Philly activists help organize White House rally to combat starvation in Afghanistan

Lina holds her baby boy, Osman, as he undergoes treatment at the malnutrition ward of the Ataturk National Children's Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Dec, 2, 2021. According to U.N. figures from early November, almost 24 million people in Afghanistan, around 60% percent of the population, suffer from acute hunger, including 8.7 million living in near famine. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Lina holds her baby boy, Osman, as he undergoes treatment at the malnutrition ward of the Ataturk National Children's Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Dec, 2, 2021. According to U.N. figures from early November, almost 24 million people in Afghanistan, around 60% percent of the population, suffer from acute hunger, including 8.7 million living in near famine. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Philadelphia activists were among those who rallied under an Afghan flag outside the White House in Washington, D.C. Sunday afternoon, calling for sanctions to be lifted in Afghanistan to avoid mass starvation in that country. Similar rallies were held in London and Vienna.

International sanctions were imposed on Afghanistan when the Taliban took over in August after 20 years of U.S. occupation. What resulted was a severe economic crisis, coupled with a drought that is expected to create food insecurity for nearly 23 million people this winter, according to the United Nations. Under current conditions, aid groups say about one million children are predicted to die.

Author and activist Gulmakai Saleh of North Philadelphia, who fled Afghanistan with her family during the Soviet occupation and moved to the U.S. at age 4, helped bring together a dozen speakers to appear on the street outside the White House gates.

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An hour before the event, Saleh said her remarks would address President Joe Biden directly, asking him to reassess his administration’s policy toward Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

“I want to remind him of his grandparents, and the grandparents of the people of America who were going through the Great Depression and the starvation they faced,” she said. “It was the worst economic tragedy of U.S. history. I want him to remember that and reflect on the great values America was born on.”

With dozens of onlookers chanting “people over politics,” the group #EndAfghanStarvation recited a list of demands: that the U.S. Treasury Department work with the World Bank to reassess the financial situation in Afghanistan; that the United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) increase their transparency and speed to deliver resources across Afghanistan; that the Afghan currency be stabilized and civil servants be paid (they have not been since May 2021); that regulations be lifted to enable money transfers to families, small businesses, and charity organizations; that children — both boys and girls — be guaranteed an education; and NGOs be allowed to support hospitals and clinics, particularly in their ability to treat malnutrition.

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Recently the World Bank released $280 million in frozen funds to UNICEF and the World Food Program, just a portion of $1.5 billion in funds frozen after the Taliban took control, under pressure from the U.S. Treasury.

“While we welcome the allocation of the $280 million to the World Food Program and UNICEF, and new pledges by the U.S. and other nations, that is not enough to prevent famine,” said Naser Shahalemi, another Philadelphia organizing activist. “Time is of the essence.”

Protesters rally outside the White House
A rally outside the White House demanded the Biden administration ease sanctions in Afghanistan, to avoid millions of deaths by starvation. (Gulmakai Sedah)

The approaching winter, which can drive part of Afghanistan into sub-zero temperatures, makes the situation particularly dire. Hospitals are already overflowing with people begging for aid. The director of the World Food Programme, Mary-Ellen McGroarty, said conditions in Afghanistan are one of the worst humanitarian crises on Earth.

“I’ve never seen a crisis unfold and escalate at the pace and scale that we are seeing,” McGroarty told CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

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