'Just dads reaching across the globe' – How an Afghan interpreter and his family escaped the Taliban in Kabul

Antifullah Ahmedzai, an Afghan national takes a selfie inside a U.S. military aircraft cargo plane before a flight to Kabul. Courtesy: Antifullah Ahmadzai
WASHINGTON - Atifullah Ahmedzai, eager to see his wife and five children again, boarded a flight last month from Connecticut to Kabul. This trip had been nearly a decade in planning. Ahmadzai, an ex-military interpreter, was carrying all the documents required for his family to obtain a highly sought after special immigrant visa. Ahmadzai, a former interpreter for the U.S. military, planned to say goodbye to his friends and family before he brought his wife and children to America. He had spent the past two years preparing for this new life. Ten days later, the Taliban took control of Kabul's presidential palace, following the fall of the rest Afghanistan during the withdrawal by the U.S. military. Ahmadzai, along with thousands of others, stormed Hamid Karzai International Airport to flee the country after the collapse of the Afghan government. Ahmadzai's story and that of his family is a poignant example of the fear and desperation felt by thousands in Afghanistan as U.S. forces pulled out their last troops from Afghanistan, after nearly 20 years of occupation. In the 17 days that ended on Aug. 31, U.S. forces and their coalition partners flew more than 116,000 Afghans to safety via cargo planes. According to the Pentagon, more than 5,000 U.S. military personnel and 200 aircraft were dedicated to the massive evacuation mission. Meanwhile, countries around the globe opened their borders for at-risk Afghan nationals who were arriving on evacuation flights. Ahmadzai said that he didn't expect everything to change in an instant. Ahmadzai said that the Taliban set up a checkpoint at 800 feet from my home, asking about your job. He also stated that he was too scared to reveal his past role in Afghanistan's military.

Taliban forces stand guard at the Hamid Karzai International airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on September 2, 2021. Stringer | Reuters

Ahmadzai claimed that his phone was searched by Taliban insurgents at one checkpoint looking for any evidence of his connections to the United States or the previous government. He said that they were also knocking at doors asking people about their jobs. "The homes of people who worked with the U.S. government were marked during the day, and the Taliban returned to those houses at night to kill." Many Afghans fled Afghanistan fearing that the Taliban would target their victims.

Facebook: A rallying cry

Ahmadzai, desperate for help, sent a text message through the U.S. Army to an officer who he had translated during America's longest war. When asked about Ahmadzai’s original message, Mike Kuszpa (now a teacher in Connecticut) said, "He addresses me like his brother." "He wrote me and said to me, "Brother, I am out here with my family, and the Taliban is looking for interpreters." Kuszpa said that they don't know what will happen and may even kill me or my family.

Photo taken in 2004 by Antifullah Ahmadzai (left), and Mike Kuszpa, (right), in Afghanistan. Mike Kuszpa

"I was grasping for straws. He said that he didn't know anyone, so he posted to a Facebook neighborhood message board asking if anybody had Department of State connections. This could have helped my interpreter and his family fly on an evacuation flight. Post to the "Westville Dads", a group of 109 members, triggered a frenzy of phone calls, Facebook messages encrypted text messages and emails that reached a wide network, which included intelligence analysts, lawmakers, diplomats, and even politicians. Matt Schmidt, a national security and political science professor from the University of New Haven, reached out to at most 16 people to assist Ahmadzai. Schmidt used a shorter version of Ahmadzai’s first name, Atifullah, to advise Atif to wait until he received a call from State. "Mike was anxious about waiting and told Atif that he would go to the airport. It was the right decision.

Fight to flee

Globally, emergency evacuations were intensified by Western forces amid security threats and the Biden administration’s Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline. "At one time, I began receiving news alerts about gunfire in the airport while I was messaging With Atif. It was surreal," Schmidt said, as he waited in awe for Ahmadzai's updates. Ahmadzai and his family struggled to leave Kabul. It was hard to get to the airport. Ahmadzai explained that he tried three days straight to get to the airport, but couldn't. He said that after waiting for over a day at the airport, he had to navigate through Taliban checkpoints every time he returned home with his family. "I received a text message on the fourth day advising me that I should go through another gate. Ahmadzai stated that more than 1,000 people were already there when he arrived. Ahmadzai said that there were occasional shots fired in the crowd. Ahmadzai stated that his family was shocked and scared. My wife asked me if I could return because she was afraid for her children. But, I said that we must try to leave as it was better than being killed by the Taliban. After waiting for more than three hours at the gate Ahmadzai was finally able to walk up to the U.S. marines who were guarding the entrance point and show them his green card. He said, "I then showed them my paperwork for my children's and wife." He said that the Marines were able verify his information because it had been entered into the State Department's database two days earlier through the Facebook network of mobilized dads. Ahmadzai's next message, which he sent to his friends to coordinate his evacuation, came from the airport's interior gates.

Antifullah Ahmadzai is a former Afghan interpreter working for the U.S. Military. He stands with his children at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan.

Schmidt stated, "When he sent me that picture of him and his children safe in the airport with soldiers flanking them, I was in shock." Schmidt said, "As a father, I couldn’t imagine what fate awaited them. We were dads helping dads around the world. This was more important than any culture or religion. We understood what it meant to be able to protect your family.

A fateful departure

Ahmadzai, his wife, and their children (ages 2-12) boarded a C-17 military cargo aircraft and flew to Qatar. Qatar is approximately 1,200 miles from Kabul. They spent three days and two nights in the Persian Gulf country. "Qatar camp was great, but my second son felt very sick as soon as he arrived. He vomited 15 times more because he wasn't used to this type of situation. Ahmadzai stated that a medic quickly arrived and administered an IV to him. He was then able to eat and drink again.

Antifullah Ahmedzai, an Afghan citizen, takes a photo inside a holding bay at an unspecified location, Qatar. Courtesy: Antifullah Ahmadzai