After a perilous 14-hour drive from Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, to the capital of Kabul, a flight to Qatar, another to Washington, DC, and a week in Fort Lee, Virginia, AA and his family finally made it to New Haven, Connecticut, their new home.
AA worked as a contractor and translator for the US government in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010 and is one of the thousands of Afghans who fled prior to or are trying to flee the country with their families after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15.
The 33-year-old man says he is fortunate to have escaped, but that many of his friends weren’t as lucky. He has asked CNN to withhold his real name out of concern for the safety of his relatives and friends that remain in Afghanistan.
“That’s why I’m not showing my face,” AA told CNN in a video interview. “Because we’re (in) America, my life will be saved: My kids, my wife – their lives will be saved,” he said before adding that his family back in Afghanistan “keep calling me and I keep calling them because my mother, father, brother, cousins, my friends, my relatives – they’re there. I call them and they’re just crying, they say, ‘Please do something for us because we worked with you, we worked with the US government, so they must relocate to us all.’”
In New Haven, AA says he and his family have begun to rebuild their life with the help of the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), a non-profit that helps resettle refugees. It’s through IRIS that AA and his family – and so many like them – have had access to crucial resources.
A new start
After briefly lodging at a Super 8 motel in New Haven, AA says he found his family an apartment. Ann O’Brien, IRIS’s director of community engagement, says he haggled the price down to within the family’s IRIS-allotted budget when the landlord’s offer proved too steep. AA says he’s been busy driving his three sons and daughter, who range in ages from 4 to 11, to various medical appointments while working with IRIS to get them enrolled in school.
AA says his youngest son, the 4-year-old, is disabled. O’Brien told CNN that Yale University has a specialist on staff who’s able to work with him.
“My kids will start school this coming week and I will start my process when their process is finished,” AA told CNN. “I have many appointments in the day, so that’s why I don’t have my job. First, I have to finish the apartment, after that IRIS has different departments that (find) jobs for SIV applicants, and they’ll see my degree (and) what kind of jobs I can do here. After that, I will get my job.”
“When the new family arrives here, we help them apply for state benefits,” Arzoo Rohbar, AA’s IRIS case manager and a former refugee from Afghanistan who resettled in 2002, told CNN.
“That means receiving cash, food stamps until they’re employed – and we have an employment team that’s going to help them look for a job,” she continued. “We have extra shoes that are donated to us. We also have a food bank at IRIS on Wednesdays and we encourage clients to come to take some extra food even though they have (or) they’re receiving food stamps from the state. It’s just extra food, we think that it might be of use to them.”
Rohbar also said IRIS helps resettled refugees with employment services, will help enroll kids in schools and find adults ESL courses, provide health services, book medical appointments, and apply for state benefits. IRIS’s legal team is also able to facilitate green card and passport processes.
“They were given two days to pack up and go from Kabul to the US,” Rohbar said of AA and his family, “and we know they didn’t bring much with them, so we’re here to offer as much as we can, though it might not seem a lot.”
AA says he hasn’t met any other refugees at IRIS. He says he only sees his case manager and Alexander, a friend who has been living in the United States for the past two years and has been sort of guide to him.
The flight from Afghanistan
The family managed to flee Afghanistan just before Kabul’s capitulation to the Taliban, their timing a combination of luck and an email from the US Embassy in Kabul, AA said. In 2016, he says he applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for which he was eligible through his work for the US. The process can take several years, but AA’s paperwork came through in 2020 and he was just waiting for his visa when things began to worsen, he said.
Still, it’s really due to the embassy’s email that he says they were able to escape. On the first day of Eid, AA says he received an email saying, “Leave Kandahar and come to Kabul.”
From there, AA says he put clothes in a travel bag, dress shoes and extra belongings in a plastic bag, and he and his family began the 500-kilometer trip to the Kabul airport. He says he shrouded his face for the duration of the trip, lest someone recognize him. He says he hid his phone in the event someone should stop them and uncover his identity – and those of his friends and family – via the device.
“I was so scared because (the roads) were all under the control of the Taliban. I just put something (on) my face. I just was sleeping like that, so they didn’t see. I was scared. I was scared for my family and my family (was) also scared for me, that I worked with the US government. So, (for) 14 hours we just, you know … running, running, just (to) reach Kabul.”
After arriving at the airport, AA says all flights had been canceled by the Taliban. The family, he says, made their way to the DK German Hospital, and, after receiving blood and Covid-19 tests, were given Qatar Airways boarding passes.
The family left Afghanistan on July 29 and arrived in New Haven on August 7.
‘President Biden must evacuate these people as soon as possible’
AA says that though his friends and relatives still live at home, the Taliban now controls the area and can evict them at any moment. Whether you live in Kabul or Kandahar, little is secure.
“They told me, ‘I (haven’t) seen for one month my kids. They’re living in Kandahar, I’m alone here living, and I’m waiting (to be) relocated by the US government, that they’ll evacuate us.’”
AA recalls that after being told to leave Kandahar, he received three calls from the Taliban and numerous death threats.
“I came out from my home, there was a paper (hanging) that had written, ‘Don’t work with American forces. Don’t work with the Afghan government. This is your name. You can leave your job as soon as possible as you can do – otherwise, we will kill you.’”
AA also emphasized that his Afghan colleagues and anyone related to them are at risk. He says he has a list of some 80 people – family and friends, all in Afghanistan – who need to be resettled by the US government. He describes the work he and his friends undertook for the US and Afghan governments as dangerous.
“Sometimes there was blasting, sometimes (there) were suicide attacks on American tanks. The Taliban were doing suicide attacks. They’re targeting people, like Afghan people.”
“One of my friends was targeted by the Taliban: He was killed by them in front of me,” he said. “He was going home from work, we were going to my home. When I reached my friend, (he) was dying, killed. The police came and investigated (and found he’d been) killed by the Taliban.”
Rohbar says AA’s resettlement is going well after a bumpy start. His is one of 10 families she works with, and she expects hundreds of more families to be relocated to New Haven alone, all with extremely short notice.
“Normally, we’ll get a 30-day notice that a family is coming and we’ll prepare housing for them, we’ll prepare food for them, clothing – all of these things,” she told CNN. “But because of the short notice, we’re not sure how many families will arrive to New Haven today or tonight or tomorrow.”
AA says he has little hope for the Afghan government given how much damage has already been wrought. His faith, instead, lies in the US government, which he believes “can do anything.”
“President Biden must evacuate these people as soon as possible,” he said.
The United States and its partners have relocated more than 124,000 people from Afghanistan to safety, according to a spokesperson at the Department of State. O’Brien says thousands more are still trying to escape via overland routes in remote areas where the borders are more “porous” than the crossings the Taliban closed early on.