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West Haven Man Longs To Reunite With Mother Stuck In Afghanistan

Shinwari said this past August was a hard month for him all around, but Aug. 15 in particular was a day he’ll never be able to shake.

It began well. The former adviser for U.S. special forces in Afghanistan called his mother with good news. Shinwari, who asked to go by his last to keep his family in Afghanistan safe, has been a U.S. citizen since 2019 and applied for a family reunification visa for his mother in June. He’d received notice that week that the visa was pending.

“I’m talking to my mother and I just tell [her], ‘Hey, I start your paperwork. So everything is going to be OK and hopefully we will see each other soon here,’” Shinwari said, recalling the conversation.

But when he finished the call, matters took a turn for the worse, he said.

“When I turn on the news, I see the whole government was collapsed,” he said. “The Taliban -- they control Afghanistan.”

Taliban fighters had moved into the presidential palace in Kabul, a milestone in the group’s efforts to take over the country and a move that caused shock around the world. Shinwari said at first he was confused.

“I thought maybe I’m seeing a dream. But no, it wasn’t a dream. It was reality,” he said.

That confusion quickly turned into an urge to get his family to safety.

His mother has diabetes and knee problems. Last December, his wife and two young children went to Afghanistan to care for her. But after the Taliban takeover, they were all stuck.

“I tried as soon as possible to take [them] out of Afghanistan because I don’t want something to happen to my family because of my service with the U.S. government,” Shinwari said. “I tell [them] I’m not going to forgive myself if I lost them.”

His two sons, 6 and 4 years old, are U.S. citizens. His wife is a legal permanent resident. But he said their status didn’t mean much at the time of evacuation.

His family embarked on an almost two-week journey to try to leave the country. He said his wife, children and mother slept at the gates of the airport, had several medical emergencies with one of his sons, and faced several attacks from the Taliban all while trying to tap into any evacuation help available.

More than 6,000 miles away, Shinwari was trying to do the same. He said he called his Army connections in Afghanistan and requested help from the U.S. State Department. But it wasn’t until he came across a post on social media that he finally got some kind of response.

Shinwari tapped into a loosely formed group of people across the U.S. using their connections to help families evacuate. The group, which was part of what’s been called the Digital Dunkirk movement, consists of veterans, active military members and government officials.

“Most of us would be assigned individual families to help, and we would let them know when gates may be opening or when a vehicle could pick them up,” said Sarah, a veteran and a group volunteer who helped the Shinwari family directly. She asked to be identified only by her first name because she’s still helping families on the ground.

Sarah said she tried to help the family evacuate together, but in the end it was only possible if they split up. And that was the case for many other families.

“I was giving them impossible choices that I’m not sure I could have made,” she said. “That choice where you have to leave someone behind to die. ‘Who's it going to be?’ sort of a thing just because the policy was so restrictive.”

The reason for their split was U.S. immigration status. Sarah said that at the time of evacuation, U.S. citizens were being prioritized at the airport gates. Shinwari’s children were eligible, and his wife was given a pass because of them. But his mother had only a recommendation letter from Shinwari’s Army unit and her pending visa case number. In the end, the family had to make the devastating decision to go on without her.

“[Shinwari] was pretty angry about the choices I made him make,” Sarah said. “Up until they went through the gate without his mom, he really truly thought he could convince someone to get his mom on.”

The choice of leaving family behind has been a hard one for many.

Chris George runs Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven. The organization is working with 45 Afghan Americans stuck in Kabul. He said many of them are in hiding with their families, whom they refuse to leave behind.

“Some will decide not to come. It’s not because it’s not so bad here. That’s not the reason,” George said. “They feel they need to stay to be with their loved ones who don’t have green cards and U.S. citizenship and whose lives are in danger.”

And George said it falls on the state department to take a closer look at evacuation efforts as many relatives are already in the visa process, like Shinwari’s mother. He spoke at a recent news conference alongside U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal to call for more help for those stuck in Afghanistan.

“For every one person who has a green card or U.S. citizenship, there are at least 5 people who are related to them and are in danger because of that association with the U.S. government,” George said.

Back in West Haven, Shinwari says leaving his mother behind still weighs on his family as threat from the Taliban grows.

“Nobody trusts those people,” he said. “If they say they are angels, they are not angels. We can’t trust them.”

He says he checks in with his mother daily to make sure she’s safe. But with no one directly caring for her, he doesn’t know how much longer that will be. And without her, his family feels incomplete.

“My oldest son wakes up every morning crying about [his] grandmother. We miss her,” Shinwari said. “Something is missing from our family.”

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.