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At a Memorandum of Understanding Signing Ceremony with the #AfghanEvac Coalition

MS TEKACH:  Good afternoon and thank you for joining us here today at the National Museum of American Diplomacy to recognize the extraordinary efforts of hundreds of dedicated volunteers elemental to the unique and unprecedented collaboration and partnership between the United States Department of State and the #AfghanEvac Coalition.

My name is Mara Tekach.  I am the coordinator for Afghan relocation efforts at – in the department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.  Since October 2022, I have had the great privilege of managing State’s operations to relocate eligible Afghans to the United States and the honor to work alongside all of you in this incredible effort toward the shared goal of keeping the promise we made to Afghan allies.  What makes this effort so unique?  It is the heartfelt support of volunteers like you and the hard work that is embodied in the #AfghanEvac Coalition.  Our partnership is the cornerstone of our mutual success.

I would like to extend our deep thanks to Secretary Blinken for how highly he places the priority of keeping our promises to our Afghan allies.  Thank you to our other honored guests for taking the time to join us for this ceremony to recognize this vital partnership and its vital work: Under Secretary John Bass, Ambassador Timmy Davis, Assistant Secretary Rena Bitter, Assistant Secretary Don Lu, NSC Chief of Staff Curtis Ried, and Congressman Zach Nunn.  You embody the incredible interdepartmental and interagency collaboration that makes this undertaking succeed.

CARE staff and #AfghanEvac engage in a disciplined partnership.  We meet biweekly like clockwork to exchange critical information, discuss operations, provide feedback, and find solutions to the goal of relocating and resettling Afghans.  Your insights and ideas, often delivered to us by the kinetic Shawn VanDiver – (laughter) – and thoughtful March Bishop give us, your government counterparts, constructive material with which to target actions more precisely and to move more nimbly.  And lest we get too caught up in procedure and process, Shawn, we know your friendly but spirited reproach is not far away, keeping us on our toes.  (Laughter.)

We at CARE welcome the feedback that helps us monitor progress and encourages us to move faster and smarter.  Our partnership with the #AfghanEvac Coalition gives us a single conduit through which to collaborate with more than 200 organizations.  This rare efficiency allows CARE to maximize our focus on operations.  As CARE’s operations scale up, go wide, and drill down, as we work with #AfghanEvac to relocate more Afghans faster, we share each success together with dedicated public-facing comrades in arms.

Thanks to you, we are trimming the bureaucracy.  A few examples: the elimination of the DS-157 as a step in the SIV application has streamlined that process; better systems have been put in place for assisting individuals through our platforms in less time, a change which will also benefit other refugee populations around the world; and a pathway for the reunification of separated families, with the creation of the famous DS-4317.

#AfghanEvac had a hand in all of those successes and so many more, and lives have been changed as a result.  We are grateful for your continued partnership.  CARE is so proud not just to be working to relocate Afghans, but also to be working with so many talented Afghans whose presence on our team makes us stronger – like Yalda Rezayee, whose hard work and organization over the last weeks helped make this very event possible; and Farid Afghanzai, whose thoughtful analysis enables us to have a more thorough understanding of crucial issues on the ground.  There are many other Afghans who have joined CARE and help keep us on track and moving forward.  Thank you all, and thank you as well to the entire CARE team, who bring their diligence, talent, and heart every day to assist our Afghan allies.

Winston Churchill said that where there is resolute purpose, great strides are made.  I am so glad all of you could be here, both present and watching at home, on a day we honor our shared solidarity, pride, and resolute purpose.  Together we have made great strides and are poised for even more.

Now I’d like to invite the kinetic Shawn VanDiver – (laughter) – to say a few words.  (Applause.)

MR VANDIVER:  “Kinetic” is quite a descriptor.  Thank you, Mara.  It has been an incredible honor to work with you and the entire team at CARE.  Under your leadership, we have accomplished so much more than I think people would have said was even possible; some would have said it’s impossible.  Thank you also to my friends and colleagues from #AfghanEvac and all of our coalition members who traveled here today from all over the country to celebrate this work that we’ve been doing together for so long.  Thank you to everyone within government who took the time to be here and recognize the importance of this work and this collaboration.

Everyone here looks pretty great considering we’ve been on Kabul time for two years, right?  (Laughter.)  Look, the State Department impacts lives all over the world every day, changing the course of history with its work.  And we’re standing in a place where many of those amazing achievements are featured and honored through museum displays.  One day, I believe that this work that we’re doing together will be remembered for time immemorial in rooms just like this, but not yet.  There is still so much more to be done, and I am grateful to be here today to reaffirm that we will continue to do this vital work together.

#AfghanEvac was born when my buddy Lucky texted me from a mountaintop in Urgun, eight hours outside of Kabul.  He told me that he was out of ammunition and believed he wasn’t going to make it.  He asked me to fulfill his final request and to get his wife and children out of Afghanistan and back to San Diego.  I promised him that I would try, just as so many volunteers in this room and in this space were making similar promises at that same time.  This effort continues nearly two years later because an unprecedented, diverse cross section of America stood up to help thousands of others.

We’ve got everyone from veterans and frontline civilians to a children’s book author, corporate executives, a member of Congress, and former senior U.S. government officials among our ranks.  This is a shared experience of folks putting their lives on hold and pushing themselves to the limit for people half a world away.  This is the story of America, of immigration and diversity and people of different beliefs and backgrounds coming together with a common purpose and bridging divides, closing the gaps that exist between citizens and their government, between the U.S. and Afghanistan, closing the gap between an Afghan family escaping persecution and that family finding a safe home here in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.

Like Lucky, who against all odds made it out of Kabul – and with just a little bit of help he and his family made it out.  He’s here with us today, and he exemplifies the story of the Afghan allies that we’re working so hard to assist.  Lucky lives in Texas now and is the owner of Afghan markets there and in Oklahoma.  He has applied for U.S. citizenship, and when he takes the oath to become a citizen, our country will be stronger and better for it.  (Applause.)

And so this is also the story of creating new Americans, of creating generational change.  Lucky may have been the inspiration for #AfghanEvac, but this effort has continued because of the determination of the hundreds and likely thousands of everyday Americans – like all of you – in and out of government and civil society who believe in the promise of America.  This partnership that we are recognizing today is an amazing feat of civic engagement.  It is the very definition of democracy.

And that idea, the idea of collaborating with the private sector on this, began in a small room right here in this building back in September 2021 with JP Feldmayer and now-Ambassador Timmy Davis, enabled by State Department Chief of Staff Suzy George and Under Secretary John Bass.  They recognized government could not take on this daunting challenge alone.  And their expeditionary approach allowed us to chart a new path forward.  People from all walks of life have joined together with our State Department to live our values, and the result has shaped the course of world events.

I want to recognize our #AfghanEvac team who represent all 50 states and several countries working together to help honor our allies.  There are folks who break down barriers.  We have people who started as #AfghanEvac volunteers and now work at State.  March Bishop, Chuck Rush, and more recently Jessica Bradley Rushing — like many of you, their lives can be broken down into two distinct eras: before and after the fall of Kabul.  They came into the bureaucracy of federal government and blazed trails, finding new and creative ways to solve longstanding problems.  And look, I know that many in this room would agree with me when I say that they are nothing short of American heroes.  (Applause.)

Many of the people in this room have been with #AfghanEvac since day one, like Joe Saboe from Team America, whose team led intel briefs back in August of 2021; and Maggie Feldman-Piltch from Operation Eagle, who I met because a member of Congress sent me a text after the airport fell with her phone number, and that’s it.  I dropped into yet another chat, bringing the number to about 15 separate, disconnected groups that I was involved in, like so many of you, all working in silos on the same issue, which inspired us to establish the coordination calls and led to the coalition that we have today.

We have folks in our team that represent the most vulnerable among us with their expertise and their ideas as well as their own identities.  People from the Hazara community like Mahnaz Akbari who commanded the first female tactical platoon with Afghan Special Forces and has been working to help relocate her sisters-in-arms still in Afghanistan all while getting support for those she helped get here to the U.S.  (Applause.)

Our team also includes other Afghan women like Naheed Farid, who served as a member of parliament from Herat and has been fighting tooth and nail for Afghan women since she arrived.  (Applause.)

We have people who keep us as a coalition focused on the challenges at hand, like Angela and Jordan, who are all over P-1 and P-2 issues.  (Laughter.)  We have folks that help the helpers like Kate Kay, who created our Resilience Duty Officer Program.  (Applause.)  And we have a lot of noisy people.  I mean not me, but definitely others.  (Laughter.)  But we have so many quiet operators getting things done behind the scenes, like Judy and Leannne.  (Applause.)

This is a team of doers.  Very few coalition members get paid for this.  Everyone has sacrificed for this and all of our lives have been changed by this.  There are so many who couldn’t be with here with us today and are just as worthy of recognition as anyone else here.  There are space constraints.  Some couldn’t make it due to day jobs, finances, or the circumstances of life.

We’ve also – we’ve lost allies with whom we’ve worked during this effort as well as some of our volunteers.  Those losses have impacted each of us.  And I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the great sacrifice that our loved ones have made.  As we’ve thrown ourselves into this work, our friends and families have given up precious time with us, and they certainly deserve our gratitude.

I am blown away by the tenacity, the determination, and the patriotism of folks here, and not just our volunteers.  Our government partners here at State and across the interagency, the allies that we are trying to help, and certainly the incredible coalition of folks here in this room.  This is a group made to build bridges and break down walls.

I want to recognize the partnership that we’re renewing today, which is a testament to this department and its leadership.  To Secretary Blinken and Under Secretary Bass, to your willingness to do things differently, to your willingness to bridge the gap between the government and the people – it has been a whole-of-government collaboration, and we would never have seen such success without the efforts of folks like Curtis Ried and Jacqui Pilch and so many others on the NSC team, as well as Adam, Emily, Jason, Becky, and Lisa, and so many others from across the various departments and agencies that we work with.

The progress that we have made together is real.  We have seen extraordinary successes, and that feeling we get every time we get a get a text or a call from someone we’ve worked with getting on a flight is unmatched.

USRAP case processing has been revolutionized at CAS, going from 18 months or more down to 30 or 60 days.  This has since expanded to 12 locations around the world.  The SIV process has been streamlined, and we’re working on more changes to further decrease those processing times.  We are collaborating across the interagency to align communications, increase the frequency of messaging, and ensure we are reducing uncertainty at every opportunity.

There is no doubt that this work is historic.  But before we call it history, we have to finish the job.  So here’s my message to the decision makers in the room:  There remain places in the world, including here in the U.S., where Afghans are languishing awaiting permanence.  Throughput and capacity for relocations continue to improve, but we have not yet hit our goals. We must move faster and process more people.  (Applause.)

We must further streamline the SIV process, and the efficiencies in USRAP case processing must be implemented globally.  Afghans in the refugee track need more attention, and at-risk populations must be prioritized.  (Applause.)

Well, but sir, we’ve got a laundry list.  It’s my only opportunity.

We must continue to work with allies and partner nations to find solutions to these issues in a way that emphasizes the dignity and humanity of those in need.  Resettlement agencies need additional resources.  Time and again, our colleagues are bridging the gap between what resettlement agencies can provide and what our new neighbors actually need for a warm welcome.

And while there will always be a need for civil society to bridge the gap between government and people, for our democracy to deliver we need government to help us shrink the gap.  And that’s what we’re doing here today.  We are demonstrating the American promise in action and renewing our commitment to the work ahead.  We are building bridges and solidifying this partnership, and we are saying to our Afghan friends you are not forgotten, we are here and we are working together today and into the future to bridge the gaps, close the divides, and keep the promise.

The war in Afghanistan began in the wake of 9/11, a tragedy which unified the nation.  And this work started just eight months after January 6th, when the bitter divides present in our country were more prevalent than ever and threatened our democracy.  This team – both volunteers and government partners alike – and the work that we continue to accomplish together represents the kind of incredible outcomes that we can achieve when we shed our differences and unify toward a common goal.

Thank you for having us all here, thank you for recognizing these incredible volunteers, and thank you for renewing this partnership.  (Applause.)

I think you’re up.

MS TEKACH:  Thank you, Shawn.  Now, I would like to invite to the stage a leader who has put the strength of the entire State Department behind this humanitarian effort, Secretary Antony Blinken.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, thank you, everyone, and good afternoon.  First, it seems apparent that there’s been a name change today, and Shawn’s new first name is “Kinetic.” (Laughter). We’ll try to formalize that with the appropriate authorities in the days ahead.  But Mara, first of all, thank you for kicking us off.  Thank you for sharing so much of the remarkable work that’s been done, but especially thank you for helping to lead this effort, to fulfill the commitment that President Biden and I have made to Afghans who stood with us over so many years.

Shawn “Kinetic,” – (laughter) – thank you for bringing us together today, but especially for your extraordinary leadership of the #AfghanEvac Coalition.  Now, virtually every one of us in this room in some fashion or another has been on the receiving end of Shawn’s tenacious advocacy.  Maybe that’s another possible first name: Tenacious.  But I can say this:  Our Afghan partners are deeply, deeply fortunate to have you in their corner, and we’re grateful to have Shawn as a partner.

To everyone else who is here – Members of Congress, including Representative Nunn – leaders from across this department who’ve been playing key roles in this relocation effort, including our Ambassador to Qatar Timmy Davis (applause), to the entire CARE team, to our Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Rena Bitter, who has done remarkable work, to John Bass, who has his heart and soul in this effort, and so many other colleagues – and especially, especially to our #AfghanEvac Coalition volunteers joining us from around the country – some in this room today, some virtually.

Now, as you heard from Shawn, it’s actually very fitting that we’re meeting in this particular place, the National Museum of American Diplomacy.  It honors the contributions of generations of diplomats and aid workers, locally employed staff, civil society partners throughout our history, including in Afghanistan.  There’s actually a Great Seal emblem from the U.S. Consulate in Herat – a plaque remembering Anne Smedinghoff, an extraordinary Foreign Service officer who gave her life while delivering books to a school in Zabul Province – and a collection of the very books that she and her colleagues were delivering on that day.

These items are a reminder not only of the contributions of our diplomats, but also – also of the courage and sacrifice of our servicemembers over two decades in Afghanistan.  Their professionalism was on extraordinary display during the evacuation, when they put their lives on the line to help bring more than 120,000 people to safety – American citizens, Afghan partners, citizens of partner countries.  Thirteen American heroes gave their lives in that operation.  We honor them and all who served in Afghanistan for their truly extraordinary service.

When President Biden brought an end to America’s longest conflict, he made a commitment that the United States would continue to relocate and resettle our Afghan partners.  We are determined – I am determined – to fulfill that pledge, just as this group is.  And together that’s what we’re doing.  What began as a 6:30 a.m. call between seven groups in August of 2021 has now evolved into a coalition of more than 200 groups – thousands of volunteers.

Many of you are veterans.  Catalina Gasper was deployed to Afghanistan from 2018 to 2019.  She worked closely with Shams, a facility manager on her compound.  And after Kabul fell, Catalina helped evacuate Shams and other SIV applicants.  Shams, his wife, his two young children are now here with us in Virginia.  He and Catalina still get together regularly to share a meal.

Others in this coalition are Afghans drawn to serve their fellow Afghans.  Samad served in Embassy Kabul from 2012 to 2014, where he helped coordinate development programs for USAID.  He came to Arlington, Virginia as an SIV in 2014.  In August 2021, he volunteered his Dari and Pashto skills to help guide our Afghan partners to rendezvous sites in Kabul.  Now, as a volunteer at the #AfghanEvac Coalition, he helps newly arrived Afghans by sharing his own experience and answering their questions about resettling in the United States.

And many in the coalition are Americans who had never even set foot in Afghanistan – teachers, humanitarian workers, firefighters, other citizens, who wanted to help their fellow human beings in a time of need.  Danielle Cosgrove, a former protection officer for the UN Refugee Agency, remotely helped eligible Afghans safely pass through the gates at Hamid Karzai International Airport and get onto planes that were heading to safety.

For Catalina, for Samad, for Danielle, who are here with us today – for so many of you in this room – this wasn’t a question of whether you would help, but how.  You’ve risen to the challenge with incredible integrity and persistence at every step along the way.

And quite honestly, it’s your expertise, it’s your ideas, it’s your local networks that have made all the difference, that have been invaluable in this effort – and we’ve relied on this partnership for every step of the process.  And we heard a little bit about what has been such an effective public-private partnership in this instance, maybe the most effective that I’ve seen, and a big part of that is our partners pushing us, prodding us, trying to not only break down institutional barriers, but to just break down walls in our own thinking to make sure that we were testing every idea, every option to make this move better, move faster, move forward more effectively.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Our diplomats worked around the clock with you to coordinate the initial evacuation, and our CARE team – strengthened by the #AfghanEvac Coalition members who chose to contribute their talents to the State Department full-time – Chuck, March, Jessica – has continued to partner with you to relocate and resettle our partners in the United States.

And what this comes down to is to the extent that we’ve been effective – and I believe, as Shawn does, that we have – it’s because we worked together in common cause, in common enterprise, with community of purpose and community of action.  And that really is a model for what public-private partnerships can be.

So thanks to the leadership that we’ve seen, thanks to our state and local partners, thanks to the generosity of our fellow citizens, we’ve relocated more than 24,000 Afghans to the United States and third countries since September 2021.  Overall – (applause) – overall, we have relocated more than 97,000 Afghans to the United States – Afghans who are going to school, who are starting new jobs, who are settling into their communities.  And as Shawn so rightly put it, the next generation of Americans, of our renewal, of our country, of our future – most of us in this room are Americans by accident of birth; they are Americans by choice and they will be our future as well.  (Applause.)

Finally, because this is so important:  For all the success that we’ve had, as you’ve heard both of my colleagues say, this job is not yet done.  The Memorandum of Understanding that we will shortly sign will allow us to keep sharing information with one another, to coordinate our outreach to additional civil society partners, to guide our ongoing efforts to find more, and better, ways to serve our Afghan partners – both those already here, and those yet to come – and keep pace with their evolving needs.

I think what inspires all of us is we talked about some of the numbers just a minute ago.  They’re impressive.  But we know that behind each and every one of those numbers is a real person, a real life, a real story.  A mother, a father, a sister, a brother.  A son, a daughter.  And because of what you’ve done, because of what you’re doing, those stories will continue.  They won’t be interrupted.  And I hope at the very least that each and every one of you who’s been involved will take that with you.  Of all the things that one has the opportunity to do in life, few things are more meaningful, more powerful, than the opportunity that we have to come to the assistance of our fellow human beings and to make a real difference in making sure that their stories continue, that their contributions continue.  That’s what you’ve done.  That’s what you’re doing.  That’s what we’re determined to keep doing until we finish the job.

Shawn, you’ve described the #AfghanEvac Coalition as, and I quote, “the most American thing [that] I’ve been a part of.”  And looking out at all of you, I know exactly what you mean.  You all show what America is when we’re at our best: a compassionate country, full of big-hearted people from different backgrounds, different beliefs – but all ready to drop everything and work together, work as one team, to help other people.  A country that honors its tradition of providing refuge to those who need it.

As Secretary of State, but mostly as a fellow American: thank you.  Thank you for your service.

Mara, over to you.  (Applause.)

MS TEKACH:  Thank you, Secretary Blinken.  Now we have the privilege of presenting six letters of thanks to individual volunteers whose dedication and ongoing efforts have made such a difference for so many.  But to all the #AfghanEvac volunteers here and to those who couldn’t join us here today, we say thank you.  While a few volunteers are receiving their letters in person today, additional letters will be sent to #AfghanEvac volunteers following this ceremony.  We thank you for your hard work, your compassion, and your tenacity.

When I call your name, please come up to the stage so Secretary Blinken can present you with your letter.

Abdul Manan.  (Applause.)

Catalina Gasper.  (Applause.)

Maggie Feldman-Piltch.  (Applause.)

Samad Fazli.  (Applause.)

Mahnaz Akbari.  (Applause.)

Danielle Cosgrove.  (Applause.)

Now I’d like to ask Shawn back to the stage for the signing ceremony.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Right.

MS TEKACH:  Shawn will sign one copy while Secretary Blinken signs the other.  Then they swap papers and sign the second copy.  And then swap again so you have your own original.  (Laughter.)

(The Memorandum of Understanding was signed.)

MR VANDIVER:  Lovely.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  All right.  Now it’s official.  (Applause.)

MS TEKACH:  The MOU signed today renews our mutual commitment to share relevant information, coordinate communication, and ensure that both government and private organizations are able to provide our Afghan allies with the support and welcome they deserve.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Thank you, Secretary Blinken.  Thank you, Shawn.  Thank you, Deputy Secretary Rich Verma, government partners.  Thank you to all of you volunteers without whom we would not have seen such success up to now.  (Applause.)  And without you, we wouldn’t be looking forward to more success in the months and years to come.  Your selfless dedication has changed the lives of thousands, and we will have an impact for generations to come.

Please join us for the remainder of the reception in our beautiful National Museum of American Diplomacy.  Thank you all.  (Applause.)

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