Conversations with God: Afghan evacuees in Philly say faith sustains them amid upheaval
Many Afghans who made it to America endured harrowing escapes in which they could have been injured or killed, say their faith is of central importance, perhaps even more so now.
The American troops shouted over the chaos of the crowds, Ahmad said, telling him to get inside the Kabul airport while he still could.
The air was panic, Western governments warning of imminent terrorist attacks.
“Come to us!” the soldiers yelled from a gate.
No, Ahmad called back — his father and mother. He begged the soldiers to leave their post and help pull his parents up the side of a drainage canal, so the family could evacuate Afghanistan.
The older man was too weak to climb, the mother hardly stronger.
“Go forward,” the father insisted to Ahmad, settling the matter. “Go, my son. We are fine. Just go forward.”
Their hands came apart. Ahmad hustled to the gate. Hours later a suicide bomber triggered his vest and an explosion ripped through the crowd, killing scores of civilians and 13 American troops.
The trauma of that Aug. 26 separation followed Ahmad — his surname is being withheld for his family’s safety — all the way to America, to temporary quarters on a military base in Indianapolis, and from there to a hotel room in Philadelphia, where he awaits resettlement with his wife and younger brother.
His faith followed him too.
In an interview at the Marriott Residence Inn in Center City, he was asked, having suffered dramatic upheaval, dislocation, and danger, after losing country, family, and friends, what does he say to God?
Is he furious? Grateful? Bitter?
It might seem an odd question in a country where 30% of Americans claim no religious affiliation.
But for Afghans — 99.7% are Muslim, praying five times a day — their relationship with Allah is of central importance, perhaps never more than now.
“I’m praying for God to help me,” said Ahmad, 26. “To take the problems out.”
He’s angry about the circumstances that split his family, that left his parents behind and, because of his father’s military ties, in danger of Taliban reprisals.
But “there is no anger for God,” he said. He’s thankful that despite decades of war and a perilous evacuation, “I’m still alive.”
The largest resettlement since the end of the Vietnam War continues to unspool across the United States, with the Philadelphia region playing a central role in welcoming Afghan evacuees — and government and military officials recognizing the importance of Muslim religious belief within that effort.
At Philadelphia International Airport, which has received more than 30,000 evacuees as the main national landing hub, a section of the reception area was specifically designated for prayer.
It’s the same at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey, one of the military installations that’s providing temporary housing for evacuees awaiting resettlement. Two big tents were erected to serve as mosques for men and women in “Liberty Village,” which currently hosts 6,100 of the roughly 9,000 evacuees on the American bases.
Prayer rugs and Qurans continue to be regular requests on the wish lists of families and resettlement agencies.
“Afghans, their history of faith is strong,” said Mullah Mohammad Yunas Saleh, who long led prayers at Masjid Omar Al-Farook in East Frankford. “They never left their faith, no matter what’s happening in Afghanistan.”
Muslims believe Allah is the one true God, transcendent, omnipotent, and merciful, the creator of the world and everything in it. Allah is infinite, the Quran teaching that he has 99 names, each tied to a certain attribute and all making him more accessible.
When Muslims pray, facing the direction of Mecca, it’s the chance to praise and thank Allah, and also to offer du’a, a specific personal request for guidance, help, or protection, explained Zain Abdullah, an associate professor in the religion department at Temple University and an authority on Islamic studies.
“The idea of being blessed, of having your prayers answered, is not all about the material items you’re able to collect,” he said. “What’s important is the peace that you get, the internal peace.”
Most Afghans who made it to America arrived with only the clothes on their backs, and many endured harrowing escapes in which they easily could have been injured or killed.
Saharnaz Muniri and her family barely made it out.
In the days after the government fell, she said, Taliban gunmen roamed the streets outside their house. Some people were dragged from their homes. Others were killed. Her father was in particular danger, she said, because he worked with the U.S. government.
Their evacuation commenced a four-month odyssey that took them to a refugee camp in Qatar, where food and water were limited, then to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
“We didn’t forget our prayers,” said Muniri, 25. “We were praying five times a day.”
She, her mother, and sister wore their hijabs even in Qatar’s broiling heat, she said, the headscarves demonstrating submission to God.
In November the family of five, including her father and brother, moved into a house in the city’s Holmesburg neighborhood. Muniri continues to be awoken by nightmares of their flight from Afghanistan.
Never does she cast blame toward Allah, she said. Just the opposite.
“We believe [our escape] was all from Allah, and he helped us to make it,” Muniri said.
Others say their faith has been a calming constant amid the turmoil of evacuation and resettlement.
“My relationship with God has not changed. But my idea about religion totally changed,” said Mahdi Ahmadi, a 25-year-old former Afghan forces helicopter pilot, now on the South Jersey base. “The Taliban totally brings something [wrong] from Islam. The Taliban is always calling us infidels.”
His daily prayers offer reassurance, Ahmadi said. In some ways he can’t believe all that’s happened.
He reached Kabul on Aug. 13, as Kandahar fell behind him. Two days later the Taliban entered the capital. He was told the war was over, to prepare to evacuate.
Soldiers and airmen were burning their uniforms and even their medals, knowing detection by the Taliban meant death. The symbols of his devotion to Afghanistan went up in smoke.
“When I was burning them,” Ahmadi said, “I was burning myself.”
He misses flying helicopters, misses being up in the sky, he said. From his room on the base he can see U.S. choppers conducting practice runs.
“I’m thankful from God — my life belongs to him,” Ahmadi said. “Thankful to be alive and healthy and in one piece.”