Emal Salarzai woke up in the middle of the night a few weeks ago feeling like his skull was burning, a heat so real that he went to the mirror and started shaving his hair.
“I was thinking of my mother and father,” he said, “I am the only child, the only child.”
Kabul had fallen two months earlier and her parents were trapped in Afghanistan. I still am. The Taliban are looking for his father and two uncles, he said, who helped the American regime, as he did, by working with the US military to train Afghan troops in English and computer science. His mother, Masoma, 56, incapable of heart disease and diabetes, couldn’t understand why others were able to secure coveted seats on outbound flights when they didn’t.
When Salarzai, 34, talks to her sporadically on WhatsApp and Signal from Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb that is her home, she asks why she wasn’t able to help.
“Each time, these are his words,” Salarzai said. “When will we go out?”
It has no answers.
The United States evacuated more than 120,000 people before the withdrawal of US troops in August and the incredibly quick takeover by the Taliban, according to the US Department of Homeland Security. Thousands of Afghan refugees included in those air bridges remain in “lily pads” third countries, where they are waiting in transit to their final destinations. More than 70,000 have arrived in the United States, many of whom still live on military bases.
But thousands of at-risk Afghans remain inside the country, increasingly eager to leave as options for doing so diminish, family members and humanitarian organizations say. A handful are US citizens or visa holders. Many others, such as Salarzai’s parents, lack official status or documents, but are at risk either because of their own activities in the country, or because their relatives have helped the United States.
A spokesperson for the US State Department said it has continued charter flights to facilitate departures for US citizens and residents and remains committed to the “monumental” task of helping vulnerable Afghans who want to leave. It has evacuated about 600 people since its official retreat in late August, the spokesman said. Most of the departing flights, however, are now operated by American allies such as Qatar and by non-profit and humanitarian agencies that lease their own planes, create their own posters, and work to collect necessary government clearances both across the United States. that the new regime. in Afghanistan. It is a slow and disjointed process.
The State Department said it is working to “accelerate” the pace of charter flights and has created an interactivity group to streamline its efforts. But the removal of the US government and the rush to fill the void of a myriad of minor actors has left Afghans confused and frustrated. With no central command and no clear information about who is involved and how charter flights are filled, those looking for ways out are left on the advice of friends, information on the Internet and luck, Salarzai and others said.
“It’s not as simple as it used to be … when there were army planes and people were getting on and off,” said Ismail Khan, a volunteer with the non-profit organization No One Left Behind, which helps the owners. Special immigrant visas – those granted entry to the United States to help troops such as interpreters or other critical roles. “There are a lot of people you need to get their approval to get someone on a flight.”
Khan said that even with his connections through nonprofit work, he is unable to get answers about his own family, also trapped in Afghanistan.
“There isn’t a sequel,” he said. “You can’t get an answer from anyone who says, ‘Hey, this will happen in a month or two months or a year’ or, ‘It won’t happen.”
Recently, his 15-year-old brother was kidnapped and beaten by the Taliban, he said, released after the family paid a ransom. Now his family has split into four groups and goes into hiding. But Khan fears his high-profile work on behalf of others will continue to target them. Like Salarzai’s family, they want to know why they can’t do more.
“The hardest part for me is that I’ve talked to senators, congressmen and reporters and tried to do everything for others and my family too,” Khan said. “My family, they call me every day and say, ‘Look, people are going out and you’re helping people out and you’re not helping us. What is happening? ‘”
The pressure on those living in the United States to help families overseas is traumatizing Afghan communities, especially special immigration visa holders such as Salarzai and Khan who fear their families will die or be imprisoned if they cannot find a way out.
“I can guarantee you that everyone here has already had PTSD and is going through a mental problem right now,” Khan said. “I struggle at work. I can’t really concentrate. …it was a nightmare”.
Kerry Ham, executive director of World Relief Sacramento, a resettlement agency working with Afghan refugees, said the mental health crisis is likely to escalate. He gets several emails every day asking for help with evacuations, many from people who are themselves refugees and are simply “getting up day after day, trying to figure out what they can do,” he said.
On Thursday Salarzai sat in the rented warehouse where he keeps the clothes to resell on Amazon. Her dark eyes looked tired, her hair had grown back into a brief buzz. There were a few lights on in the cluttered space, with boxes of shirts and shoes piled up to the ceiling. The room went dark as the sun set on Veterans’ Day.
He was waiting for a call from his father, but he had no good news to give. He hadn’t received any answers yet, except from a single source who was working to persuade his parents to take a charter flight. The source said they had to get passports first – theirs have expired.
But passports are hard to find in Kabul, Salarzai said. Hundreds of people line up every day in the official office, now run by the Taliban. However, he is reluctant for his father to show up there.
Salarzai’s father worked as a secret service liaison for the deposed regime and is known in his neighborhood as “Dagarwah” – the colonel – even though he is retired from military service. The family fled to Pakistan with nothing when the first Taliban regime took over. Salarzai was 4 years old and they lived in the fields until his father settled.
When the Taliban were overthrown, they returned to a demolished Kabul. Salarzai was 14 and remembers crossing the Khyber Pass and seeing a soldier with a gun wearing traditional leather sandals instead of boots. It made him feel like he was at home.
He grew up in a Kabul that was rebuilding around him. A television station has become a dozen. There was music and girls doing things. Her cousins went to school – one became a teacher and the other a doctor. His uncles did dangerous jobs in support of the government while his family also rebuilt. He helped the colonel build an eight bedroom “mansion” where their extended family lived together, the colonel taking his grandchildren to school every day.
Salarzai climbed the ranks to become a trainer at the Morehead English Language Training Center, an elite school that trained Afghan troops to travel to the United States and other countries for courses with special forces such as Army Rangers, he said.
On his phone, he holds a photo of Canadian Lt. Col. Jean-Guy Levesque giving him the Book of Operating Procedures when Salarzai became site manager and school supervisor, the first Afghan to take over the facility, in 2012. He loved the job, he loved helping Afghanistan become a new country, he said.
But he started receiving threats and worried about his children. In 2015 he arrived in the United States on a special immigration visa.
He tried to return to Afghanistan after only a few months in the United States, missing his parents too much. His mother told him, “People are dying to leave this country, and you have a green card in your hand and you’re saying you don’t want to leave … just go, what if [Allah] help, we will be with you “.
Not long ago, members of the Taliban showed up at the door of the house where Salarzai’s grandfather and 8-year-old cousin lived. They slapped the boy, he said, and asked to know where the colonel was. Neighbors called the family to warn them.
“Just tell the colonel not to go home,” they said.
Salarzai and Khan both said they fear the Taliban will become bolder as time passes and international interest wanes. They fear they will not be able to get their families out while there is still a thin window of opportunity.
“People are forgetting about them,” Salarzai said.
“There is so much hope,” he says, squeezing two fingers almost to touch it, “that it is giving me strength.”