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Miracle in Kabul: Philly Quaker congregation helps rescue Afghan interpreter from crumbling homeland

'It was an answer to prayer,' said Meeting member Ann Marie Wolf-Schatz. 'Everyone’s teamwork, pulling together.'

David DiFabio speaks about the Meeting's efforts to get his friend Bashir, an Afghan interpreter, to safety after the Taliban took over the country.
David DiFabio speaks about the Meeting's efforts to get his friend Bashir, an Afghan interpreter, to safety after the Taliban took over the country.Read moreFor The Inquirer

Yeah, David DiFabio said as he stood outside the Plymouth Quaker Meetinghouse on Sunday, it’s a miracle.

His friend Bashir got out of Afghanistan.

One man, one life, one future, plucked from the violence of Kabul and from direct Taliban death threats, airlifted to safety on a giant C-17 military plane. One man who worked years for the American forces, rescued by peaceful Quakers who wouldn’t give up even when hopes fell, and by the ex-military officers, Army leaders, Pennsylvania elected officials and nonprofit groups that jumped in to help in this country and that one.

Bashir, 31, a former interpreter, arrived in Qatar late last week. He’s now at the Al Udeid Air Base in Doha.

“Here is very good food,” Bashir wrote in an email. “I didn’t eat for three days. … God bless you all my friends.”

The Inquirer is withholding Bashir’s full name for safety reasons. He became friends with DiFabio, an Air Force veteran, when the Quaker was a civilian communications contractor in Afghanistan.

In Plymouth Meeting, about 25 people gathered at the Meetinghouse on Sunday for worship, expressing relief and gratitude for the work that took Bashir to safety.

“It was an answer to prayer,” said Meeting member Ann Marie Wolf-Schatz. “Everyone’s teamwork, pulling together. Unlikely people pulling together.”

Miles away, several hundred more evacuees from Afghanistan were expected to land at Philadelphia International Airport, following the 505 who arrived on Saturday.

Bashir worked with U.S. armed forces at the Kandahar air base for more than a decade. But visa paperwork that included multiple recommendations from military supervisors apparently was rejected because of an error that undercounted his years of service, leaving him stranded.

For 12 days, a cat-and-mouse bid for freedom played out, visible in daily strings of emails, as Quaker friends and military contacts worked to secure his passage out of danger.

“There were moments we were elated and thought this was all going to happen,” said David Miller, of the Plymouth Quaker Meeting, “and within six hours we thought we had lost him.”

In his first bid to reach the Kabul airport, surrounded by crowds of thousands of desperate people, Bashir left safe hiding and moved to a place nearby. But more Taliban patrols came onto the streets, forcing him to retreat to his earlier shelter.

In the meantime, flights were leaving and the days ticking toward the Biden administration’s Aug. 31 deadline.

DiFabio, working with a military extraction team, helped get Bashir inside the Baron hotel, on the edge of the airport.

But there things seemed to stall. Talk turned to trying to get Bashir out by land, maybe by going north on Highway 1, and from there to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. But that road is risky and subject to Taliban attacks and ambushes. And the airport was so close.

The nonprofit group No One Left Behind, which helps former Afghan interpreters, was working to secure a flight. U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean’s office never let up, her staff identifying a paperwork error that apparently blocked Bashir from getting a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, which qualifies interpreters for evacuation.

Sen. Bob Casey and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania reached out to the Defense Department, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security

Then, a breakthrough in Kabul: Bashir was given a password. Get to the troops guarding the airport, he was told, and speak this word.

At about 9:30 a.m. Philadelphia time on Thursday, Bashir sent an email to his friends in Montgomery County:

“I’m on the plane,” he wrote. “I think they are going to Qatar.”

And nine hours later, “I’m in Qatar.”

Bashir helped the American war effort at the Kandahar Air Field and at Camp Nathan Smith, a military base there.

“He served patrol leaders and supported their interactions with tribal leaders and Afghan military forces,” Lt. Col. Elliot Harris wrote in a 2016 memo. “These efforts placed him in grave danger with the Afghan population that supported the Taliban; however, he continued to provide good support to the military.”

The Taliban left Bashir a threatening note that identified him by name.

“For many years you have been working for infidels and their puppet government,” the note said, warning Bashir to start supporting the Taliban with guns and money.

He didn’t.

People often think Afghan interpreters are fatigue-clad soldiers, working beside American troops to translate battlefield communications. Many do, but thousands also work in scores of other jobs for U.S. federal agencies and contractors.

At least 300 interpreters and family members have been killed in recent years because of their ties to the United States.

It’s not clear where Bashir goes next.

He has a visa that would let him go to Canada, but as of yet no permission to come to the United States. DiFabio said he and others are working to secure that.

He and Bashir have known each other since 2003, when Bashir was a boy of 13.

DiFabio first met Bashir’s uncle at a local bazaar where the family ran small businesses. They became friends, visiting for tea and conversation. DiFabio came to know the whole family. They kept in touch from a distance, and in person when the American returned to the country in succeeding years.

If Bashir comes to the United States, DiFabio said, he can stay with him and his wife until he gets settled. DiFabio has already sent him the address in Pottstown.