As the last U.S. troops leave behind the country’s longest war, a family at a familiar Leesburg staple is struggling to bring their relatives to safety while their homeland falls into the hands of the Taliban.
Mohamad Rahmati owns Jock’s Exxon on downtown Leesburg’s Market Street. He and his family are American citizens, but it was a long road to come to the United States. His family is from Afghanistan, and in 2002, when he was 10 years old, the Taliban killed their father. Their mother, a former journalist, was assisting the U.S., and the Taliban warned her to quit that job or die.
In 2008, she brought the three sons and three daughters to Pakistan as refugees, and in 2012 they made it to the U.S. Today, the family lives together in Springfield.
Some of their family has made it out in recent weeks. Rahmati’s wife, brother-in-law, cousin and first cousin once removed are at a camp in Chicago, via a U.S. military base in Germany. Fleeing Kabul, they arrived in the U.S. without American passports and expect to be there for about a month while their paperwork finished.
But many more relatives are stuck in Kabul, looking for a way out, and seeing few options with the U.S. gone.
The Rahmatis know what life under the Taliban is like.
“The Taliban now goes block to block, home to home, and they catch young kids, you know, and they kill them all night,” Mohamad said.
Mohamad’s sister Pakiza, who does the business’s accounting, was only a year old when the Taliban killed her father. She is going to college with hopes to become a lawyer, and is better with English than Mohamad—and speaks five other languages, including Hindi, Pashto, Urdu, Punjabi, and Farsi.
The Rahmatis are only one of many local families trying to get relatives and loved ones to safety. As U.S. forces withdrew from the country, Pakiza was staying up until the wee hours of the morning, helping other families who don’t have her fluency with the language, filling out forms to send to the State Department, hoping someone will help.
“It’s painful seeing your people go through everything that they went through 20 years ago, which, we thought that it was over, and it happened again,” Pakiza said. “It’s just piling up, everything. Every day, somebody dies. Every day, there’s an explosion. Every day I get worried, is my grandfather back home OK? Is he going to be OK? My uncles, my aunts, my cousins?”
The family’s elected representatives have been able to offer little help. They reached out to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, for help getting their family members out. Warner’s office said Friday they have received more than 4,000 such requests, and on Monday that they were passing names onto the State Department for prioritization and pressing the administration for updates. And while they said American citizens would still be evacuated, their relatives’ fates remain an open question.
Many of the people who have made it to the U.S. are passing through Loudoun, as they come in through Dulles Airport. And some nonprofits in the region are trying to help, including Catholic Charities, which has a branch in Loudoun, and the All Dulles Area Muslim Society.
Catholic Charities continues to accept monetary donations, volunteers and housing referrals at CCofVA.org. Meanwhile ADAMS is recruiting volunteers who speak Dari and Pashto, as well as money for a relief fund to help evacuees at ADAMSCenter.org.
ADAMS Board of Trustees Chairman Rizwan Jaka said he toured the evacuee site at the Dulles Expo Center on Aug. 22, meeting with the U.S. Army, Afghan-American volunteers, and the American Red Cross. Those groups, along with the federal State Department and the state and county governments are coordinating on health checks, food, vaccination, and trauma counseling for evacuees.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, making it the country’s longest war, although that war was never formally declared by Congress. But for people in Afghanistan, the war has been going on longer than that—the country has been locked in one conflict or another since 1978, long before Mohamad or Pakiza were born.
Pakiza has had trouble getting people to understand the pain people in Afghanistan feel.
“Once it happens to your country, something similar, that’s when you realize what another country is going through,” she said. “Otherwise, you’re not going to care. You’re just going to go completely blank, like, ‘OK, there’s nothing special about it. It’s just some country people dying, a woman getting raped, it happens a lot in Afghanistan, nothing new.’ It happens a lot and we’re trying to fight for it. We’re trying to raise our voice for it, but if no one hears you, no one tries to help you, what can you do?”
And she is frustrated by people telling her Afghans need to fight for their country. She pointed to Afghans who have fought for their country for generations, and continue to do so, like Ahmad Massoud, who followed in the footsteps of his father Ahmad Shah Massoud opposing the Taliban. The father was assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks that led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan; on Aug. 18, the son, leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, penned a letter from Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley asking the U.S. and its democratic allies to assist by sending weapons and supplies.
But even while the U.S. withdraws after two decades of conflict, Pakiza said she wishes strong governments like the U.S. would help. And with the last U.S. troops leaving the country Tuesday, Aug. 31, Pakiza said there’s nothing else she and her family can do, other than raise their voices and pray.
“Mr. Joe Biden, he always knows what he is doing, so if he tries to do something, I’m sure our country would be back to the safe place that it used to be many, many, many years ago,” Pakiza said. “Now, it’s just … nobody’s trying to listen.”
This article was updated from the version that appears in print in the Sept. 2 issue of Loudoun Now.