An Afghan Journalist, Now a Refugee, Rebuilds His Kansas City Life “With a Big Heart” | KCUR 89.3
Editor’s Note: Author Qasim Rahimi writes primarily in Dari/Persian. He wrote portions of this essay in English with assistance, including the use of Google Translate. It was later edited by CJ Janovy.
As usual, I arrived at the office at 8 am. A journalist by training, I am now Director of Information and Public Awareness at the National Environmental Protection Agency of Afghanistan.
I was supervising a team of 21 people: Our job was to provide public information to protect the environment and manage climate change. That morning, I looked at the daily schedule and assigned tasks to my employees.
It was August 15, a Sunday. Afghanistan was going through difficult times. Every day, news of provinces falling to the Taliban and the surrender of the Afghan National Army heightened people’s anxiety. That day, the office seemed chaotic.
I could see the confusion on the faces of my colleagues. All the employees, especially the women, panicked. During the early period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and their anti-government activities while US forces were present, the Taliban committed many crimes.
They killed women, young people, journalists and hundreds of others. Everyone knew it.
One of my colleagues asked that the employees be allowed to leave. Around 11 a.m., rumors of the arrival of the Taliban at the gates of Kabul intensified. We decided to leave the office.
The roads of Kabul were filled with terrified people. Everyone was trying to escape from the city. It took me a long time to get home.
I had built a nice house with five residential units, which I rented out to several other families. I was well known and trusted by local residents due to my position in government.
As soon as she saw me, my mother calmed down a bit. She insisted that I leave the house – we feared that the Taliban would search our house and that I would be arrested. So I hid in a neighbor’s house. It was a restless night; I stayed up until midnight trying to find news of what was going on. All Afghan national media have stopped their broadcasts or broadcast repeated programs from the past.
The BBC was the only media to cover what was happening in Afghanistan. Former President Hamid Karzai and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the political partner of former Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, appeared on the television screen. Both mentioned the flight of the president and the entry of the Taliban into the presidential palace.
Al Jazeera photos of the Taliban entering the presidential palace have been circulating on social media. The fall of Afghanistan has been officially confirmed by the Taliban.
My anxiety escalated. I barely made it through the night and left the place in the morning with different clothes than usual so as not to be easily recognized.
In search of escape
It was promising to hear that people under threat were being transferred out of the country by international forces via Hamid Karzai International Airport. My two older brothers, one of whom was a journalist and the second worked for the international forces, had received calls to leave Afghanistan.
After a few days in hiding, I left Afghanistan with my brother Arif Rahimi, his wife and three children, and my younger brother, Asif Rahimi. It was painful to leave my mother alone, but I entrusted her to God.
The roads leading to the airport were jammed with people who didn’t know their destination. Everyone was trying to escape.
We tried for several hours to enter the airfield, but each time we backed off. The crowd was so dense that it was difficult to get enough air, which increased the risk for children. The Taliban also used tear gas to disperse people. At 2 am we managed to enter the airfield and present ourselves to the international forces.
At 9 am on August 20, my older brother and his family were allowed to board the plane; they were informed that in a few minutes the Spanish military forces would take them to Spain. But I waited another 24 hours for permission to fly.
Life in the United States
Escaping the terror of the Taliban was good news for me. But losing my homeland and being away from my family and friends bothered me.
Living in a military camp with no idea what was going to happen to me and the fear of the future tortured my soul more than anything else. But there were also things that gave me and hundreds of other Afghans living in the camp hope.
The benevolent and humane treatment of the soldiers living in the Fort McCoy camp was instructive to me. Their behavior was very different from the soldiers I had met in Afghanistan.
Dealing with thousands of Afghan refugees in a single day is no easy task, but the staff at the Fort McCoy camp and the soldiers living there listened patiently, kindly and respectfully to each immigrant’s concerns. The first few days there were problems with the preparation and distribution of meals due to the number of people, but gradually this problem was solved.
The Afghan women and children living in the camp felt the most freedom. Deprivation of women’s liberty and child abuse, even within families, are not uncommon in Afghanistan. But I also observed men who treated their wives and children as they had done in Afghanistan – they didn’t allow their wives to go out in public without a burqa.
After two months, with the help of humanitarian organizations, I left Fort McCoy for Mission, Kansas, in early November 2021. My sister’s family had been living there since 2018 because my brother-in-law was eligible for a visa. Special Immigrant for Afghans. who had worked for the United States.
I had chosen Kansas to continue living in America, even though I still don’t know where the wave of my life will take me. Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, an organization that serves some Afghan immigrants in Kansas City, helped me prepare materials. In the first week, I managed to get a work permit, but I waited months for social security.
Lots of people volunteered to help me with my problems and didn’t leave me feeling left out. Volunteers Barbara and Eli Durante, Mary Sexton and Shawn Cooper, and Catholic Charities staff Greg Bole and Jennifer Kornfeld are names I will never forget. They took me by the hand and helped me at the height of my poverty and my needs.
I started my first job in America assembling glasses for Duffens Optical at Lenexa. I had to stand for eight hours a day. For a person who worked with a pen, a desk and a computer, this kind of work was not easy. For the first few days, my legs hurt from exhaustion and I couldn’t sleep. I was realistic and tried to look to the future.
I continued my work in this department for almost four months. Respect, honesty, patience and hard work were some of the lessons I learned during this process. In my opinion, the shortest definition of life in America is work, work and work.
I am very happy now to work as an employee of the immigration department of a charity organization. I have nice and adorable colleagues, I learn from them every day.
I found the people of Kansas City kind-hearted and friendly to immigrants. I still have a lot to see and learn here.
I’m safe here, I’m respected, I have enough to eat. But I can’t forget that my compatriots in Afghanistan don’t have enough food. I am away from my family, my friends and my colleagues. They are now enduring great suffering.
I am worried about my family and my wife. My two sisters’ husbands are still in Afghanistan, and both worked at the US Embassy in Kabul and for the US Army Corps of Engineers. Both are qualified for special immigrant visas. Their life is threatened. Most of their colleagues have managed to leave Afghanistan, and I hope the United States will help them.
My wife, Samia Tahiri, immigrated to India for over five years. She left to study in India and has not been able to return to Afghanistan since 2018, the year of our marriage.
Samia supported me a lot during this period. I hope we will be together soon and our dreams will come true. I hope my friends in the United States will help me get her out of India, and my mother, Fatima Rahimi, and my sisters from Afghanistan. I really appreciate my wife, my family and all my friends.
I want to be a journalist like before, but I have to be patient. I know that the media experience I brought from Afghanistan is different from what I will need to join this profession in the United States. I hope that I will have the opportunity to continue my studies. I was a war correspondent for many years, so I know the pain and suffering caused by war.
Afghanistan has lost everything: human rights, women’s rights, civil liberties, the national army, the national police. But the future can still be ours. The Afghan people are still waiting for the international community and the United States of America. An unstable Afghanistan with a terrorist regime is not in the interest of the future of the world.
I want to be the voice of Afghanistan, a voice that needs to be heard. Afghanistan has no good neighbors – everyone sees Afghanistan with hungry eyes. But the future is in our hands, we humans. We have different experiences, but what we have in common is our future.