Additional reporting by Additional reporting by Will Welch
On Sunday, the world watched as Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban as the Biden administration scrambled to evacuate diplomats, aid workers and other officials.
As U.S. military helicopters quickly took to the air, whisking Americans to safety, scores of Afghan civilians waiting at the airport were left behind as they desperately attempted to board planes — some dying in the process.
Afghan New Yorkers told THE CITY that they watched these scenes unfold with a maelstrom of conflicting emotions.
“It’s your very worst nightmare coming true,” said Awesta Zarif, 30, of Astoria, Queens. “We can only look, hope, pray and wish that things get better there. And there’s guilt that you’re not there. You’re just watching [Afghanistan] from a distance and you feel so helpless.”
More than 10,000 Afghans live in the New York City-Jersey City-Philadelphia corridor, according to the latest data from the 2015 American Community Survey. Many reside in Queens, with concentrations in Flushing.
Many left decades ago, when the Soviet military invaded the country in 1979. Some arrived during the 20-year so-called U.S.-led war there. Others, the children of immigrants, haven’t experienced the panic of fleeing a home firsthand, but are now witnessing relatives and other fellow Afghans live it in real time.
The shock of the chaos in Kabul has Afghans in New York mobilizing to help their families back home and any compatriots who may soon find themselves in the city.
Bhshta Ibrahim Khail, a 24-year-old volunteer with Afghan Americans of New York, said she has been busy furiously fielding messages asking: “How can we help?”
“We’re doing everything we can to get them out of there, to speak up, to be an advocate, be a voice for the voiceless people through this crisis that they’re facing.“ Khail told THE CITY.
‘A Very Beautiful Country’
Mo Rahmati, 35, said his parents never speak about leaving Afghanistan. He knows only the vague outlines of what happened after they escaped the country in the 1980s: First to India, then Arizona as refugees, and ultimately to Woodside, Queens, where Rahmati was born and raised.
“Everything I’m watching on the news right now, I don’t like to visualize my parents going through that but I know that’s probably what they were going through as well,” said Rahmati, who founded Nansense, an Afghan food stand that operates at the Queens Night Market.
Bashir Saleh was a 20-year-old engineering student when he fled Kabul in the 1970s.
He recalled waking up one morning, heading to the university and seeing tanks and troops.
Now 64 years old, Saleh has sold coffee and pastries outside what’s now the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square for three decades. This work allowed his four children to pursue educations and livelihoods he wasn’t able to.
“No parents want their kids to be in that situation,” said Saleh, who now lives in New Jersey. “I remember growing up we had a very beautiful country.”
When Saleh arrived in New York City with his immediate family of nine, they shared a two-bedroom apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. They received support from refugee resettlement groups and sponsorship from a church, but it wasn’t enough to survive on for long.
He took any job so that his younger siblings could stay in school. He cleaned offices, he sold ice cream, and ultimately he saved up enough to buy his own coffee cart.
Passage Proves Elusive
Saleh’s experience is not so different from Afghans arriving in the United States now. Churches and resettlement organizations still support new New Yorkers arriving as refugees.
But one main difference is numbers.
Historically, most Afghans came to the United States either as refugees or through family-based petitions, immigration attorneys said. But under the Trump administration, the refugee pathway was almost completely halted.
Since the Biden administration took office, advocates and U.S. military veterans alike have spent months demanding a quick evacuation and resettlement for those who helped American troops, like interpreters, and other Afghans threatened by the Taliban.
Many Afghans risking the violent chaos at Kabul’s airport had already been approved or were on hold for Special Immigrant Visas (or SIVs), issued to people who’ve helped U.S. military interests. But many of those have not yet been able to fly to the United States.
Camille Mackler, executive director of New York City-based nonprofit Immigrant Arc, acknowledged that lawmakers are working on additional pathways to the safety of a U.S. visa for Afghan activists and others. But with danger growing by the second on the ground there, Mackler hopes New Yorkers will “put the pressure on” Washington until “we’ve evacuated everyone who we promised to protect.”
More than 300,000 Afghan civilians are said to have aided U.S. troops during the war.
First Families Arrive
On Monday, Catholic Charities NY helped greet one of the first arrivals to the city since Kabul fell to the Taliban.
A local volunteer at Kennedy Airport lifted a sign with an Afghan family’s name, peering out through the glass partition separating immigration and arrivals. She awaited a former military interpreter and his family of six.
All seven of them, and their 10 suitcases, would have to squeeze into the one-bedroom apartment of a family member in Far Rockaway — a temporary solution, said Mario Russell, director of immigrant and refugee services for Catholic Charities.
The trickle of Afghan refugees coming to New York generally do so because of family ties, while most resettling alone go elsewhere due the city’s high cost of living and lack of affordable housing, Russell noted.
Carmen Maria Rey, the U.S. legal director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said that cities and states should “raise up their hands” to tell the federal government they are willing to accept and resettle refugees.
While states like Utah have publicly sent letters of support for accepting additional refugees from the country, neither Mayor Bill de Blasio nor Gov. Andrew Cuomo have issued public statements on Afghanistan.
Rep Greg Meeks (D-Queens), the chair of the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, meanwhile has invited U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to face questions from his committee about the poorly planned exit strategy.
“We cannot leave [our allies] behind,” he told NY1, “because that’s keeping our word.”
Call for Aid
Russell said refugees need mental health support, job training, and, most importantly, transitional housing.
For now, he said, money, housing or Airbnb donations from regular New Yorkers “would go a long way to help and welcome and support these often young families in an incredibly difficult transition.”
Matt Pelak, an Army veteran living in Bushwick, Brooklyn, said he has barely been sleeping. He works at Amazon by day and with a coalition of veterans at night calling anyone they can find in Afghanistan or elsewhere who can help bring their former interpreter colleagues safely to U.S. soil.
Pelak said fellow New Yorkers should “think about how you could offer an Afghan a job, how you could donate some furniture, donate some clothes, just be there to support them, and help them build communities when and if they arrive in New York City.”
Just last week, Wazma Wardak Hassan, the head of Afghan Americans of New York, met with the Afghan consul general to plan celebrations for the Afghan Aug. 19 Independence Day.
Instead, she spent Thursday lobbying politicians and managing offers of aid from New Yorkers — from care packages to donations and housing for refugees while waiting to hear from her own family members in Afghanistan.
The charitable response, she said, has given her hope.
“This pain is something I feel that resonates with everyone,” she said, noting that the pandemic has changed how New Yorkers think about community.
“Race, color, religion, there is no place for that right now. And as unfortunate as this is happening at this particular time, it’s really bringing us under that unity.”
Her and others’ work is just beginning.
A march from Times Square to the United Nations is planned on Saturday to advocate for safe passage for Afghan refugees. And next Thursday, activists are set to lead protests in nearly three dozen cities across the world, including New York, to build awareness about the growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
Zakaria Kazmi, 19, the lead organizer for next week’s protest at Bryant Park, has never set foot in Afghanistan. He said he’s maintained his connection with the country through his family and their memories, especially of their homeland’s beauty.
“We never really thought it would be safe to go back, and we always dreamed about it,” said Kazmi, of Queens Village. “I always talked about wanting one day to visit where my parents were from. And it is just crushing to think that maybe that will never come within my lifetime.”