In the Wake of War, Alum Works to Ensure There’s ‘No One Left Behind’

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Air Force vet Phil Caruso ’08 heads a nonprofit devoted to obtaining visas for Afghans who aided U.S. military

By Linda Copman

A portrait of Phil Caruso in a suit and tie
An Engineering grad, Caruso was a member of Quill & Dagger and Chi Phi fraternity on the Hill. (Photo provided)

When the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, tens of thousands of Afghan citizens who had worked for the U.S. government as interpreters or in other roles were left behind. Many had served alongside the U.S. military over the course of the 20-year war—risking their lives and those of their families.

Fifteen years earlier, the federal government created a legal avenue for these former employees to resettle in the U.S through its Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. The State Department has so far allocated 34,500 such visas for principal applicants (those who directly served the government).

As of last September, according to data compiled by the Center for Migration Studies, 21,500 of those visas had been claimed.

The center reported that a total of 75,700 Afghans have been granted SIVs and emigrated to the U.S. (a figure that includes both principal applicants and their family members)—but more than 100,000 others are eligible. Many of them remain stranded in their native country, facing dire circumstances.

“Those in Afghanistan are being hunted by the Taliban, and many are starving,” says Phil Caruso ’08, who heads a U.S.-based nonprofit devoted to helping them. “Their children and family members are being abducted, beaten, and tortured. Many are out of money; some are homeless and struggle to find work to survive while they wait for their visas to be processed.”

Two men in uniform in front of a plane in Afghanistan. Caruso is on the right.
Caruso (at right) in Kandahar in 2011, after a flight over southern Afghanistan. (Photo provided)

Himself an Air Force veteran, Caruso is acting CEO of No One Left Behind (NOLB), the first organization dedicated to helping Afghans safely evacuate, navigate the lengthy SIV process, and start new lives in the U.S.

Founded in 2014 by a former U.S. Army captain and his Afghan interpreter, NOLB is currently tracking more than 60,000 Afghans who are SIV eligible but still reside in Afghanistan or neighboring Pakistan. Says Caruso: “Every life saved, every family housed, and every mouth fed is a victory for us.”

Every life saved, every family housed, and every mouth fed is a victory for us.

Phil Caruso ’08

Caruso—whose 14 years of active and reserve military service includes two tours in Afghanistan—joined the board of NOLB in 2019, after a failed attempt to aid an Afghan comrade seeking an SIV.

“He faced near-certain danger and death because of his work for the U.S.,” recalls Caruso, who majored in materials science in the Engineering college and went on to earn a JD and MBA from Harvard. “My inability to help him is one of my greatest regrets.”

An Afghan girl in a US airport holding an American flag
An Afghan girl, whose family NOLB helped evacuate, arriving in the U.S. (Photo provided)

While serving as chairman of NOLB’s board, Caruso—who also holds a job in finance, as a principal in a private equity fund—stepped into the role of acting CEO in fall 2021, when the Taliban takeover escalated the threat to U.S. allies.

Two other Cornellian military veterans whom Caruso had recruited to the board joined him in leadership roles: former Air Force officer Blake Lindgren ’09 as treasurer and Greg Fairbank ’96, a colonel in the Army Reserve, as the point person for evacuations and chair of the finance committee. (All three are also inductees into Cornell’s ROTC honor society, Scabbard and Blade.)

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NOLB has since evacuated some 800 Afghans, delivered resettlement assistance to nearly 600 families across the U.S., and raised $18 million from thousands of donors—providing housing, food, household goods, cars, and a network of support to the new arrivals.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, Caruso hired additional staff and stepped up the organization’s advocacy efforts, both to expedite the SIV process and to engage supporters and volunteers.

“Phil took charge in a way that rapidly stabilized things, and has transformed the organization to meet the surge in demand,” says Paul Wolfowitz ’65, former Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary under President George W. Bush and a longtime member of NOLB’s advisory board.

Doug Fairbank in uniform in front of the U.S. Capitol
Col. Greg Fairbank in Washington, DC. (Photo provided)

As Caruso notes, NOLB is distinct from similar organizations in its commitment to work with the U.S. government to forge long-term solutions, rather than trying to bypass the system.

“Only the government can offer visas, and only it has the resources to address a crisis on this scale,” he observes. “We do everything we can with the generosity of our private donors to make the U.S. government’s job easier.”

But it’s a daunting process: there is no established strategy for evacuating Afghan citizens, and the Taliban is heavily restricting movement in and out of the country.

“Some are getting out on commercial airlines; others are going across land borders to Pakistan or the Stans to the north,” says Fairbank, who holds a master’s from the Army War College and an MBA from Harvard, and has served in the Army for more than a quarter-century. “Almost all end up in a third-party country for weeks or months, waiting for their cases to be resolved in the U.S. The backlog is immense.”

While Caruso is steadfast in his commitment to NOLB’s mission, he admits that he’s not optimistic about the future of Afghanistan overall—or the safety of the former U.S. employees who remain there.

Almost all end up in a third-party country for weeks or months, waiting for their cases to be resolved in the U.S. The backlog is immense.

Greg Fairbank ’96

NOLB continues to stay in touch with them—assuring them they haven’t been forgotten, even as the world’s attention is drawn to new crises like the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Women and minorities will continue to be persecuted, and our allies will continue to be hunted and murdered,” Caruso says. “It is important that we not forget about Afghanistan, and never falter in our effort to evacuate and resettle those who are at risk because of what they did to support us. Our war there may be over—but our obligation to them is not.”

Editor's note: Several months after this story was published—in August 2022, a year after the U.S. withdrawal—NOLB provided an update. It noted that there are currently about 300 evacuations per week out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, far below the number it says is necessary to reduce the SIV application backlog. The organization continues to provide evacuation assistance, and so far in 2022 has given $2.3 million in aid to Afghan families who have been resettled in the U.S.

Published May 3, 2022; updated August 31, 2022


Comments

  1. Paul Wolfowitz, Class of 1965

    Please consider volunteering some time or providing some financial support to this outstanding organization working to fulfill our country’s obligation to the Afghans who helped protect us from additional 9/11’s for twenty years.
    I’m so proud of how these outstanding Cornellians stepped up to meet the need.

    • Khalid, Class of 2021

      Yes, that is a great idea, many those afghans are left, the process of SIV is very slow, what should they are doing to process the volunteering will help and fast the

  2. Anne H (Nosworthy) Fischer, Class of 1967

    So glad to see this work being done. I was part of a small book club supporting Greg mortensen’s nonprofit Central Asian back in 2012 and author of Three cups of Tea and Stones into School to support his building schools for girls in Afghanistan. He was a mountain climber and knew the area well. Afghanistan is always on my prayer list through Comanche psychic Linda Grendle’s effort and the Unity prayer ministry (Unity Village, MO)

    Addendum that is the Central Asian Institute which Mortensen and I am well aware of the controversy that arose out of the publication and charity work of the CAI and mortenson’s involvement.

  3. Eva Rahmanides, Class of 1994

    Please provide a website or phone so se might volunteer.
    Thank you for serving and for all your efforts to help these poor people

  4. KAtherine a Levine, Class of 1976

    Please provide web site or e mail or phone number so that i can get involved and or contribute to this amazing venture So proud that a COrnellian is the CEO of this group

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