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Afghan refugees struggle to adapt; they survived harrowing trek to settle in Northwest Arkansas

by Lara Farrar | January 2, 2022 at 3:54 a.m.
Mahdi Faizy of Bentonville speaks Dec. 22 in Bolder Coffee in Fayetteville. Faizy fled Afghanistan with his family to Northwest Arkansas. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE – After the fall of Afghanistan in August, tens of thousands of people fled the country, with many arriving in the United States and some settling in Arkansas.

About 100 Afghan refugees are now living here, mostly in the northwest part of the state. More are arriving weekly from U.S. military bases where they've been waiting for months to be moved to cities across America.

They're people like Mahdi Faizy and Ahmad Ghani who waded into a sewage-filled river for a chance to persuade U.S. officials to allow them to leave Afghanistan before the Taliban cemented their rule.

Their lives were ripped apart almost overnight with little choice but to start over in a country thousands of miles from home.

It has not been easy.

Leaving Afghanistan was itself a feat of determination, as thousands crowded the airport in Kabul, hoping to board an American cargo plane before U.S. forces withdrew. It was one of the largest evacuation efforts in history, and still, many people were left behind.

At the airport, people were trampled.

Refugees stood for hours in scorching heat, sometimes with children and elderly relatives.

They dodged gunfire and braced themselves for suicide bombings or other terrorist attacks.

Even traveling to the airport was treacherous as the Taliban could stop individuals and families at any time and block them from leaving, or worse.

For those who managed to get on planes, it was only the first step in a journey that has taken weeks, if not months.

In interviews with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Faizy and Ghani shared their stories about journeys from Kabul to Fayetteville, where they have settled with the help of Canopy Northwest Arkansas, a refugee resettlement agency.

Faizy planned to arrive in Arkansas as a student, from his home in Kabul at the end of August.

He'd secured the visa to begin his doctorate in public policy at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. His plane tickets were booked for Aug. 26, a Thursday. Everything was in order for him, his wife and young son to leave.

Until it wasn't.

Province after province, city after city, village after village fell again to the Taliban, a brutally repressive Islamic extremist group that ruled the country from 1996 until the American invasion in 2001.

On Aug. 15, Kabul fell to the Taliban. Scenes emerged of chaos at the airport in the capital, as thousands of Afghans flooded to get out on American military planes. In early days, there were photos of people hanging onto planes as the aircraft barreled down runways.

Commercial flights were canceled. Those Aug. 26 plane tickets Faizy purchased were never used.

But the 32-year-old knew he had to leave. He also knew that he had to take more than just his wife and his son. Because of his Western education and affiliation with the American-backed Afghan government that collapsed, Faizy knew his entire family wouldn't be safe there.

That meant he would have to take his wife, child, mother, four sisters, their children and his in-laws to the airport and hope he could persuade American soldiers to allow all 15 of them on a plane.

"I was thinking how to leave with my family," said Faizy, whose father died in 2020. "Even if I leave, still my mother and sisters in a society totally dominated by men, how can they survive? How can they feel safe? How can I live with the daily assumption that something is going to happen to them?"

Faizy loaded everyone into the back of a covered pickup in the middle of the night and drove to the airport on Aug. 24. They arrived around 3 a.m.

"The risks were very high. The fear of being stopped [by the Taliban] and knowing we are trying to leave the country," he said. "We didn't have any other options."

He told his extended family, including his mother in her 60s, his 3-year-old son, his teenage sisters and elderly in-laws to stay back while he made his way through crushing crowds to an airport gate to negotiate with American soldiers to let them inside.

Faizy knew that since he, his wife and son had secured visas to come to America they might have a chance at leaving. He was unsure if he could persuade officials to allow his other 12 family members to join them.

He and his wife finally made it to a place near the airport where they could try to communicate with soldiers inside. Faizy climbed over a wall down into a sewage-filled river with barbed wire cutting through the middle where he began waving his documents and pleading with soldiers.

"We were among the most luckiest ones to get to a point where we could talk to U.S. soldiers," he said. "People had stayed overnight there for many nights and still not able to get to a point to talk to a soldier. We heard stories of families who would be starving for days and nights having to go home and try again."

After several rounds of trying to persuade officials to help, he found someone who would listen.

"I had to get through that crowd again, get my family, get them out of that crowd and help them pass through the river," he said.

By then it was about 7 a.m.

They waited at an initial checkpoint until 2 p.m. when they were cleared to advance to a second checkpoint and then to a third, until they boarded a plane, but Faizy knew nothing was certain.

"We could see people being denied entry," Faizy said. "I could see families being divided where an individual could continue but the rest of the family could not, so there was a van waiting just a few feet away to take them out [of the airport].

"That fear is something I could never imagine. Panic was with me, and all of us, all of the time."

Then came their turn to speak to yet another American official.

"The officer said, 'You and your wife and son can travel, but not the rest,'" Faizy said. "It was like having cold water poured on you -- something so easy to say but very hard to hear."

Faizy pleaded with the official, explaining the dangers his family faced should they be forced to stay. The official disappeared.

Back and forth, more questions, more waiting.

Then another official emerged.

"That one phrase was life changing for us," Faizy said. "'You are good to go.'"


The apartment where Ghani lives in Fayetteville is sparsely decorated and lonely. There's a used couch and recliner surrounded by barren walls. A rickety kitchen table. A bed. One room remains empty.

"Some days because I have nothing to do, I get into a depression," said Ghani, 32, who is still waiting on documentation that will allow him to legally work. "Just starting your whole life over, that is very, very scary. Kind of like a nightmare. I know this culture and have a lot of friends [in America]. Still, I am scared."

Despite the austerity of his home and challenges of starting life over in Arkansas, Ghani is relieved to no longer be living in a tent with dozens of other Afghan evacuees at a military base in New Mexico where he waited for nearly 70 days to be placed with a refugee resettlement agency.

Ghani, who worked in the oil and gas industry for the American-backed Afghan government, hoped to move to a city in Texas or Colorado where he might have a better chance of landing a job in his field. However, those states were overwhelmed with other refugees.

An Afghan friend who lives in Fayetteville, encouraged him to come to Arkansas, so he did.

Like Faizy, Ghani planned to return to the U.S. for his doctorate in August only to have those hopes vanish.

Ghani traveled alone to the airport in Kabul on Aug. 23, carrying with him all the cash he had in his home, as well as a backpack with his laptop and a change of clothes. Because the American Embassy in Kabul had not been offering passport and visa services for months, Ghani's passport was still in India where he'd sent it to an American Embassy for his student visa.

A friend in India got Ghani's passport and sent him pictures of the travel documents. He knew that his chances of getting on a plane were slim with nothing more than photocopies of his passport and American visa.

He, too, stood in the sewage-filled river, pleading with American soldiers to listen to him, to look at his papers.

Three hours after he'd arrived, a U.S. Marine noticed that Ghani had an American Social Security card from his previous work in the U.S. The soldier pulled him up out of the canal near the main wall of the airport. As he waited, other families begged him to take them with him, to claim them as relatives.

Ghani knew he couldn't. Lying would cost him his chance to flee.

He cleared each checkpoint, boarding a plane the next day for a three-hour flight to a U.S. military base in Qatar, where he and hundreds of other passengers sat in the belly of the aircraft for hours in the desert heat until they were cleared to deplane six hours later.

The next day, Aug. 25, he boarded another flight to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Ghani had barely eaten and hadn't changed clothes since standing in sewage in Kabul 48 hours before. He remembers it being astonishingly cold.

He stayed there for several days in a holding area with as many as 4,000 others, Ghani estimated. It was but one of numerous tents and hangars used as makeshift camps for tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees sent to the base.

On Aug. 30, he and hundreds of other evacuees boarded yet another plane destined for Philadelphia. From there, he was flown to New Mexico where he stayed for 66 days before arriving in Fayetteville on Nov. 6 -- 11 weeks after he'd fled a home he may never see again.

However grueling the journey was, Ghani said he believes people from Afghanistan are "the most privileged" immigrants to America.

"People wait for years in camps to arrive to the U.S., but Afghans arrived in days," he said. "That is why we are the most privileged and given so many privileges right away; employment authorizations in a few weeks. Other people from other countries wait months for that.

"We really received really high privileges."


The December night before Faizy and Ghani spoke with the Democrat-Gazette, four more evacuees arrived in Arkansas, all single men who'd been soldiers in the Afghan military.

Faizy, who now works for Canopy NWA, and Ghani, who volunteers there, continue to help those coming to the state.

Unlike Faizy and Ghani, both who speak English and had studied in the U.S. before, many Afghans settling in Arkansas don't speak English and have never lived outside their native country.

Many are men who served in the Afghan army alongside American soldiers or who worked as support staffers, such as guards, for Americans or the previous Afghan regime.

Some arrive alone, some with spouses and children.

Some come from far-flung provinces.

Some -- in particular women who grew up in a country where girls were not allowed much, if any, schooling -- cannot read.

For these evacuees, the challenges seem insurmountable.

Faizy said he is worried for the women who are accustomed to living in a society where females don't speak to men outside of their immediate families, sometimes not leaving their homes without male escorts.

He's concerned about his mother, who speaks only Farsi and Pashto, Afghanistan's two major languages.

"It's like a tree being taken out of the soil to a place where the soil isn't the same, and the weather is different," Faizy said.

"Most of the newly arrived women or families, they have come from villages and provinces where the effect of modernization that has happened in the past two decades, it was the least," Faizy said. "The change was very slow and very weak there."

Faizy said he worries about the isolation and the subsequent mental health issues these individuals and families may face here. He worries for the men who, without language skills, have few employment opportunities except in poultry processing plants or other factory jobs. It will be a long time before most can learn enough English to pass a driving test.

He knows the alternative could have been much worse.

Afghanistan is now on the brink of economic collapse. Aid agencies are warning that a million children face starvation and death this winter there. Some families are selling daughters into arranged marriages to buy food.

"It will be a hard journey [in the U.S.] for many families, for my family," Faizy said.

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