The Columbus Dispatch
Coming to America
An Afghan couple escapes ‘severe danger’ in journey to Columbus
Naseer Durrani and Sajida Saafi, an Afghan couple who fled Kabul earlier this year, walked into a friend’s house in Dublin last week to celebrate their first
American holiday. h The kitchen counter overflowed with an array of traditional Thanksgiving food. Durrani, 29, took two slices of turkey from a tray and grinned at a note that read “Happy 1st Thanksgiving.” His wife, 27, wearing a traditional pink lace dress and a white hijab trimmed with rhinestones, helped herself to a scoop of green bean casserole. h It had been almost a month since the couple arrived at John Glenn Columbus
International Airport. They were two of the nearly 350 Afghan evacuees set to be resettled in Columbus.
Sitting with them at the dining table were their host, Dr. Shella Farooki, and her former colleague Dr. Vijay Chandnani, two supporters who learned of the couple’s plight in Kabul and helped arrange their evacuation flight.
“To all of you,” Durrani said, standing up to toast his new friends. “I was writing thank-you cards, and I couldn’t think of the words to thank you. You have done everything for us, beyond what we could ever imagine.”
Glancing out of the window at the unfamiliar city that was now their home, Durrani recalled how his own family used to celebrate Nowruz – the Persian New Year – together back in Afghanistan every spring. His mom and aunts would spend the whole evening singing in the kitchen and making traditional dishes, and the children would fly kites in the warm weather.
Like many of the 37,000 Afghans who went through the grueling emergency evacuation process in August, the couple never planned to come to America.
A journalist and government employee vocal against the Taliban, Durrani wanted to stay in his home country and help create a democratic Afghanistan. Saafi, with a master’s degree in political science, was a teacher and women’s rights activist.
But everything changed a few months ago when gunfire consumed the life that they had built for themselves.
“I had many plans for my future, becoming a journalist to be the voice of the people and going into politics to help my countrymen,” Durrani said. “And then having to leave my country and all my ambitions behind, that was the most difficult part.”
‘We are in severe danger’
Chandnani, a 65-year-old radiologist who used to live in Columbus, met Durrani late last year when he was on a trip to Pakistan.
Durrani was working at the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad at the time, and he helped Chandnani get a visa to visit Kabul. The two men exchanged phone numbers.
In August, when Chandnani saw the news of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, he reached out to Durrani to make sure the man and his family were safe.
“I am in Afghanistan right now. … We are in severe danger,” Durrani responded to Chandnani on a messaging app. “For the last few days, we are in trauma, panic and terror and I hope it ends soon.”
From Durrani, Chandnani learned about the chaos and tragedies unfolding in Kabul.
Gunfire and explosions were ripping through the capital city. Hundreds of babies were orphaned, sold or handed over to U.S. soldiers. Taliban fighters were everywhere, and there was no way for most families – including Durrani’s – to leave the country.
“It made me realize that this situation is not a simple military action,” said Chandnani, who now lives in Hawaii but still comes back to Columbus for visits. “What is happening there is literally a holocaust.”
Chandnani wanted to help. Not knowing where to begin, he contacted every humanitarian organization, U.S. elected official and personal connection he could think of.
Finally, he received a text from Farooki, a former colleague at a radiology lab, who knew someone connected to U.S. military officers in Afghanistan. If Durrani could make it to the Kabul International Airport, the person said, U.S. soldiers would airlift him and his family out of the country.
A harrowing escape
This was not the first time that Durrani was forced to leave his home country.
When he was 5, before the U.S. war in Afghanistan began, Taliban fighters entered his hometown in Bagram, about 40 miles north of the capital. His father was a member of the Afghan Air Force, which made the family a target.
Durrani’s mother took the six children to Pakistan, where they hid from the Taliban and slept on people’s floors to get by.
After that, Durrani moved back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan for school and work. Fourteen years and two master’s degrees later, Durrani once again found himself on the run.
When Chandnani and Farooki told him to head to the airport, Durrani’s friends tried to talk him out of the trip. They had heard how thousands of people were rushing to the airport to flee the country, and many were killed or injured.
But Durrani had spent years doing administrative work for the U.S. government
and had been outspoken against the Taliban in his journalism work. Staying in Afghanistan and exposing his family to more danger was not an option, he said.
About a week after the Taliban takeover, Durrani and Saafi set out for the airport. They each brought with them one of their younger brothers.
Farooki’s connection had instructed the group to enter from the Abbey Gate, but huge crowds of civilians were blocking every entrance they tried. After spending the night on a shuttle bus, they tried their luck at the gate again.
As they waited for Taliban soldiers to let them pass through, a bomb exploded about 150 feet away from their bus, Durrani said. The suicide bomb attack ended up killing more than 100 people, according to news reports.
“We felt everything, and we saw all these dead bodies in front of us, and that made us believe we should return home,” Durrani said. “But then I had this commitment that I should not give up, that I should try more.”
By the fourth night that the group spent outside the airport, they were exhausted but could not fall asleep. Gunshots kept sounding all around them, and they huddled together to wait out the cold autumn night, Durrani said.
Finally, on the fifth day, they got into the airport. Officers instructed them to throw away their luggage. The whole area was filled with open bags and personal belongings that people had to leave behind.
The family was starting to feel good about their chances of getting out of the countryabout to let out a sigh of relief when things took a turn for the worse. U.S. officers informed Durrani that only he and his wife could board the flight. Their brothers, both 18, had to return home.
Durrani frantically ran around the airport to ask people if there was any way for their brothers to come along, he said. But officers took away the pair of 18-year-olds as Durrani and Saafi were ushered into an evacuation plane.
After the couple took off, their brothers were detained outside the airport for about 10 hours and beaten by the Taliban for trying to escape, Durrani later found out from his family.
“They were going through all this. They’ve seen these fires and explosions. These four nights they couldn’t sleep,” Durrani said. “Every time I am reminded of our separation and how they were taken. It terrifies me, and I become really upset.”
The couple, along with more than 100
other passengers, were crammed into a cargo plane and sent to a military base in Kuwait, where they stayed for two weeks. They then boarded a flight to the U.S. and spent the next two months at the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey while they awaited resettlement.
In late October, the couple finally received news that they would soon head to their final destination in Columbus, where they were going to start their new lives.
Arrival and assistance
Brian Zimmerman started his job as a caseworker at Community Refugee and Immigration Services, a Northlandbased resettlement agency, in early October, right when local agencies around the country were scrambling to come up with a plan for the expected influx of new Afghan families.
On the afternoon of Nov. 2, he waited outside the security checkpoint at John Glenn Columbus International Airport for the arrival of Durrani and Saafi arrival. Since he started his job, Zimmerman had helped resettle about 25 Afghan evacuees, and the team was expecting 50 more coming to the city that week.
Waiting alongside Zimmerman were Farooki and her 15-year-old daughter, Sasha Homsy, who was holding a sign decorated with stars and American flags that read “Welcome Naseer and Sajida.”
When the couple walked out of the security gate, Zimmerman spotted them right away. All refugees carry a white plastic bag with the letters “IOM” printed on it. It stands for International Organization for Migration, the United Nations agency that makes travel arrangements for refugees. The bag allows caseworkers to easily recognize the new arrivals.
The couple did not get much sleep the night before and were exhausted from the long flight. Delighted by the warm welcome, however, they greeted everyone with big smiles. Durrani, Saafi, Farooki and Homsy gathered together for a group photo to capture the moment of their hard-earned union.
Afghan evacuees like Durrani and Saafi entered the U.S. through humanitarian parole, a process that allows immigrants in exceptional circumstances to enter the country without visas. Under the Department of State’s Afghan Placement and Assistance Program, they are eligible for the full range of benefits and services that regular refugees are entitled to.
Local agencies have received federal grants to support new arrivals’ temporary
housing, said Zimmerman, who took the couple to the Home2 Suites by Hilton in Dublin, where they could stay until they found a permanent apartment.
Resettlement staff members are required to have two meetings with refugees during the three-month-long resettlement program, but Zimmerman said CRIS employees usually talk to new arrivals far more often to introduce them to their new neighborhood, assist them with government paperwork and help them with employment, housing and other needs.
The morning after their arrival, Zimmerman went to the Dublin hotel for his first home visit with the couple. He went through all the resettlement paperwork with them and took Durrani to a nearby Kroger to shop for food and other necessities.
That day, Zimmerman also drove to a Walmart to buy a car seat for another family, visited a government office, worked on resettlement paperwork at home and returned to the airport in the evening to welcome more Afghan evacuees.
“These days, I’m going to the airport almost every day to pick up new Afghan families,” Zimmerman said. “I try to meet with my clients three or four times during their first week to just make sure they have everything they need.”
Starting a new life
On his second day in Columbus, Durrani woke up in the hotel bed and, for the first time in months, felt like he could breathe again.
He walked downstairs to the dining area for breakfast and dug into a cheese and ham omelet, not realizing that there was pork in the dish, an ingredient prohibited by his Islamic faith.
When Durrani told Chandnani about what happened, his new friend joked about how quickly the new arrival is assimilating: “This soon? I thought it would take at least a few more days.”
Later that day, Durrani went shopping at Kroger with Zimmerman and struggled to pick out groceries and household items from the endless array of products displayed in front of him.
“I should’ve brought my wife with me,” Durrani said as he put a bag of honeycrisp apples in his shopping basket.
Back in Afghanistan, people would shop in smaller grocery stores without as many options, he said. Durrani went back to his hotel room after spending two hours and $85 dollars at Kroger. “I feel a little different now,” he said. By now, the couple has settled into their new one-bedroom apartment in Dublin. It still upsets them to think about the family members they left behind in Afghanistan, but right now, they need to focus on getting a stable income before their one-time federal stipend of $1,225 each runs out.
With advanced education in media and public policy, Durrani hopes to eventually work in journalism again. Saafi is looking for a teaching or office job.
“We are looking for a job which will help us get settled in Columbus and continue our life here,” Durani said. “It would help us grow culturally and financially and allow us to make progress for our future.”
Yilun Cheng is a Report for America corps member and covers immigration issues for the Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fnsgaz. firstname.lastname@example.org @Chengyilun