Hundreds of people across California have started applying to become foster parents in response to an e-mail seeking homes for more than 500 Afghan children and women despite strong suggestions from Afghan and U.S. officials that the drive behind it is fraudulent.
Although no one has seen the children, more than 350 hopeful prospective parents, most of them Afghans, turned up at meetings in Garden Grove, Granada Hills and San Jose over the weekend to learn more and sign up for foster care licenses.
Roughly as many Afghan women as children need homes, according to the appeal.
An organization that helped sponsor the meetings says so many people have contacted it asking about the purported children that further sessions are being scheduled in San Diego, San Francisco and Arizona.
Assadullah Kadir, 51, and his wife, Suhaila, residents of Walnut, were among those who started the foster parent process. The couple have an appointment today to be fingerprinted as part of a background check.
After 21 years of marriage and two miscarriages, the Kadirs remain childless. When they heard about orphans needing homes, they believed it was the perfect solution: They would finally have a child, and the orphan would gain a home and a family who understands the culture, religion and language of Afghanistan.
"I have to do as much as I can to help these kids," the husband said. "The last two weeks, almost every day, four to five hours I am on the phone trying to track these kids. I'm sure we'll find them and I try to be prepared for this situation ... so that as soon as they are brought here, my house will be ready."
Unfortunately for Kadir and others like him, the story of the Afghan children may be no more than a hoax, officials said.
"Our investigations from both the embassy side as well as the investigations done by the U.S. government and FBI have turned up no verifiable truth that orphans from Afghanistan were brought to the United States," said the Afghan Embassy's humanitarian aid officer, Homeyra Mokhtarzada.
"If in fact they were brought over, it counts as human trafficking. It is illegal.... If this is for real, then please bring a child into the public so that people can see them and we can go from there."
Several agencies--from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services to the FBI to the Joint Council on International Adoption Services--reported getting numerous calls about the matter in recent days.
Agency officials said they fear the Afghan American community is the victim of a scam.
"I am very concerned that good Muslim families will have either their hearts broken or their wallets emptied," said Sharon A. Kaufman, executive director of the Joint Council. So far, there is no indication that responding families have been asked to put up money.
State Department officials, who asked not to be quoted directly, said they can find no documentation about large groups of Afghan children, and that international adoptions require considerable paperwork.
Adoptions are not typically allowed during or just after a war because a child's parents may have been displaced by fighting but later reappear, the officials said.
Over the weekend, two meetings about the reportedly available orphans were sponsored by NISWA, a Los Angeles-based Muslim social services agency. The agency signed up more than 120 prospective foster parents at the sessions.
NISWA officials say they hope the accounts of children being brought to the United States are true, which is why they have scheduled the additional sessions in more cities this month. But they also said they are frustrated by their inability so far to confirm the accounts.
The problems began in mid-March when a NISWA representative and several other Afghans attended a meeting at a Van Nuys church. At that meeting, a woman who identified herself as Julie Fahrer and said she belongs to an organization called International Resources told the group she is a Lutheran minister working with military officials to bring children to the United States.
She said the children were flown in to Los Angeles under cover of night and sheltered at a church, and some were later placed in homes.
She distributed handwritten notes describing orphans--heartbreaking details such as "triple amputee," "hoards food," and "frequent crying episodes two to three hours."
In an interview Saturday, Fahrer declined to provide any details about herself, International Resources or the purported children, and referred calls to the FBI and the Culver City Police Department.
"This is very classified information. I cannot talk to you," she said.
Several people at the weekend meetings said they had seen a Web site by a group that reports starting churches in urban areas around the world.
The site includes a biography of a Julie Fahrer of International Resources, which states that Fahrer has worked with refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Romania, Kosovo and Kurdistan. The site's assertions could not be verified.