From Kabul Airport to a Houston Walmart: ‘Determined to Get to America’

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HOUSTON – As an interpreter alongside the US military in Afghanistan, Tsar Mohammad Yousafzai taught English to Afghan soldiers and Pashto American troops. He helped negotiate deals with tribal leaders to stop attacks on Americans and instructed Afghans how to use American weapons.

He dodged mortar attacks and Taliban ambushes and eventually repeated death threats from insurgents who viewed him as a spy. One text message read: “You are a traitor. They work for the unbelievers. We will kill you. ”His third son, then just seven years old, was kidnapped in 2017 by militants for a ransom.

When the Taliban stormed Afghanistan on August 14, his family of nine were evacuated on a US military flight. By the time they landed in Virginia, the insurgents had invaded Kabul and took full control of the country.

“Everyone calls me and says, ‘You’re a very happy person,'” he said.

This week the family moved into a new apartment in southwest Houston. The mood was festive. Brand new kitchen utensils, cleaning supplies and toys donated by a local nonprofit group have flown from large storage bins. Brishna, 13; Huzzaif, 11; and Murtaza, 2, was blowing bubbles.

But Mr. Yousafzai and his wife Bibi were concerned about the fate of several brothers, nephews and cousins ​​who had also worked for the Americans. Thursday’s attack on Kabul airport and the rapidly approaching US withdrawal made an early departure less likely.

Despite all the trauma, her only daughter now has a very different future than in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. “I can go to school and become someone,” said Brishna.

And for Huzzaif, who was kidnapped four years ago and held for a ransom, there would be no more fear. “I can easily walk,” he said. “My mother no longer has to worry that I will be stolen.”

The Yousafzai family saga with the Americans began in 2007 when Tsar Mohammad, the youngest and most educated of six brothers, applied for a position in the US military. The money was good and the family believed in the American mission to exterminate extremists and develop their homeland.

Then at 30, he traveled from his home in Jalalabad to Kabul, where he demonstrated his English skills verbally and in writing with ease.

He was soon assigned to US Army units in Kandahar, a hotbed of Taliban activity, and in Zabul Province, where the Taliban received support from many villagers and received financial rewards from growing opium.

Mr. Yousafzai was recognized for his performance and helped three brothers, three nephews, and a brother-in-law to secure jobs on bases. With the salary he earned, he was able to build a two-story section for his family in the large family house.

Major Austin Bird, who commanded the Army Engineer Company at the base, appointed him chief interpreter. Together they taught Afghan military personnel how to use and maintain equipment such as bulldozers and excavators.

Mr. Yousafzai was fighting with Major Bird’s soldiers in several provinces and they came under fire on and around the base.

But there were also easy moments and a friendship blossomed.

“I remember celebrating the birth of his fourth child in 2012,” Major Bird said in an interview. “We talked about the joys of fatherhood over tea. Zar and I talked about how great it is to be a father and the unique joy of having both boys and girls. “

Sometime in 2011, Mr. Yousafzai was informed by American intelligence officials that he was being targeted by insurgents. He should vary his routes back and forth to the base and try to camouflage himself, they advised.

He stayed true to his work but became increasingly restless. He decided to apply for a special immigrant visa to relocate to the United States.

“When you went home, everyone knew you worked for the Americans,” recalls Yousafzai.

His world was getting smaller. He avoided leaving the house except to go to work.

“Quit your job,” says one of the text messages he received. “We can see you. You teach the unbelievers. “

In 2012, his eldest son, Abrar, then 6 years old, was alone on his way home from a nearby mosque when a car with three men in it approached. The men called to him and when he backed away one of them stepped out and tried to catch him. He managed to escape.

Updated

Aug. 27, 2021, 9:52 p.m. ET

The threats against Mr. Yousafzai increased. He was blamed by members of the community for the killing of a village elder by American commandos.

In 2015, he quit his job in the military and moved to Kabul, where he accepted a position as a government examiner and pursued his degree in accounting.

But his problems weren’t over yet. When he was driving back to Kabul from Jalalabad, where his family had stayed for a while, insurgents shot at his car. He got away unharmed.

In 2017, Huzzaif was kidnapped while walking home from school with two friends. Days passed with no news.

Then a caller with an unknown number asked for $ 200,000 to have the child released alive. On the phone, Mr. Yousafzai heard Huzzaif being flogged. The boy cried and begged his father to pay the ransom.

Mr. Yousafzai told the caller that he had $ 10,000. “You are an asset to the Americans,” said the voice.

He tried to raise as much money as possible, borrowing money from family and friends, and giving his wife few details about their child, who was handcuffed and beaten. The kidnappers set impossible deadlines – five days, three days – until they finally accepted $ 40,000.

Huzzaif, who was born with a heart defect, returned home even more frail. At night he woke up screaming.

Mr. Yousafzai moved to Kabul with his family.

In 2019, to his dismay, the American authorities rejected his application for a special immigrant visa. He immediately appealed and asked Major Bird for help.

Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan

Map 1 of 5

Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputation and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here is more about their genesis and track record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who for years have been on the run, in hiding, in prison and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to rule, including whether they will be as tolerant as they say they are.

What is happening to the women of Afghanistan? When the Taliban was last in power, they banned women and girls from most jobs or from going to school. Afghan women have gained a lot since the Taliban was overthrown, but now they fear that they are losing ground. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are indications that they have begun to reintroduce the old order in at least some areas.

“I never got a straight answer as to why they refused,” recalls Major Bird, who had written several letters of recommendation for Mr. Yousafzai over the years.

He had been trying to obtain a visa for nine years when he was informed by consular officers that his application was approved last August. Nevertheless, the process has stalled. The coronavirus, which led to embassy closings, brought consular operations to a standstill.

One night last year, while everyone was still fast asleep, a car bomb exploded in front of their house in Kabul. Shrapnel struck heads, knees, arms, and chins. The children can still roll up their sleeves and trouser legs to reveal scars.

“I really wanted to go to America,” said Ms. Yousafzai.

In late July, shortly after Mr Biden promised to expedite the US allies’ departure, Mr Yousafzai received an email from the US embassy informing him that he could board a resettlement flight to the US.

On August 12, after Mr Yousafzai and his wife tested negative for the coronavirus and every family member passed a medical exam, the family was notified that they had been booked for an evacuation flight that left Kabul on August 14.

They sold their appliances, mattresses and furniture as fast as they could and told people outside their immediate area that they were moving to India. Mr. Yousafzai scribbled a resignation letter for a colleague to deliver.

On the appointed day, the family drove to the airport and boarded the military plane. She carried 10 bags with her belongings, including two valuable carpets.

After processing at Fort Lee, Virginia, they flew to Houston, where they were met by YMCA International Services, a relocation agency. On Tuesday they moved into their apartment – half a world away from everything that had come before.

Neighbors came by to say hello and teach Ms. Yousafzai how to use the electric stove so she could bake the naan dough she had kneaded.

Houston Welcomes Refugees volunteers came with boxes of items to set up the family’s new home. The children fetched robots, cars and other toys with relish. While the beds were being set up, Melad (6) and Murtaza (2) hopped on the mattresses.

Ms. Yousafzai hugged the iron; she admired the dishes, glasses, and china bowls as she unpacked them. “One day I’ll speak English and talk to you,” she said through her husband.

A text message appeared on Mr. Yousafzai’s phone from Major Bird asking about the sizes of the Yousafzai children. He planned to visit with his family on Labor Day weekend.

On Thursday, five Yousafzai children came to school – close enough to walk, which was lucky because the family does not have a car.

However, within a few days of his arrival, Mr. Yousafzai faced a quintessentially American problem as he juggled deadlines at three schools. “I have time management challenges,” he said ruefully.

On their first visit to a Walmart, everyone was amazed by the wide range of products and the size of the store.

“America has it all,” said Mrs. Yousafzai as she scanned the hallways.

In addition to the basic household items, the couple filled the cart with bananas, pears, plums and honey cake. In the biscuit aisle, they threw a packet of vanilla oreo in it.

Her first American shopping trip cost her $ 82.43, which Mr. Yousafzai paid in cash.

On the way home he muttered that he had to find a job very soon.