How One Family Fled Afghanistan and Was Reunited in New York City
Originally Published in The New York Times
Ashley Wong – September 8, 2021
Mohammad Wali, a U.S. citizen and a New Yorker, spent several harrowing days trying to evacuate his family from Afghanistan before they finally arrived last week.
On Aug. 6, after spending the summer visiting his family in Afghanistan, Mohammad Wali kissed his wife and three children goodbye, headed to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul and boarded a plane back to New York City, where he lives and works.
Days later, the Taliban seized the Afghan capital, and the country’s government crumbled. As thousands of desperate Afghans tried to escape, the very same airport Mr. Wali had flown out of days earlier collapsed into chaos.
With his family trapped in an increasingly volatile country, Mr. Wali watched the news every night with a sense of numb horror.
“When we heard that news, we didn’t know how they would get out,” Mr. Wali, 55, said in an interview. “How is it possible to get out?”
Thousands of desperate Afghans had crowded Kabul’s airport gates trying to flee the country, and for every family allowed in, countless more were left behind. Adam DeMarco, a member of Allied Airlift 21, a group of veterans working to evacuate Americans and those with family ties to Americans from Afghanistan, said of the roughly 56,000 people who had messaged his group, only about 1,000 had been helped so far.
“I think about the people who have messaged me that I could do nothing for,” Mr. DeMarco said. “Those are the ones that I remember.”
But Mr. Wali’s family was among the lucky ones. Although he and his two older children are U.S. citizens, his wife and youngest child are not. He couldn’t imagine his children attempting to scale the airport’s fences to escape, as some others had tried to do, he said.
On Aug. 16, after his family made several unsuccessful attempts to enter the airport through U.S. military checkpoints, Mr. Wali reached out to Representative Tom Suozzi, who represents Plainview, the Long Island hamlet where Mr. Wali lives. Mr. Suozzi’s office connected them with Allied Airlift, and five days later, the group alerted its U.S. military contacts in Kabul, who helped the family successfully get past the airport’s gates.
On Aug. 23, the family flew to Qatar, where they spent several tense days in a hotel room before boarding another flight, on Sept. 1, to Germany. Mr. Wali was finally reunited on Friday with his family at Dulles International Airport in Washington. It was the first time his wife and children had ever set foot in America.
Holding a big bouquet of flowers and “welcome” balloons, Mr. Wali said he cried as he hugged his wife, Aishah, 29, and their children, Omar, 8, Zahra, 6, and Yasir, 1. He felt like he was in a dream, he said.
“I would not believe it, to be honest with you,” Mr. Wali said. “You had a dream to be together, and now, thank God, you are together.”
Mr. Wali immigrated to the United States in 1992 and found work at the Ariana Afghan Kebob restaurant in Midtown, which he took over in 2002 and still operates to this day. He had begun the laborious process of applying for citizenship for his wife in 2018, but when the Afghan government collapsed, her application was still in limbo.
His two older children, still battling jet lag, accompanied him to the restaurant on Tuesday evening. Omar laid his head down on one of the tables and promptly fell asleep.
When the Taliban first took control of Kabul, Mr. Wali thought he would never see his family again, he said. At the suggestion of two of his restaurant’s customers, he contacted Mr. Suozzi, who reached out to Mr. DeMarco at Allied Airlift to get the ball rolling.
After the Wali family was cleared for evacuation, finding them in the sea of thousands outside Kabul’s airport was the next challenge. Workers told Ms. Wali to tie a red bandanna to their infant’s clothing or wave it in the air to help them stand out. Even then, Mr. DeMarco said, it took about 12 hours to find them.
“It’s a needle in a haystack,” Mr. DeMarco said. “It was just a sea of humanity, and it’s chaotic.”
Compounding the difficulty was the fact that the American military kept changing the checkpoint gate over security concerns, Mr. DeMarco said, raising fears that the family would miss the pickup window. The Walis also had to break the curfew established by the Taliban, because the group hadn’t found them by the time it went into effect.
They eventually had to abandon Ms. Wali’s brother, Nasir, 19, outside the gate, because he wasn’t an American citizen; he was evacuated days later with a different family.
Though Mr. DeMarco was proud and relieved that the Walis escaped, as soon as they made it into the airport, he had to shift his focus to another stranded family.
“We’re still so deep into this, and still working so hard,” Mr. DeMarco said.
Sitting with his two older children on Wednesday morning in his restaurant, a small brick establishment with rich woven tapestries lining the walls, Mr. Wali looked energetic and at ease as they split a plate of doughnuts.
Mr. Suozzi met the Walis in person for the first time on Wednesday, after weeks of WhatsApp conversations. After a harrowing few days, hearing the news that the family had safely made contact with U.S. soldiers was a huge relief for him and his staff, he said.
“I didn’t really relax until they were inside the airport,” he said.
Mr. Wali said the last few years have been incredibly challenging for him: He lost most of his business because of the pandemic and endured painfully long periods of separation from his family.
Now, he hopes, normalcy awaits. He’s looking forward to moving his family to Plainview and finding a good school for his children, he said. They need to go shopping for some new clothes, and he wants to get pizza with them. And then it’s time to start planning for their future.
“I got another life,” Mr. Wali said.
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