Finally, at 9:51 a.m. on Monday, his phone pinged with a text message from his 11-year-old daughter: “My dear father. God willing, we are arriving in Washington D.C.”
As he sped in his van from Philadelphia toward Dulles International Airport, Mohammad struggled with what he would say to his family when he arrived.
Their escape had come at a steep cost.
In a decision made amid the chaos — to protect Mohammad’s children from tear gas and gunfire and get them aboard the plane — his older brother had been forced to abandon his own wife and young children in Kabul. To reunite Mohammad’s family, his brother had torn apart his own for months, perhaps years, to come.
His brother would now need to find a job, an apartment, create a whole new existence from scratch without his wife and children. “He speaks very little English,” Mohammad noted aloud in the van. His new life in America would be hard.
An hour away from the airport — from coming face to face with the man who had sacrificed everything to save his family — Mohammad was at a loss for words.
“I owe him a lot,” Mohammad said, shaking his head. “What he did for me, I cannot repay.”
Mohammad’s wife, Bibi Sadeed, had already tried twice to get her children into the airport, with harrowing results.
On her last attempt, she’d been stopped at gunpoint at the airport’s outermost checkpoint, overseen by Taliban fighters.
“Where is your husband?” they demanded, and forbade her from taking another step as an unaccompanied woman. Under sharia law, they told her, she wasn’t allowed to travel without her “guardian” — the male head of her household.
The next morning on Aug. 26 — just days before the last U.S. soldier would leave Afghanistan — Mohammad begged his wife to try one last time. He had new reasons for hope.
After a story about the family’s plight was published in The Washington Post — how they’d flown to Kabul in July to help Mohammad’s ailing mother, how Mohammad had returned early for work, how his wife and children were now trapped — representatives from the U.S. military reached out wanting to help. CNN and other outlets asked for interviews.
The husband of a CNN journalist — a U.S. military officer — connected Mohammad to U.S. officials in Kabul coordinating the evacuation.
The airport’s gates had become overrun by fleeing Afghans, making them impossible to get through. But Mohammad’s new contacts sent him maps and tips about which gates U.S. forces were opening at what times.
Adding to their chances, Mohammad and his wife had concocted an inspired plan to get past the Taliban guards: His older brother, 43, could pretend to be the head of the household and the father of Mohammad’s children, as well as his own.
For months now, his brother, his brother’s wife and their six children had been applying for evacuation. Like Mohammad, his brother had worked for years for the United States, managing armored vehicles for Afghan police. And he’d already completed the necessary paperwork for a Special Immigration Visa. To protect his brother’s family, Mohammad asked The Washington Post to avoid using his brother’s name or showing his face.
To make the ruse more convincing, Mohammad decided one of his children should introduce his brother as head of their household. “Who would doubt the word of a child?” he argued.
For that job, Mohammad chose his second-oldest daughter, Zarina.
Of all their children, it was Zarina, 11, who had learned English quickest after their arrival in Philadelphia in 2019. Her new teachers liked her so much, Mohammad noted, that they’d made sure she got a laptop during the coronavirus pandemic and arranged free Internet for their whole household.
If anyone could sell the Taliban on their story, Mohammad believed, it was her.
That afternoon, Zarina delivered on her father’s faith.
At the critical moment in front of the Taliban fighters, she called out to her uncle. “Padar,” the Dari word for father. The guards waved both families through.
But all of them had been so focused on the Taliban checkpoint that they were unprepared for the violence at the next one.
To keep the crowds at bay, Afghan guards and police were striking some people in the face with the butts of their rifles and shooting into the air. His brother tried yelling to the guards to get through, but he couldn’t hear himself over the throngs.
From Philadelphia, Mohammad called every U.S. contact he had. He finally reached an Afghan working for the State Department inside the airport.
“There is nothing we can do for you,” the man explained. “We’re no longer allowed to go outside to the checkpoints. Outside, you are on your own.”
But the man had one additional piece of advice. Instead of yelling, Mohammad’s brother should write down in big letters that Mohammad’s family had U.S. green cards. That’s how some evacuees were getting plucked from the crowd.
Mohammad called his brother to relay the tip.
His brother said the guards were now firing tear gas and bullets. Mohammad would later learn that his brother decided in that moment it was too difficult and dangerous for all of them to force their way to the front. So he took Mohammad’s family and began pushing to the checkpoint, instructing his own family to stay behind a short distance away.
By now, it was early morning in Philadelphia. Sitting alone in his bedroom, Mohammad could hear the crack of gunshots a world away and his brother coughing from the tear gas. Suddenly, Mohammad heard his youngest son, Farmanullah, screaming.
“Take me back,” the 4-year-old wailed. “Tell my father, I don’t want to go to the U.S. anymore.”
If he listened anymore, Mohammad feared he would tell his brother to turn back and take his family away from the gunfire.
So he hung up.
He called back as soon as he had composed himself, but his brother and wife were no longer picking up. For several hours, Mohammad couldn’t reach either of them.
“What’s the situation?” he texted them at 2:06 a.m.
“Where are you?” he asked a little later.
Later that morning, cable news networks would report an explosion at the airport. More than 160 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members were killed. Evacuations ground to a halt.
As Mohammad paced frantically across his empty bedroom, he began regretting every decision he’d made: Buying the tickets to visit his mother. Returning to Philadelphia ahead of his children. Persuading his wife to try the airport again. Sending his brother with her.
He held onto one shred of hope. Other evacuees had warned him about the airport’s reception — how it got worse the closer you got to the military zone where planes were taking off.
At 7:11 a.m., as he laid in bed unable to sleep, his phone buzzed with a message.
It was his brother.
Reception was so bad that his brother’s calls weren’t getting through, so he had sent a voice note. In the background, Mohammad could hear the roar of a plane engine.
“How are you?” his brother said on the 22-second recording. “Just to let you know, we are near the back of the plane. We have not entered the plane yet. But inshallah, we are in line to get on.”
At 7:22 a.m. came another recording.
“We are getting on the plane now. We are at the stairs.”
It would be 28 hours before he heard from his family again.
“I can’t talk long,” his brother said quickly, explaining that they’d been dropped off at an air base in Germany with thousands of other Afghans. “I borrowed this phone from someone and there are a hundred people waiting behind me to use it.”
Mohammad would learn in subsequent calls that while his wife and children had made it out, none of his brother’s family had — except one.
At the final checkpoint, his brother’s 14-year-old daughter kept crying out from the sidelines of the crowd.
“Father, why are you leaving us behind?” she yelled to him. “Take me with you.”
An Afghan policeman overheard and took her hand, shoving her through the checkpoint to join Mohammad’s family.
Now, all eight of them were huddling in hastily erected tents alongside 14,000 other Afghan evacuees at Ramstein Air Base. Every day, they stood in line for food, only to find it gone by their turn, Mohammad’s wife said. During their first two days there, the children subsisted on hardened yogurt curds she’d brought from Kabul.
For 10 days, Mohammad waited for his family to be put on a flight to America.
And every day, he called his brother’s wife and children in Kabul, vowing he would help take care of them.
Already, there were reports of Taliban members going house-to-house to find those who had collaborated with U.S. forces. Taliban soldiers were beating women’s rights advocates on the streets of Kabul. Banks were being overrun and had restricted withdrawals. His brother’s family was struggling to get money and food.
“I’ll do everything in my power to bring you here soon,” Mohammad promised his brother’s wife.
On Sept. 5, Mohammad received a message from his brother that they were being brought to a staging area at the German base for flights to the United States.
If you don’t hear from us soon, his brother said, that means we are on a plane coming to you. Mohammad waited all night at the Philadelphia airport, only to receive the morning text from his daughter saying that they had landed in Washington.
By the time he arrived at Dulles Airport on Monday, Mohammad hadn’t slept for almost three days. His eyes were sunken and his unshaved face was covered with the haggard beginnings of a beard.
His cousin and brother-in-law insisted on riding with him, worried he’d fall asleep on the drive from Philadelphia. For more than six hours, they sat on the polished floor of the terminal and watched for his family at an exit reserved for Afghan evacuees.
As they waited, the three weighed the odds that his brother’s wife and children would be able to follow him soon to America.
Mohammad was upbeat. For days, he had been talking to colleagues at the refugee resettlement agency HIAS Pennsylvania, where he now worked as an office manager. They gave him advice on how to expedite his brother’s visa, the first step to securing visas for the rest of the family. “Maybe it will happen fast,” Mohammad suggested wistfully. “Everything in his application is ready.”
Beside him, his relative Sayed Hashemi shook his head. “It could take months, even years,” Sayed said. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul was closed for the foreseeable future, with no diplomats left to issue visas. International commercial flights to Kabul had yet to resume. Even the U.S. government was struggling to get chartered flights in or out.
“It doesn’t matter the challenges,” Mohammad said. “I will do anything needed to reunite them.”
Finally — 11 hours after landing at Dulles Airport — Mohammad’s wife, children and brother emerged, walking single-file from the terminal exit.
Mohammad rushed to greet his brother first.
“Salaam,” he said, wrapping him in a fierce hug.
Then, he held his children one by one, making sure to say a different greeting to each of them. “Are you okay?” “I missed you.” “Welcome home.”
An immigration official took Mohammad aside and apologized. Unlike his family, Mohammad’s brother and his niece didn’t have green cards and couldn’t be released, the official said. They had to go instead to a temporary base set up by the military in Chantilly, Va.
Mohammad interpreted the message for his brother in Dari and walked with him to a bus outside the terminal under the watch of U.S. soldiers.
There wasn’t time to say much. So Mohammad made no mention of the apartment he was already trying to find for his brother, of the jobs he was trying to line up, or the money he planned to send to his brother’s family in Kabul.
Before the bus could pull away, however, Mohammad sprinted up the steps to give his older brother one last embrace and kissed him on the cheek.
“Do you need anything? Are you okay?” Mohammad asked.
“You have solved everything already, I know,” his brother laughed. “Go, take care of your family.”
“Okay,” Mohammad said, relieved.
As Mohammad descended the steps to join his wife and children, he called out a promise to his brother. “I’ll come back to get you soon.”