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Haunted by Holocaust, Israeli charity assists Afghans fleeing Taliban rule

Lawyer Inbar Nacht says dramatic events at Kabul airport touched her ‘most fundamental Jewish feelings’; IsraAid, 2nd Israeli group, helped 200 at-risk refugees reach safe shores

Afghan men sit in a bus in Herat, Afghanistan, on November 22, 2021, for a 300-mile trip south to Nimrooz near the Iranian border. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Afghan men sit in a bus in Herat, Afghanistan, on November 22, 2021, for a 300-mile trip south to Nimrooz near the Iranian border. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

AFP — When Israeli lawyer Inbar Nacht saw pictures last year of Afghans desperately trying to escape their homeland, she thought of her relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust and knew she had to act.

She and her husband Marius had founded a charity in 2020 that has worked on a range of initiatives, from assisting the elderly and disabled to supporting out-of-work artists during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evacuating people from Afghanistan — a war-battered country that has never recognized Israel and which is now ruled by Islamist hardliners — was not within the area of expertise of the group, Nacht Philanthropic Ventures.

In an interview at her Tel Aviv home ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday, she told AFP that she “couldn’t remain indifferent to the images of people trying to escape with their children and babies.”

“It touched my most fundamental Jewish feelings,” she said about the dramatic events of last August.

Many Afghans feared a return to the Taliban’s hardline rule of the 1990s or possible retribution for working with the United States-backed government or foreign forces.

Inbar Nacht, founder and president of Israeli foundation Nacht Philanthropic Ventures, interviewed by AFP at her home in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on January 12, 2022. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“I tried to imagine my forefathers in such a situation, if someone in a different country had contributed to save them,” said Nacht.

“This weighs on us, given our history as Jews. It doesn’t matter if the people are from Afghanistan or somewhere else, they’re innocent civilians who found themselves in an impossible situation. We tried to see how we could help.”

Nacht was not the only Israeli to reach out to Afghans in need.

Aided by Canadian-Israeli philanthropist Sylvan Adams, the Israeli non-government group IsraAID utilized its experience and connections to help nearly 200 at-risk Afghans reach safe shores.

Quick ‘pivot’

Kabul’s only airport was trashed when tens of thousands scrambled to evacuate on any available flight, as the US wrapped up their withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

Amid the race to evacuate people, the director of Nacht Philanthropic Ventures, Nachman Rosenberg, made contact with a US army veteran who had served in Afghanistan and Stacia George, a former USAID worker there.

George’s group, Transit Initiatives, had a list of over 300 at-risk people who wanted to be flown out of Afghanistan, including rights workers, scientists, members of ethnic minorities, interpreters, and others who could face threats from the Taliban.

But on August 26, the day the group was set to be taken to the Kabul airport, a suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State group tore through the crowd outside the airport, killing nearly 200 people.

In this August 22, 2021 photo provided by the US Air Force, Afghan passengers board a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. (MSgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Force via AP, File)

With air travel impossible, and fearing the Taliban would close the roads from Kabul, George’s team decided to use the buses meant to reach the airport to instead drive to Mazar-i-Sharif, a city northwest of Kabul.

Nacht’s charity helped pay for the transit, accommodation, food, and security for the nearly 300 people staying in Mazar-i-Sharif.

“The foundation was incredible in terms of being able to pivot so quickly and provide resources quickly, in a substantial way that really allowed us to make that decision and have the capability to save people’s lives,” George told AFP.

‘Extreme gratitude’

It took four nerve-racking months, but by January the 278 people who had been evacuated to Mazar-i-Sharif found safe locations around the world.

Nacht’s identity was initially not shared with the Afghans.

Hamid, a 33-year-old civil engineer who had been working on US-army funded projects in Afghanistan, knew he would be at risk if he stayed in his homeland once the Taliban took over.

“Anyone working for the US was the enemy,” he told AFP.

Afghan refugees are seated as they are being processed inside Hangar 5 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, on September 8, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP, file)

He had managed to get to the Kabul airport with his wife and three children in hopes of reaching Rwanda, which had agreed to accept them, but was turned back amid the chaos a day before the August 26 attack.

Back home in Kabul, he was contacted by a person connected to George’s organization, who informed him of a bus that could take him to Mazar-i-Sharif.

Hamid and his family made it there, staying at a guesthouse for 23 days before leaving for the United Arab Emirates from where they flew to Rwanda.

To him, Nacht’s donation was an act of “pure humanity.”

“She doesn’t know us or anyone else that she’s helping, except for knowing we are all Muslims,” he said in a phone call from Kigali.

“All we can say is we’re very thankful and really appreciate this human act of kindness and hope they get more capacity to help even more people.”

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