Warrior Angels Rescue, which began as an effort to rescue her own family, has grown exponentially
By Pamela Dozois
In 2017, Valerie Edmondson Bolaños stepped out of her comfort zone and threw herself into the Category 5 winds of Hurricane Maria, which devastated her home island of Puerto Rico, where her family members still lived. Since then, it is remarkable what one Solvang woman and her team of volunteers have accomplished.
Edmondson Bolaños started a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and founded Warrior Angels Rescue in the immediate aftermath of that storm. What began as an effort to rescue her own family grew exponentially.
The following year, her team airlifted residents affected by the 1/9 Montecito debris flow, and in 2020 responded to the international border shutdowns at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, evacuating Americans stranded in Peru and other countries, such as Ecuador and Ghana.
Warrior Angels Rescue is now evacuating girls, women and their families from the humanitarian crisis that is escalating in Afghanistan after United States forces withdrew, leaving Americans and those who helped the U.S. for more than 20 years stranded in the midst of a violent takeover. To date, Warrior Angels Rescue has secured safe harbor to evacuate more than 450 people from Afghanistan, mostly women and girls who were at a high risk of danger, and they are about to rescue 300 more.
“Sometimes our darkest moments bring out a strength of purpose from within us,” said Edmondson Bolaños. “The eye of Hurricane Maria went straight through Humacao, the town where I was born and sliced right across Puerto Rico exiting through Dorado, the town where my family lives.
“I knew I had to get my family off the island after I lost contact with them for 36 hours. When I did finally speak to my cousin, she had no idea of the scale of devastation that Maria had left in its wake. She had no clue that the entire island was completely without power. There was no communication at all. She had to climb to the top of a mountain to make cell phone contact with me. I just knew I had to evacuate them. That’s how it started and it just snowballed from there.”
The seeds of her effort were planted when Edmondson Bolaños realized she had a couple of extra seats.
“Once I figured out how to charter a plane, a six-seater, which was enough for my four family members, I didn’t want the two vacant seats to go to waste,” she said. “I went on social media asking if any medical patients needed to get to the mainland, and the response was overwhelming.”
Edmondson Bolaños’ sister had just given birth in California, with complications, to a baby girl named Olivia Joy four days before, so she had a soft spot in her heart for a high-risk pregnant woman who was seeking help. She donated the two remaining seats to a very pregnant woman and her young son, while the husband remained behind in Puerto Rico.
“Coincidentally, the passenger on the first flight gave birth one month to the day, to the hour, on October 16, safely in Florida, and named her new baby Olivia Jean, the same first name as my niece,” Edmondson Bolaños said. “We call these little miracles ‘godwinks,’ like when your grandfather winks at you from across the dinner table and you know you are loved and he’s there for you. I have experienced so many godwinks in the evacuations we’ve led so far.”
Edmondson Bolaños didn’t plan on starting a nonprofit organization, but when she put out some feelers for those two empty seats on the plane, the response was so overwhelming that she knew she needed more planes. There were so many people who desperately needed to get off the island to survive.
“My friend, Abby Hollingsworth, started a GoFundMe campaign which raised $100,000 in no time and it took off from there,” she continued. “A couple of weeks later we established ourselves as a nonprofit with the help of a law firm in New York called Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, a well-established and respected law firm which has a nonprofit incubator.
“They contacted us and offered to help us get set up, on a pro bono basis. We were immeasurably grateful for their help, because once we were a 501(c)(3), it opened up more funding opportunities and possibilities because donations are tax deductible.”
Edmondson Bolaños said that from the very beginning, the nonprofit never had to proactively make an effort to fundraise or get media coverage or legal assistance.
“At first, we spent our own money to fund the flights, but when people found out what we were doing, they genuinely wanted to help and that’s the way it has been ever since,” she said. “It made me realize that we could get a lot done using 100 percent volunteers. One hundred percent of every donated dollar goes to the actual cost of getting people to safety. I also think that having an all-volunteer team guarantees that the work we are doing is from the heart, and that’s important. That’s the reason our team is unstoppable.”
Since August 2021, Edmondson Bolaños and the Warrior Angels Rescue team have been evacuating and resettling girls, women and their families from the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Afghanistan. The messages and videos she is receiving directly from the families on the evacuation lists, she said are “just horrifying.”
“Afghanistan is in a state of upheaval. It is chaos by design, for power and control,” she said. “There are different factions, such as Haqqani, ISIS-K, and the Taliban, who are vying for power and that makes it even more dangerous for the people caught in the crossfire.”
Edmondson Bolaños explained these groups use evil tactics strategically, to divide and disempower. They hung one of their evacuees by one leg for three days. Women are being killed for showing even the slightest bit of skin; one was shot for wearing jeans, an American symbol, under her burqa, another for wearing the wrong shoes. All women and girls have to wear burqas, which cover every inch of their bodies, with a screen for seeing and breathing.
“Women are stoned, beaten or killed for any perceived infraction by the Taliban. As far as they are concerned, there are only two places for women – in the house, or in the ground,” she said. “Any young girl who has dreams and aspirations is at risk. They are in grave danger in Afghanistan. Girls and women are forced to stay in their homes and serve the extended family and have zero aspirations and can be sold by desperate relatives.
“The Taliban want to completely exclude women from their society. ‘Death notices’ are placed on the doors of suspected American supporters, which demand that they report to be killed on a certain day and if they don’t report, then their families will be killed.”
Edmondson Bolaños said the Taliban are targeting the upper and middle classes, the educated and professionals in order to quash any potential viable resistance to their takeover, so most people have gone into hiding. This means that most of the mechanisms that keep a society going are completely shut down.
The Taliban are also trying to root out those who have worked with the U.S. forces when they were still on the ground. They torture and beat them publicly, while abducting and interrogating those who they think had close ties or worked directly with the U.S. forces, according to Edmondson Bolaños.
“The middle class, the educated, and those who can, are leaving their homes behind, hiding out in less conspicuous areas, such as abandoned homes that have been bombed, with no windows, gaping holes and no electricity, while trying to get to the border of Pakistan or Iran,” she said. “They are under direct threat of starvation and death from the cold winter months. There is little to no heat, the economy is shut down along with the monetary system, and food is scarce.
“The Taliban have been bombing the power grid and there is sporadic internet access. There are few resources, they’ve had zero income since August, and they are actively being hunted down. We are providing them with coal, wood, oil, tons of blankets and solar chargers for their cell phones, so they can keep in touch with us.”
However, the efforts of Edmondson Bolaños and her volunteers still face major hurdles.
“We can’t send planes into Kabul to rescue anyone because the Taliban would kill them. We can land at the airport but we can’t get the people out that way,” she said. “They have to make it across the border to other countries such as Pakistan, where they are extensively vetted and administered COVID vaccinations.
“We can then issue papers for them through the Pakistan government guaranteeing that they will only remain in Pakistan for 30 days and then they will be transported to other countries, such as Ecuador, which has been amazing, and Spain or Portugal, countries that will guarantee them a safe harbor for one year while their paperwork and visas are processed.”
Warrior Angels Rescue has also gotten assistance from the neighbors to the north.
“Canada has been wonderful and has taken in, with permanent asylum, hundreds of our evacuees, resettling them in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan,” Edmondson Bolaños said. “We are corresponding with the State Department and trying to cut through all the red tape and bureaucracy that doesn’t lend itself to responding as quickly as possible, as swiftly as they deserve, for those who have a strong case for protection from, and residency in the U.S.
And the search to find countries in which to place the Afghan people continue for Edmondson Bolaños and her group.
“We are also in touch with countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and the Arabian Peninsula, hoping they will resettle some of the evacuees,” she said. “We have completed two missions so far, of high-risk school children and their families. And we are working to evacuate more than 1,000 more. It is our mission to successfully relocate all of these people into different countries, so they can heal, start anew and contribute meaningfully to their new home countries.”
“The vetting process is essential, to ensure that we are only evacuating families who either supported the U.S. and NATO allies, or hard-working, academically driven girls and women who are being hunted down for daring to have professional aspirations,” Edmondson Bolaños continued. “Warrior Angels Rescue pays for each of the evacuees’ ground and air transportation, guaranteeing that they have safe harbor, a dignified place to stay, Halal food to eat, and all the opportunities to succeed during their stay, even arranging for schooling. Vida School is an education program we started that is bringing them access to a world-class education.”
Presently, Warrior Angels Rescue is focused on children and women. But some people who helped the U.S. in Afghanistan are men and they are also being helped. A medical doctor, a Fulbright Scholar who advocated for women’s health, is just one of many who are at risk, according to Edmondson Bolaños.
Helping women attain equal standing in any way is very dangerous, Edmondson Bolaños said.
While medical care is not completely gone, it is still hard to get under the circumstances. There are simply too many people that are now relying on volunteer medical professionals who are scared, but also want to save lives. Some hospitals are still running, but people are going to work and not being paid. The Taliban keeps them because they are indispensable.
“For 20 years these Afghani people have been living normal lives, they are just like you and me,” Edmondson Bolaños said. “Our evacuees are so motivated to learn; they speak five languages; some are on the national basketball team, or Girl Scout leaders, martial arts champions and Olympians, professional athletes, musicians, science fair winners, doctors, lawyers — what is happening is a ‘brain drain’ from this country.
“There is an entire generation of girls and women who will be lost if we don’t get them out of Afghanistan. They are suffering from depression and crushed dreams. Their beauty and strength are proactively being squashed and killed by the Taliban.”
As with anyone who runs a nonprofit, Edmondson Bolaños is always seeking people willing to donate to the cause.
“There is an overwhelming number of people who need help but there is also an overwhelming number of people who want to help and don’t know how,” Edmondson Bolaños said. “Ten thousand dollars ($10,000) can save a life. One hundred percent of the funds raised by Warrior Angels Rescue goes to the rescue efforts, transportation, housing, food and education along with medical and emotional support for one year or more, helping these people to heal from the trauma and loss they have endured and start a new life.”
For more information, visit www.warriorangelsrescue.org or call 805-295-8906. To donate visit GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/f/evacuate-school-girls-to-safety. For larger donations, wire instructions are available upon request.