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They fled Afghanistan. Now in Tampa Bay, they watch another collapse.

Local Afghans and Afghan Americans have felt shock and a familiar dread as the country rapidly collapses amid the U.S. military withdrawal.
Wade Abawi, a Tampa fitness trainer who left Afghanistan with his family in 1978, at an Islamic Society of Tampa Bay luncheon.
Wade Abawi, a Tampa fitness trainer who left Afghanistan with his family in 1978, at an Islamic Society of Tampa Bay luncheon. [ Wade Abawi ]
Published Aug. 18
Updated Aug. 20

They all got out.

It was 1978, or 1985, or 1999, or 2014. The coup, the war with the Soviets, the reign of the Taliban or its second rise. Fleeing Afghanistan as an adult, or a teenager, or a newborn whose only memories of running would be etched by the stories her family told.

They wound up in Florida, dotted around Tampa Bay, where however many years or decades later they turned on their televisions or looked at their phones in recent days and saw the overflowing airport in Kabul and people clinging to planes, desperate for the sky. They felt the sinking horror of watching their home country’s history echo from thousands of miles away. And still, shock, too.

“Everything crumbled so fast, nobody expected it,” said Nek Nazary, an emergency room doctor in Lutz.

“We are repeating ourselves over and over again,” said Tampa fitness trainer Wade Abawi. “It’s a failure at every level.”

“Nobody thought the Taliban was going to win,” said Nahida Sia, in Wesley Chapel. Her brother, a former linguist for the U.S. and British militaries, is trapped in Kabul with his family. “Now, all it takes is one person to give him up, and he’s facing death. I feel so helpless.”

Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the Taliban's return.
Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the Taliban's return. [ WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP | AFP ]

As the U.S. military began its final withdrawal from the 20-year “forever war” in Afghanistan, the timeline for its government’s collapse shrunk: U.S. officials expected it to hold up for maybe a year, then a few months. It took only days for the Taliban to take the presidential palace, after the country’s president fled and the American-backed government fell apart like wet cardboard.

The Afghans and Afghan Americans watching from Tampa Bay this week had sweeping concerns, like how the Taliban’s ascent could decimate the gains made for girls’ and women’s rights in the past two decades.

They also had deeply personal fears. Many still had family in the country. Reports emerged of retribution killings, of protesters and journalists being beaten and shot.

Nazary, 37, left Afghanistan in 2000. The country then was in “total darkness,” he said. The Taliban’s persecution of people in the ethnic minorities, such as himself, had resulted in massacres. Fighters could storm his house at any point, killing or capturing him.

His cousins recently fled their home in the north of the country for fear the Taliban would take their teenage children. They hoped Kabul would be safer, but it also fell to the Taliban days after they arrived. Nazary can’t get through to them by phone. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a return text a few hours later, the details spare, the fear plain.

“When will they barge in? When will they come and take away their kids or kill them all?” he said. “We lived through this in the 1990s. It’s the same people who have returned.”

The TV news has been on constantly in his home, where he lives with his wife, Layla Fayiz, a 35-year-old physician assistant. Her family left Afghanistan when she was two months old. For two decades, they watched from afar as girls went to school and women to work, as people got cell phones and the country got what Nazary called “a decent constitution.” As some American news sources obsess over what the withdrawal means for President Joe Biden’s legacy, they want their neighbors to focus on the human toll of the chaos.

“I want people to realize the humanitarian crisis that has been in Afghanistan and will ensue from this, and realize that the Afghan people don’t deserve this, and let’s not turn our backs on them,” Fayiz said. “Let’s as much as we can use our influence to convince our leaders to help in whatever way possible.”

For Abawi, the fitness instructor, every bit of news compounded frustration. He has been in the U.S. since early 1979. As a teenager bullied for his foreignness in his new country, he got into heavy metal music and weightlifting. He has watched much of his home country’s turmoil from his adopted one.

He blames “many different forces” for the painful decades and today’s chaos, he said, but mainly the U.S. government. It backed the mujahideen, the anti-Soviet rebel forces of the 1970s and 80s, which ultimately birthed the Taliban. When U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld refused its offer to surrender. The war rolled on for 20 years.

“We in the United States,” said Abawi, 54, “everything we touch, we completely destroy.”

If the Taliban preserved the rights of those it once persecuted, he said, he could accept its return to power. But he thinks it more likely will rely on a stringent, punitive version of Islam so unlike the compassionate, community-focused religion he practices at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay.

In Clearwater, Emamuldin Niazi watched the masses swarm the Kabul airport this week and understood their desperation. He spent years assisting the U.S. military as an interpreter and years looking over his shoulder for Taliban kidnappers because of it, he said. They called interpreters such as him “slaves to the infidels.”

His brother, who also worked with U.S. forces, was assassinated by the Taliban in 2008, he said. But Niazi chose to keep going.

In 2014, with the threatening letters and phone calls from the Taliban ramping up, an officer Niazi had worked with suggested that he get out. He offered to sponsor him in the Special Visas for Afghans program.

Eighteen months later, Niazi was living a radically different life in Pinellas County. He got married. He got a job in sales support that has him spending most of his day in Publix and Walmart stores tracking inventory. He celebrates birthdays and anniversaries at his favorite place, Clearwater Beach, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. This year, he’ll apply for citizenship.

He’s been thinking about the interpreters he knows who haven’t made it out, who are fleeing to provinces where, hopefully, nobody knows what they did during the war. He thought of a friend who applied for the visa program five years ago and is still waiting. Niazi said he was grateful to the U.S., as he believes many Afghans are, but he wants American officials to know, “Afghanistan still needs you.”

Emamuldin Niazi, of Clearwater, during his time as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Emamuldin Niazi, of Clearwater, during his time as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. [ Courtesy of Emamuldin Niazi ]

Across the bay in Wesley Chapel, Sia knows that her brother, trapped in Kabul with his wife and three children, isn’t sleeping. Her parents call him every couple hours for an update.

Sometimes they have to wait for him to call from a new number. He burned his phone days ago, Sia said, along with any documents that identify his previous work.

Sia’s family fled Afghanistan in 1986. She was 7, her brother 4. Her strongest memory of the country is walking to Pakistan and hiding in caves along the way to escape.

In the early 2000s, the brother was forced to go back to Afghanistan due to his immigration status. Sia, her parents and two other siblings moved to Tampa Bay in 2014.

As U.S. forces pulled out, her brother went to the airport Monday to see if there was some way to get out, some list to get on with his family, but he found only chaos. He went home, where he’s been holed up since. Now, Sia said, he’s scared to go back to check again, because the Taliban is stopping people on the street, searching for and asking about people like him.

“I need to get him out,” she said on Tuesday. “He has no other option. He doesn’t deserve this.”

On Wednesday morning, she was shaken.

The family hadn’t been able to contact her brother all night. A friend of his had sent a message, though: There was shooting near the airport.