(NEW YORK) — Late last year, a former Afghan refugee who has been widely celebrated for his humanitarian work evacuating Afghans and Americans from Afghanistan after the United States’ withdrawal, landed a coveted spot on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list — branding him as one of the country’s so-called “brightest young leaders.”
Safi Rauf, 28, and his nonprofit organization, Human First Coalition, emerged as one of the most notable humanitarian groups from the chaotic period that followed the United States’ pullout from Afghanistan and the takeover by the Taliban in August, 2021. Months into his work, Rauf himself was captured by the Taliban while on the ground in the country and held captive for a harrowing 105 days, and his efforts eventually propelled him into the national spotlight, landing him television interviews, a TED Talk, and backing for his organization from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s foundation.
“I am so incredibly humbled and grateful to be named one of the Forbes 30 under 30 Social Impact,” Rauf wrote on social media in November in response to the news. “I share this recognition with my team in the U.S, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. This is to honor all that they have achieved.”
But now, an ABC News investigation has learned of numerous allegations against Rauf and his organization — none of which have previously been reported. A U.S. government-backed institution has sued Rauf and Human First Coalition, alleging the organization failed to evacuate its employees after it was paid over a half a million dollars for that rescue, and one former volunteer has said she raised questions about how funding to the organization was being spent. The group is also facing accusations that it mistreated some of the refugees it promised to help.
“Safi left us behind,” said one refugee, who asked ABC News not to use her name. “He left us in darkness.”
The refugee, who said that Human First Coalition had assured her of evacuation to a country away from the region after they evacuated her and others from Afghanistan, told ABC News she was instead left stranded for months in a Pakistani safe house where drinking water was cut off and there were no medical services. One attorney who formerly worked with the organization also told ABC News that in a separate instance, refugees were suddenly forced out of a Human First Coalition safe house in Kabul in the middle of the night with their belongings in trash bags.
“There’s a lot of damage that’s been done, and nobody knows the truth,” the former volunteer, Sarah Teske, told ABC News.
In an interview with ABC News, Rauf, who is an unpaid volunteer for the organization, acknowledged that there were instances where the organization “may have fallen short,” but he broadly defended his group’s humanitarian work, saying he “continue[s] to put everything else aside to care for these people.”
“The intent was always to help people, and help we did,” Rauf said. “In some instances we may have fallen short, but considering the circumstances, we did unprecedented work that no other organization in this line of evacuation work has done.”
“Because this work is so messy and complicated, there are a lot of problems that come with it,” Rauf told ABC News. He said that the organization has now shifted its focus to women’s education in Afghanistan, and “will continue to move forward with that mission.”
Recently, a growing number of former “30 Under 30” honorees have come under scrutiny after landing a spot on the coveted list. Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, Sam Bankman-Fried of FTX, Adam Neumann of WeWork, and “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli all earned “30 Under 30” nods before their respective falls from grace. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed fraud charges against Frank CEO Charlie Javice, a 2019 “30 Under 30” recipient — charges that Javice denies. Forbes did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
After first becoming aware of the allegations against Human First Coalition in February, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s foundation, Archewell, halted grants to the organization and contacted government agencies for guidance, an Archewell Foundation spokesperson told ABC News.
The spokesperson told ABC News that the foundation had made a one-time grant to the Human First Coalition in December, 2021, and continues to monitor the situation.
In response, Rauf said he was “exceptionally grateful to Archewell for their support” and “understand their need to do their due diligence when questions arise, of course.”
Rise to fame
Rauf was born and raised by Afghan parents in a Pakistani refugee camp, and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. He attended high school in Omaha, Nebraska, according to multiple online profiles, before enlisting in the military, where he served as an interpreter in Afghanistan. Publicly, Rauf has said he was planning to attend medical school in 2021 when the U.S. announced plans to withdraw from Afghanistan and the Taliban seemed poised to return to power, uprooting his plans.
“So when Kabul fell and then all of these refugees are scrambling and some are, you know, falling from planes and trying to stick on to those planes, trying to get out, I see myself all over again,” Rauf explained earlier this year in an interview with former Daily Show host John Stewart on his podcast, “The Problem with Jon Stewart.”
“I was like, I am not going to watch this while I know I can help them,” Rauf told Stewart. “I know I can do something there. So I got right on it and started evacuating people,”
“I mean honestly,” Stewart told him earlier, “you’re James Bond.”
Rauf and Human First Coalition had early success. At times, they worked with the U.S. State Department for evacuations, Rauf told ABC News. After the United States’ widely-criticized withdrawal from the country, for example, the organization evacuated 117 U.S. citizens on a flight out of Kabul into Abu Dhabi, Rauf told Stewart on the podcast. In October, 2021, the organization made headlines after it said it successfully evacuated President Joe Biden’s former interpreter and over 200 other “at-risk” individuals from the country.
“Safi is my life hero,” said Waheedullah Siddiqi, an Afghan who told ABC News that he and his family were evacuated by Human First Coalition as part of the flight to Abu Dhabi.
“They were so cooperative and so supportive,” said Saddiqi, who said he now resides in Connecticut after spending nearly a year waiting in Abu Dhabi. “I’m so happy. I don’t know how to thank Safi and the entire team for giving us a safe place to live in America.”
Then, in December 2021, Rauf was captured by the Taliban, and held for over 100 days until the Biden administration negotiated his release in April 2022.
“So at this point, President Biden knows me by my first name. So I am on the president’s daily brief every day'” Rauf told Stewart of the harrowing ordeal.
After the Biden administration secured Rauf’s release, CNN’s Jake Tapper landed the first exclusive interview with him.
“I am so glad to see you, this has been such an ordeal,” Tapper told him. “I’ve been following it, keeping in touch with everybody. How does it feel to be back home?”
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Rauf replied on CNN. “It hasn’t settled in yet.”
From there, Rauf shot to mini-stardom within the humanitarian world and beyond. “I became that advocate and that voice for others,” Rauf said in his TED Talk, which has nearly two million views online.
Critics allege ‘horrible’ treatment for refugees
Though his profile skyrocketed upon his return from captivity, Rauf and Human First Coalition began to face scrutiny over allegations regarding some of the organization’s work on the ground, some of which occurred while Rauf was still in captivity. ABC News spoke with numerous people who alleged that troubling treatment occurred in safe houses operated by Human First Coalition in Pakistan and Kabul — including during the group’s high-profile evacuation of the over 200 “at-risk” individuals in October 2021.
Though the evacuation was widely praised at the time, a woman who said she was one of those 200 refugees told ABC News that her experience was no triumph — and that she ultimately remained in Pakistan for months, even though she claims the group said they would help her make her way out of the region.
The woman, who asked not to be identified because she is still in Pakistan, said she spent months living in horrible conditions at a Human First Coalition safe house before it was ultimately shuttered with just one week’s notice.
“They would say, ‘Please wait, you all will be evacuated to the United States very soon, you must be patient,'” the woman told ABC News. “But then they said, ‘You must go, we cannot do anything for you, it’s not our business.'”
At the time, a letter to Human First Coalition penned by 260 refugees alleged that drinking water in the safe house had been cut off, food had caused diseases, and no medical services had been provided outside of “guidance to hospitals,” according to a copy of the May 2022 letter that the woman provided to ABC News. The refugees profusely thanked the organization for their efforts to date, but begged them to “put an end to our miserable situation” that found them essentially stranded in Pakistan.
“Going back to Afghanistan is like suicide for us,” said the letter. “On the other hand, if you were not sure about our evacuation to another country, you should not have brought us here at the beginning.”
At the time of the evacuation, Human First Coalition had publicly thanked Secretary of State Antony Blinken for helping coordinate a “path” out of Pakistan for the group, according to a report at the time. But just days after the letter from the refugees, Human First Coalition gave refugees a seven-day warning that it would shutter the safe house because it “simply [did] not have the funding” to continue operations, according to a copy of the Human First Coalition letter that was provided to ABC News by the refugee.
Human First Coalition also said that while they would continue to advocate with the U.S. State Department for their evacuation, they had “less positive news”: They were “not able to provide any sort of timeline” for evacuation, or even “complete confidence” that the effort would succeed at all, according to the letter.
In his interview with ABC News, Rauf acknowledged that he received complaints about the safe house once he was released from captivity, but said he “followed through completely” on all of them.
“I know there were missteps taken by the ground team, but once those were brought to my attention they were corrected,” Rauf told ABC News.
Rauf also denied that there was a lack of medical care at the Pakistan safe house, and pointed to a receipt and photograph that appeared to show a hospital stay from the time. He claimed everyone who arrived at the safe house received a medical checkup, and that care was provided throughout their stay.
Rauf said that while “people can get upset when they find out that they are not eligible for resettlement,” he insisted he continued to work on evacuation for the refugees and shifted blame to U.S. government for the issue.
“We were operating safe houses, and our No. 1 priority was people safety. We are a private organization, and although we work closely with the government, it’s the government that makes the decision about who is eligible for resettlement and who is not,” Rauf said. “That’s not in our control.”
John Moses, who said he is an independent case manager who has since taken over efforts to provide shelter, food, and a path out of Pakistan for the female refugee ABC News spoke with, said he felt outraged by the way Human First Coalition handled the highly sensitive situation.
“This guy is famous, he’s going on TV, and he’s living the life,” Moses told ABC News regarding Rauf. “All the while, my friend is in Pakistan with no electricity.”
“This work is supposed to be selfless,” Moses said. “[Human First Coalition] had a moral obligation to take care of those people … but they got there and took care of them for as long as they thought was necessary — and then just bailed.”
ABC News heard of a similar experience from Jordan Jones, an American attorney who helps refugees navigate the legal aspects of resettlement but relies on groups like Human First Coalition to physically relocate her clients. In an interview with ABC News, Jones — who said she formerly had a contract with the organization but no longer works with them — said Human First Coalition in one instance left refugees stranded in Kabul.
“I had two high-risk females, and [Human First Coalition] put them in a safe house in Kabul, which turned out [to be] horrible,” Jones told ABC News in an interview. “[Human First Coalition] closed the safe house and threw everybody out on the street in the middle of the night with their stuff in trash bags.”
Responding to those allegations, Rauf told ABC News that the safe house was shuttered due to security concerns.
“We closed all the safe houses because I was in Taliban captivity and my team was worried they would have taken that information regarding the safe houses from me,” Rauf said. “At the time our No. 1 priority was people’s safety, and we offered people to go to hotels. Some people took that offer and some people didn’t.”
A $600,000 dispute
Meanwhile, Rauf and Human First Coalition are entangled in litigation over one of the organization’s evacuation efforts that took place right at the beginning of its founding — efforts that some say never occurred.
A few months before Rauf’s release from Taliban detention, the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan U.S. government-backed foundation working to prevent conflict around the world, accused Rauf and the organization in a court filing of failing to evacuate USIP’s employees from Afghanistan into the Kabul airport, presumably as the government’s airlift was ongoing, in exchange for over half a million dollars.
In court records filed in the U.S. District Court for Nebraska in early 2022, USIP claimed that it wired $600,000 to Rauf’s then-attorney in the early days of the Afghanistan crisis after Rauf “promised” to transport their personnel to the airport. But Rauf “failed” to do so, according to USIP’s claim — and did not return the money.
“[Rauf] offered to return the $600,000 after he failed to transport USIP personnel to the airport or secure their admission to the airport,” USIP claims in its filings, noting they had offered to compensate Rauf $30,000 for successfully evacuating members of the USIP-supported Generation Change Fellows Program. “To date, [Rauf] has not returned any of the contract payment.”
USIP has accused Rauf of breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentations, and is seeking $600,000 in damages plus legal fees and costs. USIP’s claim was filed as a crossclaim in a case brought by Human First Coalition’s former attorney, in which he transferred what he said were the remaining funds from the $600,000 payment into the court’s custody so a judge could determine ownership.
“Safiullah Rauf, Human First Coalition, and Human First LLC had an expressed or implied agreement to commit fraud against USIP,” the United States Institute of Peace claimed.
Rauf and Human First Coalition have denied wrongdoing alleged in the USIP lawsuit. Lawyers for Rauf and Human First Coalition wrote in court records that the organization has “succeeded, after great diligence and effort, in evacuating several USIP personnel from Afghanistan through routes other than the Kabul airport.” Rauf’s lawyer also claimed the funds were a donation to the organization — which USIP disputed.
“Rauf and Human First admit that Rauf has not paid any money to USIP, but explicitly deny any obligation to do so,” the filing stated.
A judge denied Rauf and Human First Coalition’s motion to dismiss USIP’s claims. The litigation remains ongoing.
Rauf told ABC News he expected the case to be “officially resolved” soon, but said he was “not legally permitted to disclose the details.”
A spokesperson for USIP referred ABC News’ request for comment to counsel. George Foote, an attorney representing USIP in the case, declined ABC News’ request for comment due to the case being in active litigation. Jason Grams, USIP’s counsel in Nebraska, also declined to comment.
Former Human First Coalition attorney Jason Hubbard — who filed the original action asking the judge to determine who the remaining money belongs to — declined to comment when reached by ABC News.
$2 million in donations and funding
In total, Human First Coalition raised more than $2 million in donations and funding in 2021, according to the group’s tax returns that were obtained by ABC News. That included the $600,000 payment from USIP and a $150,000 grant from Prince Harry and Meghan’s Archewell foundation, according to the returns.
On the returns, the organization listed $1.4 million in expenses, including over $1.3 million spent on “logistic support” services and approximately $5,000 spent on “humanitarian aid.”
But internally, there appeared to be at least some disputes about where funding was going. Sarah Teske, who served as Human First Coalition’s strategic director in 2021, told ABC News she resigned from the group just a few months into her job, in part after she said she began to raise questions about finances.
“Nobody could tell me where the money was going,” Teske said. “And when people were not able to give me a clear line of sight of where funding was going, and how it was being managed, that is when I started getting very concerned.”
Tekse, a retired U.S. Marine, said that while the group initially did “great work” in the beginning and saved lives, issues with financing arose even before Rauf was captured by the Taliban in December, 2021 — and then, she said, “everything else kind of went south from there.”
Speaking with ABC News, Rauf denied that Teske had raised questions about finances directly to him, and defended his work overall.
“I continue to put everything else aside to care for these people,” Rauf said. “I can do anything with my life, but I chose to do this because I care for these people.”
But in a searing condemnation of the organization’s handling of its funds, an outside firm hired by Human First Coalition to review and analyze its transactions concluded that it had unearthed red flags within the organization that could be linked to wire fraud or money laundering, according to a source familiar with the report who broadly described its findings to ABC News.
While Human First Coalition was formed with good intentions amidst the chaos of its early initiatives, there was poor accounting for donor funds, some of which may have ultimately been misused, according to a description of the findings given to ABC News — and that some of the transactions between bank accounts and individuals associated with the organization were suspicious.
The analysis was also unable to substantiate the amount of individuals Rauf and Human First Coalition have publicly claimed to have helped, due to insufficient record keeping, according to the description given to ABC News — including a claim on Human First Coalition’s website that it had evacuated over 7,000 Afghans.
Rauf told ABC News the firm had been hired by the organization because they “want to know what the issues were and how to fix them,” and that he sat for an interview with the firm as part of the process. He noted the difficulties of conducting humanitarian work in a space that is “not conventional.”
“After the audit, we pulled all the receipts,” Rauf told ABC News. “We did the audit because we wanted to know what’s wrong, what we can fix, and what needs to be corrected.”
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