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How one family fled Afghanistan and was reunited in New York City

  • Ashley Wong, The New York
    Published: 2021-09-09 13:29:22 BdST

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Rep Tom Suozzi,left, greets the children of Mohammad Wali, right, at his restaurant in Manhattan on Sept 8, 2021.The New York Times

On Aug 6, after spending the summer with his family in Afghanistan, Mohammad Wali kissed his wife and three children goodbye, headed to 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 Wali had flown out of days earlier collapsed into chaos.

With his family trapped in an increasingly volatile country, 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,” 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,” DeMarco said. “Those are the ones that I remember.”

But Wali’s family was among the lucky ones. Although he and his two older children are US citizens, his wife and youngest child are not. He could not 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 US military checkpoints, Wali reached out to Rep Tom Suozzi,  who represents the district where Wali lives. Suozzi’s office connected them with Allied Airlift, and five days later, the group alerted its US 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. Wali was finally reunited Friday with his family at Dulles International Airport outside 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, 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,” Wali said. “You had a dream to be together, and now, thank God, you are together.”

Wali immigrated to the United States in 1992 and found work at the Ariana Afghan kebab restaurant in midtown Manhattan, 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 Tuesday evening. Omar laid his head down on one of the tables and promptly fell asleep.

When the Taliban first took control of Kabul, Wali thought he would never see his family again, he said. At the suggestion of two of his restaurant’s customers, he contacted Suozzi, who reached out to 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 Aishah Wali to tie a red bandanna to their infant’s clothing or wave it in the air to help them stand out. Even then, DeMarco said, it took about 12 hours to find them.

“It’s a needle in a haystack,” he DeMarco said. “It was just a sea of humanity, and it’s chaotic.”

Compounding the difficulty was the fact that the US military kept changing the checkpoint gate over security concerns, 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 had not found them by the time it went into effect.

They eventually had to abandon Aishah Wali’s brother, Nasir, 19, outside the gate, because he was not a US citizen; he was evacuated days later with a different family.

Though 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,” he DeMarco said.

Sitting with his two older children Wednesday morning in his restaurant, a small brick establishment with rich woven tapestries lining the walls, Wali looked energetic and at ease as they split a plate of doughnuts.

Suozzi met the Walis in person for the first time Wednesday, after weeks of WhatsApp conversations. After a harrowing few days, hearing the news that the family had safely made contact with US soldiers was a huge relief for him and his staff, he said.

“I didn’t really relax until they were inside the airport,” Suozzi said.

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 is looking forward to moving his family to Plainview, New York, 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 is time to start planning for their future.

“I got another life,” Wali said.

© 2021 The New York Times Company