EXCLUSIVE: American Snuck into Afghanistan to Save His Sisters (Part 1)
Asks State Department for a diplomatic solution to overland escape
THIS IS PART ONE OF AN EXCLUSIVE THREE-PART SERIES. THE LINK TO PART TWO IS AT THE END.
Ali said he was shaking when he saw the Taliban at the border checkpoint of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
Just two days earlier, he was with his wife in their Connecticut home. Now he was on a desperate mission to try to get his sisters out of Afghanistan before the U.S. withdrew and left the Taliban in full control.
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“In our society, it’s the brother's job to take care of the sister,” he told me by phone from Kabul, where he’s been since Aug. 27. Ali, an American citizen, is both protecting his sisters and trying to offer solutions to the State Department for the vulnerable Afghans who have been abandoned.
When Ali first reached out to me, I admit that I didn’t fully believe his story. He speaks perfect English, with barely an accent. Our connection by phone sounds like he’s down the street.
Could there really be an American man who went to Kabul when every other American was begging for the last seats on the flights out of there?
After multiple calls, texts and emails, I now believe Ali has the most extraordinary story and, more importantly, has a very specific point of view on how the U.S. picked which Afghan refugees can move to America. (I’ve changed his name for his safety.)
From Connecticut to Kabul in three days
Ali was under enormous pressure from his parents in the U.S. to go help their daughters after they lost contact around Aug. 24. After consulting with relatives in Europe, the family decided that Ali would go overseas and try to take his sisters to a neighboring country. That is still the goal, but for now, they are all trapped.
He flew from New York to Moscow. He said he saw many other European Afghans in the Russian airport, waiting to get on flights to border countries.
Ali then flew to Samarkand airport in Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks would only give him a “transit visa”, so he had to immediately leave the country. He got a taxi to take him to Temez on the border with Afghanistan.
He drove to the Hairatan Bridge, which is where he faced the Taliban border control. Ali said the Taliban guard took his small bag and scanned it.
He was scared to show his U.S. passport. When he handed it over, it got mixed in with the various colors of European passports (Norway, UK, French) that belonged to the others trying to get their relatives out of the country. Luckily, the guard couldn’t read English so didn’t know there was one American in the group at the border.
Ali said the guard asked where to put the stamp. “These guys just came down from the mountains,” said Ali of the Taliban border guards. “They couldn’t read the passports. And stamps were a whole new thing.”
He finally cleared the area and got a taxi with four others to Mazar-e-Sharif. Ali lived in Afghanistan until he was 18, but he had never been to any of these areas of Afghanistan.
From Mazar, he took taxis all the way to Kabul. He was relieved and happy that his U.S. cell phone worked the whole drive.
“T-Mobile had great service — free roaming! I’ll do an ad for it,” he joked.
A protective brother
He finally got to Kabul on Aug. 27 and reunited with his sisters and their families. The next day, he took them all by car to the Kabul Airport to try to get a commercial flight to anywhere. Even though he bribed someone to get them through the entrance, he couldn't get them on a flight.
They went back to a safe house and waited for the U.S. to give a solution, which never came.
When the last U.S. military plane left on Aug. 30, he heard “celebratory” gunfire all over Kabul. “There were bullets all over this city for that last plane,” he said. “I felt so hopeless that day.”
Ali believes that, if you look closely at the the serviceman in the photo (below) that the U.S. military released to show the withdrawal, he looks sad and disappointed for leaving people behind.
In the three weeks that he has been in Afghanistan, Ali has adapted to the dangers.
“I’ve already blended in. I grew my beard. I don’t use my phone with any U.S. information. I don't carry any documents, not my U.S. passport,” he whispered. “I have to act like this is my normal way.”
But the danger is constant. He moves his sisters and nieces and nephews to different safe houses and watches out the windows, day and night.
“I see the Taliban going to another building, and then I hear shots. I just think, ‘Please don’t come to this building. Please,’” he said. “We wake every kid at night to be ready to move.”
Plan for Overland Escape from Taliban
Ali, 32, works in data science and speaks seven languages. His parents are permanent legal residents. His father had a career working for several major NGOs, including Save the Children, Mercy Corps and the United Nations.
He wants his sisters to come to America with the rest of the family, but they don’t have visas. One of his sisters is a doctor and the other is a health care worker.
He said the doctor sister is most in danger because she went to villages and preached against child marriage. She has applied for a I-130 Visa which is a “Petition for Alien Relatives.” His other sister is married to a former “combat interpreter” who has applied for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV).
Ali has been proactive in reaching out to the U.S. government for help in getting his family to the U.S. He said he’s been in touch regularly with the State Department. I asked if he’s been assigned a case manager. “There’s no such thing,” he replied flatly.
He said the person he spoke to at State two days ago said, “We are going to put your group together and come up with a solution.” Ali countered that he had his own solution. He wants the U.S. to “green light” him to take his family across a ground route to a neighboring country and then wait out the visas. He said the official said that was “possible.”
Ali has bigger ideas for all the Americans with Afghan family members trapped. “If Secretary of State Blinken can talk to the foreign minister of Pakistan or Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, then give us a piece of paper to show at the port of entry, at least we will be safer in one of those places.”
He points out that the U.S. is setting up a possible intelligence problem by not letting Afghan family members come to America. “The Taliban is going to use everyone who is left here as leverage,” he said.
Also, Ali said he had been in contact with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). I asked Blumenthal’s staff for comment, but they will not discuss constituents in Afghanistan for their safety.
Who are the Afghan refugees in America?
Ali feels strongly that the U.S. made mistakes when it rushed to get 125,000 Afghan refugees to America — without checking their backgrounds.
“Afghanistan is fully corrupt. People were selling visas at the airport. God knows who was boarding those airplanes,” he said. “The American public should ask one thing: Who are these people? They are in the U.S. now and could be a terrorist or a spy for another country.”
“As an American citizen, we have to guarantee that refugees don't pose a threat to our country,” he said. “Did we take in certain people who aren’t supposed to be there?
In contrast, he said his sisters and their families would be contributing members of society and the family is financially healthy. Both of his sisters are successful in their careers.
I’ve been texting and calling Ali often, and he answers immediately, no matter what time it is in Kabul. I asked him today, “Do you ever sleep?”
He replied, “With one eye open.”
NEXT, READ PART TWO OF MY EXCLUSIVE THREE-PART SERIES AT THIS LINK: American father trapped in Afghanistan says U.S. government won't help him