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Parents who fled Afghanistan name their new baby for the Philadelphia woman who helped them

“I don’t think anyone has ever helped me that way in my life," the baby's father said.

Selli Abdali is a medical student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She's Afghan by heritage and speaks Pashto, so when Afghan evacuees began arriving at the Philadelphia airport in August, she immediately went to help. A family she helped named their new baby after her, both seen here in a photograph taken at PCOM on Friday morning May 27, 2022.
Selli Abdali is a medical student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She's Afghan by heritage and speaks Pashto, so when Afghan evacuees began arriving at the Philadelphia airport in August, she immediately went to help. A family she helped named their new baby after her, both seen here in a photograph taken at PCOM on Friday morning May 27, 2022.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The baby is just 7 weeks old, not yet aware of how or for whom she was named.

Later on she’ll tell the story to everyone.

How a stranger stepped forward at the Philadelphia airport to help her exhausted parents after their escape from Afghanistan in August, a journey in which most of everything they owned or loved had been lost or left behind.

The person was a medical student, a young woman, Afghan by ethnicity, American by birth, strong by nature.

Selli Abdali, 29, had volunteered to bring her language, cultural and health-care skills to help meet the first evacuation flights on Aug. 28, a vanguard of the planes that would bring more than 30,000 Afghans to Philadelphia.

She doesn’t think she did anything particularly special for the family. She just didn’t like what she was seeing.

And she spoke up, in Pashto and English, to insist to U.S. officials that the families of two brothers, including the father of the unborn baby, must be treated and transferred as they wished, as a single family, not as two separate units.

To Said Ghani Wali and his wife, Zarifa Wali, Abdali’s advocacy meant everything. It proved they would not be left to fend for themselves in a country where they knew neither the language nor the customs.

“I don’t think anyone has ever helped me that way in my life, to make sure I stayed with my family,” the father, Said Ghani Wali, 26, said in an interview from Michigan, where his family has resettled. “I’ve never been in such a difficult part of my life.”

When their daughter was born last month, he said, there was only one choice for a name, the one carried by the woman at the airport — Selay. The difference in spelling is a difference in translators, the way Americans might spell Ann or Anne.

Their name means, Wind. And the parallels of their lives are multiple.

Both are the first American-born members of their families. Both of their families undertook arduous, risky journeys from war-torn Afghanistan, three decades apart. And both, remarkably, share the same birthday, April 12.

“It’s an honor I never thought I would have,” said Abdali, a student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, who intends to become a dermatologist.

The chaotic August withdrawal that ended the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan prompted a massive airlift as the Taliban swept to power. That evacuation of military allies and families took about 124,000 people out of the country, initially to first-stop emergency centers in Germany, Bahrain, Qatar, Spain, and other countries.

Philadelphia International Airport became the nation’s main arrival hub. From there thousands of Afghans were transferred to temporary quarters at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey and to seven other military installations designated as “safe havens.”

The local base housed the equivalent of a small city, with more than 11,000 people living at “Liberty Village” while undergoing processing.

But on that first day, as shaken and weary Afghan families arrived in Philadelphia, Abdali was among the only Pashto-speakers in the airport welcome area. She translated for people, brought them food, asked about medical issues.

She noticed Zarifa Wali, pregnant, laying on a cot on the floor. Three children lay with her.

Abdali made sure they had meals. And tried to offer comfort in a familiar tongue, Pashto being one of Afghanistan’s two main languages.

The official protocol required that pregnant women be sent for evaluation at local hospitals, accompanied by their families.

Said Ghani Wali and his wife wanted to wait for his brother, who was on the same flight but had not yet arrived in the welcome area. When the second family appeared, they too feared separation.

Abdali fell into discussion with U.S. officials responsible for hospital transportation.

As she recalled, they pointed out that sending 14 people to a hospital was problematic. Plus, the names on the brothers’ identification cards were different — many Afghans don’t have last names. And no one knew their exact birth date, a key identification detail in the United States but considered unimportant in Afghan society.

“They said, ‘There’s too many people,’” Abdali said. “I said, ‘Yeah, but how are they going to find each other if the family of eight goes to the base and the family of six goes to the hospital? … This family needs to stay together.”

Abdali raised her voice, insisting that the families’ wish to remain together be respected, growing tearful in frustration.

The Wali family noticed.

“When we saw you cry for us,” the father told her later, “that’s when I knew there were really good people here.”

Finally an Air Force officer agreed to a plan: An airman would take the Wali family to the hospital, then bring them back to the airport, where the second family would await their return.

Typically, families who left the airport for medical attention moved on in the resettlement process, going directly from hospital to military base or to wherever their next stop might be.

Abdali left the airport late that night, drained by an 18-hour day. She returned the next morning to learn that, as promised, both families had moved on together.

Department of Homeland Security officials said last week that they could not immediately comment on any interactions that had occurred.

Abdali continued to volunteer at the airport as flights wound down.

Her family came to this country in 1989, parents and four sons, war refugees who fled Kandahar and landed in New York City. She was born in the Bronx in 1993.

Her father had been a legal prosecutor in Afghanistan. In this country, he sold fruit from a street stand. His wife, forbidden to attend school in her homeland because of her gender, is illiterate, the same as 80% of women in Afghanistan.

From elementary school forward, Abdali’s brothers worked to help support the family, shoveling snow in winter and raking leaves in fall, serving customers in stores that sold bagels and fried chicken.

She was 10 when the family moved to Cherry Hill, the brothers seizing an opportunity to partner with an uncle as restaurant-wholesale distributors. Their business is called American Food, Paper and Poultry LLC.

She’s the only one in her family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Drexel University and now on her way to becoming a physician.

She wants to travel to Afghanistan, to teach girls and women about women’s health issues. And to educate parents about allowing their daughters to attend school and follow their dreams.

She doesn’t know if she’ll ever get there. It’s devastating, she said, that after 40 years of the Russian war and the American war, the country is again under Taliban control and moving backward. Now girls are banned from attending school and women are required to cover their faces.

She heard from the Wali family in December. They resettled in Kalamazoo, Mich., after about three months on the South Jersey base. The brother lives nearby.

The family’s transition has not been easy.

In Afghanistan, Said Ghani Wali worked 12 years for the American forces, repairing firearms for U.S. troops, an association that made him a potential target once the Taliban took over.

In this country, he said, he’s been unable to find a job. Or a doctor who can address his chronic leg problems. The family has struggled to build a relationship with its resettlement caseworker, he said, and mourns the death of two cousins killed by the Taliban.

Keeping in touch with Abdali has been a bright spot, he said.

He phoned in early May, at Eid, which marks the end of the fast of Ramadan.

“I have some news,” Wali told her. “My wife gave birth. I also wanted to let you know, we named our daughter after you.”

Abdali thinks it might be the greatest honor that one person can bestow on another. Imagine, she said, this baby, Selay. If the child should have children someday, she’ll tell them the story. And her children will tell their children.

“To know I made such an impact on their journey …,” Abdali said. “I can see little Selay telling someone, ‘I was named after someone who helped my parents at the airport.’”