Group in Washington racing to coordinate Afghan evacuations

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In a conference room at the luxury downtown Washington, DC hotel The Willard, a group of volunteers is trying desperately to get people into the Kabul airport and onto specially chartered planes.

Among those working on Friday evening are military veterans, the deputy ambassador of the Afghan Embassy, former military contractors and more. 

Posters and whiteboards taped to the walls listed the closed airport gates, contact information, and priorities. A screen showed a chart of flights that had been chartered, and their status. 

The volunteers are led by Zach Van Meter, president of private equity firm New Standard Holdings. Van Meter said he was approached for help getting 3,500 orphans out of Kabul. With his connections in the UAE, Van Meter said they were able to be flown out. The command center they set up for that operation at the Willard quickly morphed into getting as many people as they could out on chartered flights. 

The group estimates it has helped about 5,000 individuals leave — but time is running out.

“We’ve been here for a week, but we’ll officially ‘close’ at midnight,” said Van Meter. “As far as we know it, we’ve been told we probably won’t be able to move people through the gates but we’ll hold out hope.” 

If an airport gate would suddenly open, Van Meter said the room would quickly fill with dozens more volunteers. 

Now, though, the group is focusing on keeping people safe on the ground, while helping resettle those who managed to get out.

“If we can’t get people through the gates, it’s hard for us as our entire premise was chartering aircraft, putting them on the ground in Kabul, having them filled and moving them out,” Van Meter said. “If we can’t push flights in and push people to the gates, we have to focus on resettlement.”

Even as we spoke, other volunteers were fielding phone calls, messages, arranging transport, safe houses and more — some for US citizens they said were still trying to leave Afghanistan.  “There are a whole lot of heroes out there and we’re trying to get them out,” Van Meter said.3

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