On Sunday evenings, at a large round table with a white tablecloth covered with white butcher paper, sit Azim and Fatima, with whom I was connected through a local mosque.
The couple met in Afghanistan in 2001 when Azim returned to visit his home country for the first time since 1982, when the country was rocked by another guerrilla war with another occupying power – the Soviet Union. He and his family fled the country for one very compelling reason in the 1980s: he and his father ended up on a “kill list”.
“I literally disguised my father as a woman and I had my mother and two sisters and we ran to the back of the bus and stayed there and had them completely covered,” says Azim, with a face that gives a lingering sense of surprise Plan works. They crossed the border into Pakistan and finally to America.
The couple now resides in Ellicott City, Maryland with their three daughters. Azim wears a maroon button and glasses; he is professor and talks the most. At first glance, Fatima is either silent or unsure whether she would like to talk about her homeland on Sunday evening with a reporter she has never met.
But the reality is that she has had a terrible migraine for the past two weeks from lack of sleep. And it makes sense why. Unlike her husband, Fatima still has a family in Afghanistan, including her two teenage nieces.
Like thousands of other girls at home, their nieces are in constant worry and it only gets worse. “I’m angry with my family,” she says in a shaky and hoarse voice from lack of sleep.
These are the lingering consequences of the end of America’s longest war. Physical trauma, sure. But also deep emotional ones. One of Fatima’s greatest fears is that the Taliban will take the two girls out of their homes and force them to marry Taliban fighters. It is something that the local people have been saying since the Taliban took power, despite the public professions of the Group of Mercy.
According to the State Department, the Biden administration managed to evacuate more than 23,000 “vulnerable” Afghans to the US between August 17 and 31, when the US military mission ended.
For the Afghan American community, this means a huge influx. There are currently more than 80,000 foreign-born Afghans living in the United States, including more than 70,000 who have immigrated since 1980. Maryland has been one of her favorite travel destinations over the years.
And as the allegations fly over the traumatic end of the war, more are to come. Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, says his group alone has relocated more than 10,000 Afghans since 2009 and expects “thousands more in the coming weeks and months”.
The Helmand with his obvious political ties to the country – Qayum Karzai ran for President of Afghanistan in 2013; Hamid Karzai is staying there and has been part of the negotiations with the Taliban in recent months – and objectively delicious and authentic food is a gathering place for the Afghan community in the region.
Through personal experience of the assimilation process, people here have a unique perspective on what tens of thousands of Afghans around the world are currently going through. At the same time, they are devastated by the fate of their homeland and are afraid for the many who have stayed behind. Your sisters, brothers, parents. The Biden government has touted its evacuation efforts as “successful” but few at The Helmand feel that there is something to be excited about as so many of their family members are in limbo, unsure of what to do next comes.
A tall, 21-year-old medical student from nearby Johns Hopkins University sits down at the table. Muzzammil, I met through the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service was born the son of two Afghan refugees in Sacramento, California, one of the Metropolitan areas with the highest number of foreign-born Afghans in the country. He speaks softly and when he sees the elderly couple, he immediately puts his hand to his heart while introducing himself to his elders.
The three have never met, but they greet each other like family. Throughout dinner, Muzzammil only addresses Azim and Fatima as Kaka and Khala, which means “uncle” and “aunt”, no matter how often Azim and Fatima try to get him to use their names.
“I would never say first names. My parents would get very upset if I said first names. It’s just out of respect, ”he says and presses his hand back over his heart.
Azim speaks Farsi to the young man, who apologetically replies that although his family understands the language, his family mainly understands Afghanistan’s other official language, Pashto. But don’t worry, so does Azim.
After the courtesies, I ask you to rewind and reflect on the last 20 years of American commitment to your country. Looking back, what do you think of it?
Azim is the first to speak and leans forward: “The intention was probably good to free the country from the atrocities of the Taliban. But what we’re seeing today is worse than before, ”he says. Fatima nods. She agrees with everything her husband just said.
He goes on to give a brief history lesson, as he does in almost all of his responses, before adding that the US military “should have left a long time ago. The decision to leave is a good one. ”
A tall waiter in the Helmand uniform – white shirt, black trousers and mask – comes to the table. He’s blonde and stands out a little from the rest of the staff, who all have dark features, suggesting Central or South Asian ancestry. It’s time for starters.
Azim and Fatima order a soup and Muzzammil, sensing my indecision, chooses a starter for me: mantwo, a dumpling-like bowl of dough filled with beef.
I ask Muzzammil how he feels as an Afghan American watching what happens in his parents’ homeland. When he was growing up, his father took the family to Jalalabad, a rural town east of Kabul, about every four years. He recalls that he always noticed two things: the American presence and the grief of his family in the country, even after the first defeat of the Taliban.
“You can’t go from one place to another without stopping at a checkpoint. You see an armored Humvee here, the troops here, troops there, you see them everywhere, ”he says. “I don’t think many of the people who grew up there have a future. And that’s the part that eats me up. I’m only here for my summer and then I’m going back [to the United States]. You have to live here. “
All three regret that, despite the American presence, Afghanistan still lacks the infrastructure to train its people or develop its economy. And now they fear the worst for their family members, as the presence of American troops is completely absent and a Taliban government does not really keep its promises.
Azim is working to help his wife’s family members figure out the special immigrant visa system – his brother-in-law has worked publicly for Americans for years and they fear for his safety. The process is confusing and slow, and after submitting an application, Azim complains, it’s unclear where you are in the queue.
He is angry with the Biden government about the process – “it’s so frustrating” – and how the withdrawal went, despite the number of people who were ultimately evacuated.
“You managed it wrong. You didn’t plan it. They had no idea how quickly they felt it was going to fall, “says Azim, still sounding like he was giving a lecture to a class. But he also blames the country’s former president, Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country instead of trying to mediate an orderly transfer of power.
“I think if he had stayed, for example, he would have come on TV and said, ‘I am the leader of this country, I am the president and I will ask the world community to make sure we are protected and in.” In the meantime, I will make a peaceful transition to the Taliban, ‘”says Azim.
The blonde is back to take our food orders. Three lamb meals, one chicken. We order quickly to get talking again. And I notice that after about an hour of talking, Muzzammil didn’t even say the word “Taliban”. His point of contact seems to be “Said Group”.
When I point it out, he laughs like a kid caught trying to pull a quick one. He says he refuses to use their real name for one important reason: he doesn’t think they deserve it.
“Talib means student. And I’m assuming what they imagined when they called themselves that they are students of knowledge, I don’t think they are students of knowledge, ”he says. For Muzzammil, it’s a small opportunity to rob the group of the legitimacy they crave now – the only real power he has.
Otherwise, he and his Afghan compatriots are in constant fear. “You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he says. “I would be lying if I said that at some point I feel like there is hope or that it will get better.” His family in Afghanistan usually stayed at home for weeks.
Fatima’s family did the same. She calls them two or three times a day, checking in and making plans while they sit around hoping for a call and waiting to be evacuated.
Last Thursday they got tired of waiting.
“Everyone hears that there are so many people who just went to the airport and got on a plane. ‘Okay, maybe we’re lucky,’ ”says Azim.
The family of nine got into a car and drove to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. As they drove, two suicide bombers hit a crowd they hoped to be part of just outside the airport, killing dozen of Afghans and 13 US soldiers.
The family was a block and a half from the explosion. When the bombs exploded, they turned their car and drove home. And since then, even if they are miraculously chosen to leave the country, they have been afraid to leave the house and even more afraid of going to the airport.
“My advice to them is, ‘Follow the process, don’t go, don’t go anywhere until you get an email and a phone call how to go,’” he says.
The whole ordeal made Fatima wish the American troops had never left. She thinks of her nieces: “They are all so sad. And fear. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them. “ She says that if President Biden had sat with us at the table, she would tell him to “go back” and help her people.
Dinner is mostly and appropriately gloomy. Each of them explicitly and implicitly raised awareness of how complicated and chaotic this whole process is and will continue to be. Not sure what the future holds, but their prayers are that the United States will keep its word to get people who have worked with Americans out of the country. That Biden and the US government, as Azim puts it, “pressure” [the Taliban] at least not to be so brutal and to respect the rights of everyone there and not to isolate them. “
At one point in our conversation, I ask if they have any hope when it comes to a country that has endured decades of civil war, physical suffering and emotional turmoil.
Azim, who says he is a “man half full of glass,” says that despite all the terrible things they observe, despite all the uncertainty and fear, they must keep praying and believing.
“If we get upset, it won’t help,” he says. “You do your best by being a good, loyal Muslim. Be a good Afghan, keep your culture. You do your best to respect your family and leave the rest to the Lord. And he’ll be careful. We just have to be patient. “
Behind him, Fatima wipes tear after tear from her face and shakes her head.
The two men exchange their numbers, but not before Muzzammil apologizes for insulting his new Kaka and Khala – respect for elders who are related to uncle and aunt – with one of his opinions (he has not). They promise to come together again, a new connection in a wounded Afghan American community that is about to welcome tens of thousands of new souls.