The One Item They Had to Take When These 6 Afghans Fled

The New York Times

More than 120,000 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan last August, most with just a few hours to gather their belongings. Here are some of the keepsakes they chose.

If you were leaving home forever and had just a few hours to collect your thoughts and most precious belongings, items that would have to fit into a knapsack or purse, or just your pockets, what would you choose?

Tens of thousands of Afghans, the largest single influx of refugees to come to America since the end of the Vietnam War, faced that choice during the frantic dash to get out of their country last summer after the Taliban swept into Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, unopposed.

Whatever they chose — a piece of jewelry, perhaps, an old family photo — the objects now constitute their only tangible ties to the world they left behind.

The same terrible choices that Afghans faced six months ago now confront the tens of thousands of Ukrainians similarly deciding to flee their homeland. Like the Afghans, they must make heart-wrenching decisions about what to carry with them — not knowing when or if they’ll return home.

Most of those who left Afghanistan in August are now scattered across the United States, in 49 of the 50 states, in places as far-flung as Fargo, N.D., and Mobile, Ala. The New York Times asked Afghans settled in two regions, Northern Virginia and Houston, what they chose to bring in those hectic hours. Their responses tell a lot about who they are, the circumstances of their departure and their hopes for the future.

One of them, Aria Rahmati, 25, worked right up to the moment the Taliban were poised to claim the presidential palace, where she was an assistant to President Ashraf Ghani, who unbeknown to her had already fled the country.

As she picked up her purse and left the compound for the last time, she passed Taliban fighters on their way in. She decided not to go home, since she already was wearing the one thing she could not bear to leave behind: a sapphire and silver ring that had been given to her by a man she cared for.

She went through three long days and several harrowing encounters with the Taliban at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul before she reached the area controlled by the U.S. military. It took quite a bit longer to reach Leesburg, Va., where she has now resettled.

As for the ring, Ms. Rahmati hopes the man who gave it to her will still care for her when she sees him again. When two people are separated, “everything changes,” she said. “But I have not taken it off my finger since it was given to me.”

The 13 families interviewed for this article, of whom six are described here, provide a cross section of their former land. Yet, they share one quality that got them through the chaos of those final days and ultimately onto flights to the United States: a flinty determination, often mixed with desperation for their own safety and that of their families.

In the words of a beautician who made it through and is now living in Houston: “I just kept going forward.”

Nangialay Pashai wearing the clothing and backpack he carried with him when he fled Afghanistan. Mr. Pashai worked his entire adult life for various Afghan and American security forces, including for the U.S. Air Force at its base in Jalalabad. 

For 17 years, Nangialay Pashai’s work for the American and Afghan security forces in the eastern city of Jalalabad defined his existence, first as a U.S. military contractor and then as a soldier in the Afghan army. So last summer, when he fled to escape vengeful Taliban fighters, the one thing he could not bear to leave behind was his army rucksack.

The Afghan soldiers were ordered to leave everything behind and change into civilian clothes, to blend in safely with the crowd. Those like Mr. Pashai, 36, who had applied for Special Immigration Visas to the United States, would be flown to Kabul, where they would meet up with their families.

After reluctantly unlacing his military boots, taking off his army issue pants and T-shirt and leaving his guns and ammo belt, he looked at the knapsack.

“We had been together a long time,” he said.

When he reached Kabul, the mostly empty knapsack slung over his shoulder, he was surprised to see some merchants still selling camo pants and regulation-style, brown army T-shirts. On an impulse, he bought one of each and stuffed them into the knapsack to bring along as tokens of his past military life.

Sitting with his wife, Nasrine, in their small, bare apartment in Houston in December as dusk fell, with his six children running around, he opened the knapsack and at the bottom found an unopened M.R.E. (Meal, Ready-to-Eat), the soldier’s food staple.

He smiled ruefully and said, “This bag is my friend.”

Yalda Royan and her daughter Bahara, who insisted on taking the family’s travel Quran with them when they fled Afghanistan.

As a single mother and women’s rights activist raising her children in Kabul, Yalda Royan, 42, knew she was a marked woman, having received death threats over the years.

She had held her head high through a difficult marriage, through her husband going to prison and, when he got out, his decision to live far away in northern Afghanistan and then a divorce.

But as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, Ms. Royan thought also of her daughters. She worried she would not be able to protect them from forced marriages or, even worse, being trafficked. Seeing no choice but to flee, she warned her girls to pack only the barest necessities, so that the Taliban would find nothing suspicious in the event they were searched on their way to the airport.

“I burned all my documents, English or Dari,” she said, her eyes brimming. “They were certificates, contracts that I had brought home to review, my notebooks from focus group discussions. That was not easy.”

The girls mostly complied, until Bahara, 16, refused to leave without the family’s pocket-size, travel Quran.

The book, which now sits on a small table in their sparsely furnished living room in Ashburn, Va., would be the lone memento of their lives in Afghanistan.

Through the bedlam at the airport, Ms. Royan said, “Bahara held the Quran in her arms for eight hours, maybe more. Even when there was shooting, she held it.”

“I thought it would protect us,” said Bahara.

Bakhtullah Noor Wali, 16, grew up in a post-Taliban Afghanistan, where it seemed normal to him to listen to contemporary Asian music, use a computer and, like his older brothers, get a tattoo — which would be considered blasphemous by the Taliban.

So a couple of years ago, when he had his and his girlfriend’s initials tattooed on his hand, he was pleased: the tattoo impressed his girlfriend, Amina, and he envisioned them getting married, the way teenagers in love often do.

Then, in August, the Taliban came to his hometown, Khost, just over the border from Pakistan. One of his brothers, who had worked as an interpreter for the Americans and had already moved to the United States, called with an urgent message: Get to the Kabul airport as soon as you can. He feared his family would be branded as collaborators because of his work.

That’s when Mr. Wali realized the tattoo could be a problem if the Taliban discovered it at one of the many checkpoints on the road to Kabul. “The Taliban will take the tattoos off with acid, and if they do not have acid, they do it with a knife,” he said.

It was too late to have it removed, so he and another brother, Lal Mohammed, who also had a tattoo, hatched a plan. They covered their tattoos with large band-aids and wore gloves and shalwar kameez, the traditional Afghan long-sleeved tunic and long pants.

They made it through the checkpoints and through the thousands clambering at the gates of Kabul airport. Now, in Houston with several family members, Mr. Wali longs for Amina and stays up late every night talking to her on WhatsApp, promising to bring her to America.

Tahera Ahmadi sold most of her jewelry to afford the journey first to Kabul and then to the airport. But she held on to a butterfly pin given to her by her eldest sister. 

When the Taliban reached the gates of the western city of Herat last summer, Tahera Ahmadi, 33, a doctor who was working for an American firm, Development Alternatives Incorporated, knew she had to leave. Not only was she a member of the Hazara ethnic group, Shiite Muslims who the Taliban regard as apostates, she was a woman living alone, her husband having already moved to the United States.

But she needed cash to pay for a plane ticket to Kabul, on the other side of the country — the only place she stood a chance of getting a flight out. Parting with her computer and iPhone was hard, but they were replaceable. Then, the only thing left was her jewelry. By the time she reached America, there were only a few pieces left.

“I was not the type of girl who was into wearing jewelry, but my sisters told me that I would need it for difficult days,” Ms. Ahmadi said. “They were right.”

First to go was a piece of gold given to her by her eldest sister, who had been like a mother to her when she was growing up. Next went the pendant and bracelets Ms. Ahmadi had worn on her wedding day and then, more painfully, her gold wedding ring.

She made enough money from selling her jewelry not only to get herself to Kabul, but also to pay the way for her best friend, Zarah, but by then there were no embassies open. Friends warned Ms. Ahmadi against going to the airport; the crowds at the gate were impossible to get through and women could not travel alone because the Taliban prohibited it, they said.

Undeterred, Ms. Ahmadi decided to sell some of the last pieces of jewelry she owned to pay the $80 she and Zarah would need for a taxi to the airport, and back if they failed to get on a flight. A jeweler bought one of the pieces, but when he saw tears welling in her eyes he refused to buy the other: a pin made of blue fabric in the shape of a butterfly with a smaller, paper-thin gold butterfly at its center. It had also been a gift from her eldest sister.

“My sister told me the butterfly stands for revolution,” she said.

Revolution, as in not accepting what the authorities tell you. Ms. Ahmadi told Zarah when they got to the airport, “If the guards say go back, we don’t move.” They made it through the airport gates and on to America.

The butterfly pin is with Ms. Ahmadi now in Northern Virginia, a reminder of all it took to get there, but also a promise that she will summon herself for the next chapter.

When Mohammad Taqi Nizami feels homesick, he picks up his iPhone to look at family photos, but it also holds the documents he hopes will make his case to stay in America.

As a squadron commander in the Afghan Air Force, Mohammad Taqi Nizami became an expert at loading bombs onto the planes that targeted Taliban fighters, and gained the respect of the U.S. Air Force’s military advisers.

On Aug. 15, the day the Taliban marched into Kabul, his expertise became a liability. He left the air base where he worked wearing civilian clothes, worried about being arrested, if not executed, at the hands of vengeful Taliban patrols.

Mr. Nizami, 31, knew that if he could get out of Afghanistan with his life and his wife, he would be lucky.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said.

Armed only with his cellphone — a beat-up, white Apple 6 Plus — he started to make calls. Some 40 calls later, someone put him in touch with Operation Sacred Promise, a group of American veterans helping Afghan airmen who, like Mr. Nizami, had not worked directly for the Americans and did not qualify for a Special Immigration Visa. They offered to help, but there was a catch: He would have to bring documents to the airport to prove his service background.

How, he wondered, could he get the certificates and service awards he had received safely through Taliban checkpoints?

“I kept thinking about my phone,” he said, but he was worried that if the Taliban saw the photos on it of him in his military uniform, it would give him away. Then he hit on a plan. “I scanned everything into it and then ran down the battery, so if someone at a checkpoint tried to turn it on, they couldn’t,” he said. He hid the phone under his clothes and was lucky, no one searched him because he appeared not to be carrying anything.

It was the only thing Mr. Nizami brought from home, but it held a record of his life.

His phone is now his lifeline as he starts again in Herndon, Va. When he feels homesick, he picks it up to look at family photos, but it also holds the documents he hopes will make his case to stay in America.

Of the 36 members of the Karimi family who tried to flee Afghanistan, only three — Maliha, right; her nephew Sorush; and her cousin Soraya — were able to make it inside the Kabul airport and evacuate.

The week the Taliban took over Kabul, with the city awash with talk of Taliban restrictions on women and education, the extended Karimi family, all 36 of them spread over three generations, decided on the spur of the moment to flee.

Neither Maliha Karimi nor most of her family members had ever been on a plane or even inside the Kabul airport, but the idea of leaving gathered momentum, and they set off for the airport.

“I just took my passport and one phone,” she recalled, “We had no food, no water.”

Ms. Karimi, 27, the sole breadwinner for her parents and one disabled brother and his family of six, had a special reason to get out. As a beautician, she had lost her job the moment the Taliban returned, because they banned beauty salons as immoral, making it impossible for her to care for her family.

“They thought they were brothels,” she said.

The Karimi family reached the airport at 6 a.m. “The crowds were terrible, pushing and shouting, and the Taliban were shooting in the air,” Ms. Karimi said.

In the chaos, the family became separated. Ms. Karimi grabbed the hand of one of her brother’s children, 6-year-old Sorush, while a cousin, Soraya, took the boy’s other hand. Keeping their heads down, they fought their way toward the gate.

“I just decided to go forward, not backward,” she said. “I just kept going forward.”

Suddenly, the two young women, with Sorush between them, were swept through the gate. The other 33 family members were left behind, but there was no turning back.

It was four full days before they reached Fort Bliss in El Paso, where Ms. Karimi finally could access Wi-Fi and call Kabul to speak with the anguished parents of Sorush, who was so upset he had stopped eating. Everyone wept: the parents aching for their son and Sorush homesick for his family.

With Ms. Karimi gone and no one in her family back in Afghanistan working, they are short of everything: food, heating oil and medicines and are begging Ms. Karimi for help.

She got $200 from a Muslim aid organization, An Nisa Hope Center in Houston, which she was supposed to use for clothes, food and medicine for herself and Sorush, but she wired it all to her brother in Kabul.

Sorush is what Ms. Karimi carried with her, and the bonds between them are now not only of blood but of forging a new life, despite the anguish and demands of the family they left behind.

Alissa J. Rubin is a former Kabul Bureau Chief who spent more than seven years in Afghanistan and is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her work there. 

The One Item They Had to Take When These 6 Afghans Fled