Episode #8 Transcript — Still Falling: Afghanistan, One Year Later

Project Brazen (00:00):

Tariq (00:09):
When I reached the US, I thought I’m settled. Everything will be good. But then the worst thing begins.

Fatima (00:16):
And I was leaving this country, not knowing where I was going. And I was just crying people, there was no seats, nothing. You had to sit on the floor and it was so cold.

Ogai (00:28):
I just thought about my future. What will happen? Everything is gone. So from which part you will start? Just look at the brightness of a moon at the middle of night. And then think that tomorrow is the day that we will awake from sleep with lots of hopes. We will go back to Afghanistan and we will work for the new generation.

Nelufar (00:51):
It’s been over a year since the Taliban retook Kabul. Thousands of afghans have fled for their lives, repeating a cruel pattern that has persisted for decades. 28 years ago, Afghanistan’s civil war turned me and my family into refugees. It’s shattering now, as a journalist, to be covering the same story. Afghans who got out after the fall are still struggling to find their footing. Many are living in refugee camps, waiting for the paperwork they need to move to permanent homes. Those who couldn’t escape have endured famine, earthquakes, and economic collapse. They remain stuck in place. Some even literally trapped indoors by the Taliban’s persecution.

Kabul fell on August 15th, 2021, a date that marks the before and after. But for those living through it, the fall isn’t over. It echoes across time zones and ripples through phone lines for families that have been torn apart. It recurs in nightmares. It makes the young feel much older than they are, as if they’ve aged two decades in just a single year. From Project Brazen and PRX, this is Kabul Falling. I’m your host Nelufar Hedayat. This is our final episode: Still Falling.

Nelufar (02:22):
For this podcast we interviewed more than 30 Afghans. They come from some of the groups most severely targeted by the Taliban, including women, ethnic minorities, and individuals who worked with Western countries. They’re able to share their stories because they made it safely to the other side.

Nelufar (02:38):
Some 76,000 Afghans were evacuated to the United States last August and at least 9,000 more have left the country since. They’ve landed all over the globe from Albania to Spain, to the United Arab Emirates. Abdul, the CIA interpreter you met in earlier episodes, is now living in New York City with his wife and four children. But getting there was a long process. First, they flew to a temporary camp run by American forces in Kuwait. For their first meal, the family received combat rations, the kind provided to us soldiers. Abdul had eaten them many times on his missions.

Abdul (03:18):
MREs are my special food. Oh, my favorite food, actually. I personally was asking for Mexican rice because I love that.

Nelufar (03:26):
His kids weren’t used to eating these MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat, but that wasn’t an issue.

Abdul (03:33):
They were so hungry. They started eating anything that comes in front of them. They start eating.

Nelufar (03:38):
They spent the next five nights in Kuwait before flying to Washington, DC, where they stayed in the Dulles Expo Center. Normally the facility hosts trade shows, but it had been turned into a processing center for thousands of Afghan refugees. After a few days in the Expo Center, Abdul spotted a whiteboard listing three states where they could go next, Virginia, Texas, and Wisconsin. The refugees would stay on military bases around the US until they could be permanently resettled. Abdul and his cousin, who had also evacuated with his family, considered their options. Someone told them the base in Virginia was too full, and Texas, well Abdul’s cousin had his doubts.

Speaker 3 (04:21):
Texas is too hot. The weather is very warm. So I said, okay, let’s go to Wisconsin.

Nelufar (04:28):
Abdul sent his friend and former boss, Phil, this message as the family left for Fort McCoy.

Abdul (04:33):
So we are now departing from this expo camp within half an hour and we will be going to Wisconsin.

Nelufar (04:48):
They stayed there for nearly three months going through the vetting process before finally reuniting with relatives in New York. Abdul is now working in the kitchen at his cousin’s restaurant. His wife is learning English, and is happy to be settled in their new home. His three school-aged children have returned to their studies. His oldest son, who’s about to start his senior year of high school, also works part-time at a fast food place. His eldest daughter got a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. She had just one semester of medical school left when the Taliban took over. Abdul says the Americans he’s met are kind and interested in learning about his life in Afghanistan. He wants people to know that he and his family are grateful for the help they’ve received.

Abdul (05:35):
And we will try our best. The way the American’s government, the American nation, my boss, everybody, I want them to be proud of me. I want to do something on behalf of myself and my family, so that the Americans will be proud of us, not be regret of bringing us. This is something I want to do.

Nelufar (05:59):
This isn’t the first time Abdul has been a refugee. He was three years old when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and his family fled to Pakistan to escape the fighting. They came back to Kandahar in the late ’90s when the Taliban were in power and Abdul was 19. For more than 40 years, he’s been moving from one place to another. He hopes future generations of Afghans won’t have to do the same.

Nelufar (06:25):
You may be forgiven for thinking that once families escaped the terror in Kabul that that would be it, that it was a safe if not happy ending, but for many the new horizon brought more hardship.

Nelufar (06:47):
Abdul and his family arrived in New York at the end of November, 2021. But by December of that year, nearly 29,000 Afghans were still living on US military bases. There were a number of issues slowing the resettlement process, a measles outbreak among the evacuees, a shortage of affordable housing, a bureaucratic backlog made worse by the COVID 19 pandemic. Tariq, the young father you met in episode two, who walked for miles across Kabul to get his son from kindergarten, said the resettlement process was more difficult than anything else his family went through.

Tariq (07:24):
When I reached the US, I thought I’m settled. Everything will be good. But then the worst thing begins, the life here in the USA was even worse, like living in the camp and the military base and those things.

Nelufar (07:38):
After being airlifted out of Kabul, Tariq and his family spent around 10 days at a US military base in Qatar. There, they stayed in a hot airplane hangar alongside thousands of other refugees. There was no air conditioning. In an internal email obtained by the news site Axios, one US official described it as, quote, “Living hell with the floors covered in trash and human bodily fluids.”

Nelufar (08:03):
In early September, Tariq’s family flew to Dulles Airport near Washington, DC, and spent the next 45 days on another base, Fort Pickett, in Virginia. There, he says, the restrooms were in terrible shape and they had to wait hours for poor quality food. On top of all that, Tariq wrestled with stress and uncertainty around the resettlement timeline.

Nelufar (08:25):
Afghans who’s taken to US military bases had to go through a lengthy vetting process before they were connected with local resettlement agencies to support the transition off the base. Ultimately that process dragged on so long, Tariq decided to move out on his own. The family was far from being alone in their choice to leave Fort Pickett independently, before being linked with an agency. Many evacuees didn’t want to wait for the vetting process to finish, especially if they had relatives in the area.

Tariq (08:55):
I had to leave the camp on my own. I came to my sister’s house. I stayed there for a few days and then a social service organization provided me a hotel and then they left me all alone. Like nothing happened.

Nelufar (09:11):
The family moved to the hotel in mid October, but they didn’t find a permanent place to live until November, which they found through one of Tariq’s wife’s classmates. Tariq said he searched for housing on his own without much support from Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, the local resettlement agency that was assigned to help him.

Tariq (09:32):
Until end of December, they didn’t help me at all. That was a nightmare, finding a house. I tried to reach out for them so many times, but they were really unresponsive at the beginning. I believe people went through much worse here in the United States, comparing to what’s in the airport in Afghanistan.

Nelufar (09:53):
Tariq isn’t the only one frustrated with this particular resettlement agency. In an investigation published by US news, dozens of Afghan clients, current and former employees, and volunteers told of unresponsive case workers, inadequate support, and alleged financial malfeasance. The State Department is now investigating these claims.

Nelufar (10:14):
Around the United States, resettlement agencies were swamped by the number of newly arrived Afghans. Not only was this the biggest evacuation in US history since the Vietnam War, but the country’s resettlement infrastructure had also been decimated by funding cuts under the administration of the former president, Donald Trump, which had drastically reduced the number of refugees admitted.

Donald Trump: The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility, it won’t be. We can’t allow that to happen to the United States, not on my watch.

Nelufar (10:37):
We reached out to Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area to hear their side of the story. A spokesperson told us they don’t comment on individual cases as a matter of policy, but in a statement, they said that after Afghan evacuees began arriving, the group was, quote, “Serving 500 people a month after previously serving 500 in a year.” While, quote, “Rebuilding our organizational capacity.”

Nelufar (11:05):
They said that their team had been, quote, “Working long hours to meet the unprecedented demand for services,” and, quote, “Strengthening processes and procedures along the way.” Finally, they said, “The concerns mentioned in the article were investigated by independent third parties. They found no evidence of fraud and malfeasance, and claims around client services were all unfounded or not sustained.” End quote.

Nelufar (11:33):
Tariq and his family are now adjusting to their new lives in America. His wife was pregnant when they left Afghanistan, and in May she gave birth to a baby girl. Tariq recently started a job with the Washington, DC City government, and is working to build a strong foundation for his family’s future.

Tariq (11:50):
I’m trying to establish myself here, capitalize on my experience and my education, and try to start living the American dream.

Nelufar (12:09):
For Afghans stuck in refugee camps around the world, their dreams and normal life have remained on hold.

Shaima (12:15):
There were three or four people in each room and the room were really small and we were not allowed to go out of the camp.

Nelufar (12:27):
That’s Shaima the cyclist from Bamiyan Province you met in episode five. Shaima escaped Afghanistan by bus and traveled to the Tajik border with help from Danna, the Israeli American journalist. After a short stay in Tajikistan, Shaima flew to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. There, she was taken to a facility called Emirates Humanitarian City, run by the Emirati government. It’s an apartment complex that was converted into refugee housing. Shaima was told she would spend the next month at the camp waiting for her Canadian visa. In the end, she stayed for seven and a half months alongside thousands of other refugees. Shaima said that every day they were served the same meal, bland rice and chicken. The internet connection was so bad that she only managed to talk to her parents two or three times. She was eager to continue her education, but there was nowhere quiet to sit and study, and they weren’t allowed to leave.

Shaima (13:27):
So we cannot go out of the camp. We can go out in the yard and we sit in the yard and a little walk and come back to room.

Nelufar (13:37):
During the whole time that she spent at Humanitarian City, Shaima said she was only allowed two trips outside, once to visit a nearby park and once to a local mosque. Cycling, the thing that had made her feel so free in Bamiyan, was out of the question. Nearly one year after the fall of Kabul, some 6,500 Afghans are still stuck in the facility waiting for permission to move to their final destinations.

Shaima (14:04):
And the hall there was so much crowded and the children was shouting. And because of that, we could not sleep at night.

Nelufar (14:14):
Everyone in the camp had already been through so much, but living in these cramped conditions and not knowing when they’d be able to leave created a new level of stress. Arguments broke out over who was making too much noise. Some people wondered if they should have left home at all. One day Shaima passed a group of women who were clearly in distress.

Shaima (14:35):
They were crying that, “Why we are here. It was better to stay in Afghanistan and being killed by Taliban and do not come to this camp. It is like a jail for us.”

Nelufar (14:45):
Shaima didn’t feel that way. She tried to envisage a bright future in Canada, where she would be able to study and ride a bike again. But as her visa remained bogged down in bureaucracy, she worried that she might be sent back to Afghanistan as an ethnic minority Hazara and a female cyclist, she saw it as a death sentence.

Newsreel (15:06):
Taliban forces have unlawfully killed 13 ethnic Hazaras, including a 17 year old girl in Afghanistan’s Daykundi province after members of the security forces of the former government surrendered, a new investigation by Amnesty International has revealed. The killings took place in Kahor village of Khidir district on August 30. 11 of the victims were former members of the Afghan national defense security forces and two were civilians.

Nelufar: In September 2021, Amnesty also documented the Taliban’s forced eviction of more than 740 Hazara families from their homes, in the same province.

Nelufar (15:33):
Danna, who had worked with her volunteer team and their partner organization, IsraAID to help Shaima and so many others escape, never stopped pushing for their visas. She filled out mountains of paperwork. As many as 80 pages for each person she’d helped evacuate. In April, Shaima finally made it to Calgary in the Western part of Canada. The city is full of parks and wide smooth streets, perfect conditions for cycling, but Shaima and her teammates still don’t have bikes. A local cycling association is raising money to buy them.

Shaima (16:07):
If we receive our bikes and we start our cycling activities, it would be the best part of this year. And it would be the best feeling that we have during these hard years.

Nelufar (16:21):
Shaima’s dreams aren’t just about herself.

Shaima (16:24):
I have lots of dreams, but the most important is I really want to help my parents and my family to come out of Afghanistan or to be safe.

Nelufar (16:36):
Neither of her parents went to school and with the collapse of the Afghan economy, they’ve been unable to find work. When she received a small aid package from a humanitarian group during the Eid festival last year, she immediately sent most of it back to her family.

Shaima (16:51):
They gave us about 300 dirham.

Nelufar (16:55):
That’s the local currency in the UAE equivalent to about 80 US dollars.

Shaima (17:01):
And I send it to my mom and my dad. And they’re still cooking with that one. And I’m hopeful to get a job very soon here to help them.

Nelufar (17:11):
Shaima is also worried about her younger sister who’s 15. She made the trip to Kabul with Shaima, but wasn’t able to get a spot on the bus leaving Afghanistan. Now, she spends most of her time at home in Bamiyan. Though Shaima’s parents have always supported their daughter’s education, and there are some courses offered in the area, going to school is just too risky.

Shaima (17:33):
My parents are afraid and my sister as well. They are afraid that when the Taliban kidnap them or when the Taliban kill them.

Nelufar (17:42):
But she still dreams of getting back on her bike.

Shaima (17:46):
I’m really hopeful to receive my bikes and continue my cycling activities to be a professional and successful cycling coach in the future, or to be a role model for other Afghan girls who are living in a really hard situation. I love to participate in Olympic 2024 and be a champion.

Nelufar (18:18):
By the end of 2021, there were over 2 million Afghan refugees and asylum seekers and another three and a half million internally displaced people. Many are still grappling with the trauma of leaving their homes and loved ones behind.

Fatima (18:32):
At some point, somebody grabbed my gym bag. It was a bit heavy for my weight and then lost it. And then that was the first thing that I lost.

Nelufar (18:44):
That’s Fatima, the New York Times journalist who shared her evacuation story in earlier episodes. The day she left Kabul, she packed a gym bag full of things that reminded her of home, but in the crush of bodies and confusion at the airport, the bag disappeared.

Fatima (19:01):
A map from Kabul, that painting, my jewelry, dresses that I wanted to have, but that’s gone. And then now that feeling, that emptiness is there. Every time when I think about it, it truly hurts me. It feels that something has cracked inside you and then it shattered. And then you don’t know how to put these pieces together.

Nelufar (19:29):
After she arrived in the US, Fatima spent two months living with her family in a hotel room in Houston. She and her two siblings took turns sharing a bed and spending nights on the couch. She hasn’t had a good night’s rest since Kabul fell.

Fatima (19:44):
I cannot sleep like a human being. I sleep at nine. I get up at ten. I don’t sleep until four in the morning. At four, I fall asleep and then I wake up at seven.

Nelufar (20:00):
In February, Fatima won a fellowship at Columbia University and moved to New York City. There she focused her research on the Taliban’s human rights violations in Afghanistan. She’s currently living in an apartment close to Times Square.

Fatima (20:15):
When I wake up, I feel like I’m in Kabul because the noise outside is the same as Kabul. And the light is as bright as Kabul, but the room is not the same. And it takes me a while to figure out where exactly I am. And my body is so exhausted, that just two days ago, I had a panic attack and I couldn’t move for five hours. This is what war does to people. Take your inner peace away, turn you to kind of a robot if I can say. Sometimes you have no emotions, no feelings. Sometimes you are a ball of anger. Sometimes you feel like a ghost that nobody sees you. Nobody cares about you. Nobody knows what is happening to you. And nobody asks, how are you doing?

Nelufar (21:14):
When Fatima’s American friends and colleagues reach out, the distance often feels impossible to bridge.

Fatima (21:21):
Sometimes I feel the loneliest among people. We speak English, but I don’t understand them. They don’t understand me. We don’t have anything in common because they talk about different things that I have no idea. I know one thing: that’s war. And these people don’t know the war.

Nelufar (21:56):
It’s not just Afghans who are dealing with lingering trauma. Many of the foreign volunteers who worked around the clock to help them evacuate are also struggling.

Nigel Walker (22:06):
For the longest time afterwards, I had a recurring dream that I was executed on the side of the road and fell into the sewage canal outside the Abbey Gate.

Nelufar (22:18):
That’s Nigel Walker, a British American journalist who’d worked in Afghanistan since 2004. You heard from him in earlier episodes. He was one of the thousands of people at the airport. After he managed to leave Kabul, he couldn’t stop thinking about the people he’d left behind. Some had gone into hiding while waiting for their US visas to be processed. Nigel tried to help navigate the bureaucracy, but there was nothing he could do. He felt powerless.

Nigel Walker (22:46):
I was kind of a zombie. I was obsessed with either trying to get my friends out, or going back to help them. And nothing else mattered.

Nelufar (23:00):
Nigel was skeptical of some of the groups that had sprung up offering to help desperate Afghans evacuate. Some of his friends were told to wait in hotels for weeks only to be ghosted by the people who’d promised to get them out. Nigel says these so-called helpers had no idea what a big risk it was for Afghans to share their personal information with strangers. After commercial flights to Afghanistan started again, Nigel went back to Kabul and reconnected with his friends. Thankfully, they were okay, though one of his Hazara friends had been threatened by the Taliban.

Nelufar (23:34):
In Kabul, Nigel retraced his steps around the airport, and finally started to process the trauma of his evacuation. He recorded this voice diary during a trip in May.

Nigel Walker (23:46):
I’ve been here about two and a half weeks. I’ve logged over a hundred miles on my bike riding around Kabul, revisiting the three key areas where we attempted to leave. Maybe I thought it would help me in some way, but I got to say today, going towards the airport, it felt perilous. Just the stress of it is crushing me. I didn’t sleep that much last night. And I had the death dream again. We’re at that unknown gate wading through the sewer canal. I’m with a young woman. And I don’t really know where we’re going or where we are, but we’re by the airport and I’m shot in the back. And I fall into the ditch and then I’m shot again. And I’m lying there thinking, “Oh, I’m all tingly.” And I’m thinking, “I guess being shot is not that bad.”

Nigel Walker (24:55):
And then I wake up, and I realize I’m still here. So I’m at the east gate and the place is barely recognizable from what I remember. I’m surrounded on both sides of me by these big cement walls. As I rode in here, I saw the tail of a large plane float above the barbed wire behind the gate. I mean, we are this close to the runway. I had no idea when I was here last, how close we were. I imagine the people felt the same way. Seeing that plane, the tail of that plane float by, so close they could almost touch it. Just these cement barriers, separating them from what they thought was freedom, a better life.

Nigel Walker (25:51):
It’s deeply unsettling to be here. What happened to all these people? What happened to that young woman who held onto me for dear life? Did she make it? Where did she go that day?
Where did all these people go? I didn’t see anyone get over. I don’t think I should be here. It’s just, there’s too much Taliban presence.

Nelufar (26:28):
Like many volunteers working to evacuate vulnerable Afghans, Ben Owen has spent much of the last year on edge.

Ben Owen (26:36):
In August when it was full go, my wife and business partner had to conspire to get me to sleep one night. I’d been up, I think, for 60 some odd hours. And I felt like I had to, because if I slept, somebody’s going to die. And that is actually what happened when I finally slept. So it does take an enormous toll on both mental and physical health.

Nelufar (26:58):
Ben originally founded his organization, Flanders Fields to help military veterans struggling with addiction. It’s an issue he has personal experience with, and the stress of the evacuation has dredged up some of those old demons.

Ben Owen (27:13):
I am an alcoholic in recovery. And it’s been three years since I’ve had a drink, but dude, it’s… Right now, a drink sounds pretty fuckin’ nice.

Nelufar (27:24):
Ben enlisted in the military the day after September 11th, 2001, he comes from a staunch military family. His ancestors have fought in every American war dating back to the Revolution. And Ben believes that in Afghanistan, the US betrayed its allies, the interpreters, translators, and contractors who helped America wage the war.

Ben Owen (27:47):
The motto of every branch in the military is you don’t leave anybody behind, everybody knows that. I mean, that’s what makes America great, we don’t abandon people in the battlefield. And here we are, we just abandoned a hundred thousand people, like lambs before the slaughter. We looked these men in the eye and told them if they assisted our forces, we were going to get them and their families a safe path to America. And I guess being the idealistic people that we are, we fully believed that that is exactly what was going to happen.

Nelufar (28:15):
But as Kabul fell, Ben’s faith that the US would evacuate its allies evaporated.

Ben Owen (28:22):
Come the 15th of August, I got a call from somebody at the Pentagon and I realized, there is no plan. They heard, scrambling, everybody was running around with their hair on fire. It’s shocking when you realize your government that you think has everything under control has absolutely no clue what’s going on.

Nelufar (28:42):
Today, Ben’s organization has a network of around 50 safe houses in Afghanistan where vulnerable people like Mohamed, who you met in our earlier episodes, remain in hiding. The group is helping coordinate 6,500 visa applications. Across all the different categories of eligibility, Ben estimates that there could be more than 250,000 qualified at risk Afghans still in the country. He’s determined to help as many of them as he can, but there’s a limit to what private individuals can do.

Ben Owen (29:14):
I don’t feel like it is fair for civilians and veterans in inactive duty to be having to carry this burden and solve what is really an Uncle Sam sized problem on the personal checking accounts of ourselves. When will it be over? Will it ever be over? We have no idea what we signed up for, we have no idea how long this would go on. And what is the solution? There’s not one.

Nelufar (29:51):
Since the Taliban came back to power, nearly a million Afghans have lost their jobs. Under the former government, Afghanistan’s economy had been largely dependent on international aid with 43% of its GDP coming from foreign donors. When Kabul fell, Afghanistan’s economy was suddenly isolated with disastrous consequences for ordinary Afghans. Afghanistan is now experiencing one of the worst famines in its history caused by the economic crisis and compounded by a long drought and harsher than usual winter. Desperate families burned furniture to stay warm. Some have sold their daughters to survive. According to the World Food Program, 92% of the population doesn’t have enough to eat, 1.1 million children are acutely malnourished and 4.7 million more children, pregnant women and nursing mothers are at risk of a similar fate. To make matters worse, this June an earthquake hit the provinces of Paktia and Khost leaving 362,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, broad and punishing US sanctions have further severed Afghanistan’s economy from the rest of the world.

Halema Wali (31:06):
From an economic standpoint and a humanitarian aid standpoint, Afghanistan’s economy has completely collapsed. There’s incredible inflation, the currency there, it’s next to worthless.

Nelufar (31:17):
That’s Halema Wali, an Afghan American activist living in New Jersey. She’s an organizer with a group called Afghans For A Better Tomorrow. When Kabul fell, she did everything she could to evacuate vulnerable Afghans.

Halema Wali (31:32):
I mean, I would say I was probably on my phone for 20 hours a day.

Nelufar (31:37):
At the height of the crisis, Halema was receiving as many as 300 messages a day from Afghans begging for help. She was barely sleeping, working every lead she got while trying to get her own family members out of the country.

Halema Wali (31:52):
I felt so hopeless. I’m trying my best there, and it’s not getting anywhere. For these random folks that are trying to ask for help, I know that I definitely can’t do anything there. It became very depressing. And after a while, even though I felt so guilty, I just stopped opening the messages.

Nelufar (32:12):
Halema says she got radio silence from her own government, the very people she had been counting on to help her relatives. She and her organization are pushing the US to do more for Afghan refugees and the millions left behind. Like nearly all countries Afghanistan’s former government kept currency reserves in overseas banks. Six months after the fall of Kabul, President Biden issued an executive order that seized the seven billion the Afghan government had in US banks. Since then, other countries and institutions worldwide have done the same, effectively cutting off the Taliban government and the Afghan people from international banking.

Halema Wali (32:54):
All of that money belongs to the Afghan people. It belongs to the central bank, which is an autonomous entity in Afghanistan. It functions very similarly to the Federal Reserve in the United States. And this is money in the bank for ordinary people too, who had their savings in the bank, right? Right now in Afghanistan, you can’t go walk up to the bank and withdraw cash, there is no cash. There’s a cash liquidity crisis.

Nelufar (33:20):
The Biden administration decided that half of the frozen funds would be set aside for the families of 9/11 victims who had previously filed lawsuits against the Taliban. Halema sees this as another insult added to injury.

Halema Wali (33:34):
Don’t get me wrong, I think 9/11 families should be compensated, but why does it have to come from the budget of a foreign sovereign nation’s budget? Why does that have to come from there?

Nelufar (33:45):
The other 3.5 billion dollars of these reserves are still earmarked for Afghans, but on August 15th, the one year anniversary of the fall of Kabul, the US said it did not plan to release that money to Afghanistan central bank anytime soon. Officials say they’re concerned the funds could flow to terrorists. The announcement came just weeks after the Biden administration said the US had killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda and an architect of the 9/11 attacks in a drone strike. He’d been tucked away in a safe house, in a wealthy neighborhood in downtown Kabul, that’s now reportedly home to numerous Taliban officials.

Speaker 5 (34:24):
Smoke rose after two Hellfire missiles used by the US military for targeted assassinations rained down on Ayman al-Zawahiri. After the drone strike, green tarps hung from a building where it’s believed he spent his final moments before he was killed on a balcony.

Nelufar (34:42):
In February, 2020, the Taliban pledged to keep Al-Qaeda from turning Afghanistan into a staging ground for attacks against the West. It was why the US had weighed war there in the first place, to ensure a Afghanistan would not be a haven for terrorists. At the same time, Afghan seeking refuge in America continue to face legal obstacles. There’s a US program called Humanitarian Parole, which allows qualified applicants to live in America for a fixed period of time, typically two years. Between July, 2021 and May of this year, more than 66,000 Afghans applied for humanitarian parole. That number comes from Reveal, a non-profit investigative newsroom that got the data by filing a Freedom of Information request to the US government, yet most of these applications haven’t even been processed. And as of this past May, only 123 had been approved. That’s in contrast to 68,000 Ukrainians who were granted humanitarian parole through a specific process designed after Russia invaded their country, Halema sees this as yet another injustice.

Halema Wali (36:11):
There’s so much that the United States can do, they just lack the political will to do it.

Nelufar (36:17):
The fee for a humanitarian parole application is 575 US dollars per person, a staggering sum in Afghanistan. According to Reveal’s data, the US government has brought in nearly 20 million from these fees alone. Among the thousands of Afghans waiting to hear back about their humanitarian parole applications were 10 of Halema’s relatives. She says they were all denied, even though they had submitted evidence showing that they were in danger. Halema, and her organization, Afghans For A Better Tomorrow, are calling on US lawmakers to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. It’s a bill introduced in Congress this August, which would expand visa eligibility to more at risk Afghans and create pathways to legal permanent residents for those admitted under humanitarian parole. But though the bill has bipartisan support, it still needs to pass. David Sedney, a former diplomat who helped open the American embassy in Kabul in 2002, is also disturbed by what he sees as a lack of action from his government.

David Sedney (37:07):
The line of argument goes, yes, woman in Afghanistan are abused, but we can’t save Afghan women because there are lots of other women around the world who are also abused, and we can’t save all the women in the world. The analogy that I’ve used is if you see a child in the road and there’s a truck bearing down on them, and you say, “Well, I could save this child by going to the road and taking them to the side, but I could just leave him there too, because there are lots of other children in roads around the world who might be run over. And I can’t save them all, so why save this one?” No person who I know and respect would say that, they would all say, “No, I have to help the person who is right in front of me.”

Nelufar (37:47):
From 2019 to 2021, David served as president of the American University of Afghanistan, and he’s still grappling with the heartbreak of how things ended.

David Sedney (37:58):
The women of Afghanistan were right in front of us, we turned our backs on them. They were reaching out their hands to us seeking that assistance to be pulled out of the approaching truck or the approaching Taliban. And we said, “No, we’re not going to help you.” And this line that I’ve heard people use, including leaders in the administration, “Well, we can’t help them because we can’t help everybody else in the world,” to me is profoundly, morally wrong and profoundly disturbing.

Nelufar (38:33):
The Taliban reclaimed Kabul last year, but they do not have a claim on Afghanistan’s future. A state can fall and its leaders can scatter, but an idea is far more difficult to erase. The 20 year US occupation brought an American vision of democracy to Afghanistan. It wasn’t perfect by any means, there were the CIA backed night raids gone horribly wrong, the civilian killings, the attempts to play off one war lord on another, Washington’s elevation of corrupt Afghan government officials, but still many Afghans tasted new freedoms during those two decades. They saw new possibilities, dreamed new dreams. They built lives that would have been unfathomable under Taliban rule. America’s ultimate legacy was to let Afghanistan’s emerging democracy crumble, casting its believers into exile. When Fatima left Kabul, she felt like she was betraying her friends and family who had served in the Afghan army and security forces, and died at the hands of the Taliban.

Fatima (39:49):
They were killed for the same group that had taken power. These friends were killed because of the values that Americans taught us, the American democracy, the American war. This American who had asked us to fight the Taliban, that were the first people to sign a deal with the Taliban and betray us. I was asking why, if we were supposed to go 25 years back, and then hand over everything to the Taliban, why my friends are not alive now?

Nelufar (40:30):
It’s a war she didn’t start, and what she didn’t fight in, but it continues to haunt her.

Fatima (40:36):
Last month, I went to Connecticut. We took the train. I left the bag outside and went to help an elderly person, to get out of the train. And somebody yelled at me, and said like, “Hey, don’t you know anything about 9/11?” My brain just froze, because this person just doesn’t know what 9/11 means to me and what 9/11 has done to me. Nobody from Afghanistan hijacked the planes, nobody was involved in that incident, but we pay the highest price.

Fatima (41:17):
Sometimes, when I lie on my bed, I wish that there was one thing in the world. Maybe there was a machine that could just erase your memory from. Because to me, if the 9/11 hadn’t happened today, was not here. Maybe I was a mom with five babies or something, but maybe I was at least able to sleep at night. Today, I don’t have that.

Nelufar (41:57):
Ogai, the young journalist at a woman’s TV station you met in our first episode, now lives in Ireland. She’s working as a freelance reporter covering stories including the refugee crisis. Soon, she’ll begin studying for a bachelor’s degree in business and management. Ogai was thriving in Kabul. She had a job she loved, a close relationship with her family, and a lot of friends. Her life in Ireland is much lonelier. She sent us this voice memo from her new home in Dublin.

Ogai (42:27):
The eight months that I spent here, it was like eight years. When you’re building your own self, when you’re building your home, and when you start from zero, it’s so hard, especially for the girl that she’s from Afghanistan. She left everything, and she didn’t know no one. She doesn’t have anyone to help her.

Nelufar (42:57):
Even adjusting to the little things was difficult.

Ogai (43:01):
The small things hurted me a lot, especially I never ever cooked in Afghanistan. My mom was the good cooker. It was hard to cook something, and you didn’t know how to cook and how to put the salt, or sugar, or how much, or the pepper, or the oil. I was like, “Oh my God.”

Nelufar (43:28):
But Ogai learned to accept the new challenges she faced.

Ogai (43:32):
Now, I’m getting elder and mature. I’m learning a lot of things from this life. In my opinion, life is all about struggling. Life is like the movie that when you want to look in the past, you will say, “Oh my God, Ogai, my childhood, my teenager period,” you are so enjoying from the first part of movie that you don’t know what will happen, and everything is okay.

Nelufar (44:04):
That first act of Ogai’s movie, as she puts it, ended when Kabul fell.

Ogai (44:10):
In the second part, it’s getting more terrible. They’ll say, “Okay, it’s about fighting. Okay, okay. We’re going to happen.”

Nelufar (44:21):
Now, Ogai feels like she’s moving into the third act of the story. She can see her future in Ireland, but she’s also had to grow up fast.

Ogai (44:30):
Now in this stage of my life, I’m responsible for myself, responsible for my family to support them, responsible for my future, and responsible for what gonna to happen to me. I feel so elder, I feel I am not around 22 years old. I am maybe 30 or maybe 44 years old.

Nelufar (45:00):
Ogai’s brother, who is also a journalist, left Kabul too and is now living in Germany, but their parents are still in Afghanistan. Despite food shortages, she says they’re doing okay. It’s still painful to build this new life, thousands of miles away. Back home, Ogai’s mom was her best friend, with whom she shared all of her secrets. Now she feels the roles are reversed. She has to stay strong for her mother, so she won’t worry about Ogai.

Ogai (45:28):
I must take care of my family, especially my mom. Now I’m mother too, for my mother. It’s all about take care of her.

Nelufar (45:38):
When Ogai calls her mom and dad, she doesn’t say how much she misses them, but after they hang up the phone, she records a video of herself telling them how she really feels.

Ogai (45:48):
[Foreign language]

Nelufar (45:54):
In it, she tells them she’s scared, that when she was in Kabul, life felt too long, but now it feels too short. She worries she might never see them again. She’ll show her parents the video someday, when they’re able to be together. Ogai’s story is far from over. She’s still dealing with the loss of her homeland and the life she loved.

Nelufar (46:16):
She wants to go back when the Taliban are gone, and build the beautiful country she knows Afghanistan can be. Until then, she’s finding ways to root herself on the small island. On bad days, she goes to the seaside to ground herself, and there, she gathers the strength to create her own future.

Ogai (46:38):
Sometimes, I feel so weak, so weak. I want someone to sit and to cry with him or her, and to say everything, and to empty my heart. When I see there is no one. Then I try to go to the beach side. Then I am sitting, and then I’m hearing the sound of water and skies. Then I’m just getting okay, normal. Then I’m saying to myself, “Ogai, everything will be fine. Everything will be fine.”

Nelufar (47:19):
That’s it for our series. As a former Afghan refugee, it’s been a powerful experience for me to host this podcast. I hope it’s been powerful for you to listen to it. If you like the show, please tell a friend, and give us a rating on Apple podcasts or wherever you are listening. It helps other people find the podcast and we really want these stories to be heard.

Nelufar (47:42):
We have a few more updates on people you met in earlier episodes, Javed, the former government worker you met in episode six, who made a risky journey to collect passports from the Taliban. He’s now in Canada. After leaving Afghanistan, he spent more than seven months in Albania waiting for his Canadian Visa to be processed. He’s looking for a job, and is currently staying in a hotel with his family. They hope to move into a permanent place next month.

Nelufar (48:10):
Rodaba, the medical student and robotics enthusiast you met in our first episode has also made it to Calgary in Canada. The rest of her immediate family is now there too. She’s been accepted to attend Bard College in New York to study biological and physical science, and is waiting for her student Visa to be approved. She still hopes to become a neurosurgeon one day, and plans to study medicine after she completes her degree at Bard. She told us she misses her relatives and friends who are still in Afghanistan, and she worries about their safety, but she says she feels safe in her new home, and says she’s been welcomed by the people of Canada.

Nelufar (48:48):
To learn more about the people featured in this podcast, you can visit our website, KabulFalling.com. It is loaded with bonus content. That’s really worth spending time with. You can see beautiful illustrations of the people we interviewed drawn by Sara Rahmani, an Afghan artist. You can purchase gorgeous scarves embroidered by the women of Kandahar Treasure, an organization that empowers Afghan women artisans in the Kandahar area to lift themselves and their families out of poverty through ethical, artisan based employment. 100% of the proceeds will go directly towards paying fair labor wages to the women artisans.

Nelufar (49:26):
We also have a list of resources on the website Afghans who are in need of assistance, whether they’re still in Afghanistan, or in the process of resettlement. We want to hear from you. Please get in touch via our website, KabulFalling.com, where you can send a voice message or tweet us, using hashtag Kabul falling. We’ll share some of the best responses during the course of the show.

Nelufar (50:04):
Kabul Falling is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX. It’s hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, are executive producers. Sandy Smallens is the executive producer for Audiation. Our managing producer is Lucy Woods and Ireland Meacham is the producer. Susie Armitage is our co-producer and story editor. And Siddhartha Mahanta is our consulting producer.

Nelufar (50:31):
Our associate producers are Dan Xin Huang, Fatima Faizi, Francesca Gilardi-Quadrio-Curzio, and Neha Wadekar. Additional reporting was done by Nigel Walker. Our translators are Hasan Azimi and [ ]. Arson Fahim composed the original theme music. Sound design, musical scoring, and mixing by Brad Stratton. Cover design by Ryan Ho and Jane Zisman. Embroidery by Women of Kandahar Treasure.

Nelufar (51:02):
Additional audio and video by Nicholas Brennan, Megan Dean, and KK, with special thanks to Clayton Swisher. For more information on the people featured in this podcast and additional interviews, visit kabulfalling.com. Audiation.