At Khalid Ahmadzai’s house in Arkansas, he and his mother saw what was happening in Kabul. He had driven to Minnesota to fetch her, so she could stay with his wife and daughters. He knew she wouldn’t want to be alone as the Taliban solidified their control of the country the family loved and had left. The drive, which he made in two days, there and back, was grueling.
“As we were driving, we were watching with utter disbelief and sadness,” he said.
Ahmadzai is director of economic advancement for Canopy NWA, a nonprofit that helps refugees, including refugee entrepreneurs. He immigrated to the United States and went back and forth to Afghanistan while he was in college, keeping close ties in the country. I met him on a visit to Arkansas last summer for Times of E’s Arkansas Reporting project.
Ahmadzai had suspected for months that the transition would not go smoothy. “Seventy thousand Afghans have given their lives to fight for this democracy,” said Ahmadzai. He was referring to the soldiers and police who died in the 20-year war. “And people say Afghans didn’t have the courage to fight? Say that to the parents of those people.”
He does not, he says, blame Americans on the ground, helping with the evacuations. But he blames the politicians and the decision makers, both in Afghanistan and the United States.
“Afghans don’t deserve this,” he said.
He told me the story of the last two weeks. As the Taliban swept to control, dear friends starting texting and calling, begging for his help. He had to triage, which was incredibly painful. Who had a visa? Where could he do good? One of the untold stories of the evacuation is how many lives and deaths were decided by the old rubric of who you know. Afghans who had a bureaucratic stature via their presence in the visa process had a chance of making the first cut, but many of those who made it through the airport gates and on the planes did so because they were connected to someone in America who advocated for them.
‘I don’t think there’s any hope’
Ahmadzai had enough clout to help, a little bit. Sometimes, knowing someone lower down the food chain but close to power can help. Ahmadzai was one person, with a few connections, a few friends in Senators’ offices and connections in the government.
A friend of his, a computer expert, reached out. This man was far along in the process for a special visa. If Ahmadzai could just help him get over the hump.
“I called some contacts I had,” he said. “I was in touch on an hourly basis.”
Keeping his friend’s spirits up was difficult. Keeping his own spirits up was difficult.
“I don’t think there’s any hope,” texted his friend.
The family went to the airport. They stood at the gates, watching the reality of thousands of people trying to get in. Thankfully, they were not on the day when the explosion killed an estimated 170 people, including 13 American Marines. But there was no way in.
Ahmadzai was barely sleeping, still trying to pull strings. Somehow, his friend’s family made it on to a list. A minivan arrived, and the family piled in.
The next message: “We are in the bus heading to the airport,” said his friend. “They stopped us at the checkpoint. Don’t text me.”
Ahmadzai sat watching his phone. “That was the longest three hours,” he said.
He went to Mount Sequoia, in the foothills of the Ozark mountains. He prayed.
“If you could just give him a chance,” he prayed. “Spare.”
That one world, “spare,” echoed in his mind.
Then, finally, a text from his friend. “I’m inside.”
He and his family, his wife and five children, flew to Dubai, to a humanitarian camp.
Ahmadzai returned to trying to help others. A female friend has already lost her job, summarily dismissed because she was a woman.
One family, he thinks. He was able to help one family.
What about the 30 plus million left behind?
Ahmadzai runs a carpet importing business on the side. He’s a perennial entrepreneur. Now, he is worried about the artisans. The weavers will not go anywhere, but their export markets might die. To him, this would another tragedy, if their skills and spirits slip away. He can see them in his mind’s eye, sitting at their looms. Perhaps, he thinks, when things calm down, he will be able to return to Afghanistan, to set up some economic lifelines.