From Kabul Airport to a Houston Walmart: ‘Desperate to Get to America’

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Members of an Afghan household endured kidnappings, threats and car bombs implicit the decennary they waited for U.S. visas. Now they’re starting a caller beingness successful Texas.

Zar Mohammad Yousafzai and his household  were evacuated from Afghanistan this period  and are settling successful  astatine  their caller   flat  successful  Houston.
Credit...Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Miriam Jordan

Aug. 28, 2021, 3:00 a.m. ET

HOUSTON — As an interpreter moving alongside the U.S. subject successful Afghanistan, Zar Mohammad Yousafzai taught English to Afghan soldiers and Pashto to American troops. He helped negociate agreements with tribal leaders to halt attacks connected Americans and instructed Afghans connected however to usage American weapons.

He dodged mortar attacks and Taliban ambushes and, eventually, repeated decease threats from insurgents who regarded him arsenic a spy. One substance connection read: “You are a traitor. You enactment for the infidels. We are going to termination you.” His 3rd son, conscionable 7 astatine the time, was kidnapped for ransom by militants successful 2017.

On Aug. 14, arsenic the Taliban were storming crossed Afghanistan, his household of 9 was evacuated connected a U.S. subject flight. By the clip they touched down successful Virginia, the insurgents had entered Kabul and taken afloat power of the country.

“Everyone is calling maine and saying, ‘You are a precise fortunate person,’” helium said.

This week, the household was settling into the a caller flat successful Southwest Houston. The ambiance was festive. Brand-new room items, cleaning supplies and toys, donated by a section nonprofit group, spilled retired of ample retention bins. Brishna, 13; Huzzaif, 11; and Murtaza, 2, blew bubbles.

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Credit...Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

But Mr. Yousafzai and his wife, Bibi, disquieted for the destiny of respective brothers, nephews and cousins, who besides had worked for the Americans. The onslaught connected Thursday astatine the Kabul airdrome and the fast-approaching U.S. withdrawal made it little apt that they would get retired immoderate clip soon.

Despite each the trauma, they said, their lone girl present has a aboriginal precise antithetic from the 1 she would person had successful a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. “I tin survey successful schoolhouse and go somebody,” Brishna said.

And for Huzzaif, who was kidnapped 4 years agone and held for ransom, determination would nary longer beryllium immoderate fear. “I tin locomotion comfortably to places,” helium said. “My parent doesn’t person to interest astir maine being stolen anymore.”

The Yousafzai family’s saga with the Americans started successful 2007, erstwhile Zar Mohammad, the youngest and astir educated of six brothers, applied for a occupation with the U.S. military. The wealth was good, and the household believed successful the American ngo to basal retired extremists and make their homeland.

Then 30, helium traveled from his location successful Jalalabad to Kabul, wherever helium easy passed oral and written exams demonstrating his English proficiency.

Soon, helium was attached to U.S. Army units successful Kandahar, a hotbed of Taliban activity, and Zabul Province, wherever the Taliban enjoyed enactment among galore villagers and reaped fiscal rewards from cultivating opium.

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Credit...Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Mr. Yousafzai won accolades for his show and helped 3 brothers, 3 nephews and a brother-in-law unafraid jobs connected bases. With the wage helium earned, helium was capable to physique a two-story conception for his household successful the extended-family compound.

Maj. Austin Bird, who commanded the Army technologist institution astatine the base, appointed him main interpreter. Together, they taught Afghan subject unit however to usage and support equipment, similar bulldozers and backhoes.

Mr. Yousafzai went connected combat missions with Major Bird’s soldiers successful respective provinces, and they came nether occurrence connected and disconnected the base.

But determination were airy moments too, and a relationship blossomed.

“I retrieve celebrating the commencement of his 4th child” successful 2012, Major Bird said successful an interview. “We discussed the joys of fatherhood implicit tea. Zar and I talked astir however large it was to beryllium a begetter and the unsocial joys of having some boys and girls.”

Sometime successful 2011, Mr. Yousafzai was notified by American quality unit that helium was being targeted by insurgents. He should alteration his question routes backmost and distant to the basal and effort to disguise himself, they advised.

He remained devoted to his enactment but became progressively uneasy. He decided to use for a peculiar migrant visa to relocate to the United States.

“When you went home, everybody knew you worked for the Americans,” Mr. Yousafzai recalled.

His satellite became smaller. He avoided leaving home, but to spell to work.

“Quit your job,” said 1 of the texts helium received. “We tin spot you. You are teaching the infidels.”

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Credit...Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

In 2012, his eldest son, Abrar, past 6, was connected his mode location unsocial from a adjacent mosque erstwhile a car approached with 3 men inside. The men called retired to him, and erstwhile helium backed away, 1 of them stepped retired and tried to snatch him. He managed to escape.

Threats against Mr. Yousafzai intensified. He was blamed by members of the assemblage for the sidesplitting of a colony elder by American commandoes.

In 2015, helium discontinue his occupation with the subject and moved to Kabul, wherever helium took a presumption with the authorities arsenic an audit manager, putting his accounting grade to use.

But his troubles were not over. As helium was riding backmost to Kabul from Jalalabad, wherever his household had remained for a time, insurgents sprayed his car with gunfire. He emerged unscathed.

In 2017, Huzzaif was kidnapped portion walking location from schoolhouse with 2 friends. Days went by without immoderate news.

Then a caller with an unidentified fig demanded $200,000 to merchandise the kid alive. On the phone, Mr. Yousafzai could perceive Huzzaif being whipped. The lad cried, begging his begetter to wage the ransom.

Mr. Yousafzai told the caller that helium had $10,000. “You are an plus of the Americans,” the dependable said.

He scrambled to stitchery arsenic overmuch wealth arsenic helium could, borrowing from household and friends, providing fewer details to his woman astir their child, who was being shackled and beaten. The kidnappers acceptable intolerable deadlines — 5 days, 3 days — until they yet accepted $40,000.

Huzzaif, who had been calved with a bosom defect, returned location adjacent much frail. He woke up screaming astatine night.

Mr. Yousafzai moved his household to Kabul.

In 2019, to his dismay, the American authorities denied his exertion for a peculiar migrant visa. He instantly filed an entreaty and reached retired to Major Bird for help.

Understand the Taliban Takeover successful Afghanistan


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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose successful 1994 amid the turmoil that came aft the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan successful 1989. They utilized brutal nationalist punishments, including floggings, amputations and wide executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s much connected their root communicative and their grounds arsenic rulers.

“Why they denied him, I ne'er got a wide answer,” Major Bird, who had written respective proposal letters for Mr. Yousafzai implicit the years, recalled.

By the clip helium was notified by consular officials that his exertion had been approved, successful August past year, helium had been trying to get a visa for 9 years. Still, the process stalled. The coronavirus, which had caused embassy closures, brought consular operations to a standstill.

One nighttime past twelvemonth arsenic they were waiting, erstwhile everyone was accelerated asleep, a car weaponry exploded extracurricular their location successful Kabul. Shrapnel struck heads, knees, arms and chins. The children tin inactive rotation up sleeves and pants legs to amusement scars.

“I was conscionable hopeless to get to America,” Mrs. Yousafzai said.

In precocious July, soon aft Mr. Biden pledged that helium would expedite the departure of U.S. allies, Mr. Yousafzai received an email from the U.S. Embassy informing him that helium could committee a relocation formation to the United States.

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Credit...Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

On Aug. 12, aft Mr. Yousafzai and his woman had tested antagonistic for the coronavirus and each household subordinate had passed a aesculapian exam, the household was notified that they had been booked connected an evacuation formation leaving Kabul connected Aug. 14.

They sold their appliances, mattresses and furnishings arsenic rapidly arsenic they could, telling radical extracurricular their contiguous circles that they were moving to India. Mr. Yousafzai scribbled a resignation letter, which helium asked a workfellow to deliver.

On the appointed day, the household drove to the airdrome and boarded the subject plane, carrying 10 bags loaded with their possessions, including 2 invaluable rugs.

After the processing astatine Fort Lee successful Virginia, they flew to Houston, wherever Y.M.C.A. International Services, a resettlement agency, received them. On Tuesday, they moved into their flat — fractional a satellite distant from everything that had travel before.

Neighbors stopped by to accidental hullo and to thatch Mrs. Yousafzai however to usage the electrical stove, truthful she could cook the naan dough that she had kneaded.

Volunteers from Houston Welcomes Refugees showed up with boxes of items to furnish the family’s caller home. The children gleefully retrieved robots, cars and different toys. As the beds were being acceptable up, Melad, 6, and Murtaza, 2, bounced connected the mattresses.

Mrs. Yousafzai hugged the iron; she admired the crockery, glasses and porcelain bowls arsenic she unwrapped them. “One time I volition talk English and speech to you guys,” she said done her husband.

A substance popped connected Mr. Yousafzai’s telephone from Major Bird, asking for the Yousafzai children’s covering sizes. He planned to sojourn connected Labor Day play with his family.

By Thursday, 5 Yousafzai children were starting schoolhouse — adjacent capable to walk, which was fortunate, due to the fact that the household has nary car.

Yet wrong days of arriving, Mr. Yousafzai was facing a quintessential American occupation arsenic helium juggled drop-offs astatine 3 schools with getting to appointments. “I americium having time-management challenges,” helium said ruefully.

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Credit...Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

On their archetypal outing to a Walmart, everyone was bewildered by the wide enactment of products and the size of the store.

“America does person everything,” Mrs. Yousafzai said arsenic she scanned the aisles.

In summation to basal household supplies, the mates filled the cart with bananas, pears, plums and chromatic cake. In the cooky aisle, they tossed successful a battalion of vanilla Oreos.

Their archetypal American buying spree acceptable them backmost $82.43, which Mr. Yousafzai paid successful cash.

On the mode home, helium muttered that helium needed to find a occupation precise soon.

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