The following stories were told to UAA volunteers by some of USAID’s Afghan Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) of their journeys to the United States after the American withdrawal in August 2021. Names of the FSNs are not revealed to protect their privacy and that of their families remaining in Afghanistan.
Terry Myers shares this story: The FSN experienced 24 hours fighting crowds in the Kabul airport, ten days in a warehouse in Qatar in temperatures of 114 degrees, almost three months on a base in the middle of Wisconsin before arriving with a wife and seven children to an apartment isolated in suburban Maryland. And that was just the beginning: Dozens of documents were required for visas and work permits, school registration, bank accounts, driver’s license, social security numbers, WIC and SNAP (food stamps), and all of that before applying for the job that relief agencies and the U.S. Government expect arrivals to have within 90 days of resettlement. It is a constant challenge being met daily by USAID’s FSNs with remarkable resilience and courage. Now we in the United States are the beneficiaries of these new arrivals – a tribute to USAID/Kabul for having assembled an impressive crew of talented, thoughtful, and capable professionals — as they adjust to a strange environment and work toward U.S. citizenship. His journey began and this is his story:
The Taliban were taking control of more land across the country every day, but with little obvious impact on the morale of Kabul residents. Although President Biden had announced the complete withdrawal of American military forces, most people were completely sure that American military presence in the country would never drop to zero. They thought that the government would never collapse; I was also a believer until a week before the collapse of Kabul, when one of my supervisors asked if I was ready to be included on the relocation list. It was a very difficult decision because my family and I were not ready, but I said yes, thinking that I still had time to change my mind to the very last day.
On Sunday, August 15, 2021, when Taliban took over Kabul, the decision became more complicated for a number of reasons. Years earlier while I was working for a private company in the countryside, the Taliban had threatened me, saying that once I surrendered, their court would decide whether they would kill me. Now that the Taliban controlled the whole country, I had no idea what might happen; if the Taliban found out that I had left the country for the United States, they might harm my family–my siblings and parents. The situation in and around the Kabul airport was chaos. I have a wife and seven kids, ages four months to 15 years, and we were not ready to leave the country. We would lose everything, and there was no guarantee that we would make it to the airport as the Taliban were everywhere in the city and around the airport. What if they stopped us on the way to the airport?
I was in contact with friends in the same situation, and we, USAID’s whole FSN team, were in contact with our American management team. Management was continuously telling us that they would do their best to take us and our families out. After much thinking, I finally decided to leave, and we got ready. At nine pm one night, we were informed by the management to report to the airport for the evacuation. Getting to the airport was impossible due to the crowds in the streets and Taliban presence in and round the airport. Some FSNs tried, but many failed to get through. I decided not to try, and management informed us to wait for further instructions while they looked for other options
On August 25, at around 1300 hours, a WhatsApp message informed us to report within 60 minutes to a different section of the city to be taken to the airport by bus. With some other colleagues, my family and I got to the location. When the bus arrived, we rushed into the bus, which then drove toward one of the airport’s back gates (a military gate). The crowds grew as we approached the airport, and when we arrived, there were tens of thousands of people around the gate. We were hearing lots of gunfire, but got into the airport to find thousands inside the airport as well. Large groups were moving everywhere. People were pushing and pulling. Everyone was trying to be first.
When we left the bus, we got mixed with other people and spent the whole night moving from one location to another. We stayed at the airport ramp that night. Aircraft were moving with roaring engines and their wind was throwing trash on our faces. There was no food, no toilet, no place to sit. People were relieving themselves where they could. Many children, pregnant women, old and sick people were among us. Military officers were trying to get people to the aircraft on their turn, but it was out of control.
On the afternoon of the next day, August 26, we boarded a military cargo plane. Several hundred people boarded into that same aircraft. The plane flew toward Qatar, which we expected would be the end of the trip’s hardships. But when we reached Qatar, a new series of the difficulties began.
In Qatar, the weather was extremely hot, over 113 degrees. We were taken to a hanger where thousands of people were waiting for flights. That night, they took us to a different military base where we spent a whole night being processed–security screening, COVID tests, and a variety of other tests; we did not sleep for the second night. The morning of August 27, they took us into a big hangar with hundreds of other people where we stayed there until September 3. There was no attention to hygiene; the medic was only for some very emergency conditions and even emergency patients had to wait hours or even days for treatment. There were long lines and not enough food—everyone, every family member, even little children and sick people, had to be present to get food. Sanitation facilities were overcrowded, and the water in the shower and toilets’ handwasher was burning hot. There was great uncertainty. No one knew or was able to tell us what was next. Information was very limited and there was no WiFi in most parts of the camp.
Early morning of September 3, we moved into a different hangar to be processed for the flight to the United States, a process which took 34 hours. On the afternoon of September 4, we boarded the aircraft. In total, the journey from Qatar to our new home on a military compound in the United States, took us 74 consecutive hours. On the base, there were 11 other families, and we stayed together, with 23 children under the age of 12 in the same building, until the end of November when we moved to the Washington area.
Finally, Alhamdullah, we are in our new home. I am really happy with the team who has helped our resettlement. It was a long, tiring and disappointing journey, but I have met some great people and made so many good friends. Now, we are beginning to build our new lives.
Jim Bever shares another story: Please meet recently arrived USAID/Afghanistan FSN Zarif ! Over five years ago, it was 7:00 p.m. in late August in Kabul, Afghanistan as Zarif was taking an evening class for his undergraduate Business Degree on the second floor of the USAID-funded American University of Afghanistan (AUAf). Suddenly, a huge car bomb exploded, followed by machine gun fire and grenades as the school came under lethal attack by the Taliban. When his classroom was attacked and the bullets and explosives were flying, Zarif hurled himself through the glass window and onto the ground far below. Sustaining serious injuries, he and over 35 other injured students and faculty and staff survived the attack. Fourteen did not; expatriate faculty members were kidnapped and held for years. Flash forward four and a half years later to winter/spring of 2021: Zarif got married, received his Master’s Degree in Business Administration from AUAf, and joined USAID/Afghanistan as an Administrative Assistant. Flash forward only eight months later to the end of August as the Taliban took over Kabul: Zarif and his wife suddenly found themselves evacuated, eventually landing in U.S. Army Fort McCoy in Monroe County, Wisconsin, along with a thousand other Afghans. The newlyweds were separated for weeks into men’s barracks and women’s/children’s barracks. But eventually they were together again, living in their newly found apartment in Woodbridge, Virginia
Mary Alice Kleinjan also shares a story: Deeba has been receiving UAA assistance to polish her resume and cover letters and to start her job search. She has a Batchelor’s degree and had ten years’ professional HR experience with USG implementers, including USAID grantees, before joining USAID/Kabul’s Executive Office. In her two years in the USAID Mission, she won the Mission’s Hardest Working Employee award and was a pillar of the Mission’s wind-down effort. She is currently living with relatives in Sacramento but is hoping to find separate housing despite the tight housing market, as well as a challenging job. UAA member Mary Alice, who is currently living in DC but grew up in the San Francisco Bay area near Sacramento, is connecting remotely with Deeba to help in her search.
Terry, Jim, and Mary Alice summarize best the work of the FSNs and the rewards of the UAA volunteers in assisting them: “Ultimately, the real work can only be done by the FSNs; the burden of resettlement is being borne by them and their families. Watching them encounter (and surmount) one set of challenges after another is intensely rewarding. We are fortunate they are here and we’re grateful for the opportunity to welcome them.”
With most of the Afghan FSNs now in the United States and more of them being allowed to leave their U.S. Army bases to start their lives in America, USAID is urgently asking yet more help for over 50 additional FSNs with their resume polishing, interview practicing and job searching. If any alumni are interested, please let USAID and UAA know via AFGProfessionalServices@usaid.gov.