A patriot at heart, Abdull wanted to see Afghanistan rise from decades of war and tribal conflict to become a safe, secure, modern nation.
His father fought to repel the Russians in the nine-year Soviet–Afghan War and opposed the militant Taliban. Abdull thought NATO’s intervention, which began targeting al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, would be the opportunity his nation needed to rise.
His hopes were dashed nearly two decades later when the last U.S. military plane departed the airport of the capital city, Kabul, at 11:59 p.m. local time Aug. 30, 2021, and the country returned to Taliban control.
Abdull, whose name and likeness are being withheld by Arkansas Catholic to protect his family who remain in Afghanistan, worked as a translator for the U.S. military from 2009 to 2021. Under Taliban control, that put a target on his back and endangered his family. He had to make the tough decision to leave his home and family and seek refuge in a foreign land. He is one of nearly 200 Afghan refugees recently resettled in Arkansas, sharing his story to thank God, his family, friends and new neighbors.
After graduating high school, Abdull enrolled in a 10-month English-immersion program and, at 19 years old, began working with American forces as a translator.
“We were hearing on the news that they need interpreters to help Americans to help my own country, Afghanistan,” he said. “That’s what encouraged me — to help my own country and the American forces who were trying to help us. I talked with my family and told them, ‘I’m going. Whatever happens, I'm ready to go.’ I was sacrificing my life for the security of my country.”
Over the next 12 years, Abdull worked with U.S. Army and Marine units in some of the most dangerous places in the world, including Kabul, Farah, Helmand and Kandahar provinces. His role was to help NATO forces train the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police (ANP) and monitor checkpoints throughout the heavily-Taliban-occupied provinces in southwest Afghanistan.
At one point, he was assigned to Forward Operating Base Jackson in the Sangin District of Helmand Province, an area The Washington Post described as “one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan.”
“Every day people were getting killed — every day. I was not even thinking that I'm going back home alive.”
Out on patrol, he said his units constantly had to worry about who they could trust and who might be Taliban-affiliated. To stymie allied forces, he said insurgent snipers would target interpreters. His one comforting thought was that if he was killed, his family would receive his life insurance benefit.
“Every time when we went outside the base, we were getting in firefights,” he said. “I was saying, ‘If I die, my family, at least they get their money and they will have a good life.’ One day on the way to an ANP checkpoint, they start shooting on us, and I got shot in my left leg.”
His leg was repaired with plates and screws, spending one month in the hospital and eight months of at-home rehabilitation to learn how to walk again. In 2014, he returned to duty and was assigned to Camp Phoenix and the New Kabul Compound.
In February 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed an agreement to end the conflict, giving the Taliban control of the nation for the promise it would not harbor al-Qaida. Allied military presence in the country retreated to Kabul until the Taliban surrounded and took control of the city Aug. 15 and pushed U.S. military forces to the city’s airport.
In simplest terms, Abdull, now 34, says the mission ultimately failed because of government corruption and mistrust between the tribes within Afghanistan. When he was on base with Americans who questioned him about stability after the withdrawal, he’d tell them, “It's not going to be stable at all.” When the militants reached Kabul, he said the takeover happened in a matter of hours.
Fearing the Taliban’s door-to-door searches, Abdull said he began dressing in his father’s traditional Afghan attire and burned his Western clothes and anything that identified him as an American ally, except for his visa and essential U.S. Embassy paperwork needed to leave, which he hid inside of a vest he borrowed from his father.
“Every unit that I worked with gave me their patch and certificates,” he said. “I had to burn them all immediately; it was so hard for me.”
His next decision was the most difficult of his life: Should he stay or should he go?
Abdull lived in a multi-generational family house with his parents, wife and six children, and his siblings and their spouses and children. Naturally, he wanted to stay to protect them, but if he was discovered to be an American ally, he would be killed immediately and his entire family may have been, too. If he left, alone — because only he had U.S. government approved documents — his extended family would take care of his wife and children.
“That was the hardest part,” he said. “My father, my whole family, my mom, were crying the whole time. When I was leaving the house. I was telling them that I might get killed on the way. If I stay here, they were searching house to house, and it would be too dangerous for them.”
Abdull decided to leave the next day. He said goodbye to his family and called a friend to drive him to the airport as soon as possible. His friend rounded up two other friends telling them they were going on a shopping trip, and the foursome headed to the airport. The trip usually takes about an hour, he said. With Taliban check points and patrols, it took three.
“You were not able to escape them because they were just everywhere, and we got stopped on the way.”
Twice, Taliban fighters surrounded the car and peered to see who was inside.
“I'm saying to myself, ‘you're done.’ They were looking at our faces, what we’re wearing. If I was wearing the Western style, they would’ve got me out, searched me and killed me. We told them that we were going to the city to buy something. The other two guys in the car didn’t know better. They were trying to go to the city. Then, they said, ‘just go,’ both times.
“Thanks, God,” he said. “I know my family were praying for me. God saved me.”
When he finally made it to the airport, he said the scene was chaotic.
“There were thousands of people at the gate,” he said. “There was no way to get inside, no way at all.”
Abdull said it was an extremely hot August day and the throng couldn’t handle the weather.
“Thousands of people trying to get inside and there was no water. They were just dying,” he said.
Abdull walked around the perimeter of the airport trying to find a gate and eventually made it to a Marine checkpoint.
“I show my paperwork, and the Marine smiled. The letter from the first Marine unit I worked with had its logo at the top. The Marine motioned for me to look at his leg, where he had a tattoo of the same logo. He hugged me. He said, ‘You worked for us, excellent.’ I got inside.”
In haste, Abdull worked as an interpreter at the airport gate, but when two explosions were set off just outside of it, the Marines decided it was too dangerous. They escorted him inside, where his documents were checked again.
“They swiped my passport and looked at me with a smile and said, ‘Sir, you’re good.’
I said, ‘Thanks, God.’ It felt like heaven.”
Abdull and several hundred other souls boarded a C-17 cargo plane and sat on the floor for a five-hour flight to Qatar. They were housed in a hangar for several days before they reboarded and flew to Philadelphia, where they remained in the airport for a week and received vaccinations. They were then sent to a base in New Jersey, where he again worked as an interpreter.
Around this time, he said Rebecca Bryant, refugee resettlement specialist with Catholic Charities of Arkansas, sent him a text asking, ‘Would you be willing to come to Arkansas?’”
“We were desperately looking for interpreters since we don’t have many Afghans here and thought he might be able to help,” said Jennifer Verkamp-Ruthven, director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services.
Abdull said many Afghans were hoping to be relocated to California, Texas or Virginia.
“I decided to come here. I said, ‘I’m coming to Arkansas.’”
Abdull said the first few weeks after he arrived Nov. 2 were lonely. He missed his family and felt guilty for leaving. While he hasn’t been with his family since August, he talks to them every day and night through social media and smartphone apps.
“The depression was so bad at the beginning, but nowadays I’m good.”
In the few weeks he’s been here, he said he’s venturing out more and making friends who have exposed him to American football and local restaurants. A favorite of his is Gus’s Fried Chicken. He said he has developed a strong bond with a Catholic Charities volunteer who was in one of the units he worked with, but didn’t know, overseas.
“He’s my best friend. We call each other ‘brother.’”
Abdull is spending his days as a Catholic Charities’ interpreter, helping other Afghan refugee families who have relocated to central Arkansas.
“They’re happy,” he said. “They’re getting a lot of help from Catholic Charities. They want to get permanent housing. Many have found a job, and the others are looking for them.”
“He’s been essential to helping us settle other families,” Verkamp-Ruthven said. “It was a major turning point when he arrived.”
Abdull is working on getting his work permit and permanent resident card. Then he wants to bring his brother, wife and kids to the Natural State.
“My brother, he’s an interpreter, too. His life is in serious danger, so we’re trying to get him over here in Arkansas. Once I get my brother out, then I will get my family.
“I’m really liking Arkansas,” he said. “It’s very green and very calm. I want to stay here for as long I can.”
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