Instagram influencer helps rescue dozens from Afghanistan in 'Operation Flyaway'
Dozens of desperate Afghans who had been trying to flee the Taliban before Tuesday's deadline for the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul made it to safety with help from an unexpected place: Instagram influencer Quentin Quarantino.
Quarantino is the alter ego of 25-year-old Tommy Marcus of New York City, previously best-known for his liberal memes and his jokes about opponents of COVID-19 vaccinations. Along with his followers, Quarantino raised $7 million within days on GoFundMe to launch rescue missions into Afghanistan to evacuate as many people as possible, many of whom said they had been threatened by the Taliban.
On Wednesday, their mission "Operation Flyaway" helped ferry 51 people from Afghanistan to Uganda on a privately chartered plane financed by the GoFundMe campaign.
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More than 121,000 people had donated to the campaign after Marcus made an appeal to his 832,000 followers, making it one of the largest humanitarian fundraisers in GoFundMe’s history.
"It’s beyond humbling that they have that faith in me, that they’re willing to put significant amounts of money into hands that I trust," Marcus told The Associated Press.
Saraya International, a global development firm, and the Rockefeller Foundation, which both provided organizational support for the flight to Uganda, as well as another company involved with the evacuation, confirmed to the AP that the flight was chartered by the emergency collaboration financed through Marcus' Go FundMe campaign.
"I don’t know what word to use besides miraculous, because it’s restored a faith in humanity," Marcus said. "We’ve shed the political divisions in this situation and really come together from all walks of life to rally together and save these people because .. they don’t deserve what their future holds if they stay in Afghanistan right now."
Those who were evacuated, Marcus said, were women, children, humanitarians and others "who’ve been fighting for the greater good in Afghanistan for a long time," as well as their families. The organizers had said they were seeking to rescue 300 people who, along with their families, were "at imminent risk of being executed by the Taliban."
The team had been met with skepticism from experts who questioned whether they had the capability to pull of such a mission at a time when governments, corporations and charity groups were rushing to get their citizens and employees out of Afghanistan on whatever aircraft they could.
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Marcus' group said more than 350 people have been rescued, with nearly 300 leaving Kabul on other chartered flights that "Operation Flyaway" reimbursed for providing safe passage from the country. A spokesperson for the State Department wrote in an emailed statement that the department appreciates "community-led efforts to support the Afghan relocation and resettlement process, which reflects the generosity of the American people and the international community."
"However, we are unable to verify the authenticity or effectiveness of these efforts," the statement said.
Officials from several nonprofit groups describe a chaotic and perilous scene at the Kabul airport as they rushed to fill private chartered flights with people who have the necessary paperwork in the limited time that they can keep their planes on the tarmac.
"I’m so proud of our extraordinary team and what we were able to accomplish in such a short time," said Sayara CEO Scott Shadian. "I just wish we could’ve done more. Simply put, the institutions failed, and it breaks my heart how much more we could have accomplished. We are grateful we got out as many people as we did against the greatest odds we’ve ever faced."
At the request of the U.S. government, Uganda received the evacuees, who will stay at hotels in a city outside the country's capital, Kampala. Ugandan officials said the nation would shelter up to 2,000 people who are expected to be relocated elsewhere after a temporary stay in the country.
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The chartered flight that left Kabul early Wednesday morning is one of several private rescue efforts being organized by various groups, separately and through collaborations, to help Afghans flee. The flight from Kabul to Entebbe, Uganda, was organized by Sayara, which advised a company working with Marcus that it knew of a plane available for "Operation Flyaway."
Representatives from that North Carolina-based company, Raven Advisory, said they were able to pay for the mission using money raised through Marcus' GoFundMe campaign. The company, which says it performs subcontract work for the U.S. military, said "an all-volunteer team consisting of former Special Forces soldiers and other veterans with expertise in Afghanistan" were working with the military to coordinate their rescue efforts.
Sayara's Shadian said he had met "Operation Flyaway" members on Zoom only earlier in the week and in the chaos of the Kabul evacuations was thrilled they agreed to fund the flight.
"They were one of many miracles we experienced in this time," Shadian said. "Their last-minute funding, along with the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation, Schmidt Futures and other donors, was critical. Without Operation Flyaway's quick funding, that flight wouldn’t have gotten off the ground."
Raven Advisory CEO Sheffield Ford told the AP that in order to transport the people into the airport, the U.S. government has to be "comfortable with our organization saying these people are OK, and that they have actually done things to help their country, to help our country."
Though the deadly suicide bombing at the airport on Thursday complicated their efforts, Ford says those they are helping must have passports, a relative his group can communicate with and someone vouching for them who has passed a background check. The goal, Ford noted, is to ferry Afghan citizens that have been targeted by the Taliban out of the country.
"Our focus was the people who wanted to build their country into something great," he said. "They thought they were going to stay there, with us backing them, for the long haul. It’s going be women that work in journalism and teachers. It could be the young people and older people who have been very outspoken against the different atrocities of committed by the Taliban in the past."
Though crowdfunding has been a welcome tool to mobilize donations during crisis situations, Patricia McIlreavy, president of the Washington-based Center for Disaster Philanthropy, stresses that donors should be cautious when donating to private efforts through these sites.
"There’s not necessarily going to be a public report on where these funds went and how they were used, in the way that a nonprofit — or a 501(c)(3) — is required to by law," she said.
Though rescue flights are now winding down with the pending deadline of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the GoFundMe campaign said it will donate whatever money remains to the Washington-based organization International Women’s Media Foundation. According to organizers, the foundation, which supports female journalists, will use the money to "partner with experienced organizations and experts to support people once they are on safe ground."
Ford was impressed by how quickly millions were raised on GoFundMe for these missions.
""It’s about people coming together to help others," he said. "And it was awesome to see that happen."
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