Enamel Salarzai woke up in the middle of the night a few weeks ago feeling his skull burning, the heat was so real that he went to the mirror and started shaving off his hair.
“I thought about mom and dad,” he said, “I am an only son, an only child.”
Kabul had fallen two months earlier and his parents were trapped in Afghanistan. They are still there. He said the Taliban are looking for his father and two uncles, each of whom helped the American regime – as he did by working with the American military to train Afghan soldiers in English and computer technology. His mother, 56-year-old Masoma, incapacitated due to heart disease and diabetes, could not understand why others managed to get the coveted seats on outbound flights, but they did not.
When 34-year-old Salarzai speaks to her from time to time on WhatsApp and Signal from Elk Grove, the Sacramento suburb that is his home, she asks him why he cannot help.
“Each time, these are her words,” Salarzai said. “When will we get out?”
He has no answers.
According to the US Department of Homeland Security, the United States evacuated more than 120,000 people before the withdrawal of US troops in August and a staggeringly rapid Taliban seizure of power. Thousands of Afghan refugees caught in these air travel remain in third lily countries, where they are awaited in transit to their final destinations. More than 70,000 people have arrived in the United States, many of them still living at military bases.
But thousands of at-risk Afghans remain inside the country, desperate to leave as opportunities dwindle, family members and humanitarian organizations say. Some of them are US citizens or visa holders. Many others, such as Salarzai’s parents, do not have official status or documents, but are at risk either because of their own activities in the country or because their relatives helped the United States.
A spokesman for the US State Department said he continues charter flights to facilitate departures for US citizens and residents, and remains committed to the “monumental” mission of helping vulnerable Afghans who want to leave. Since the official withdrawal in late August, he has evacuated about 600 people, the spokesman said. However, most flights are currently operated through American allies such as Qatar, as well as nonprofits and aid agencies that charter their own planes, create their own manifestos, and work to obtain the necessary government clearances both through the US and through the new mode. in Afghanistan. It is a slow and fragmented process.
The State Department said it is working to “accelerate” the pace of charter flights and has created an interagency team to streamline its efforts. But the elimination of the US government and the struggle to fill the void with myriads of smaller players left confusion and frustration for Afghans. Without centralized control and clear information on who is involved and how charter flights are operated, those looking for a way out are dependent on the advice of friends, information on the Internet, and luck, Salarzai and others said.
“It’s not as easy as it used to be … when there were army planes and people got on and off,” said Ismail Khan, a volunteer at No One Left Behind, a non-profit organization that helps holders of special immigration visas – those who have received entry to the United States to assist the troops as translators or other important roles. “There are a lot of people who need to get their approval in order to send someone on a flight.”
Khan said that even with his connections through nonprofit activities, he cannot get answers about his own family, which is also trapped in Afghanistan.
“There is no further action,” he said. “You can’t get an answer from anyone who tells you, ‘Hey, this is going to happen in a month, two months, or a year’ or ‘This is not going to happen.’
According to him, his 15-year-old brother was recently abducted and beaten by the Taliban, and released after the family paid the ransom. Now his family is divided into four groups and is hiding. But Khan fears that his high-profile work to protect the interests of others will continue to target them. Like Salarzai’s family, they want to know why he can’t take it anymore.
“The hardest part for me is that I talked to senators, congressmen and reporters and tried to do everything for others and my family,” said Khan. “My family, they call me every day and say, ‘Look, people come out and you help people get out, but you don’t help us.” What’s the matter?'”
Pressure on those living in the United States to help families abroad is traumatic for Afghan communities – especially for special immigrant visa recipients such as Salarzai and Khan, who fear their families will die or be imprisoned if not found exit.
“I can guarantee you that everyone here already had post-traumatic stress disorder and are now suffering from mental health problems,” Khan said. “I struggle at work. I can not concentrate. … It was a nightmare. “
Kerry Ham, executive director of World Relief Sacramento, a resettlement agency that works with Afghan refugees, said the mental health crisis is likely to grow. He receives several emails every day asking for help with the evacuation, many from people who are refugees themselves and just “get up every day trying to figure out what they can do,” he said.
On Thursday, Salarzai sat in a rented warehouse where he stores clothes for resale on Amazon. His dark eyes looked tired, his hair was cut back again. There was little light in the cluttered space, and boxes of shirts and shoes were piled up to the ceiling. The room went dark at sunset on Veterans Day.
He was waiting for a call from his father, but he could not give good news. He still received nothing in return, other than the only source who worked to send his parents on a charter flight. According to the source, they first need to get passports – they have expired.
But passports are hard to find in Kabul, Salarzai said. Hundreds of people line up every day to the official office now run by the Taliban. In any case, he is hesitant that his father will appear there.
Salarzai’s father worked as an intelligence liaison for the ousted regime and is known to his neighbors as “Dagarwa” – a colonel – although he retired from military service. The family fled to Pakistan empty-handed when the first Taliban regime came to power. Salarzai was 4 years old and lived in camps until his father settled.
When the Taliban were overthrown, they returned to destroyed Kabul. Salarzai was 14 years old and recalls walking through the Khyber Pass and seeing a soldier with a gun in traditional leather sandals instead of boots. It made him feel at home.
He grew up in Kabul, which was rebuilding around him. One TV channel turned into dozens. There was music and the girls did something. His cousins went to school – one became a teacher, the other a doctor. His uncles worked hazardous jobs, supporting the government, while his family was also rebuilding. He helped the colonel build an eight-bedroom “villa” where their large family lived together, the colonel took his grandchildren to school every day.
Salarzai rose through the ranks to become a trainer at the Morehead English Language Training Center, an elite school that trained Afghan soldiers to travel to the United States and other countries to take courses with special forces such as Army Rangers, he said.
On his phone, he holds a photo of Canadian Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Guy Levesque handing him the Book of Operating Procedures when Salarzai became site manager and school director, the first Afghan to take control of the facility in 2012. He said he loved his job, loved helping Afghanistan become a new country.
But he began to receive threats and worry about his children. In 2015, he came to the United States on a special immigrant visa.
He tried to return to Afghanistan after just a few months in the US, missing his parents too much. His mother told him: “People are dying just to leave this country, and you have a green card in your hand, and you say that you do not want to leave … Just leave, and if [Allah] helps, we’ll be with you. “
Not so long ago, the Taliban approached the door of the house where Salarzai’s grandfather and 8-year-old cousin were staying. According to him, they slapped the boy in the face and demanded to know where the colonel was. The neighbors called the family to warn them.
“Just tell the colonel not to go home,” they said.
Salarzai and Khan said they fear the Taliban will become bolder over time and international interest will weaken. They worry that they will not be able to move their families out while there is still a limited window of opportunity.
“People forget about them,” Salarzai said.
“There is so much hope,” he says, almost clenching two fingers, “and it gives me strength.”