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How one Conn. resident escaped Taliban lockdown

Pictures of the Week in the Middle East Photo Gallery
Shekib Rahmani
/
AP
U.S. soldiers stand guard along the perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.

At least 50 Connecticut residents were trapped in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last August. Of these, around 40 have been returned home, according to Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven. All of George’s clients experienced complications because of their ties to the U.S. government.

Naweed, a Connecticut resident originally from Afghanistan, is one of these clients. Naweed is a pseudonym -- he asked to keep his real name private because he fears for the safety of his family in Afghanistan. He was visiting his family in Kabul to mark the one-year anniversary of his father’s death when the Taliban took over last year. He, his wife and his children returned to Connecticut in November after nearly three months in hiding.

“There have been verified reports that some people who worked with the U.S. government were hunted down and killed,” George said.

Naweed heard the same reports George did, and he felt he was in danger because of his former employment with the U.S. military.

“There are thousands of stories that they took out people from their house and killed them in front of their parents, mom, dad, brothers, family, relatives … It was like something pleasurable for them,” Naweed said.

These concerns were proved legitimate when Taliban fighters came for him after the takeover. His brother answered the door to keep Naweed’s presence there a secret. Naweed says his brother was taken and interrogated. He told the Taliban fighters that Naweed had already left the country. Naweed then left their home, went into hiding, and began to look for an opportunity to get his family out of Afghanistan.

Naweed said he tried to take his family to the airport immediately after the government’s collapse, when the U.S. military was letting almost anyone onto evacuation flights. But they were scared away by the stampede and the gunshots. So he went into hiding and began to look for other ways out.

“We rent[ed] a new apartment. We left everything. It was [a] hard situation, emotionally, mentally -- but mostly, financially. Nothing to eat, nothing to pay the rent,” said Naweed.

The Taliban government has publicly announced that it won’t punish people with ties to the former government or to the U.S. But Chris Purdy, director of Veterans for American Ideals at Human Rights First, says that’s not the reality.

“Either they don’t have control, or they don’t want to have control over individuals at the bottom level. People are being followed. They’re being imprisoned. They’re being tied up and drowned in rivers, decapitated, hung from bridges …” Purdy said.

Leaving Afghanistan for the U.S. requires a passport or a visa, but proper paperwork doesn’t guarantee that someone will be let onto a plane.

“There is no Taliban TSA,” Purdy said. “A lot of this is very subjective and based on the local commanders on the ground [or] fighters on the ground. There’s a real command and control issue that the Taliban haven’t resolved.”

Those without passports and visas -- like Naweed’s mother and brother -- have no passport office to assist them, because the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is out of operation. And few planes are coming in and out of Kabul; since August, most evacuees have had to take specially chartered flights. Travelers also aren’t allowed to fly directly to the U.S., even with a visa -- they have to fly to another country first and go through weeks of background checks and vetting.

Naweed contacted the U.S. Embassy to try to make arrangements for his mother and brother.

“[They] told me that I have to wait and fill out the same form for my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law, and then I have to wait at home,” Naweed said. “I didn’t hear anything back from the U.S. Embassy, unfortunately.”

Purdy says a lot of families are going through this.

“Right now, [the State Department’s] goal is to get U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, and their families -- those that we have a legal obligation to,” he said.

Eventually, Connecticut-based IRIS got Naweed, his wife and children a flight in November. He had to leave his other family in Afghanistan, where they remain to this day. He says he still hasn’t heard back about their visas.

Naweed was laid off shortly before his trip to Afghanistan and is still struggling to find work so that he can send money back to his family. The money he can afford to send is worth much less than before the Taliban took over because the cost of living there has skyrocketed.

Naweed said he still regrets not storming the airport during those first few days.

“I could have gone right away during the first waves to go to the airport, but I was waiting for the U.S. Embassy,” he said. “Whoever managed to get inside the airport, they are already evacuated -- doesn’t matter if they have [a] green card, [if] they are [a] U.S. citizen, or no. People who received an email or gate pass or visa card from the U.S. Embassy, like me, and were told to stay home? We stayed home, and we couldn’t manage to get out.”

George said he has nine clients still in Afghanistan, all of whom are struggling to get visas for their extended families.

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