In a phone call with her mother last week, Fahima Rastagar made an urgent request. She asked her mother to, please, not go to the airport.
Watching the news unfold from her home on St. Simons, Rastagar witnessed from afar the Taliban’s tightening control on the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, where her parents live. Despite Rastagar’s pleas, though, her mother insisted on making the dangerous trip to the city’s international airport. Her mother and father are desperately trying to leave the country, along with thousands of others hoping to flee amid the chaos of the Afghan government’s collapse, the Taliban’s takeover and the United States military’s evacuation.
“I called my mom, and she decided that she wanted to go to the airport even though I had gotten emails that said ‘shelter in place,’” Rastagar said last Wednesday, sitting in a conference room on the College of Coastal Georgia’s Brunswick campus, where she studies nursing. “... I said, ‘Mom, please, please don’t go to the airport right now, because it’s very ...”
Rastagar broke off, tearing up. The past few weeks have been one of severe worry for her, as she works to find a way to help her parents leave Afghanistan, the country in which she was born and raised before moving to the United States alone in 2017.
“My mother was at the airport the last time I heard from her, and she said that the Taliban were firing, just shooting,” she said Wednesday. “Not shooting people, but I guess they’re just firing in the air. And she said that they’re whipping people, just to not let them inside.”
‘Why I need to go’
President Joe Biden’s Sept. 11 deadline for a full removal of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan has in recent weeks contributed to a hasty and chaotic takeover by Taliban forces.
The Taliban captured the country’s capital city of Kabul on Aug. 16. Soon after, images of Afghans flooding the Hamid Karzai International Airport and sometimes running alongside and jumping onto aircraft went viral and demonstrated the panic many are feeling.
Those scenes of desperation worsened last week, as the Taliban try to prevent Afghans from leaving. Two suicide bombers also struck a packed crowd outside the airport Thursday, killing many.
Rastagar’s parents were amid the chaos, and they stayed for more than 30 consecutive hours at the airport last week without food or water before being told they had to leave.
“The Taliban have control over the airport, and they’re very bad people, and I told her that they’re terrible,” Rastagar said. “I said, ‘Please, don’t go,’ and she said, ‘Fahima, that’s exactly why I need to go to the airport.’”
Rastagar, who is a full-time nursing student at CCGA and an employee at the Starbucks on St. Simons, previously served as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Kabul. She worries that will put her family at greater risk.
She stays in touch with them by phone, but before the chaos of recent weeks she could talk to her parents through video call.
“If you’ve read the news, you know about the people that got killed at the airport,” she said. “I feel like that sort of shows the desperation in my mother’s decision to go to the airport. I think all of these show the desperation. They almost want out of Afghanistan or death.”
“The Taliban have control over the airport, and they're very bad people, and I told her that they're terrible. I said, ‘Please, don't go,' and she said, ‘Fahima, that's exactly why I need to go to the airport.'"
- Fahima Rastagar, who is trying to get her parents out of Afghanistan
Rastagar said she sort of understands that feeling.
“If she stayed in Afghanistan, she will be found,” she said. “And I don’t want to even think about what else could happen to her.”
Rastagar has reached out to a variety of contacts she has in the United States who may be able to organize aid for her parents that will help them leave Afghanistan.
She’s also had help from staff at College of Coastal Georgia. Michelle Johnston, the college’s president, said she has reached out to the office of Sen. Raphael Warnock and to former Sen. David Perdue. U.S. congressman Buddy Carter has also been contacted on Rastagar’s behalf.
“We’ve been in contact about making sure the information is shared at the (U.S.) State Department,” Johnston said.
A lot of the communication, though, has been one-way. Information about Rastagar’s family and their situation is sent, but little feedback is given.
“We have to kind of have faith and confidence that our public servants are listening and they’re working on Fahima’s behalf and on her family’s behalf,” Johnston said.
Johnston encouraged others in the community to reach out to legislative contacts and echo this need.
“I haven’t really heard anything back from anyone that says, ‘Yes, we will take care of your parents. We will bring them here,’” Rastagar said. “Everybody just says, ‘There’s no guarantee. We’ll do our best.’”
Rastagar will be able to apply for American citizenship in two months. She will be fully eligible to take the oath of allegiance in January. As a U.S. citizen, she will be eligible to sponsor her parents in as immediate relatives by filling an I-30, Petition for Alien Relative.
But relief for her family is needed now.
Her parents should be able to qualify for refugee status. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, first, asylum/refugee applicants must establish that they fear persecution in their home country. Applicants must also prove that they would be persecuted on account of at least one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group. Fahima’s parents — Marzia Rastagar and Riza Khan Rastagar — are part of minority groups in the country. They are Hazara and Shiite, and they hold political beliefs that now make them targets for persecution.
Anyone able to provide assistance to Rastagar and her family is asked to call the college at 912-279-5713.
Rastagar carries a vivid memory of her first day of school. She was about 8 years old, and her education became possible after the Taliban lost control of the country.
Under Taliban rule, women and children are not allowed to attend school or college.
Rastagar, who will soon turn 25, started school soon after the Taliban’s rule ended.
“I was one of the first generations who were able to go to school,” she said. “And I remember that day when I was getting ready ... I kept saying, ‘Mom, I’m not sure about school; maybe I shouldn’t go.’”
Her mother, though, encouraged her.
“She said, ‘No, it’s a good idea, you go, and you will get used to it,’” Rastagar recalled. “... The only reason I was able to go to school was because the Taliban were not in power anymore.”
Rastagar and her mother were recruited in 2010 to be vendors in the first Afghan Women Vendor’s Bazaar. Her mother hand-embroidered scarves and other items to sell at the bazaars near U.S. military. The experience helped Rastagar, who was 14 at the time, practice speaking the English she learned in school.
“I would always speak with the soldiers and try to be a salesperson,” she said.
Soon, she was asked to work as a translator. That opportunity came again later, when she visited an Egyptian hospital at Bagram Airfield with her grandmother.
“I started helping someone who didn’t speak English, and they offered that I should come and work with them,” she said.
Rastagar worked as a translator at the hospital for about a year, then worked in other jobs until she moved to California in 2017.
Opportunities, education and security fears at home contributed to her decision to move.
Watching the latest news unfolding in Afghanistan, while so far from her home and loved ones, has been “excruciating” for Rastagar.
“I heard somebody else say this word — ‘gut-wrenching,’” she said. “I just don’t know any better term for it.”
She has some memory of life under Taliban rule, and she’s heard more from others who lived in the country at that time, including her parents.
Brutality from those in charge was a constant part of life, and the rights of women and girls were severely limited.
“Women could not go out,” she said. “They always had to have a burqa, and the way the burqa is made — I’m sure you’ve seen — but sometimes you can put the front side up to see things better. When they did that, the women would get whipped with long whips.”
A husband, brother or other male figure had to travel with women and girls, who also could not attend school. Public punishments were the norm for those who broke the rules.
“I remember they were talking about how these women, I don’t know what they had done wrong, but they would put gas on them and put them on fire. And the people, they were forced to watch it,” Rastagar said. “When it was too hard to watch, and they were running away, then the Taliban would whip them and ask them to stay and watch.”
Fear infiltrated every part of daily life at that time.
“I remember there was no guarantee, like every day a Taliban member could knock on your door and take your husband or father or whoever and maybe beat them to death,” Rastagar said.
She traveled back to Afghanistan in May of this year for a monthlong visit with her family. This was the first time she’d been home since her move at the beginning of 2017.
After former President Donald Trump announced his plans for the U.S. to fully evacuate the country, ending a 20-year war, Rastagar began to worry that she wouldn’t have many chances to see family any time soon.
“I just wanted to see everyone, and I kind of had this feeling,” she said. “... I thought, if I want to see my parents and family for one more time in my life, I just have to go back.”
Worry for her family has eaten at her constantly since the Taliban began regaining control this year. But even before that, Rastagar woke up daily thinking of her mom and dad. This concern has led her to question what’s best for her own future.
“Sometimes it felt like,” she began, and paused. “Why would I want to do this? Especially when I have to work or go to school or anything, because my parents matter a lot to me, and every day I would think about them.”
Considering the miles that separate them, she would question why she’s pursuing her plans in America when she isn’t able to see or live with her family.
“It was very depressing,” she said.
As their time apart grew to encompass several years, Rastagar also began to realize that her mom and dad may be much older when she saw them again. And comforts from her former life in Afghanistan, such as her mom’s cooking, may not again exist.
“But when I went back (in May), some of those things were true, but some I had imagined them a lot worse than they were,” she said. “It was good to see everyone. I didn’t see any friends because almost everyone has left Afghanistan.”
Details in the latest news accounts — about members of the Taliban firing bullets at the airport and whipping people to keep them out, of severed body parts caught in the wheels of aircraft — have left Rastagar feeling anxious and afraid for her family and others trying to flee the country.
“I feel like these are people whose voices need to be heard,” she said.
When she speaks with her parents, though, and shares some of the news updates she’s seen or read, she can tell that her parents are focused only on what’s in front of them. Their full attention is on escape.
“Whenever I speak to my mother, I say ‘Yes, I have spoken with this person, I have spoken with this person,’” Rastagar said. “And she just says, ‘Fahima, I am at the airport. Why isn’t somebody going to come out to get me?’”