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As Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, Abdul Qader Zaman and his family were among the tens of thousands desperately trying to flee the country. With the help of volunteers and veterans from his time as an interpreter for U.S. soldiers, Zaman and his family eventually escaped. Hari Sreenivasan reports from Erie, Pennsylvania, where the Zamans are now beginning life again.
Since last summer, more than 76,000 afghans have arrived in the United States. Many of those fled the country on flights in the chaotic weeks before the U.S. fully withdrew from Afghanistan in late August. They include former interpreters, NGO workers, and soldiers who worked with American and NATO forces during the 20-year war.
Now, many are starting their lives again, and in some cases reconnecting with Americans, they knew during the war. Tonight we bring you a story from Erie, Pennsylvania, to witness the strength of bonds formed on the battlefield. Retired Army Master Sergeant Terry Best flew across the country in late January to see through what he calls one of his last missions.
Abdul Qader Zaman:
Oh my God.
Salaam alaikum. Sixteen years of friendship and now. We're forever bro. We're forever.
Forever brother. We're forever.
Best first served with Abdul Qader Zaman in Afghanistan from May 2006 to June 2007. Best was embedded with the Afghan National Army as a tactical trainer. Zaman was Best's interpreter and a first sergeant himself.
Let me introduce you to your nephews…
Today, Best is meeting Abdul's wife, Razia, and their five children in their new home in Erie, Pennsylvania. The family arrived in mid-January after a perilous escape from Kabul last August as the Taliban took over and the city fell.
Your Dad's helped me be able to come back and see my daughters, and see my grandchildren.
Actually, you are our hero that we are alive here in the United States.
Well, I would still be helping you and you would still be helping your family, brother. [hug]
We never, ever, give up. Do we?
I always promised him that he would be here. And he always told me he would be here. And yesterday it happened.
In Afghanistan, Best says Zaman was his lifeline: helping navigate sitdown meetings with community leaders, going on humanitarian missions to remote villages near the eastern border with Pakistan, and they also saw a lot of combat, some captured on Best's own digital camera. He estimates they were involved in more than 100 firefights over that year.
When we were shot at the first time, Afghan soldiers, you have one opportunity to make a first impression. And if they buy-in, you will never be alone again. And it's at that point that our brotherhood began.
Did he save your life?
He did on more than one occasion.
Best went on to do multiple tours in Afghanistan. He was blinded in one eye during combat and retired after 31 years of service in 2015. Zaman retired from the Afghan National Army in 2009, going on to work as a security contractor for international organizations, including USAID.
In early 2021, with the Taliban gaining territory and U.S. forces committed to withdraw from Afghanistan, Zaman started to make plans to leave.
Would your life be in danger because you worked with the Americans?
Yeah. I was feeling that night when Taliban come to Afghanistan and slowly they will kill the people who help Americans.
By late January, Zaman had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa or SIV for Afghans who helped Americans. But in mid-August when the Taliban entered Kabul, his application was one of 18,000 still pending approval from the State Department. Like thousands of others, Zaman and his family made their way to the chaotic scene outside the Kabul airport, desperate to get out of the country.
Just getting to the airport
Getting to the airport?
Yeah. How hard was that?
That was very hard. In hours we just get close to the gate, then Taliban try to push us back and they try beating us and they beat my son as well. I tried to stop him, and then he said, 'if you try to stop us to beat people, we are going to kill you.' And we just left there and…
It's all right. It's all right.
I got the call and I heard that he said, don't give away.
Don't give up.
[nods] Keep going to the front, not back.
Zaman and his family eventually got to a gate where they at least had a chance to be admitted inside the airport. And that was due to a huge effort behind the scenes, and thousands of miles away.
We had a lot of people with documentation that couldn't get anywhere.
Joan Lynch is a former network television producer. Along with two others — startup consultant Lindsey Baldwin and journalist David Ariosto — they voluntarily helped direct families where to go, backed up crucial documentation, and coordinated with a U.S. military contact inside the airport. This was all happening via cell phone messaging services like WhatsApp, iMessenger [sic], and Signal from their homes in the U.S.
At first we were talking about just the one family. So it was a mother, father and two little girls. And I started posting on social media just asking for people's help. And then the unthinkable happened, really, and the people in the military started reaching out to us. And when people in the military are reaching out to journalists and a marketing person saying, 'Can you help us get our person out,' you start to recognize that the system is flawed. And really, the way that I describe it is we just started to run towards it, just how can we solve this problem? So one family became three families in the first rescue, became 20 families on our list, became 500 people on our list.
This ad-hoc network was one of about a dozen groups that quickly formed during the chaotic fall of Kabul; all frantically trying to get Afghans in danger out of the country.
We could only identify pictures and have your military supporters tell us, 'this is the person. I guarantee you, I promise you this is the person,' because we didn't want to be in a position to let anyone in unless we knew 100 percent who you were.
After being introduced to Terry Best and verifying Zaman's service history with U.S. troops, Lynch and her group started coordinating to have him grabbed by their U.S. military contact. Zaman would be identified using a code word— Pedro—drawn in marker on a t-shirt.
So you had waited all night, all night with your family and your kids?
Yes. After I go to that gate, I went to that gate. Many people went to that gate as well, and there was a canal between the gate and U.S. soldiers were to the airport side of the canal.
Over WhatsApp, the group directed Zaman's family and another to get as close as possible to the American gate. When the Americans in the U.S. got word that their contact inside the airport was approaching the gate, Zaman was instructed to pull out the Pedro sign… and miraculously, in the sea of those seeking refuge, he was spotted.
I jumped to the canal.
You jumped into the canal?
Yes. My wife give me the kid. I take her to the other side to give to the soldiers who were with them.
So you went back and forth in the canal?
Back and forth in canal. Take the kids from my wife, give the soldiers and the last to my wife jumped in the canal. She crossed. Yeah, then, myself.
What was that feeling like?
As soon as I've crossed the canal and inside the airport, I just felt that I'm just born.
That you were born?
Yes. I told my kids that we got it, we are right. That's it.
Terry, you poured so much effort and still are into his well-being. What if he didn't make it that night?
It would have destroyed my life. I can tell you, this mission is my last mission. I may be out of the army, but I still have a mission. And for 16 years, Abdul has been that person. He's been that strength. If I lose Abdul and I lose his family. It's like somebody took a degausser and erased part of my brain.
It turns out there was not a moment to spare. Less than a day after Zaman and his family got into the airport through the Abbey Gate, a suicide bombing there — claimed by an affiliate of the Islamic State — killed 13 American service members and an estimated 170 Afghans. From then, on, the gate was closed.
Today, Joan Lynch has a list with hundreds of people who assisted the U.S. government during the war: All still in Afghanistan.
What about the ones they left behind? The majority of your list have not come across?
That's right. And it's something I can't get away from because I look at their faces every day and all their documentation, and I'm still in contact with a lot of them. But it's really difficult because we don't know what the end game is.
For Zaman and his family their first stop from Kabul was Qatar, followed by Germany, then a military base in Virginia. And now this Pennsylvania reunion with Best—nearly a decade after they last saw each other in Afghanistan.
Zaman and his wife prepared a lunch of traditional Afghani food, and Best gave them gifts, some from Afghanistan for a sense of home, plus an American flag made by a U.S. veteran.
While Zaman would have preferred to be closer to Best in Oregon, he says he's thrilled to be in Erie even as the snow piles up outside.
No bad places in all United States. I'm happy here. I met my brother and we can meet.
With his SIV approved, Zaman has already started the process to get a Green card and he hopes to start working soon as an interpreter for the local refugee resettlement agency. He is just one of more than 500 Afghans who have recently been settled in Erie.
What do you want to do in the United States?
The first thing is to make educated my kids, like.
To educate your kids?
Yeah. I will support my kids here to be educated, my wife to be educated, and I will support them financially and work hard for them.
Watch the Full Episode
Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
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