The young women of Ascend were used to spending their days doing yoga, preparing for mountain climbing excursions and teaching women at mosques in Kabul how to read. The organization, which promotes climbing and community service for Afghan women from 15 to 24, had been growing and this year moved into a new facility that allowed it to offer more workshops and classes.

After the Taliban swept through Afghanistan this week, retaking control after two decades as the Afghan government collapsed, most of Ascend’s participants have been sheltering at home in fear of reprisal. Some have destroyed documents that would associate them with the Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit group and are pleading for assistance from its leadership to help them find refuge in other countries.

“We haven’t slept since Friday,” Ascend Executive Director Marina LeGree said from Italy in a phone interview. “We are spending all of our time putting together lists and calling friends and trying to angle to get people where they need to go, gathering all the right documents and filling out forms and navigating the bureaucracies of any country that will consider them so that we can get people out.”

Plans for the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan had been public since last year, when the Trump administration reached a deal with the Taliban and set the stage for the departure. President Biden settled on the August deadline and in July said the prospect of the “Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country” was “highly unlikely.”

LeGree, who started Ascend in 2015, operated with those assertions in mind.

“We didn’t panic because we believed that the Afghan government would defend the country and that there would be more of an effort made to save Kabul,” LeGree said. “I didn’t think about it in those terms of saving Kabul either — I thought some of the provinces will go to the Taliban but Kabul will not — and it happened so fast … so it was quite a shock. We’re pretty much hung out to dry right now.”

LeGree said some of the girls in the program are hiding in their houses, trying to evade the Taliban. Other Ascend members have relocated to other homes, fearful of neighbors who may reveal their affiliation with an American organization.

LeGree and her staff have spent the past few days communicating with Ascend members, doing safety checks and helping to organize the necessary documents to facilitate safe departures from the country. They also have appealed to government officials — and tapped their personal networks — in an unsuccessful attempt to assist their colleagues’ escape. They recently extended their pleas beyond American officials, appealing to those in several other countries, mostly in Europe, which have begun accepting Afghan refugees.

Complicating matters, LeGree said, is the reality that some of the women have gotten rid of their computers and “they’re starting to delete everything from their phones.”

“Doing paperwork is really just out of the question at this point,” she added. “Some of our girls are in a home where there is known Taliban right across the street, so when I call them, they’re closing all the doors and windows and whispering into the phone. So am I really going to call them and be like, ‘Hey guys, on line 3-C, you had one digit wrong.’ It’s ridiculous, and it makes the U.S. look very cold. … If people are in distress, you can’t be filling out Excel spreadsheets, asking for a whole bunch of documents that they can’t get. And that’s exactly what’s happening now.”

Ascend was founded with the goal of building confidence and expanding horizons for young women in a country where, under previous Taliban control, girls could not attend school and women risked assault for walking unaccompanied in public places.

LeGree came to appreciate Afghanistan after spending the early years of her international development career in the mountainous country. Seeking to develop role models and active participants in a changing society, she thought ice, rock and mountain climbing would provide the perfect sports to help Afghan girls realize their potential.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, a former NPR Kabul bureau chief, is writing a book on the women in Ascend. She told Texas Public Radio that she has had to exercise caution in contacting its members, and she believes the Taliban could cut off their Internet connection.

“For those of us who have been in contact with these girls and are trying to help them, we’ve actually been very conscientious about changing our Facebook settings — our social media settings — so the Taliban can’t troll for them because this is a real issue right now,” she said.

While LeGree and her team have been unable to help any Ascend climbers flee the country, they nearly secured the escape of two girls.

The girls arrived at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with their families Wednesday evening, approved for a military flight, according to LeGree. But she said the soldiers at the gate, grappling with huge mobs, denied them passage because of a miscommunication over the accepted paperwork.

In a news conference in Kabul on Tuesday, Taliban leaders promised not to discriminate against women as they resume control — a pledge met with skepticism by experts.

LeGree is now reckoning with the possibility of operating the group within Taliban constraints.

“They say that they’ll allow activities like working on women’s health, so we will take a specific angle, whatever we’re permitted to do,” she said. “We need to stop treating the Taliban like the boogeyman that we just can’t even look at. They’re in charge now, they’re there . . . so my plea to the world right now is don’t get so caught up in the good guys and bad guys and ‘It’s all over,’ kind of a thing. We need to stay engaged. Afghans are humans . . . and I want us to be there and stand with them.”