Kabul Collapse Tears Families Apart

Kabul Collapse Tears Families Apart

Farhad Wajdi was in Kabul with his parents and siblings just a year ago, running a nonprofit that provided local women with street food carts.

They were making international headlines and gaining support from US-based NGOs as well as the Afghan government. However, the Taliban’s return to power in the country, which occurred much faster than American or Afghan officials predicted, has upended the family’s fortunes and torn them between two countries.

On Monday, the United States withdrew its last remaining troops from Afghanistan, effectively ending the country’s 20-year war. However, the legacy of the United States’ actions in the country will live on through families like Wajdi’s, as well as the terrifying, often perverse consequences they face. Wajdi’s organization received coverage in outlets such as the Guardian, BBC News, and Al Jazeera, as well as recognition and financial support from international organizations such as the Asia Foundation and Global Citizen, both based in the United States. Even repossessed motorcycles were donated to the nonprofit by the Afghan government. But it was the attention that forced him to flee his country last year — and is now putting his family in danger.

Wajdi currently resides in Virginia, where he relocated last year to seek asylum after ISIS militants threatened his life, according to him. He arrived in America before his parents and siblings, and he expected them to follow him eventually — but none of them realized how little time they had before the government collapsed. Wajdi’s family has been in hiding since the Taliban took power, and he has contacted everyone he knows in an attempt to get them evacuated. Many individuals and organizations have attempted, but nothing has succeeded.

Their family’s food cart nonprofit allowed women in Kabul to sell quick lunches like pasta and rice to pedestrians. In Kabul, street food is popular, but it is usually sold by men. When Wajdi founded the organization with the help of his family in 2010, one of the issues was that the women had to push the carts themselves, which was frowned upon, according to Wajdi. “It’s considered very bad culturally for a woman to push the cart,” he explained.

As a result, Wajdi and his father, who was knowledgeable about electronics, collaborated to design solar-powered carts. He claimed that his mother counseled and assisted the cart vendors. They were subjected to verbal abuse and threats, according to Wajdi, but the carts allowed them to earn money for their families, which was especially important for widows.

After Afghanistan went into lockdown due to COVID-19 and street food vendors were unable to operate, carts were converted into mobile disinfection units last year.

“Seeing how empowered my mom was helped to make my vision clearer, that I have to help more women be like my mom,” Wajdi said.

However, not everyone was in favor of the project. Wajdi began receiving threatening phone calls last summer.

“With fame came a danger to us,” he explained. “One guy called me from a private number and said you’re promoting Western ideology in Afghanistan,” she says.

More phone calls came in. He didn’t take them seriously at first. But then he got a Facebook message, which he shared with BuzzFeed News, threatening to “target [his] workplace and home” and saying his “final destination will be hell.” The account that sent it, which appears to still be active on Facebook, identified itself as a member of Khorasan Province Islamic State, an ISIS regional affiliate that uses the historical name of a region that includes parts of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the message, Wajdi was singled out for hiring Hazara minority women as cart vendors. “If you surrender to us, we can reduce your punishment,” it stated.

“I was terrified,” Wajdi admitted. He shut down the office and drove about 40 carts to a location near his house. His parents were concerned about the threats. Years of living through war had taught them that they had no choice.

Wajdi’s family decided that he would travel to Virginia to seek asylum because he already had a tourist visa and an uncle who lived there. His parents, who did not have US visas, were unable to accompany him.

It was a difficult decision, but Wajdi believed he could eventually persuade his parents to join him. But everything changed after that.

“As soon as the Taliban took over, we quickly abandoned our house,” his parents wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. Their neighbor told them that militants had broken into their house while they were away and searched it, asking for information about them. Wajdi saw TV news reports of people streaming to the airport on the day the Taliban swept through Kabul, and there were rumors of Afghans getting on planes simply by being in the right place at the right time. It was risky, but given the risks, staying behind could be even riskier.

Wajdi’s parents decided to take a chance. With their small children, they left everything behind except a few bags of food and drinks, asking a neighbor to keep an eye on the house. They stayed in the airport area for days, sleeping on the street to avoid missing any opportunities and moving from gate to gate based on rumors about where people were allowed inside. They waved paperwork and yelled for assistance at foreign military officials and interpreters. Nobody would step in.

They kept running out of water at the airport, according to Wajdi. “Only people are allowed to pass through — it’s just you and your documents and your children. There will be no bags or luggage.”

The family waited for days near the airport, praying to be evacuated. (Their names have been withheld by BuzzFeed News in order to protect their safety.) Wajdi spent his nights on the phone with his mother, who was using a power bank to charge his phone. Both of his parents kept saying the same thing: “Son, no progress is being made.” He spent his days calling everyone and anyone who could possibly help him, including the foundations that had supported him, journalists, and friends in the United States and Europe.

When terrorists bombed Hamid Karzai International Airport on Thursday, killing at least 170 Afghans and 13 American service members, Wajdi’s family was outside the airport, but at a different gate, where they could hear the explosion but did not feel it. They’ve gone back into hiding. Wajdi saw the bombing on the news and immediately tried to call his parents, but he was unable to reach them. “I was terrified,” he admitted. When the cell signal returned, he was able to communicate.

Wajdi is attempting to maintain hope now that the United States has exited Afghanistan. The Taliban has promised to allow Afghans with visas or foreign passports to leave, but Wajdi does not believe them.

“It’s very difficult,” he admitted. “When you see the situation on TV, when you see your country’s future, it looks very bleak. You wonder, “What if your parents are executed in front of your eyes one day?”

These days, his thoughts are consumed by what-if scenarios. Wajdi criticizes the Afghan and American governments for making overly optimistic projections about Kabul’s stability. “That’s why my parents didn’t have passports,” he explained. “We weren’t psychologically prepared to leave the country.” Wajdi might have seen this coming if he hadn’t trusted a friend in the Afghan government who had tried to assuage his fears that the Taliban would quickly defeat the military.

“It still feels like we’re in a dream,” he said. “How are things able to change so quickly? I never expected everything to fall apart so easily.”

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Kabul Collapse Tears Families Apart