'They saved my life and my family'

Synagogue group helps Afghan family flee Taliban, reunite with relatives in New York

Refugees reach new home after help from Jewish activists and months in transit; still fear for family in Kabul as millions face starvation, drought and disease

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The family had been on the run for weeks already, since the Afghan government fell and the Taliban took Kabul.

They had fled the capital along with others in a convoy of buses, arriving in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif under the cover of night and taking cover in a wedding hall.

Taliban fighters prowled outside, carrying lists of names and photographs, and the furtive organizers of their group did not allow the family outdoors.

Eventually, some of the children in hiding got sick and needed medical attention, so the family ventured out.

“Anything could happen,” the father said. “Their checkpoints were increasing by the passing of each day. We didn’t know whose name was on their list or whose picture they used to carry.

“We did not go out until we had to.”

Taliban fighters check cars on a street in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

‘Chaos, like our country’

Months after fleeing Kabul, the family has reached safety and freedom in New York, with the help of organizations, relatives and individuals on the ground in the United States and Afghanistan.

Their journey illustrates the widespread, ongoing fallout from the messy American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the improvised networks used to extricate and support some refugees from the war-torn nation.

The father of the family spoke to The Times of Israel on the condition of anonymity because he fears Taliban retribution against his family still in Afghanistan. He can only be identified by his first initial, F.

He, his wife and their two young sons reached the US with the help of a New York group that aids refugees, the Interfaith Council for New Americans Westchester, consisting of four synagogues and two churches. The Jewish-American refugee aid agency HIAS trains, supports and assists the group.

F. started working with the US military in Afghanistan in 2008 while studying at Kabul University. He had taken English classes when he was younger, and majored in English literature at the university.

Illustrative: An armed Taliban fighter stands on the corner of a busy street at night in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

His favorite book was “Animal Farm,” George Orwell’s 1945 tale about an animal collective that rebels against its farmer with aspirations for equality, only to descend into tyranny under the dictatorship of a pig called Napoleon.

“I love that book. It’s like the situation in Afghanistan. In that book I remember it was chaos, like our country, what we experience,” he said.

He worked for different US military contractors, American companies and military suppliers until August 15, the day the Taliban seized Kabul.

“I faced a lot of threats because of my background. I used to work for US forces, so I had to live in hiding. I kept changing my place,” he said.

Two of his brothers, who had also worked for the US, fled to New York several years ago due to the threat from the Taliban. The group placed a bomb on one of their front doors. The two brothers resettled with the help of the Westchester group, including activist Jeff R. Swarz.

Having heard from the family about F.’s plight, Swarz reached out to him and to people in the US he thought could help, including activists and lawmakers.

US forces leave Afghanistan at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul Afghanistan, August 30, 2021. (Senior Airman Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via AP)

An avenue of escape

F. had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa for Afghans who had worked with the US but had not received a response. He tried to get a flight from Kabul airport, but the area was overrun and he couldn’t get inside.

Swarz said he got in touch with a couple of lawyers in New York who were working with connections in Kabul to get refugees out of the country. The lawyers wished to remain anonymous, and Swarz does not know details about their contacts on the ground in Afghanistan.

Swarz kept in touch with F. while he was in hiding.

“I was texting him on a regular basis, telling him what we were doing here so that he was aware that people in the States were aware of his situation and he was not alone,” Swarz said.

“He used to give me hope,” F. said.

Swarz’s connections devised a plan to get refugees out via charter flights from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where fewer people were trying to escape, and had lined up transportation to get them there. Swarz relayed F.’s information to the organizers.

“It was August 31. I received a call from a local number. They said ‘Come.’ They gave me an address and said we are going to Mazar-i-Sharif,” F. said. “I had a bag ready all the time with me because the situation was like that, so I picked up my bag and I told my family to be ready, we are leaving.”

F. headed to the pickup spot, a gas station with yellow fuel tanks outside the capital. He sent Swarz an email saying he got the call, and waited.

He later found out around 500 people had received a call to join the convoy of seven buses. They arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif around midnight after an eight-hour drive.

Afghans on a bus head toward the Iranian border in Herat, Afghanistan, November 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

The refugee group sheltered in wedding halls in the northern city, since the buildings were not being used at the time, and the organizers provided food and other necessities. The family thought they were heading to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, but no one had any solid information.

F. did not know the identity of the organizers Swarz had connected him with. He said there were around 10 people coordinating things, all Afghans.

“They had contacts in the US. We didn’t know who they were talking to, who they received instructions from,” he said. “They used to hide everything. They did not share anything with us. We just followed their instructions.”

The Taliban controlled the city the entire time the group was there. After about a week, the organizers feared the Taliban had caught wind of the operation and moved to a different facility. Around 10 days later, a group of Taliban came to their new hiding place and asked the organizers questions, so they fled again, at one point hiding in a park, before finding a new shelter. Meanwhile, their budget for food was running out.

“Finally we got the call and the organizers told us that we are going to leave tomorrow,” F. said. They were told they were going to Albania, but when they got to the airport, they received visas for Qatar.

They had managed to evade the Taliban for the several weeks they stayed in Mazar-i-Sharif, including when they ventured out for medical visits, but came face to face with fighters from the group at the airport.

“They called us names. ‘You are traitors, you are infidels,'” F. said. “We were very scared because anything could happen. They could cancel it, they could do anything to us, so we were very afraid.”

“Whatever they wish, they can do,” he said. “I don’t know why they let us [out].” Swarz said there had been some negotiations with the Taliban regarding the flights.

F. made it out on the first flight, but the Taliban blocked the second flight for the rest of the group for 10 days, making different excuses several times. Eventually, all 500 refugees, including some of the organizers, made it to a US military facility in Qatar.

Afghans board a Qatari transport plane in Kabul, Afghanistan, August, 18, 2021. (Qatar Government Communications Office via AP)

‘Everything was beautiful’

They stayed in Qatar for 34 days, F. said. They went through medical checkups and military processing, and got vaccines, including for COVID-19. They then went to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico for around two weeks.

They arrived, tired, with a few bags of clothes and nothing else. They were homesick and did not have much to do on the bases, but the US army gave them a “warm welcome.”

“They treated us like family members, our children, ourselves. They were outstanding people,” F. said. “They used to play with our kids from morning until late at night.”

The US program to settle the refugees, called Operation Allies Welcome, has placed around 37,000 Afghans in US communities. Some 35,000 are still on six military bases in the US, another 3,200 in third countries awaiting a flight to the US, and some are still trying to make it out of Afghanistan.

F. was connected with HIAS through his family living in New York and was assigned to move to the state because of his relatives there. The family arrived at JFK Airport in New York City shortly before Thanksgiving. Swarz, F.’s brother, his cousins and another volunteer met them there. The brothers hadn’t seen each other in five years.

F. is greeted by his brother at JFK International Airport in New York. (Courtesy)

“When I saw Jeff come to me I couldn’t control myself. I started crying, because after seeing that I used to lose hope in Afghanistan, he used to give me this confidence and hope,” F. said. “Then I saw my brother, I hugged him, my cousins were there, I kissed them, then we got in the taxi.”

“Everything was beautiful. I felt relieved. Jeff was talking about the heavy traffic because it was a holiday. I told Jeff that everything for me is nice, even this traffic in New York,” F. said. “I still love everything in New York.”

F. is now staying with his brother’s family while Swarz’s group works to arrange housing for the family.

“I’m lucky to have them help me. They come to my house, bring warm clothes to me and my family. Outside it’s very cold and seeing them carrying those heavy bags, it’s very lovely. I really appreciate everything they are doing.”

“One of the volunteers told me a little about Hanukkah, how Jewish people celebrate that, that’s one thing that I learned,” F. said. “They are very kind people, very generous. This is very fantastic about Jewish people, and I know there are other Jewish organizations and people that they used to evacuate a lot of Afghans so we appreciate them for everything.”

Jeff R. Swarz, left, and F., right, at JFK Airport in New York City. (Courtesy)

The Interfaith Council for New Americans Westchester was formed around five years ago with the support of HIAS. The council fundraises for refugee families, then supports them after their arrival with housing, transportation, employment, language help and other assistance. Swarz said it’s not a charity — the goal is integration and independence.

The funding mostly comes from the synagogues and churches, and all of it goes to the refugees. Most of the volunteers are also members of the religious groups.

The organization supports new refugees for about a year while they find their footing in the US and secure income, while HIAS helps with bureaucratic support, like filing for Green Cards and social security.

“If I’m alive, I’m talking to you now, it’s because of Jeff and his organization. I really appreciate that. They changed my life, they saved my life and my family,” F. said.

F. said he plans to enroll in a software engineering boot camp and find a job in information technology. Swarz’s group helped settle F.’s two brothers, and one other Afghan family, who are all now financially independent.

A Taliban fighter watches as people queue to receive cash at a money distribution site organized by the World Food Program in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Afghanistan in free fall

The crisis in Afghanistan continues, though. F. fears for his three brothers and two sisters still there. One of the brothers used to work for the US and is in hiding, moving from place to place. He applied for a Special Immigrant Visa but has not received one.

The UN has called Afghanistan the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The economy is in shambles, the health system is on the brink and diseases are spreading, including COVID-19, measles, polio and malaria. The temperature is dropping as winter sets in and swaths of the country are facing drought. The GDP has contracted by around 40%.

The Afghan central bank’s $9 billion in reserves were frozen, paralyzing the banking system, and foreign funding has been blocked as international groups grapple with how to work with a group like the Taliban. The UN has said around $220 million is required per month to keep the country from the precipice.

The Islamic State’s Afghan branch is on the rise. The UN said last month that it had carried out 334 attacks there this year, compared to 60 last year.

The Taliban has requested better relations with the US and other states, but has executed dozens of its opponents and renewed restrictions on women and girls.

The most pressing issue is food, as millions face starvation.

“So the issue today for all those refugees is not only do they have to adapt to a new country and a new language, they’ve all got relatives back in Kabul that are starving,” Swarz said.

“We’re responsible for this, in part. We started this ball rolling, this spiral, by pulling our troops out,” he said. He advocates more direct food aid, without providing any funding to the Taliban.

F.’s brother has been sending money back to relatives in Kabul to keep food on the table.

The UN has said said nearly 23 million Afghans, over half the population, face severe hunger. Three million children are malnourished and one million children may die of starvation.

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