An Afghan interpreter’s Escape. Part II
It was 7:30 AM when they arrived at Al Udeid airbase in Qatar. Even at that early hour it was already 95 degrees outside, and the evacuees were informed that because there were several planes in front of them, they would have to wait two hours before deplaning. Since he had already assisted the US crew, Jamil became the unofficial interpreter speaking both Pashto, Dari and English. As temperatures soared the small air conditioners were inefficient. He begged the captain to open the doors and then the ramp, to allow in fresh air; it was still insufficient. People fainted with the heat of well over 100 degrees. The blocked aircraft toilets were unable to cope with such numbers and people had to embarrassingly ease themselves outside on the edge of the runway. Finally, after eight hours buses arrived to take them to a hangar where they received water, food, clothing and informed that their ongoing flight would be in the morning at 7:00 AM. They would spend the night as best they could sleeping on the floor.
On August 21 at 4:00 PM they received a warm welcome at US Ramstein Air Force base in Germany. As they entered a hall for processing, a tired and sleep deprived group became unruly and refused to comply with instructions. Offering to help, Jamil explained to the Officer in charge that the Pakistani female interpreter was speaking in Urdu, a language not spoken in Afghanistan. For the rest of the week, he became the official spokesperson for the makeshift camp of three thousand evacuees. While the US military distributed clean clothes and shoes, the one thing not available was a shower!
Six days later at 4:00 in the morning, they were taken to a hangar for screening by the Department of Homeland Security. This was followed by US Customs and Border control. The rest of the day was spent waiting. A second check took place at 8:00 PM. After more than thirty hours of what Jamil describes as ‘detention’ and one week in Germany, at 2:00 PM the following day they finally boarded a United airlines flight bound for Dulles International.
Arriving at 10:00 PM the evacuees were transported to the Dulles Expo Center then turned into a makeshift camp. It was the first time in ten days people had an Afghan meal and more importantly, there were showers. What struck and touched Jamil was that whenever a new group of evacuees arrived, all the staff gave a standing ovation, and “For the first time,” he said, “I actually started to believe we might be free to build a new life in America.”
The next day a Delta Airlines flight took Jamil and his family to La Crosse airport, Wisconsin. Accommodation at Fort McCoy gave almost no privacy but included central heating and hot and cold showers. They were initially informed: “You will be here for a minimum of two weeks, before being taken to the state of your choice.” Lost in the transfer process was their luggage. Jamil’s backpacks were finally delivered in December 2021 and the suitcase in January 2022….to Concord!
There were five stages to the resettlement process: medical exams, address confirmation, resettlement by the Organization of Migration (IOM), interviews with IRC and USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.) As soon as the medical exams were completed either family, friends or relatives were contacted. Once housing was confirmed, the process of releasing families began.
Jamil: “How much longer will we be here?”
USCIS: It could be months.
Jamil: Does months mean for ten or twelve months?
USCIS: All I can say is that it could be months.
Jamil: If we stay as long as it takes, will we be sent to the State of our choice?
UCIS: I cannot guarantee that.
Jamil: If finally we are told to go to another State rather than the one we have chosen, will we have the right to deny it?
UCIS: No, we will make you go there.”
The two agencies IOM and IRC initially worked together, but as many families decided to leave on their own, IOM became solely responsible for those leaving through the normal process. In spite of assurances regarding family support, the two agencies would not guarantee that the families would be sent to the state of their choice. Once this became common knowledge, the numbers of families leaving on their own increased exponentially. Families were warned it could jeopardize their future benefits and drop them down the list in the resettlement process.
After advice from his former military US boss, and discussions with his brothers in the US, Jamil decided to take his family out. The process for leaving, however, was still tedious. It required waiting for three weeks for the results of blood tests. The individual had to buy air tickets, book a taxi (the airport was forty miles from Camp McCoy), present the tickets to the IRC, attend a departure briefing by the IRC, and prepare for the departure itself. Jamil’s brother took care of all the arrangements.
At 12:15 on November 3, 2021, Jamil, his wife Shazia and daughter Lima left Fort McCoy after more than two months. From Wisconsin and then Chicago to San Francisco. Jamil choked on his words as he told me, “We landed at 11:30 PM. My brother Abdul Habib was there to meet us. An hour later we arrived at his home in Concord. It had been seventy-eight days since we left Kabul, Afghanistan.”
“And what were your thoughts as you finally came to Concord,” I asked.
“I made the right decision to leave the camp in Wisconsin…. My wife and I left our parents and siblings behind. We are unable to go back to spend time with them in Afghanistan at least for the foreseeable future. For them, the immigration process will take years, so they can’t come either. We are praying everyday they will be safe.”
Jamil Hassan’s complete story can be found in his book, “Promises Betrayed. An Afghan Interpreter at the Fall of Kabul.”