Ghulam, an Afghan immigrant living in Kent, imagined the worst as the Taliban took over his home country. If the fighters started killing people this week, he didn’t want all of his family members wiped out at once. So he urged his parents and siblings, who lived together, to hide in different cities.
“Do not talk to anyone. Do not open doors. Do not say anything about me.”
Ghulam worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan before emigrating, which he feared could put his family in danger. (For that reason, Ghulam, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be fully identified.)
His family members split up, followed his advice and told him not to worry. “If we don’t see you ever again, just remember that we love you,” they told him.
Ghulam choked up as he recalled the conversations. He and his wife have cried a lot in recent days. Their kids asked: “What’s going on?”
Thousands of Afghan immigrants in Washington are wondering the same thing. They are talking constantly to relatives in Afghanistan, terrified for their safety given the Taliban’s history of executions, stoning and repression of women’s rights and girls’ education. About 4,500 Afghans have come to Washington since 2014 through a visa program for those who worked with the U.S government, adding an extra layer of risk for their families living under rulers who have long viewed Americans as enemies.
The U.S. has evacuated American officials and some Afghans who worked with them. Nicky Smith, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Seattle, which resettles refugees, said her organization has been helping about 40 Afghans who have arrived over the last two weeks, including someone who made it onto one of the last flights out Monday night. The scene has been chaotic, with people thronging the Kabul airport and clinging to the sides of a plane from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Many have been left behind.
Azizullah Jabarkhail’s wife and three children are in Afghanistan, and he has not been able to bring them back home to Kent. They went for an extended visit in May, as his wife had been depressed, missing her parents and siblings, Jabarkhail said.
While the Taliban were gaining ground as American troops began to withdraw, Jabarkhail said his wife’s family home seemed safe enough to visit. That changed rapidly as the Taliban captured town after town until taking Kabul on Sunday. “It came like a tsunami,” Jabarkhail said.
Shortly before, he tried moving up the date his wife and children were due to to fly home. But so many people wanted to leave that ticket prices jumped by $2,000 apiece. A political science student at the University of Washington and part-time ride-hail driver, Jabarkhail said he couldn’t afford it.
He said he managed to get through to American officials in Kabul, and was told to fill out a form requesting emergency evacuation. He said his wife is a legal permanent resident of the U.S. and his children are American citizens.
“I didn’t sleep at all last night,” he said, echoing others, the day after the Taliban seized Kabul.
Noor Aaf, a physician’s assistant in Seattle who was trained as a doctor before coming to the U.S. in 1989, said he hasn’t been able to concentrate. He has a large extended family in Afghanistan, including a granddaughter in college.
He said he felt calmer after hearing from relatives that a Taliban leader gave a speech in their area assuring both men and women they could continue to work and that, while women should cover their hair and some parts of their bodies, they do not need to wear the head-to-toe burqa as they did under Taliban rule in the 1990s. Other Taliban officials, in a public relations blitz, have promised they will respect women’s rights, including education, and give amnesty to those who supported the previous government or foreign forces.
Aaf said a level of normalcy has resumed in the city where his relatives live. People are working. Shops are open. But he worries.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, among others, said he is receiving reports of human rights violations that don’t match the rhetoric. In an ominous sign, Aaf said he heard Taliban officials have been confiscating weapons.
Aaf is the founder of an organization that has built schools for girls. As far as he knows, they are still open. But he said: “I have a big dream for those girls. Now, I don’t see that kind of future for them. ”
At the very least, the future is uncertain.
“Who knows what happens in a month or two months?” asked Malahat, executive director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Sahar, which also builds girls schools in Afghanistan and runs a series of programs to empower girls and women. The organization has halted construction of a boarding school and suspended its programs until it believes it’s safe to continue.
Meanwhile, Malahat, who first came to the U.S. as an exchange student in high school and has since lived in both the U.S. and Afghanistan, said she talks to family members in her home country every day. She fears that even her presence in the U.S. could cast a shadow on them.
“My mind is going crazy,” she said.
The memory of Taliban rule lingers in frightening ways. Another Afghan immigrant in the Seattle area recalls the way Taliban soldiers would force their way into people’s homes, conscripting the young men and taking the young women and forcing them into marriages. He worries that could happen to his brothers and sisters.
Even some Afghan immigrants who don’t have relatives left in the country are heartbroken. Wali Khairzada, owner of Kabul Afghan Cuisine in Wallingford, came to the U.S. in 1972 and said all his relatives now live in Europe. He nonetheless called Sunday, when the Taliban entered Kabul, “the saddest day in my life.”
He suspects the Taliban captured the country with ease because Afghans “are sick of 40 years of war and misery … They don’t care who’s going to be in charge anymore.”
Still, he said, “I can’t comprehend what’s happening right now. I’m in shock.”