‘I pray they are alive’: Afghans headed to US think of families left behind

As another 250 Afghan refugees evacuated from Kabul left the Sigonella airbase in Sicily bound for Philadelphia, Haifa, 30, watches the plane lift off the runway and disappear into the clouds.

With dozens of other compatriots, she waits in line for her turn for an afternoon departure, when another plane will bring hundreds of other Afghans to the other side of the ocean, far away from the Taliban. There are 3,000 Afghans at the base, known as the Hub of the Med and serving as a transit station complete with temporary lodgings, religious and recreational areas, for evacuees moving on to other locations.

In Kabul, Haifa was an air traffic controller and she hopes the US government will help her find the same job.

“I have many years’ experience,” she said. “I am convinced the Americans will not abandon us. I want to continue working in airport control towers. But, above all, I hope the United States will help my seven-year-old girl realise her dreams. She is looking forward to seeing America.’’

When asked if she was happy too, Haifa averted her gaze downwards.

“I’m happy to leave,” she said. “But, at the same time, I can’t help but think of my family members who have remained in Kabul – of my sister, who is an attorney and my mother who is a teacher. They already know the Taliban will not allow them to work and that their lives will change for ever.”

Only children and spouses of Afghans who collaborated with Americans and are eligible for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV) were able to leave the country safely. The rest of the relatives, including sisters, brothers and parents, remained in Kabul.

“If you ask anyone here, any Afghan, what their ‘American Dream’ is, they’ll tell you it’s to reunite with their family, left in Kabul,” said Ahmed, 49, who is also waiting to board the next flight to Philadelphia. “I left my brothers, my cousins in Afghanistan. I hear from them every day and, every day, I pray they are still alive.”

Mohamed, 25, had spoken to his father a few minutes earlier. He was an information resource management employee at the US embassy and he arrived five days ago, from Kabul, where his father and mother remain, at serious risk of retaliation.

“It was not possible to bring my parents here,” he said. “They told me, maybe they will be able to evacuate them in the next few months.”

However, after the US’s last soldier left Afghan soil on Monday, it is difficult to imagine that the US will be able to coordinate the evacuation of other people to the same degree in the immediate future.

US officials in Sigonella said it was a question that needed to be directed at Washington.

“They are the ones developing a strategy to bring back as many additional people at risk as possible,” said Capt Kevin Pickard, the base commander at Sigonella. “As the president said the other night, the mission is not over. And we’ll continue to work, within our ability, to bring as many people out who want to come to America. The US has always been a country of immigrants that welcomes new people and will continue to do that, especially for Afghan friends who sacrificed so much and have been our partners, over the last 20 years.”

The future of hundreds of thousands of other people, stuck in Afghanistan, remains uncertain. According to the UN high commissioner for refugees, up to 500,000 Afghans could flee by the end of the year, as thousands are already on the move.

Those who recently fled the Taliban and head to Europe will join thousands of other Afghans who left the country months or years ago attempt the overland route from Turkey through the Balkans. Wealthier migrants can take boats from Turkish resort towns west of Izmir to the eastern coasts of Sicily, a few miles from Sigonella, where Haifa, watching another plane disappear into the clouds, cannot stop thinking of her mother and sisters stuck in Kabul.

“Their life under the Taliban will change forever,” she said, “as will mine, just as soon as will I board that plane.”

Some names have been changed.

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