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From Kabul Airport to a Houston Walmart: “Desperate to Get to America”

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

He dodged mortar attacks and Taliban ambushes and ultimately repeated death threats from insurgents who saw him as a spy. A text message read: “You are a traitor. You work for the infidels. We will kill you. Her third son, only 7 years old at the time, was kidnapped for ransom by activists in 2017.

On August 14, as the Taliban invaded Afghanistan, her family of nine were evacuated on a US military flight. By the time they landed in Virginia, the insurgents had entered Kabul and had taken full control of the country.

“Everyone calls me and says, ‘You are a very lucky person,'” he said.

This week the family moved into a new apartment in southwest Houston. The atmosphere was festive. Brand new kitchen supplies, cleaning supplies and toys donated by a local nonprofit group spilled into large storage bins. Brishna, 13 years old; Huzzaif, 11 years old; and 2-year-old Murtaza blew bubbles.

But Mr. Yousafzai and his wife, Bibi, worried about the fate of several brothers, nephews and cousins, who had also worked for the Americans. Thursday’s attack on Kabul airport and the impending US withdrawal made their exit less likely anytime soon.

Despite all the trauma, they said, their only daughter now has a very different future than she would have had in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. “I can study in school and become someone,” Brishna said.

And for Huzzaif, kidnapped four years ago and held for ransom, there would be no more fear. “I can comfortably walk to places,” he said. “My mom doesn’t have to worry about being robbed anymore.”

The Yousafzai family saga with Americans began in 2007, when Zar Mohammad, the youngest and most educated of the six brothers, applied for a job in the United States military. The money was good, and the family believed in the American mission to root out the extremists and develop their homeland.

Then 30 years old, he traveled from his home in Jalalabad in Kabul, where he easily passed oral and written exams demonstrating his fluency in English.

Soon he was attached to US Army units in Kandahar, a hotbed of Taliban activity, and in Zabul province, where the Taliban enjoyed the support of many villagers and reaped financial rewards by cultivating opium. .

Mr. Yousafzai was awarded for his performance and helped three brothers, three nephews and a brother-in-law to find a job on the basics. With the salary he earned, he was able to build a two-story section for his family within the extended family compound.

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 backhoes.

Mr. Yousafzai participated in combat missions with Major Bird’s soldiers in several provinces, and they came under fire inside and outside the base.

But there were also light moments and a friendship blossomed.

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

During 2011, Mr. Yousafzai was informed by US intelligence personnel that he was the target of insurgents. He should vary his travel routes to the base and try to dress up, they advised.

He remains devoted to his work but becomes more and more uncomfortable. He decided to apply for a special immigrant visa to settle in the United States.

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

His world has become smaller. He avoided leaving his house, except to go to work.

“Quit your job,” said one of the texts he received. “We can see you. You teach the infidels.

In 2012, his eldest son, Abrar, then 6, was driving home alone from a nearby mosque when a car approached with three men inside. The men called to him, and when he stepped back one of them came out and tried to pull him off. He managed to escape.

Threats against Mr. Yousafzai have intensified. He was blamed by members of the community for the murder of a village elder by American commandos.

In 2015, he quit his job in the military and moved to Kabul, where he held a government post as an audit executive, leveraging his accounting degree.

But his troubles were not over. On his way back to Kabul from Jalalabad, where his family had stayed for a time, insurgents gunned down his car. He came out unharmed.

In 2017, Huzzaif was kidnapped while walking home from school with two friends. Days passed without news.

Then a caller with an unidentified number asked for $ 200,000 to release the child alive. Over the phone, Mr. Yousafzai could hear Huzzaif being whipped. The boy cried, begging his father to pay the ransom.

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

He was quick to collect as much money as he could, borrowing from family and friends, providing few details to his wife about their child, who was shackled and beaten. The kidnappers set impossible deadlines – five days, three days – until they finally agreed to $ 40,000.

Huzzaif, who was born with a heart defect, returned home even more fragile. He woke up screaming at night.

Mr. Yousafzai moved his family to Kabul.

In 2019, to her dismay, U.S. officials rejected her application for a special immigrant visa. He immediately appealed and asked Major Bird for help.

“Why they denied it, I never got a clear answer,” recalls Major Bird, who had written several letters of recommendation for Mr. Yousafzai over the years.

When he was informed by consular authorities that his application had been approved, in August last year, he had been trying to obtain a visa for nine years. However, the process stalled. The coronavirus, which had caused embassy closures, paralyzed consular operations.

One night last year, while they were waiting, while everyone was sleeping soundly, a car bomb exploded outside their home in Kabul. Shrapnel hit heads, knees, arms and chins. Children can always roll up the sleeves and pant legs to show the scars.

“I was desperate to go to America,” Ms. Yousafzai said.

In late July, shortly after Mr. Biden pledged to expedite the departure of U.S. allies, Mr. Yousafzai received an email from the U.S. Embassy advising him that he could board a resettlement flight to United States.

On August 12, after Mr. Yousafzai and his wife tested negative for the coronavirus and each family member passed a medical examination, the family was informed that they had been booked for an evacuation flight in departure from Kabul on August 14.

They sold their appliances, mattresses and furniture as quickly as they could, telling people outside their immediate circles that they were moving to India. Mr. Yousafzai jotted down a resignation letter, which he asked a colleague to hand over.

On the appointed day, the family went to the airport and boarded the military plane, carrying 10 bags loaded with their belongings, including two valuable rugs.

After treatment at Fort Lee, Virginia, they flew to Houston, where YMCA International Services, a relocation agency, received them. On Tuesday, they moved into their apartment, halfway across the world from everything that came before them.

Neighbors stopped to say hello and to teach Ms. Yousafzai to use the electric stove, so that she could cook the naan dough she had kneaded.

Houston Welcomes Refugees volunteers showed up with boxes of items to furnish the family’s new home. The children happily picked up robots, cars and other toys. While the beds were being set up, Melad, 6, and Murtaza, 2, bounced off the mattresses.

Mrs. Yousafzai hugged the iron in her arms; she admired the china dishes, glasses and bowls as she unwrapped them. “Someday I’ll speak English and talk to you guys,” she said through her husband.

A text message appeared on Major Bird’s Mr. Yousafzai’s phone asking for the sizes of Yousafzai children’s clothing. He was planning to visit Labor Day weekend with his family.

On Thursday, five children from Yousafzai were starting school – close enough to walk, which was lucky, as the family does not have a car.

Yet within days of arriving, Mr Yousafzai faced a quintessential American problem as he juggled stoppages at three schools and appointments. “I have time management issues,” he said regretfully.

When they first walked out to a Walmart, everyone was stunned at the huge selection of products and the size of the store.

“America has it all,” Ms. Yousafzai said, scanning the aisles.

In addition to basic household supplies, the couple stocked the cart with bananas, pears, plums and honey cakes. In the cookie aisle, they threw a packet of Vanilla Oreos.

Their first shopping spree in the United States cost them $ 82.43, which Mr. Yousafzai paid in cash.

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


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