Kent man gets his family back from Afghanistan – The Seattle Times
SEATAC — Azizullah Jabarkhail’s wife and three children came into baggage claim at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday afternoon looking dazed.
Residents of Kent who got stuck in Afghanistan when the Taliban took control, they had spent weeks at safe houses, tried and failed to make it to the airport in Kabul before the U.S. pulled out, and finally got out themselves through American veteran networks that have jumped into evacuating those left behind.
Surrounded by a cluster of journalists and two veterans who played a critical role in getting his family home, Jabarkhail — a University of Washington student, Uber driver and former interpreter and cultural adviser for the U.S. military — slowly approached his family. He shook his children’s hands. “I’m so happy,” he said.
Later, after the journalists had interviewed him and taken photos, Jabarkhail said his children and wife looked happy, too. Hakmat, 12, Adil, 10 and Lima, 8, had loosened up and the youngest two started wheeling a baggage cart around. (Jabarkhail asked that his wife not be named because of potential danger to her relatives in Afghanistan.)
But he said, “they’ve lost energy.” He showed a photo on his phone of his kids from last spring, standing by the Green River and looking relaxed, their bodies a bit more filled out.
His family’s journey home shows the difficulties involved in evacuating even American citizens — which the three children are, according to Jabarkhail and the veterans who helped his family. Jabarkhail is also a citizen, and his wife is a lawful permanent resident.
U.S. officials have said they know of 100 American citizens in Afghanistan who want to come home — though veterans involved in evacuating people say they believe there are more — and are committed to making that happen, as well as to aiding Afghans who helped American forces.
Jabarkhail said he called the State Department, members of Congress and everyone he could think of after the Taliban seized Kabul on Aug. 15.
His family had gone to Afghanistan for an extended visit in May. Jabarkhail’s wife badly missed seeing their relatives.
“They did nothing,” Jabarkhail said of the officials he called.
Eventually, he reached out to Chris Franco, a veteran who served in Afghanistan and an officer of the Seattle chapter of the Truman National Security Project, an organization working on evacuation and resettlement of Afghan refugees. Franco put Jabarkhail in touch with Christian Dunham, an Olympia software engineer and former U.S. Special Forces detachment commander involved with Task Force Pineapple — a veteran network operating a self-described “underground railroad” out of Afghanistan.
Dunham and Jabarkhail formed a bond that started when the Afghan immigrant said his name. Dunham said an Afghan with the same first name worked with his Special Forces team and provided lifesaving protection. That Azizullah had been assassinated in front of his family, and hearing the name again “was healing for me,” Dunham said.
“When he mentioned this to me, I was shocked. I was silent for 10 minutes,” Jabarkhail said.
As Jabarkhail and Dunham got to talking, they realized they had both been at the same battle in different units.
“As soon as I heard that, Azizullah became my brother,” Dunham said. “His family is my family…And we are going to bring them home.”
Task Force Pineapple was working with a similar veterans network called Project Dyanmo. That group chartered a plane to take about 100 U.S. citizens, permanent residents and Afghans with visas or humanitarian-based travel documents out of Kabul. Dunham got the names of Jabarkhail’s family on the list.
They made it onto a bus arranged by the veterans networks, past Taliban checkpoints and into the airport. But complicated negotiations with the Taliban and other officials needed to sign off on the evacuation broke down, according to Dunham. The evacuees were stuck at the airport for several days.
It was a chaotic scene. The kids were tired and pushed their mom to leave, Jabarkhail said. He told them to stay. Everything would be fine once they got out.
They eventually got the clearance they needed, and flew to Abu Dhabi.
“Just landed,” Dunham texted Jabarkhail, who was filled with relief.
Then, a new problem emerged. The U.S. was not giving the evacuees permission to fly on to the U.S. because they had not been vetted.
“The U.S. Government was working around the clock to verify the plane’s manifest in accordance with our screening and vetting protocols and then get the passengers to the United States as swiftly as possible,” said a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson in an email.
“The vetting and screening process is multilayered, so it takes some time,” the spokesperson said.
Jabarkhail said his wife heard from several people that the evacuees might have to go back to Afghanistan.
“We did not consider sending the plane back to Afghanistan and would not have had the authority to do so,” said the Homeland Security spokesperson.
Jabarkhail’s congressional representative is Adam Smith, a Bellevue Democrat, and his office contacted the State Department to see what it could do, according to a staffer from his office who was at the airport Friday.
A few days later, a plane with Jabarkhail’s family took off for Chicago, where they stayed in a hotel before traveling on to Seattle.
Jabarkhail’s wife said she was looking forward to going home, taking a shower and changing her clothes. Hakmat said he wanted to play outside again. In Afghanistan, where anyone connected to the U.S. could be targeted by the Taliban, his mom had told the children to stay inside.
After dropping luggage off at home, Jabarkhail planned to take the family to Kabul Afghan Cuisine in Wallingford.
Dunham, who put his pursuit of a master’s degree on hold to work with Task Force Pineapple, said he’s now trying to get others out of Afghanistan. Among them are eight people from Kent, including four American citizens and one green card holder.