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Desperate To Save His Family, One Former U.S. Combat Interpreter Makes Dire Return To A Fallen Afghanistan

More than 46,000 Afghans have applied for humanitarian parole to escape the Taliban. Only 4,543 of those applications have been processed.


Since the aftermath of the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan one year ago this week, the Taliban has been culling their enemies from among a populace afflicted by ever-increasing misogynistic oppressionstarvation, and joblessness. The Biden administration seems to have no plan to get any of the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military out, and the Pentagon has suggested it might not be able to do so. From his home in California, one U.S. citizen and former combat interpreter, “Khan,” has been leading a bitter fight to keep his family safe in a fallen Afghanistan.

In a series of phone interviews between February and June 2022, he told me about fielding daily calls about Taliban death threats while coordinating and financing his family’s covert movements between half a dozen safe houses. Khan said the mentally taxing work of keeping his family alive forced him to stop taking college classes. Despite working long shifts as a security guard and driving for Uber, Khan could not afford the increasing costs of rent and food for his family in Afghanistan while providing for his wife and children in the U.S.

The fall of Afghanistan was particularly dangerous for Khan’s father, a colonel in Afghanistan’s intelligence directorate. Many at-risk U.S. allies or former government personnel have tried to flee to Pakistan for safety. Some of Khan’s father’s intelligence colleagues who sought refuge in Peshawar and Quetta had disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Being confined to a small apartment space and awaiting a knock from the Taliban rendered Khan’s father unrecognizable from the powerhouse of a man who helped repel a triple suicide bombing attack on his office in 2017. In eight months, he gained more than 30 pounds as he developed diabetes and high blood pressure. During their daily phone calls, Khan noticed his father looked like “a guy that just came out from [living in] the jungle.”

Though Khan had asked the State Department to evacuate his parents and four siblings, after eight months, there had been no attempt to remove them from a country where they were at daily risk. With fundraising help from the Marines he worked beside, Khan had also filed humanitarian parole visa applications for each of his family members.

As of June, more than 46,000 Afghans had applied for humanitarian parole to escape the brutality and oppression of the Taliban. Only 4,543 of those applications have been processed. Around 93 percent of applications were denied. Thus far, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has taken in more than $26,450,000 in nonrefundable $575 per-applicant filing fees from Afghan applicants, while refunding filing fees to Ukrainian refugees utilizing the Uniting for Ukraine refugee program.

When Khan applied to the special immigrant visa program in 2013, a host of military officers praised his incredible loyalty and selfless devotion. Those same ideals motivated Khan to purchase a plane ticket to Afghanistan in April 2022. Though the risk was great, he said he felt there were “no other options” as his father’s mental state continued to decline.

The full impact of his choice hit Khan when he arrived at Hamid Karzai International Airport on April 15. Khan is known to the Taliban. Twice, he was shot while assisting U.S. forces, including while working with U.S. Marines serving in the deadly Marjah district during the 2010 troop surge. Khan was present at Marjah’s Patrol Base Dakota on Nov. 21, 2010 when a Taliban grenade whipped past his head and landed on a rooftop manned by two Marines. Khan witnessed Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter leap atop the explosive device to save his best friend from its impact. In the tumult that followed, Khan picked up a weapon and began to engage the enemy fighters. His subsequent testimony about the day’s events would help inform the decision to award Carpenter the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Two years later, a suicide bombing left Khan comatose. For two months, he was unable to see. He began to walk again after six months of recovery. Today, the physical marks from the bombing remain. “Going through those airports with all those scars … was not easy stuff,” he said.

Once on the streets of Afghanistan, Khan was dismayed to notice the changes to his homeland. The Afghans he spoke with told tragic tales of family members killed by the Taliban. Household goods lined the streets as hungry families sold their belongings in a last-ditch effort to evade starvation. One of Khan’s neighbors sought a buyer for their infant daughter, hoping like many families to use the proceeds to purchase food. Though it was only a temporary solution, Khan gave them $300 – the last money in his wallet and checking account.

For more than a month, Khan remained in his family’s apartment while corresponding with the State Department to obtain evacuation for his family members. He only left the small space to obtain his father’s marriage certificate in Jalalabad. Though many friends invited him to share a meal, Khan declined every invitation. Because Taliban spies abound, it is hard to “know who to trust right now,” Khan said.

Finally, in mid-May, State Department officials offered to evacuate Khan and his immediate family members. This meant Khan’s parents were eligible for evacuation, but his siblings, including a 12-year-old brother, would have to remain in Afghanistan. After a difficult and emotional discussion, Khan convinced his parents to take the flight to safety by reassuring them that they could one day achieve legal permanent residence and petition for immigrant visas for their children, per the State Department’s suggestion.

The importance of escape was amplified on the journey to the airport. To avoid being identified at Taliban checkpoints that litter the country, the family veered past onto dusty back roads. Taliban fighters fired shots at their car as they careened through the unpaved streets.

When Khan and his family arrived at Camp As Sayliyah in Doha, Qatar, relief was not immediate. His parents joined hordes of Afghans stuck in the camp’s haphazard disorganization as they underwent eight weeks of processing prior to transport to the U.S. More than the disorder, Khan was infuriated about the disrespect with which State Department contractors treated Afghans.

“They are not even behaving like human beings with [people],” Khan told me. Before he left for the U.S, Khan said he reminded a U.S. military officer that many of the Afghans at Camp As Sayliyah had fought with the U.S. for more than a decade, and they deserved respect.

In passing weeks, Khan’s father reports that chaos at the camp continues, but that attitudes among contractors have improved. Without the stresses of life in Afghanistan, Khan’s father is also returning to his previous habits. He now walks 15 miles a day, mostly during the evening reprieve from the blazing sun. “He says he feels very light when he is walking,” Khan explained.

For Khan, stresses continue to mount. He must soon move from a two-bedroom to a three-bedroom apartment to accommodate his parents, wife, and four children. Because he exhausted his savings, Khan has already borrowed hundreds of dollars from friends to make ends meet.

In Afghanistan, Khan’s 12-year-old brother still struggles with a sense of abandonment. Fielding his tearful calls reminds Khan of his continued duty to help his siblings find safety. Khan’s hope for fulfilling that promise rests on rumors of expanding eligibility for Afghans who have applied to the beleaguered humanitarian parole visa program. For those who have witnessed the Biden administration’s bungling of efforts to assist an estimated 160,000 stranded Afghans after the withdrawal, the promise seems hollow.

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