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Philadelphia-area Afghans wait with anxiety and hope for their loved ones’ safety: ‘This didn’t have to happen this way’

Just getting inside the airport building in Kabul has been an ordeal for those trying to leave.

Owner Abdul Qayum posed for a portrait at his restaurant Jahan Kabob & Grill in Morrisville, Pa. Qayum came to the United States at 21 years old, but still has extended family in Afghanistan, including his sister's family in Kabul.
Owner Abdul Qayum posed for a portrait at his restaurant Jahan Kabob & Grill in Morrisville, Pa. Qayum came to the United States at 21 years old, but still has extended family in Afghanistan, including his sister's family in Kabul.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia-area Afghan Americans with loved ones stranded in Afghanistan have been glued to their phones and televisions the last five days, their minds racing as they watched Taliban fighters invade their relatives’ hometowns — and their stomachs in knots as the U.S. government’s hastened evacuation plan remained frenzied.

But on Wednesday, a sliver of relief came for some, as notice arrived that their family members’ evacuations were already underway or had been approved.

Among the evacuees: U.S. citizen Farhad, his wife, and their 1-year-old daughter. According to Farhad’s brother Ehsan Wedee, after a failed attempt Tuesday to reach Hamid Karzai International Airport — in which they were badly beaten by security — the family successfully left Kabul on Wednesday on a flight to Qatar. Wedee asked that his brother’s last name be withheld so as not to compromise the family’s security on the way home.

“Everybody is relieved that they’re out of there,” said Wedee, whose family immigrated from Afghanistan to Philadelphia as refugees in 1992. “We were very scared and worried, but we are good now.”

» READ MORE: In a Kabul under Taliban control, Philly-area Quakers try to get one man out to safety

Philadelphia-born businessman Amir, his wife, and their 20-month-old daughter finally made it inside the airport Wednesday morning after two previously failed attempts, and were placed on a flight to Qatar later that day, said Amir’s mother, Khadijah, who asked that her family’s last name be withheld to protect their safety.

Thursday morning, Amir called his mother through WhatsApp video to share the news of their arrival in Qatar. Despite the spotty connection, Khadijah said she could still make out his beaming smile and see her granddaughter sleeping on a floor mat inside of what looked like a military warehouse or hangar.

It’s unclear when and where either family would arrive. Ehsan said his brother would likely come to Philadelphia, and Khadijah said she was cleaning the guest room of her Delaware County home in preparation.

The days leading up to these moments, particularly making it inside the airport, were chaotic and dangerous. The U.S.-controlled airport had no system in place for those approved to leave to safely enter the building, and the Taliban’s perimeter checkpoints kept out some people entirely. Many evacuation flights departed partially empty due to the chaos at the airport gates.

Pentagon officials Tuesday pledged to ramp up evacuation efforts, increasing the U.S. military footprint in Kabul by the end of the day. By Wednesday afternoon, about 2,000 people — 325 of them U.S. citizens — had been evacuated from the Kabul airport, the Washington Post reported. These numbers still fall behind the 5,000 to 9,000 people the Biden administration has said it could evacuate daily from Kabul through Aug. 31.

» READ MORE: Could we have done more? Veterans share mixed feelings about U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

Farhad grew up in Philadelphia then returned to Kabul seven years ago. He and his family went to the airport Tuesday morning at the direction of U.S. Embassy officials, Wedee said. But when they presented their paperwork and passports to airport security outside, they were denied. When they tried to plead their case, security beat and shot at them, Wedee said. A bullet grazed Farhad’s arm, and the family was forced to shelter behind a wall, his brother told The Inquirer.

They returned home and received a second notification from the embassy that night.

Amir’s family had two failed attempts to get into the airport after receiving evacuation approvals by the State Department, Khadijah said. The first attempt was late Saturday. The family was trapped in the throng of people at the airport, and Amir’s wife had to cover their daughter’s eyes as they walked over dead bodies to escape.

“This didn’t have to happen this way,” Khadijah said.

Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, director of PRIME — Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees, a Havertown-based nonprofit that provides legal counsel for refugees — said her ex-husband, Anwar, and his wife and 6-year-old daughter also finally made it inside the airport late Wednesday, but have been waiting at a gate for upward of 12 hours with no information.

Anwar, 82, has a U.S. passport, and his wife has an approved I-130, which is the first step toward receiving a green card. Their daughter has an Afghan passport. The Inquirer is withholding their last names to protect the family’s safety.

Anwar, who was formerly the head of the economics department at the University of Kabul and did research at the University of Pennsylvania after fleeing Afghanistan in 1979, uses a wheelchair, is deaf and vision-impaired, and has a pacemaker. Hinshaw-Thomas is worried that remaining in the airport much longer could endanger his health, but she’s holding out hope that the State Department comes through.

“Their lives are in danger if they stay there,” she said.

For Afghan immigrants and refugees in the Philadelphia region, witnessing the government’s collapse and the humanitarian crisis unfurl from afar has been painful.

“It’s just, this is my people, you know? I’m sad and I’m speechless,” said Abdul Qayum, owner of Jahan Kabob in Morrisville.

Taking a break from slinging hot kofta and kabobs at his Bucks County restaurant, Qayum said his heart sank as he watched the video on the news of hundreds of Afghans running alongside a U.S. military plane departing Kabul on Sunday.

“I look at my people: young, baby, old, woman, man. They’re running to the airport to go where? It’s like when you’re in the ocean and you think you can grab something to hold on, but it’s ocean all over,” he said.

Qayum, who fled his hometown of Kandahar as a teen in 1979 as Soviet troops invaded, has spent the last days checking in with family and friends in Kabul and Kandahar, watching the country he loves once again fall into crisis 6,800 miles away.

Qayum’s sister and her family live in Kabul and own a construction business. Because they don’t have direct ties to government or humanitarian work, he said, they don’t feel in immediate danger. On Wednesday, Qayum said they tried to flee to neighboring Pakistan, but the border had closed.

Qayum said his sister worries particularly about what the Taliban’s presence means for her rights and safety as a woman.

Qayum, like many Afghans, said he’s watched his homeland — rich in resources and surrounded by competing political empires — rocked by centuries of conflict. Still, he remembers his last visit to Kabul in 2013 fondly: surrounded by family and a beautiful landscape, eating ripe eggplant, juicy pomegranates, and grapes.

“I love my country. When there’s peace, the mountains talk to you, the rivers will talk to you and bring the memories. … Afghanistan has a lot of treasure there.”

For Wazhmah Osman and Marjan Osman Gartland — cousins whose families also fled the Soviet-Afghan war in the early 1980s and now live in Philadelphia — actively raising money and awareness for those in Afghanistan or looking to flee has made them feel less powerless in the crisis.

For Osman, 47, a writer, filmmaker, and assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University, that has meant working with the Afghan-American Artists and Writers Association to raise funds for creatives and humanitarian refugees fleeing to bordering counties. She’s been in and out of touch with friends and research subjects in Kabul — journalists, artists, and activists — who she said are “directly in danger because of their beliefs and the work that they have done in the last 20 years trying to create a just, progressive, and peaceful Afghanistan.”

Gartland, who works at the University of Pennsylvania as director of design for the university life division, said her family has connected with family and friends in Kabul, wiring them money and sending messages. On Monday, her family stopped picking up checks from the bank, afraid to leave their homes.

“Everyone, I think, is just really just scared of leaving the house now that they know that the Taliban have officially taken over the government and the Afghan government has left,” Gartland said, adding that she worries for the women and girls afraid to leave their homes.

Under previous Taliban rule more than 20 years ago, women faced violence from extremists, were not allowed to work or attend school, and had to cover their faces and be accompanied by a male relative if they left home. The United States on Wednesday joined 20 other nations in calling for the protection of women and girls in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The group has said it will now be more tolerant toward women, but many are skeptical.

Osman and Gartland both noted that while the Taliban overtook Kabul at lightning speed last weekend, it’s important for fellow Americans to remember that the current crisis was preceded by centuries of upheaval.

The cousins said that while they agree with the U.S. troop withdrawal, parts of President Joe Biden’s speech Monday stung as it felt to them like a devaluing of efforts Afghans have made toward peace and progress over the last decades.

“I don’t think people really know the gravity and the history that this country has endured for so long,” said Gartland. As a young child, she attended protests in Washington against the U.S. response to the Soviet-Afghan war.

Last weekend, for the first time in years, Gartland, 41, returned to protest outside the White House.

“It was the first time I really saw this multigenerational diaspora of Afghans in the D.C. area again, and it felt like this generational trauma that we’re experiencing,” she said. “Here we are again, we didn’t learn from history, and we’re out here again, asking for the same thing.”