This is the second story in a series as the Deseret News explores the experiences of refugees who have fled Afghanistan and resettled in Utah.
Abdul rarely sleeps more than five hours each night. At midnight, he paces the hallway of his home in Herriman, hoping his phone will light up with a WhatsApp message from his wife, who is confined to an apartment in Kabul.
Even on the nights when he isn’t expecting a message, he can’t sleep. A combination of anger, guilt and fear keep his mind racing into the morning. He’s angry that the countless politicians, bureaucrats and activists he has contacted can’t help him. Guilty because he blames himself for his wife’s situation. And fearful that something might happen to her.
“I served for the U.S. government. My service is now putting my family under extreme risk and their life is in danger. My wife is in danger. If something happened to them, how can I forgive myself? What should I do? What is my answer to my family?”
Because Abdul still has family in Afghanistan, the Deseret News is withholding his last name and the name of his wife.
A member of the Hazara minority, Abdul grew up in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province, and found a job in Kabul working for the U.S. government as a contractor, charged with buying fuel to keep the generators at U.S. military bases running. In 2014, his father set up an arranged marriage with a woman living on his street.
Abdul knew the woman, bought a ring and was planning to marry her. But one day he came home to find the window of his home shattered, glass littering his floor. Inside was a chillingly blunt note from the Taliban — if you keep working with the Americans, we will kill you.
“I left my unit. I changed my address. Then I asked my boss, ‘Help me,’” Abdul said.
He was granted a special immigrant visa and within months moved to Salt Lake City. He brought the wedding ring.
Abdul felt at home in Utah. He was eventually granted citizenship and found work at a factory that manufactured lights and light fixtures. He would go back to Afghanistan periodically, and in 2018 married his wife in Kabul. “Even though it was an arranged marriage, after four years, I knew she was the one.”
As soon as they were married, his bride submitted an application for a green card with hopes to resettle in Utah with Abdul.
But the process dragged on. A marriage green card typically takes about 10 to 12 months to be accepted, but some immigration groups say it can be delayed for years.
He flew to Kabul in June to see his family and wife, and by July her application had been approved. But a mountain of paperwork still stood between them. She needed to file an American address, submit follow-up applications, and Abdul needed to show supporting documents — all steps the couple would immediately take, then wait weeks for a response from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Summer progressed and Abdul got worried. He would go on Facebook and see news of the Taliban sweeping the countryside, getting closer to Kabul each day as the U.S. ramped up its withdrawal.
Then Aug. 15 came, and Abdul and the rest of the world watched as the Taliban drove into Kabul, spurring a frantic rush to the city’s airport. His wife’s green card still hinged on Citizen and Immigration Services — Abdul thought the soldiers guarding the gate wouldn’t let her through without the proper documentation.
On Aug. 25, she heard back from the U.S. Her I-130 form, a major step toward obtaining a green card, was approved. Abdul called his brother in Kabul, who also worked for the U.S. “I said, ‘Brother, take my wife, pack up, get water, get some food, go to the airport.’”
They returned home that night, unsuccessful. Abdul maintains that both the Taliban and Afghan soldiers purposely turned them away because they recognized them as Hazara.
It’s something numerous other Hazara refugees have told the Deseret News. The Hazara have been subjected to centuries of abuse that includes many cases of documented ethnic cleansing and systemic discrimination. Abdul says he spoke with one family who recently arrived in Utah, who were turned away at the gates by Afghan soldiers telling them “it’s because you are Hazara.”
The next day, Abdul told his wife and brother to go back to the airport. He didn’t sleep at all that night, messaging his wife and brother every minute. “I just kept texting, ‘Where are you guys at? Send me pictures. Where are you at? Where are you guys at?’”
One of them would reply within seconds, maybe a minute. But when he asked for an update at about 6:20 a.m., a minute passed with no response. Then five minutes. Then 10. Abdul logged onto Facebook and saw a post from a friend in Kabul claiming there was a bombing at the airport.
“That 10 minutes, it was like 10 years for me,” he said.
Finally, his wife’s number lit up the screen of his phone — “There was a bomb blast.”
“I asked her, ‘Are you doing fine?’”
“How much far away?”
“Not that much.”
“OK, where are you guys at?”
“We are still here.”
“‘Just go back home,’ I said to my wife. ‘Just go back home.’”
“It was like a nightmare,” Abdul says of that day. He was the one who had instructed his wife and brother to go to the airport. “If something happened to my wife and brother ... I would never forgive myself.”
They tried once more to go to the airport, and despite them both showing Afghan soldiers their proper documents, they were turned away. They didn’t try to enter the airport again.
Abdul wasn’t sure what to do. His first thought was to tell his wife and brother to leave Kabul and find a way into Pakistan. But stories of Hazara being targeted by an emboldened Taliban made the journey too risky, especially considering his wife and brother would need their documents to get into Pakistan — documents that proved their connection to the U.S. Abdul considered booking a flight to Pakistan himself, leaving any documentation that might suggest his American ties behind before crossing the border. Without his passport, he could smuggle his wife and brother through eastern Afghanistan. But it was too dangerous.
“If I do go to Pakistan, and then cross the border ... what’s going to happen to me? Honestly I don’t care about myself, but I’m thinking, ‘If I bring her to the border, what is going to happen?’” he said.
So Abdul has resorted to calling people and knocking on doors. He’s working with Task Force Argo, a group of private citizens working to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies trapped in the country. He called the offices of Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and John Curtis, Sen. Mitt Romney, politicians in California, activist groups, NGOs and former U.S. military officials. He’s tried to organize a flight out of Kabul airport. He’s tried to fundraise.
“I have no voice,” he says.
Abdul is tired, and he’s losing hope. He used to be able to complete eight light fixtures in a single day at his job, now he can hardly complete one. He skips breakfast, lunch and sometimes eats dinner. “All this is just getting worse and worse,” he said.
He talks with his wife every day. He tells her to delete his number after they talk, and to erase any Facebook or WhatsApp messages. “Just remember my phone number,” he tells her. She’s tired, too, but she calms him down.
“When she gets a chance she is calling me and talking with me. She’s with me all the time, by my side. Even though she’s not with me, emotionally, all the time she is with me.”
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that Abdul’s wife was granted a marriage green card. It was her Form I-130, an important step in the green card application but not the marriage green card itself, that was approved.