116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Nine days after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, Zia Ud Din Zakhail called his mother from the crowded cargo plane he managed to board in Afghanistan.
After shedding his blood in a Taliban kidnapping and his sweat in the chaotic scene at Kabul International Airport, he could not leave his home without shedding tears, too.
“What is happening that you are crying?” Zakhail’s mother asked as she listened to the sound of him weeping.
“I’m safe, but I’m leaving. I’m on a cargo plane,” he managed to say, as they cried together in a farewell he could afford only over the phone. As a mixture of grief, sorrow and shame overwhelmed him, he had to hang up. He couldn’t bring himself to say “goodbye.”
After sleeping several nights on the concrete outside the airport, Zakhail was one of the lucky ones. After watching throngs of desperate Afghans risk their lives to flee the only country they had ever known, he made it out.
Some lost their lives by simply being there. People who slept near him outside the airport died instantly when an electrical wire fell on them, he said, leaving their bodies unrecognizable after they burned. Others took their chances by jumping the airport fence, where even military guns couldn’t deter them.
“I asked some of the guys why they were jumping over the wall — (the U.S. military) will kill you,” Zakhail said. “They said ‘(it makes) no difference. If I don’t get inside the airport, the Taliban will kill me.’”
Four days after his flight, Zakhail got a chance to catch up on social media with a Wi-Fi connection. There, he saw his cousin was one of the 60 who died in a suicide bomb blast Aug. 26 outside the airport.
Two years ago, the assistant professor of finance and accounting at Kabul University, now 27, was taken by the Taliban and beaten.
“The banking system is unlawful in Shariah, it is Haram (forbidden) in Islam,” he recalled being told as the front and sides of his face were beaten by the butt of their rifles. People like him, highly educated with a master’s degree in business administration, were just one of their targets.
So when Afghanistan’s last holdout fell to the Taliban, he immediately darted to the airport. Now in Cedar Rapids, he joins seven others who escaped Afghanistan, too. They are eight of the 125 anticipated to arrive here over the course of the next year.
The fall of Kabul
As the world watched the Taliban rapidly ascend to power and Afghanistan’s military collapse, Afghans were asking the same questions as the rest of the world.
It was like a nightmare unfolding, Zakhail said. Even after the Taliban took over other provinces, the fall of Kabul was something none of the eight new Cedar Rapids residents could have predicted.
“They said don’t worry, they can’t take over Kabul,” Zakhail recalled after asking his colleagues what to do.
Many of the humanitarian parolees settling in Iowa had experience working with the U.S. Army or the Afghan National Army.
“We were told to surrender, put our guns down, take off our army clothing and put on civilian clothing,” said one, Gul Sobkhan, through an interpreter.
Commanders in the Afghan National Army had already decided they weren’t going to fight the Taliban, Dinsoh Khan said.
When some soldiers refused to put down their weapons and surrender, their leaders ordered other fellow soldiers to shoot them, said Safi Shakil, a former police officer in the Nangarhar province.
Leaving it all
As they sat mostly barefoot around a table after prayers at a Cedar Rapids mosque Friday, none of the Afghan men thought they would have ever left their home. But Zakhail knew it was time to leave when President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
A professor from the northern Kunduz province, he lived in Kabul away from his new wife and infant daughter, for his safety and theirs. He hadn’t seen them for four months before he fled.
His daughter, Haleema, just turned 1. He cherishes her with a photo on his phone’s screen, showing her to others any chance he gets.
Six of the eight Afghan arrivals in Cedar Rapids have left behind wives and children. Most of the new arrivals are in their 30s and from the southeastern Khost province, which borders Pakistan. The youngest so far is 20; the oldest is 51.
As they all escaped on military cargo planes, they felt a brief moment of hope for a prosperous future with their families. The simultaneous fear and guilt they feel for the families they left behind to seek safety is a driving motivation for the work they have ahead to build their new American life.
“We miss our country, we miss the democracy that was there,” said Shakil, 30. “We miss the family and people we left behind. We love our country, we love our flag.”
They fear for their families still there, who receive regular inquiries from the Taliban.
The hardest part about starting over in a new country is almost everything, the Afghan men told The Gazette.
“We are just (newborn) babies,” said Shakil, who arrived with Zakhail on Oct. 29. “We don’t know what to do. It’s a totally new environment, culture.”
A majority of the small group, with no formal education, is illiterate. A man who goes by one name, Ibrahim, 20, has an eighth-grade education and aspires to pursue further education here.
Being so far behind on a formal education, many of them don’t have a career path outlined with specificity, said Shakil, the former police officer. They simply want to work as hard as they can to achieve something — anything — for their families.
The primary breadwinners for their children and extended families, the group of men have a focus on their future broader than themselves. Their vision of success is to ensure a future path for their children — not just a career for themselves.
With their horizons now opened, Shakil said they simply want to preserve hope for their children.
Back to work
“We are energetic and young, we want to work,” Zakhail said. “We don’t want to be dependent on anybody.”
The immigrants are acutely aware of negative perceptions surrounding immigrants, emphasizing that if they don’t work, their families in Afghanistan can’t eat. But without work permits, they can’t work as quickly as they’d like. Work permits, which have been approved for them, are stuck in government processing.
Zakhail has a tracking number for his work permit, showing that it’s sitting somewhere in Washington, D.C. Upon his arrival to Cedar Rapids, the federal government had to be notified of his new location for mailing. He’ been here over a week; it still hasn’t arrived.
Without printed work permits, the Afghans can’t work. Without work, they can’t secure housing, limiting them to temporary hotels.
The future of Afghanistan
The eight men who narrowly escaped the grip of the Taliban wish they could feature the more pleasant aspects of Afghanistan’s storied history — it’s beautiful people, vibrant culture, delicious food and stories traditions.
“We need to show the world that Afghanistan is not just the Taliban or guns,” said interpreter Aftab Afridi, owner of Chicago Grill in Cedar Rapids. “Afghanistan is beautiful.”
Asked if they held hope for their home’s restoration to democracy, some could not answer. Others held hope, but not confidence.
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