret suggested that we apply for humanitarian parole for his families. She said, “Well, it’s a long shot. But, you know, that’s the only thing I can think of.” And she suggested, well, you can try five of them. It’s kind of expensive — $575 apiece to apply for parole.

It took Romal and I, you know, about less than a minute to decide we would just apply for all 17.

Romal Safi is a medical student who lives in Anchorage. (Bill Barnes)

Liz Ruskin: How would you choose?

Bill Barnes: Yeah, you can’t. It’s kind of like Sophie’s Choice. Like, what are we going to do? I’m choosing them all. So we chose them all. And lo and behold, the Humanitarian Affairs Branch of the USCIS granted all 17 of them paroles.

Liz Ruskin: Seventeen members of his family — are they all immediate family members?

Bill Barnes: Pretty much. It’s a mom, dad, sisters, brothers and in-laws, and three grandkids.

But the paroles came through about the 24th of August. So it was about 10 days after the Taliban had rolled into Kabul, and the U.S. Embassy had shut down.

The parole document stated: The embassy in Kabul is closed. So if you can make your way to a third country, let us know and we’ll conduct the interviews in this third country. And in this case, it’s Pakistan.

And so they managed cross into Pakistan through the normal road checkpoints about six weeks ago, something like that. But they’ve been unable to get interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. And it’s been really, really difficult to find out why that is, whether they’re just overloaded and understaffed. And trying to talk to the USCIS or the U.S. State Department, it’s like talking to a wall.

Liz Ruskin: Where are they living now?

Bill Barnes: They are near Peshawar. They found a place out of town to rent. The good thing about them being in Pakistan is we can send them money. Whereas once the Taliban took over Kabul, you couldn’t send two nickels into Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, we’re able to send money. So they, basically, we think, are in a safe place. Now, we would just like the U.S. government to come through with what they said they would do — interview them so they can get their boarding documents, and I’ve got enough money to get them all here.

Liz Ruskin: It sounds like you’ve really put yourself out for Romal. It sounds like you’ve funded some of these efforts yourself. Why do you feel compelled to help Romal and now his family?

Bill Barnes: You know, I asked my dad one time, you know, why he joined the Marine Corps in World War II. And he said, “My country needed me. I was in a position to help and so I did.” And that’s about it.

It just seems like I can help. I want to help. I’m getting old enough. I know I can’t take it all with me. So why not?

Barnes said others have also stepped up to help Romal‘s family. He said Thursday that they finally heard back from the Humanitarian Branch of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. The agency requested updated contact information.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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