New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
New Haven man returned to Afghanistan to get his ‘wife and kids out’
NEW HAVEN — An Afghan interpreter for the U.S. military trying to escape Afghanistan with his wife and five children knew he could lie his way through Taliban checkpoints on the way to the airport in Kabul.
But he also knew if they ran into a snag and had to turn around, he couldn’t lie his way back.
If caught, the interpreter,
Atifullah, could have been labeled a traitor, and he, along with family members, could have faced beating, torture or even death at the hands of the Taliban.
“My kids and my wife were terrified,” Atifullah said. “I tried to convince my wife and older kids, if you stay here,” you may never get out. Hearst Connecticut Media is using just his first name for safety reasons.
Taliban rules prohibit a woman from traveling without a husband or other male.
But with bags packed — and no time to spare, the decision was made when Atifullah received clear-cut instructions from a friend in New Haven who had found connections to the State Department to help the family.
That was Aug. 18, just three days after the Taliban took control of the govern
Getting to the airport would be tense.
On Aug. 16, the day after the Taliban came back into power, the group created a checkpoint close to Atifullah’s home.
Those Afghans like Atifullah, also known as Atif, who worked with the U.S. military are considered by the Taliban to be among the biggest traitors, and interpreters — without whom the military couldn’t have carried out its mission — were tops on the list, he said.
At the checkpoint, Atif told Taliban members he was going to the store to buy food and bring it to relatives.
Then, “I had a little concern,” he said, reflecting.
“At one point I was really scared when they asked me to unlock my phone,” he said.
But thankfully, only family photographs showed up.
He had made texts and other communications about the family’s escape hidden, but couldn’t be certain it would work.
After a few grueling days of crowds, long lines, hours of waiting, carrying documentation, sweltering heat, little food and a sick child, 8, who needed medical attention, Atifullah and his family were safely out of Afghanistan.
They are now at Fort Lee, Va., being processed to come to New Haven. An
attack outside the airport in Kabul Thursday killed 13 Americans and at least 170 Afghans.
“I feel extremely happy that my kids are living with me in the United States,” Atifullah said. “That would be really hard for me to not see my family. … I would be worried about their life, their education and their future.”
Atifullah already had been in New Haven a year ago on a special visa to get settled with a job and housing, and planned to return for his wife and children, who range from 2 to 12 years old.
During his year here, Atifullah worked with Integrated Refugee & and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, and former U.S. Army Capt. Mike Kuszpa, now a middle school science teacher in New Haven, with whom he built a special bond in Afghanistan.
The men had became friends — Atifullah was his interpreter — then like brothers. Atifullah was Kuszpa’s “eyes and ears” – always on his right side to interpret during Kuszpa’s tour of Afghanistan between 2004 and 2005. The two traveled in a four-door Ford Ranger with about 15 Afghan soldiers in the back.
Their goal was to confirm or deny the presence of any extremists, including the Taliban.
Together they went on missions in the most remote and dangerous areas of Afghanistan; they survived several ambushes together and had close calls
with improvised explosive devices.
Kuszpa said when his then-baby daughter was hospitalized in intensive care, Atifullah made sure there was always a cellphone at Kuszpa’s disposal to check on her condition.
Kuszpa said that because Atifullah was the communicator to the troops, he knew everything, including classified military information and every next move in the mission.
“I trusted him with my life,” Kuszpa said. “He had great pride in the country (Afghanistan) and he wanted to see it succeed.”
Since Atifullah has been in New Haven, the two have socialized often — boating, fishing, having dinner — and the families hope to celebrate Thanksgiving together.
“We are not just friends, he’s like a family member, he’s like my brother,” Atifullah said.
This recent escape ordeal occurred after Atifullah, who speaks five languages, flew from Connecticut to Afghanistan Aug. 5 and planned to stay a couple of months, then return with his family, as women are advised not to travel alone. Early on in Afghanistan he realized there was an issue with his youngest son’s documentation and decided he would have to fly back to New Haven by himself to straighten it – and return again for the family – but that would not happen.
“Unfortunately the government collapsed. The Taliban took over,” Atifullah said. “I had to get my
wife and kids out of the area.”
Time became of the essence.
Atifullah said he worked with the United States as an interpreter because, “I wanted to help stabilize our country.”
“What we were aiming for didn’t happen,” he said.
Kuszpa, 45, is now out of the Army and a teacher at Edgewood Creative Thinking through STEAM Magnet school and a doctoral candidate at Southern Connecticut State University.
“Atif was my mouth and ears. His role and the role of interpreters were crucial overseas,” Kuszpa said.
Atifullah had been promised by the U.S. government under a different administration than the one he came in under that he would be able to come to the United States.
He applied in 2010, but Kuszpa said after years of waiting, Atifullah’s application was booted for timerelated reasons, but the amount of time that lapsed was actually the government’s fault, Kuszpa said.
The men have known each other for 17 years, but had lost touch until reconnecting on Facebook five years ago.
Kuszpa assisted Atifullah in getting his documentation for a special visa.
Atifullah flew to Afghanistan Aug. 5 to get his wife and kids, but hit a glitch when his youngest son’s documentation was incomplete. So he changed course, was going to fly back alone to New Haven, straighten the issue out and return to get them.
But the Taliban took over while he was still there and four hours before he was supposed to fly out of Kabul, the airlines shut down.
There was no way for the wife to move the family on her own, because under Taliban rule women are not allowed to travel alone – they must be accompanied by a husband or other male.
Desperate to get his family out of Afghanistan, Atifullah contacted Kuszpa and said, “Brother, I need your help. Who do you know in the U.S. government who can help us get on a plane and get out of here?”
Kuszpa put it out on Facebook and that led to Matt Schmidt, associate professor at the University of New Haven and former instructor of strategic and operational planning at the Army’s Command and General Staff College.
That led to contact with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro.
“We ended up getting
Atif and his family out,” Kuszpa said. “We knew when he got (to) the gate they would let him in.”
Kuszpa said they were aware of the danger in getting to the airport.
“If he turned around they’d know he lied and kill the whole family,” Kuszpa said. “I was for the next several hours a nervous wreck. The people I was working with were a nervous wreck.”
Then they received a photograph of Atifullah with the U.S. Marines and “we were absolutely elated.”
During his time in Afghanistan with Atifullah, “We went on some of the most dangerous missions possible,” Kuszpa said. “We were dropped off in locations in the middle of nowhere to pick up Taliban chatter on radios. … We look at it now and say we must have been crazy.”
In recent years, Kuszpa said, he’s had a couple of former soldiers call out of the blue and, “a lot of them are having a hard time because they see all the blood, sweat and tears we put into Afghanistan,” he said “A lot of veterans are having a very hard time.”
Kuszpa said helping Atifullah and his family goes a long way for his morale. Atifullah had a “bounty on his head” because he was an interpreter, Kuszpa said.
“It’s something that keeps me going. I got seven people out of there who will all have a better life,” he said. “That’s the saving grace. At least these 7 people have a chance at freedom.”
Schmidt, turning to a former student who now works in the State Department, said he was able to help the government link Atifullah and some of his key records — a passport and a green card. He, Kuszpa and Atifullah spoke, weighing the danger. They initially decided against it; then Atifullah ventured out for the uncertain journey.