A year ago Farhad Wajdi was in Kabul with his parents and siblings and ran a non-profit organization that set up local women with street food carts.
They made headlines in the international media and won the support of NGOs based in the US and the Afghan government. But now the return of the Taliban to power in the country, much faster than American or Afghan officials thought possible, has turned the family’s fortunes upside down and torn them between two countries.
The US withdrew its last remaining troops from Afghanistan on Monday, signaling the end of its 20-year war in the country. But the legacy of US actions in the country will live on through families like Wajdi and the terrifying, often perverse consequences they face. Wajdi’s organization garnered media coverage such as the Guardian, BBC News and Al Jazeera, as well as recognition and financial support from international organizations such as the US-based Asia Foundation and Global Citizen. The Afghan government even donated confiscated motorcycles to the non-profit organization. But it is this attention that finally forced him to leave his country last year – and now is putting his family on the line.
Wajdi lives in Virginia, where he moved to seek asylum last year after ISIS fighters threatened his life, he said. He made it to America before his parents and siblings, and he planned that they would join him at some point – but neither of them had realized how little time they had before the government collapsed. Since the Taliban came to power, Wajdi’s family has been in hiding and he has contacted everyone he knows to try to evacuate them. Lots of people and organizations tried, but nothing worked.
Her family’s charitable food truck enabled women to sell quick lunches such as noodles and rice to pedestrians in Kabul. Street food is popular in Kabul, but it is mostly sold by men. When Wajdi founded the organization in 2010 with the help of his family, one problem was that the women had to push the carts themselves, which was a taboo, said Wajdi. “Culturally, it is considered very bad for a woman to push the cart,” he said.
Courtesy Farhad Wajdi
Wajdi in conversation with women who operated the food trucks before he had to flee Afghanistan
As a result, Wajdi and his electronics-savvy father worked together to develop solar-powered cars. His mother, he said, advised and helped the cart sellers. They received verbal abuse and threats, Wajdi said, but the carts helped them make money for their families, which made a big difference to those who were widows.
After Afghanistan was locked down due to COVID-19 last year and street vendors could no longer work, carts were converted into mobile disinfection units.
“When I saw that my mother had empowered herself, it helped me clarify my vision that I need to help more women be like my mother,” said Wajdi.
But not everyone supported the project. Last summer, Wajdi began receiving threatening phone calls.
“With fame came a danger to us,” he said. “A guy called me from a private number and said you were promoting Western ideology in Afghanistan.”
There were more calls. At first he didn’t take her seriously. But then he received a Facebook message he shared with BuzzFeed News threatening to “target”. [his] Workplace and Home ”and that his“ ultimate goal will be hell ”. The account it sent, which apparently is still on Facebook, identified itself as part of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, a regional subsidiary of ISIS, which uses the historical name of a region that includes parts of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan . The message said Wajdi had been targeted for employing women from the Hazara minority as cart sellers. “If you surrender to us, we can mitigate your sentence,” it said.
“I was scared,” said Wajdi. He closed the office and took about 40 carts to an area near his home. His parents took the threats seriously. Years of war experience had shown them that they had to.
The family decided that Wajdi would travel to Virginia to apply for asylum because he already had a tourist visa for the United States and had an uncle who lived there. His parents, who did not have a US visa, could not accompany him.
It was a heartbreaking decision, but at the time, Wajdi assumed he might eventually help his parents join him. But then everything changed.
“As soon as the Taliban took over, we left our house quickly,” his parents told BuzzFeed News in an email. Their neighbor had told them that militants broke into their home while they were out, searching the place and asking about them. On the day the Taliban swept through Kabul, Wajdi watched TV news of people flocking to the airport, and there were rumors that Afghans got on planes simply because they were in the right place at the right time. It was dangerous, but given the threats, it could be worse staying back.
Wajdi’s parents decided to risk it. They left everything but a few bags of food and drink with their young children and asked a neighbor to keep an eye on the house. For days they stayed in the areas near the airport, slept on the street so as not to miss an opportunity, and moved from gate to gate based on rumors they heard that people were being let in. They waved paperwork and called foreign military personnel and interpreters for help. Nobody would intervene.
They kept running out of water at the airport, said Wajdi. “Only people can pass – only you with your documents and your children. No bags, no luggage. “
The family spent days in the camp near the airport praying to be evacuated. (BuzzFeed News withholds their names to ensure their safety.) Wajdi spent his nights on the phone with his mother, who was trying to charge a cell with a power bank. Both of his parents kept saying the same thing, “Son, there is no progress.” He spent the days calling anyone who might be able to help – the foundations that had supported him, journalists, and friends in the US and Europe.
When terrorists bombed Hamid Karzai International Airport on Thursday, killing at least 170 Afghans and 13 American soldiers, Wajdi’s family was outside the airport – but at a different gate, where they heard the explosion but did not feel the effects. Now they are hiding again. Wajdi heard about the bombing on the news – he tried to call immediately but couldn’t reach his parents. “I was so worried,” he said. When the cell phone signal finally returned, he was able to answer.
Now that the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan, Wajdi is trying to keep hope. The Taliban have promised to allow Afghans with visas for other countries or foreign passports to leave the country, but Wajdi does not believe them.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “When you see the situation on TV, when you see the future of your country, it looks really bleak. You think what if one day your parents are executed in front of your eyes? “
His mind is full of what-ifs these days. Wajdi regrets the all too rosy forecasts of the Afghan and American governments about the stability of Kabul. “That’s why my mom and dad didn’t have passports,” he said. “We weren’t mentally prepared to leave the country.” Had Wajdi not trusted a friend in the Afghan government who had tried to allay fears that the Taliban would quickly defeat the military, he might have seen this coming.
“It feels like we’re still in a dream,” he said. “How is it possible that things change so quickly? I never would have thought that everything would collapse so easily. “