From the Classroom

Afghanistan exodus: a three-day journey to freedom and a new life

When the Taliban took control in Afghanistan this past August, one family made the perilous journey to the U.S.

[One-sentence description of what this media is: "A photo of a vaccine site on USC campus" or "Gif of dancing banana". Important for accessibility/people who use screen readers.]

It was a cool mid-August summer night when Major Naqib Mirzada of the Afghan Special Forces received word of an emergency evacuation order for military members. The once-ousted Taliban had completed its rapid takeover of Afghanistan and was minutes away from reaching the capital city of Kabul.

Mirzada’s parents, Anis and Mir Ghyasudden, his sisters, Robina, Nelofar and Arghawan and his wife, Asma, were forced to leave their native country and seek refuge in the United States for fear of reprisal from the Islamic extremist group and a return to strict rule and harsh punishments.

On Aug. 17, the family fled Afghanistan, embarking on a three-day-long journey. Several weeks later, they would be placed in an Afghan refugee camp in Fort Bliss, Texas, until they were provided with a new place to call home.

Day One - Aug. 15

It was 8 p.m. when Mirzada received word to immediately head to Hamid Karzai International Airport, or HKIA, and leave the country. He called home and told his family to quickly pack the bare essentials and get ready to leave.

“I told them to grab a backpack and my [West Point] full dress jacket and my class ring, my wedding dress and all my documents,” he said.

[One-sentence description of what this media is: "A photo of a vaccine site on USC campus" or "Gif of dancing banana". Important for accessibility/people who use screen readers.]

Still, he did not anticipate how quickly the city would fall.

“We were prepared and had [the] force and [the] means to defend it,” he said. “But no direct command [was] issued to us. We wanted to manage and control the city, but as we were reaching out to police stations or other entities, there were not any answers.

“The leadership should have the will, but they didn’t. We were hearing all of them are leaving, and it was very disappointing for us.”

Mirzada drove his family across the tarmac of HKIA to the civilian side of the gate, where he saw several military C-17 aircrafts. About 150 people were waiting to enter the American-controlled side, but U.S. soldiers told them to go back to the civilian side. The family spent the night on the tarmac along with several other hundred Afghans waiting to leave.

Day Two - Aug. 16

The next morning, Mirzada and his family were still at the airport trying to get through to the American-controlled side, but they were unsuccessful as thousands of more Afghans came and the Taliban approached the airport.

Suddenly, the militant group stormed the civilian terminal, and Mirzada recalled what looked like a sea of desperate Afghans rushed across the tarmac in an attempt to escape.

“We had no options, and the Taliban were really pressing us,” he said. “On [the] American side, there was a line to block or clear [the] runway. It got worse when [the] Taliban didn’t stop at the terminal. They came near [the] runway. They were firing [into the] air while lashing and kicking people. At one incident, I had my family just outside the terminal on the plane side. They came, yelled at them and fired from [a] close distance.”

The Afghan Special Forces member said his family was sitting on the ground to catch their breath when a Taliban leader approached them and kicked Mirzada in the back.

“I didn’t react because I had military uniforms and a pistol and documents with me,” he said.

The same man then pushed his father and told him to go to prayer, saying, “shame on you [for] taking refuge in Infidel America.”

“We chose to stay quiet,” Mirzada said.

As night fell, Mirzada said the Taliban “got in front of the Marines and forced everyone to leave.”

“We walked with [the] crowd toward [the] exit gate and dropped our stuff behind, inside the airport because on the way out, [the] Taliban would check our bags, which they did,” he said. “They could not find my documents or my pistol, but the uniform [was] left behind.”

Unable to get to the north gate, the Mirzada family had to shelter in place and wait for further instructions. Mirzada and his family returned home. He then took his wife to say goodbye to her family.

He said the night allowed his family to “say goodbye to gain peace about leaving, together, as a family.” His father-in-law gave him his “full blessing” to evacuate his daughter, saying, “We pray God’s angels go with you and ahead of you and shield you from evil.” He wished them safety and prosperity in the U.S.

Day Three - Aug. 17

The next morning at 6 a.m., Mirzada drove his family 40 minutes through Taliban-controlled areas, arriving just outside the airport’s north gate entrance. They got out of their car and joined the throng of people on the tarmac attempting to board a flight out of Afghanistan.

After four hours, he and his family inched their way through the mob to the turnstile of the gate where Mirzada said Captain Alex Noll was already expecting them.

“Our support team told us to look for him,” he said.

Before they entered the gate, Mirzada said a member of the Afghan Special Forces attempted to disperse the crowd by firing his gun but accidentally shot a civilian in the foot.

Once inside the gate, U.S. soldiers took the family to a building where they went through a TSA-style checkpoint and then boarded the last two rows of a C-17 plane to Doha, Qatar. They then spent two nights at a U.S. military base before taking a private flight to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C and then another to Fort Bliss, Texas.

Doña Ana Village

The U.S. currently has eight military bases, housing and processing thousands of Afghan refugees who fled Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Welcome.

The Mirzadas were placed in the Doña Ana village, a refugee camp on the New Mexico side of the base, which consists of dozens of large white tents.

Mirzada says his family was referred to as “guests” by the military and waited in long lines for food, clothing and shoes, sharing a barrack with three other families, totaling 24 people.

A bed sheet was all that separated the families to give them a sense of privacy.

[One-sentence description of what this media is: "A photo of a vaccine site on USC campus" or "Gif of dancing banana". Important for accessibility/people who use screen readers.]

The family spent time going on walks around the village and playing cards. The Mirzadas also spoke to other Afghan families, reflecting on the chaotic withdrawal that left some without their loved ones.

“For my wife and sisters, it’s very difficult,” he said. “They haven’t [been] exposed to the culture or [been] outside real America yet. Every one of us is trying to process what happened. We are trying to tell friends and family in Afghanistan that everything will be alright and encourage them to be resilient, and they do the same, telling us they hope we get back together.”

Four weeks after arriving at Fort Bliss, Mirzada’s family was processed as Afghan refugees in Austin, Texas. They were given humanitarian parole status, with permanent residency (a green card) expected within 12 months.

New Beginnings

The Refugee Services of Texas, or the RSTX, placed the Mirzada family in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Austin, Texas.

RSTX CEO Russell Smith said in a statement that the organization expects an additional 4,481 Afghan evacuees to be resettled in Texas over the next few months. Smith added the agency had already welcomed 25 “new Afghan neighbors” in early October.

Development director Ashley Faye said the agency has a “moral and material responsibility to resettle the Afghan population.”

“After a significant decrease in the number of refugees entering the country over the last four years, the resettlement agencies are busy rebuilding their infrastructure in order to support so many coming at once,” she said. “We welcome them all and are happy they are here.”

Mirzada said the RSTX arranged a community outreach program where volunteers take refugees from the airport to their new apartment and provide them with groceries.

Mirzada’s friend from West Point Ries Korstjens drove from Alabama to Texas to welcome Mirzada and his family and take them grocery and clothes shopping. Korstjens also brought a car for Mirzada to drive and boxes of donated household items the Auburn, Texas community had donated.

Brent and Jennifer Lawson heard about the Mirzadas and their cramped living space from Korstjens and offered to house the entire family in their five-bedroom home.

“It’s a big huge mansion,” Mirzada said. “We are grateful.”

Mirzada’s wife, Asma, talks almost daily with her family back in Afghanistan. Her father is a dentist and tells her he sees patients who can’t pay him because the economy is struggling. He says he wants to bring the rest of his family to the U.S. or apply for asylum in Canada, but it is difficult to leave and the borders are well-guarded by the Taliban.

Asma said she is worried and can’t stop thinking about her parents and siblings, which causes her to feel physically ill.

Looking forward

The youngest Mirzada sister, Arghawan, worked for the Afghanistan Nuclear Energy Agency as a biological weapons prohibition officer in Kabul and is a pharmacist. The older sisters, Robina and Nelofar worked as teachers.

They are all three looking for jobs and are working with the refugee service agency in Austin. Mirzada himself has received several job offers from defense technology companies like Anduril. He said the job would require him to move to California, but he is unsure if his family wants to move or continue their new life in Texas.

“We are like birds being forced from the nest,” Mirzada said.