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He was in Tampa. His family was in Afghanistan. Could he get them home?

When the Taliban took Kabul, an interpreter’s past put his family in danger.
Ajmal, left, and his mother paint trim at the family’s new home on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Ajmal was born in Afghanistan and was a teenager when the U.S. invaded in 2001. By the end of his teens, he'd started working as an interpreter for U.S. forces; in 2009, he came to the U.S. on a special visa for interpreters, joined the Army, and became a citizen. He and his mother were working to prepare for the arrival of his wife and two daughters from Afghanistan.
Ajmal, left, and his mother paint trim at the family’s new home on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Ajmal was born in Afghanistan and was a teenager when the U.S. invaded in 2001. By the end of his teens, he'd started working as an interpreter for U.S. forces; in 2009, he came to the U.S. on a special visa for interpreters, joined the Army, and became a citizen. He and his mother were working to prepare for the arrival of his wife and two daughters from Afghanistan. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 9
Updated Sep. 10

He finds himself in a house in Kabul. It’s his parents’ home, he thinks, though it looks different than he remembers. He hears a commotion outside, steps through the front door. Dark clouds block the sun. The Taliban has flooded the city, and the fighters know who he is: To them, he is a traitor. His legs and arms are stone. He opens his mouth, but the scream catches in his throat. Gunmen surround him, grab him by the elbows and drag him away. This is the end, he knows, and he can do nothing to stop it.

It goes this way every time. Then he wakes up.

• • •

The night the Taliban surrounded Kabul, Aug. 14, Ajmal sat in his Tampa home and typed out an email to a high-ranking U.S. Army official.

He knew how busy the official was, he began. He hadn’t wanted to bother him. But nothing else was working.

“Sir, recently the news from Afghanistan is nothing but disappointment,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, my wife and 2 daughters are still in Afghanistan.”

For weeks, the U.S. had been withdrawing from his home country, where it had waged war for 20 years. As the Taliban overran city after city, Ajmal had sought a path to America for his wife and girls, ages 3 and 1. His wife had applied for a visa in 2017, he wrote, and been waiting ever since. Two of his brothers, two of his sisters and their families still lived in Kabul, too.

His wife hadn’t worked with the U.S. military or government, unlike many of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans trying to flee the country. But Ajmal, 36, reminded the official of his own service: He started as an interpreter in 2003, when he was a scrawny teenager. After six years working alongside American soldiers, he moved to the U.S. on a visa, joined the Army Reserve and became a citizen. (The Tampa Bay Times is withholding Ajmal’s last name and the names of his family to protect the safety of those still in Afghanistan.)

What Ajmal left unwritten was that his proud service now made him even more afraid. He had always defended the war: He acknowledged its toll, thousands dead, but he also pointed to the expansion of women’s rights, economic growth, modern technology. His own role in the conflict had led him to a more stable life than he’d imagined as a child.

But if Kabul fell, his service would place his family in danger from a Taliban seeking retribution against those who’d aided the U.S.

He sent the email and drifted off to sleep.

Early the next morning, his phone rang with a video call from his wife. When he answered, he saw the view from her balcony: Trucks rolled down a city street, white flags billowing from their tailgates.

The Taliban had invaded Kabul while he slept. The first neighborhood it took was his family’s.

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

Waiting

Three days after the fall of Kabul, Ajmal had typed so many emails and text messages his fingers felt stiff. He couldn’t remember if he’d eaten breakfast. His appetite was gone, anyway.

A half-hour drive south, a four-bedroom house sat nearly empty with an American flag flying over the driveway. Ajmal bought it a few years ago. He rented it out for a while to supplement what he made in the Reserve, government jobs and a small translation business he ran on the side.

More than income, the house was a promise to himself that he would someday make a home. As an interpreter, he came of age in American military culture but was, at least initially, an outsider among troops. In the U.S., he moved from base to base, job to job. He considered himself more American than Afghan, but he could never be at home without his family.

The house needed work, and he needed something to do. As he waited for news, he went to Lowe’s and picked out pale pink paint for his daughters’ room.

Ajmal prepares to paint the master bedroom in his new home on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Tampa Bay. Ajmal was born in Afghanistan and was a teenager when the U.S. invaded in 2001. By the end of his teens, he'd started working as an interpreter for U.S. forces; in 2009, he came to the U.S. on a special visa for interpreters, joined the Army, and became a citizen. On Aug. 30, he worked to prepare for the arrival of his wife and two daughters who were in the process of relocating from Afghanistan.
Ajmal prepares to paint the master bedroom in his new home on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Tampa Bay. Ajmal was born in Afghanistan and was a teenager when the U.S. invaded in 2001. By the end of his teens, he'd started working as an interpreter for U.S. forces; in 2009, he came to the U.S. on a special visa for interpreters, joined the Army, and became a citizen. On Aug. 30, he worked to prepare for the arrival of his wife and two daughters who were in the process of relocating from Afghanistan. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Meanwhile, in the apartment building where Ajmal’s whole family lived, his brothers grew their beards, stowed their jeans and donned traditional clothing. The women in the family had always worn hijabs, but now they added burqas, the full-body veils Ajmal knew they found imprisoning. The older brother did the grocery shopping for two dozen family members. Their survival depended on their ability to fade into the background.

For days, the family had been unable to access its bank account. Ajmal’s older brother confided that he feared their savings were gone.

The family mostly kept to the apartment even in more stable times — they worried about suicide bombings and, as a family of some means, kidnappings. Now even trips to the neighborhood park or the gym were canceled.

The 3-year-old didn’t understand why she couldn’t go out to ride her bike. All six seasons of her favorite cartoon, a Russian series called Masha and the Bear, only kept her occupied for so long. On the phone that Wednesday night, she begged to come to him.

“Why aren’t we getting on a plane?” she asked.

The girls call him baba — daddy. He calls the little one “Chubby,” for her lingering baby fat, and the older one jigar, a word he loosely translated to “my heart.”

Ajmal poses with his daughters, now ages 3 and 1, in Kabul in 2020. It had been a year since he last saw them.
Ajmal poses with his daughters, now ages 3 and 1, in Kabul in 2020. It had been a year since he last saw them. [ Courtesy of Ajmal ]

“I need you to be a soldier to them,” he told his 24-year-old wife. “When you have ranking soldiers under you, no matter how scared you are, you try not to show nobody.”

He knew how badly she wanted to get to America: A black belt in karate, she’d already made friends in Florida through martial arts groups on social media, even though she spoke little English. He loves her toughness and independence, but she bottles up stress until it bursts. The sight of men with guns terrified her. She couldn’t cry in front of the girls, he told her. She couldn’t get sick.

He could no longer take his own advice. He knew, for the first time, that she heard the fear in his voice.

Related: Taliban special forces bring abrupt end to Afghan women's protest

“I’m afraid we will lose the kids”

Hope came in the attachments of an email Ajmal received on Aug. 19, four days after the fall. Visas.

He texted his wife. “I have good news but you have to call.”

She screamed in joy. He stayed on the phone while she filled a bag with food, water, diapers, clothes. The family photo album was too heavy, he told her. They argued. In the end, she left it behind.

She, the girls and both of Ajmal’s brothers climbed into a taxi. They kept him on the line until they approached the last checkpoint before the airport. They needed to focus on the road, his older brother said. He promised to call as soon as they had news.

An hour passed. Then two. He called her, called again. Four hours. His phone rang.

He heard a wall of noise behind her, his daughters wailing.

“I’m stuck between thousands of men,” she said. “Everybody’s pushing me. I’m afraid we will lose the kids.”

Related: Biden said not everyone who wants to can leave after a war. Does history agree?

The trouble had started when the taxi had to pass through a Taliban checkpoint, she explained. She lied to a soldier and said they were headed to a home on the opposite side of the airport.

If the driver dropped the family at the airport, the soldier warned, he would riddle the cab with bullets upon its return.

The driver refused to go farther. The family got out and walked.

Half an hour later, they found the airport inundated. Concrete walls topped with loops of razor wire met the empty sky. Outside the Abbey Gate, where U.S. forces screened those trying to flee, thousands of people carried paperwork offering some connection to the American government. Everyone had to pass by one window, staffed by one American soldier. Ajmal’s wife told him she saw a family who’d been turned away clinging to the edge of the gate, pleading.

She sent Ajmal a video stream posted to social media from someone else at the airport: A crowd surged outside the gate. In its midst, a uniformed man fired an automatic rifle into the sky. People stumbled backward, tripping over one another. A child screamed.

Some people had slept outside the airport for four nights, they told Ajmal’s wife. She and the girls were sunburned and dehydrated. The sun was falling, and staying at the airport overnight didn’t feel safe. They walked back through the Taliban checkpoints until they could catch a cab home.

It was late morning in Tampa. Ajmal had been up all night. He called his wife and told her to put their older daughter on speakerphone. He asked the one question he thought would cheer her up.

“You want to come to Daddy, to America?”

Her defeated reply: “No.”

His older brother called later. The Taliban were killing people trying to get to the airport, he said, searching phones for evidence that they or their families had worked for the Americans.

His brother was the family’s great optimist, but he had been at the airport that day, too. He didn’t believe they’d have a better chance the next day, or the day after that.

“I don’t think we can get out,” he said.

“I may have a lead on that”

As Jake Klonoski watched Afghanistan fall from his home in Alexandria, Va., he thought of Ajmal.

They met in 2013, in the western Afghan city of Herat, while working on a survey for natural gas deposits. Klonoski, who had served in the Navy, was a project coordinator for the Department of Defense. Ajmal was an adviser, adept in “smoothing the jagged edges of Afghanistan,” as Klonoski put it.

While Ajmal’s job then kept him out of physical danger, the Americans in the field took gunfire. Equipment was set ablaze. The U.S. military, contractors and local residents and officials each had their own agendas. Ajmal understood all sides and conveyed them, translating not just words but cultures and emotions.

The countryside near Herat, in western Afghanistan, where Ajmal worked in 2013.
The countryside near Herat, in western Afghanistan, where Ajmal worked in 2013. [ Courtesy of Jake Klonoski ]

Klonoski hadn’t kept in touch with Ajmal after he came home in 2014, but he remembered Ajmal telling him about his family in Afghanistan. Klonoski had never repaid Ajmal for, as he saw it, keeping him alive.

“Wanted to reach out to see how things were going and if there is anything I could do to help,” Klonoski typed into a LinkedIn message window a week after Kabul fell.

Ajmal responded 20 minutes later. His family was eligible for evacuation, he explained. He just couldn’t get them to the airport.

“I may have a lead on that,” Klonoski wrote back.

He had been in touch with an ad-hoc military group — some veterans, some stateside active-duty — informally working to get people out of Afghanistan.

Related: Tampa veterans use technology, connections to help Afghans evacuate

The group bridged a gap left by overwhelmed State Department and U.S. forces, but it had to be choosy, Klonoski warned. It helped that Ajmal’s daughters were American citizens. As an interpreter, Ajmal had weathered monthlong missions and searched thousands of compounds, taken fire and seen soldiers die. How could the group say no?

Signal

The plan: Ajmal’s older brother would accompany Ajmal’s wife and daughters to the gate. Another interpreter, also trying to flee to America with his family, would travel with them after that; he would help Ajmal’s wife communicate with American troops. They had to get near the U.S. checkpoint and give a signal.

In Kabul, it was a Monday evening, warm and clear. Outside the gate, men turned to stare at new arrivals.

In Tampa, Ajmal paced around the house, his phone dinging with WhatsApp messages from the military group, the interpreter and American personnel on the ground.

His 3-year-old, wearing a pink, flowered shawl and a small frown, rode on the interpreter’s shoulders. She carried a bundle of balloons in the colors of a sunset.

That was the signal.

It was too conspicuous. The crowd, anticipating an opening, surged toward the gate. People ripped the balloons from the girl’s hand. Dozens of screaming U.S. soldiers emerged, firing into the air and dropping smoke grenades. When the haze cleared, the family was gone.

Ajmal’s phone rang. His brother was crying.

“There was a huge stampede,” he said. “I can’t find them.”

Ajmal’s body revolted. His feet gave out, and he steadied himself on a chair. His throat burned. He must have done something awful, he thought, to earn God’s wrath.

Don’t do it to my family, he prayed. I’ll take it myself. Just don’t do it.

He sent a panicked message to the group chat. Anger welled up in him. Time crawled. His phone dinged: a photo.

His wife stared at the camera, her eyes huge. His baby girl rested on the meager luggage they’d carried, her head swiveling in confusion. His 3-year-old looked away, one of her favorite yellow shoes propped in front of her, the other missing.

They were terrified and disheveled and alive.

Ajmal's wife and daughters rest at the Kabul airport after a successful mission to get them through the Abbey Gate. For a moment, Ajmal believed they had been trampled in a stampede.
Ajmal's wife and daughters rest at the Kabul airport after a successful mission to get them through the Abbey Gate. For a moment, Ajmal believed they had been trampled in a stampede. [ Courtesy of Ajmal ]

Refugees

After a night in the airport, they were supposed to go to Uganda.

The group who’d arranged the evacuation had gotten Ajmal’s wife and kids seats on a chartered flight. Instead, a group of Marines rushed them onto a military cargo plane bound for Qatar. The plane was packed so tightly, Ajmal’s wife couldn’t move her feet.

In Qatar, his wife found hangars and tents filled with thousands of people, all claiming spots on the floor with what few belongings they’d carried. Refugees waited hours in line for toilets or food. When she stepped out of the tent, she stared at the ground to avoid feces.

On the first night, Ajmal’s wife sent him a picture from inside the tent. Masses of sleeping people, many men, surrounded his family.

On the second day, she told him about a crush of refugees running toward a flight departing for Europe.

“Everybody’s so sick and tired of this place,” she said. “We all want to go to Germany.”

“Germany’s not home for us,” he responded. “You’ll have the same problems there.”

Related: Evacuees plead for action: 'We are in some kind of jail'

On the third day, she waited in line for two hours for food and water. Men pushed past her, and she returned empty-handed. On the phone, his 3-year-old begged for rice.

“I will buy you so much rice when you get here,” he said.

He’d subsisted for days on water and coffee. In his kitchen, he cracked eggs and cooked a vegetable omelet. He carried it to the table.

He couldn’t stop thinking, though, about something his wife had said: “I wish I was still in Afghanistan.”

He picked up his plate and took his meal, untouched, back to the kitchen.

Ajmal was born in Afghanistan and was a teenager when the U.S. invaded in 2001. By the end of his teens, he'd started working as an interpreter for U.S. forces; in 2009, he came to the U.S. on a special visa for interpreters, joined the Army, and became a citizen.
Ajmal was born in Afghanistan and was a teenager when the U.S. invaded in 2001. By the end of his teens, he'd started working as an interpreter for U.S. forces; in 2009, he came to the U.S. on a special visa for interpreters, joined the Army, and became a citizen. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Scattered

Ajmal’s brothers and sisters, their spouses and children remained in Kabul. Ajmal’s older brother had barely survived an attack in his office two years earlier, when a group of Taliban fighters beat him with the butts of their guns and strangled him with rope. All the siblings had worked with the U.S. government, and as the deadline for the U.S. withdrawal ticked down to a week, Ajmal grew more anxious.

The same group agreed to arrange missions to get the rest of them out. On Aug. 24, with a similar plan but a more subtle signal — baseball caps instead of balloons — Ajmal’s younger brother and his wife and sons made it into the airport. A day later, they landed in Kuwait.

Attempts to evacuate the rest of the family were thwarted by bomb threats and dense crowds at the airport. On Aug. 26, a pair of suicide bombings, attributed to ISIS-K, killed more than 100 people and sapped Ajmal of hope.

The same day, Ajmal’s wife and daughters boarded a plane in Qatar. The crew told them they were bound for America. Instead, they let everyone off in Germany.

They were still trying to reach America four days later, the day the U.S. military officially left Kabul. Ajmal’s younger brother had landed in Texas with his family. The rest of the family, 19 terrified people, had fled to the north, where they hoped to hide out while finding a way over the border.

Ajmal’s family was scattered across three continents — safe, in danger, in flux. His home country, he thought, now lay in the rubble of a shattered promise.

Related: Afghanistan's arc from 9/11 to today: once hopeful, now sad

He still believed in the American people, the American dream. Toward the American government, he felt betrayal.

Homecoming

Ajmal sat cross-legged on the terminal floor, the balloons he’d bought at an airport kiosk floating overhead. “I Love You,” one said. The others: “USA.” He kept looking at the blue privacy curtain, the last border.

Ajmal patiently waits for the arrival of his wife and two daughters after a year of separation at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. He keeps looking at the evacuation gates as other Afghan refugees pass by.
Ajmal patiently waits for the arrival of his wife and two daughters after a year of separation at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. He keeps looking at the evacuation gates as other Afghan refugees pass by. [ SHURAN HUANG | Special to the Times ]

“You’ll be the first person they see,” one of the volunteers helping the evacuees reassured him.

It was Friday, Sept. 3, nearly three weeks after the fall of Kabul. At Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., six hours rolled past, but they felt like nothing. He could wait a little longer.

Then the curtain shifted, and he stood, and his wife buried her face in his neck, her bracelets rattling against his back. “I’ve got it from here,” he said into her ear. His older daughter threw her arms around him, closed her eyes. The younger one had been 3 months old the last time he saw her. Now, her curly hair was almost to her shoulders.

Ajmal walks out of the Dulles International Airport with his wife, and their two daughters in Dulles, Va., on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. "I just want to get them out of here," says Ajmal.
Ajmal walks out of the Dulles International Airport with his wife, and their two daughters in Dulles, Va., on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. "I just want to get them out of here," says Ajmal. [ SHURAN HUANG | Special to the Times ]

At the airport Comfort Inn, they showered and ordered Persian take-out. Ajmal ate two meals. The girls jumped on the beds until they fell over in sudden sleep.

“Thank God,” his wife kept saying. “Our own place.”

They flew to Tampa the next night, and in the morning, they drove to the house in the suburbs. It was still a work in progress. They would have to paint the living room, cut the thick grass in the backyard. They would need a bed to replace the master suite’s lonely armchair, where Ajmal had drifted some nights into fitful sleep. But he could see it as it would be, smoke rising from barbecues and a family cat weaving between their legs and the promise that he could wake in the morning and know exactly where everyone was.

They passed under the American flag and into their home, imperfect and safe and more than just a dream.

• • •

How to help

Ajmal’s wife and daughters aren’t the only people landing in Tampa Bay after fleeing Afghanistan. Groups helping resettle refugees from Afghanistan and elsewhere are looking for donations and support, including landlords willing to work with them on rental housing. Here are some of them:

Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services

Radiant Hands

Lutheran Services Florida