An U.S. Army Afghan interpreter reunites with his family
(This story was also featured here on Tampa Bay Times' Instagram.)
Ajmal, a U.S. Army interpreter, sat cross-legged on the terminal floor, the balloons he’d bought at an airport kiosk floating overhead. “I Love You,” one said. The others: “USA.” He kept looking at the blue privacy curtain, the last border.
It was Friday, Sept. 3, nearly three weeks after the fall of Kabul. At Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., six hours rolled past, but they felt like nothing. He could wait a little longer.
The night the Taliban surrounded Kabul, Aug. 14, Ajmal sat in his Tampa home and typed out an email to a high-ranking U.S. Army official. For weeks, the U.S. had been withdrawing from his home country, where it had waged war for 20 years. As the Taliban overran city after city, Ajmal had sought a path to America for his wife and girls, ages 3 and 1. His wife had applied for a visa in 2017, he wrote, and been waiting ever since.
Ajmal, 36, reminded the official of his own service: He started as an interpreter in 2003, when he was a scrawny teenager. After six years working alongside American soldiers, he moved to the U.S. on a visa, joined the Army Reserve and became a citizen.
What Ajmal left unwritten was that his proud service now made him even more afraid. He had always defended the war. His own role in the conflict had led him to a more stable life than he’d imagined as a child.
But if Kabul fell, his service would place his family in danger from a Taliban seeking retribution against those who’d aided the U.S. He sent the email and drifted off to sleep.
Early the next morning, his phone rang with a video call from his wife. When he answered, he saw the Taliban had invaded Kabul while he slept. The first neighborhood it took was his family’s. Three days after the fall of Kabul, Ajmal had typed so many emails and text messages his fingers felt stiff. He couldn’t remember if he’d eaten breakfast. His appetite was gone, anyway.
Hope came in the attachments of an email Ajmal received on Aug. 19, four days after the fall. Visas. He texted his wife. “I have good news but you have to call.” She screamed in joy. He stayed on the phone while she filled a bag with food, water, diapers, and clothes. The family photo album was too heavy, he told her. They argued. In the end, she left it behind. She, the girls and both of Ajmal’s brothers climbed into a taxi. They kept him on the line until they approached the last checkpoint before the airport. The trouble had started when the taxi had to pass through a Taliban checkpoint, she explained. She lied to a soldier and said they were headed to a home on the opposite side of the airport. If the driver dropped the family at the airport, the soldier warned, he would riddle the cab with bullets upon its return. As Jake Klonoski watched Afghanistan fall from his home in Alexandria, Va., he thought of Ajmal and felt a pang of guilt. They met in 2013, in the western Afghan city of Herat, while working on a survey for natural gas deposits. Klonoski, who had served in the Navy, was a project coordinator for the Department of Defense. “Wanted to reach out to see how things were going and if there is anything I could do to help,” Klonoski typed into a LinkedIn message window a week after Kabul fell. Ajmal responded 20 minutes later. His family was eligible for evacuation, he explained. He just couldn’t get them to the airport.
“I may have a lead on that,” Klonoski wrote back. The plan: Ajmal’s older brother would accompany Ajmal’s wife and daughters to the gate. Another interpreter, also trying to flee to America with his family, would travel with them after that; he would help Ajmal’s wife communicate with American troops. They had to get near the U.S. checkpoint and give a signal.
After a night in the airport, they were supposed to go to Uganda. The group who’d arranged the evacuation had gotten Ajmal’s wife and kids seats on a chartered flight. Instead, a group of Marines rushed them onto a military cargo plane bound for Qatar. The plane was packed so tightly, Ajmal’s wife couldn’t move her feet. On the second day, she told him about a crush of refugees running toward a flight departing for Europe. “Everybody’s so sick and tired of this place,” she said. “We all want to go to Germany.” On the third day, she waited in line for two hours for food and water. Men pushed past her, and she returned empty-handed. On the phone, his 3-year-old begged for rice.
“I will buy you so much rice when you get here,” he said.
It has been 14 days for Ajmal’s wife and two girls on the road. Then the curtain shifted, and he stood, and his wife buried her face in his neck, her bracelets rattling against his back. “I’ve got it from here,” he said into her ear. His older daughter threw her arms around him, closed her eyes. The younger one had been 3 months old the last time he saw her. Now, her curly hair was almost to her shoulders.
At the airport Comfort Inn, they showered and ordered Persian take-out. Ajmal ate two meals. The girls jumped on the beds until they fell over in sudden sleep.
“Thank God,” his wife kept saying. “Our own place.”
They flew to Tampa the next night, and in the morning, they drove to the house in the suburbs. It was still a work in progress, but he promised that he would wake up in the morning and know exactly where everyone was. They passed under the American flag and into their home, imperfect and safe and more than just a dream.