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For Afghans evacuated to the U.S., a choking fear for loved ones left behind

'There are thousands of families in the same situation ...'

Mohammad Towhid Shirzad is seen here aboard the C-17 evacuation plane that took him and scores of others out of Afghanistan. He was called upon to translate the crew's instructions to the evacuees on board, from English to Dari and Pashto. He's now living at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey.
Mohammad Towhid Shirzad is seen here aboard the C-17 evacuation plane that took him and scores of others out of Afghanistan. He was called upon to translate the crew's instructions to the evacuees on board, from English to Dari and Pashto. He's now living at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey.Read moreCourtesy Mohammad Towhid Shirzad

The only thing Mohammad Towhid Shirzad carried out of Afghanistan was a broken heart.

He wasn’t supposed to be evacuated on that day in late August. He was supposed to get married.

The woman he loves, Shabana, was waiting for him across the city in Kabul. He expected to pick up his groom’s suit, get his hair trimmed, and join his parents and hers for the ceremony and celebration.

Instead, he and the other exhausted flight attendants on his Kam Air team were hustled aboard a giant C-17 Globemaster in a sudden, now-or-never departure, their work with the Americans putting them in danger.

Three days later he was in the United States, living on a military base in South Jersey among thousands of evacuees. On Monday he was approved to depart Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, heading to live with friends in Las Vegas, while his beloved remains 6,800 miles away in Kabul.

Shirzad, 26, doesn’t know when he’ll see her again. Or how she and their parents will survive under the Taliban. He’s depressed, unable to sleep.

“I was expecting to come to the U.S. with my family, happily, without any problem,” Shirzad said. “I left all of them …”

Each of the 53,000 Afghans housed at eight U.S. military installations holds a unique story of escape and survival. What they share is the constant ache of leaving dear family behind — husbands, wives, children, parents, grandparents — and the choking fear of what the Taliban might do to them.

“Many families have been separated,” said Said Ebad Hashemi, the resettlement case manager at Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia, who is originally from Afghanistan. “It’s really tough for them – it’s difficult for them to even talk [about it].”

The presence of their loved ones, or at the least the assurance of their safety, is all that could soothe people here.

“There’s a terrible myth that once people arrive in their host country that all is well,” said Jeanne Felter, chair of the department of Counseling and Behavioral Health at Thomas Jefferson University. “It’s not just saying goodbye to my community, it’s often saying goodbye for the last time to very close family. … There’s layers and layers of loss.”

Almost all of those evacuated to this country worked for the United States in military, diplomatic or development circles, or are related to someone who did. The advocacy group Project ANAR says at least 30,000 people who are at risk were left behind and must be allowed to come to the United States.

“You cannot get calm,” said Mohammad Sadiq Sadeed, a former embassy interpreter now in Philadelphia, describing the dread for family members in Afghanistan.

He’s worked to get people out since coming to the U.S. in 2019, and especially once it became clear that the country could fall to the Taliban.

Last week, his 44-year-old brother and 14-year-old niece arrived in Philadelphia after being released from Camp Atterbury in Indianapolis. That joy was tempered by the reality that his parents and two brothers remain in Afghanistan. One brother is known to the Taliban, having worked for a food-and-services supplier that provided meals to NATO forces.

“There are thousands of families in the same situation,” Sadeed said.

In many cases, relatives who tried to evacuate together were pushed apart in the chaotic crowds outside the Kabul airport. Separation could be as simple — and as life-altering — as one parent making it inside while the other did not. In some families, only certain members who faced threats had permission to leave.

“I’m very happy for those who have arrived,” said Hashemi, who worked more than a decade with international NGOs and the U.S. government. “Everyone deserved to get out of Afghanistan. But we need a second evacuation, a chartered evacuation.”

Immigrant and veterans organizations are publicly demanding that the Biden administration get people out of Afghanistan.

“We have a humanitarian crisis with our Afghan allies that is far from over,” said Scott Shadian, CEO of global development firm Sayara International. “There’s a lot of people still trying to get out, and there’s very few options now.”

The firm managed to organize two ad hoc flights that brought out nearly 800 people from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city about 260 miles north of Kabul that has an international airport.

One flight landed in Qatar on Sept. 21, the other on Oct. 3, carrying Sayara employees and family members along with embassy workers, women’s rights advocates, professors, journalists, student leaders, translators and government officials.

Now Sayara International is trying to organize a third flight.

“We still have a lot of very vulnerable Afghans that need to be taken out [and] there doesn’t seem to be a plan,” Shadian said.

Shirzad’s beloved Shabana — her name means “fragrant flower” — is living with his parents in Kabul. Their video chats confirm the family’s desperation.

As a woman, she’s been forbidden to step outside, he said. The family’s bank account has been frozen. People around them have been threatened.

“The level of safety is very, very low,” Shirzad said.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, his family broken apart.

He had a career as a flight attendant with Kam Air, the Afghan airline. He previously worked for a U.S. government-funded internet-technology project, as a technician for sites in the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Defense.

In August, as the Taliban captured province after province, Shirzad and his crew flew people out of Herat in western Afghanistan to the presumed safety of Kabul. No one imagined the capital could fall.

When it did, on Aug. 15, “We thought we are done, and we will be killed soon,” he said.

He and Shabana made plans to marry as soon as preparations could be made.

On the 23rd, he and several other flight attendants were told to report to the airport to staff an evacuation flight to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.

When Shirzad managed to reach the airport gates, a Taliban gunman cursed and tried to strike him with the butt of a rifle. Other people were lashed with hoses. He barely made it inside. His colleagues limped in one by one.

That single evacuation turned into several flights, continuing over days, with little break, taking Shirzad as far as Uganda. In Kabul, no replacement crews showed up. The American military pushed hard for departures.

On Aug. 26, his wedding day, Shirzad and his sleep-deprived colleagues were told their flight work had concluded — and now they needed to get out of the country while they could. It wasn’t a request. His protests were first denied, then shouted down.

“Go! Get on a plane!” a soldier yelled at him.

Aboard the C-17, Shirzad was called to translate the pilots’ instructions from English to Dari and Pashto for the evacuees. He contacted his family when the flight landed in Qatar that night.

The wedding had gone forward, anticipating his arrival, but the event had turned funereal. His fiancée was weeping. So were his parents. His father-in-law and the guests were furious that the groom had not shown up.

Shirzad spoke to his bride. They accepted each other as husband and wife, and their parents accepted the marriage. A ceremony was conducted by video.

He arrived in the United States on Aug. 29.

“I am sorry that I am not there to help my love, and protect my family,” Shirzad said. “They are not safe. I am looking for any chance and any possible way to help my family to come to United States.”