Just a year ago, Farhad Wajdi was in Kabul with his parents and siblings, running a nonprofit that set up local women with street food carts.
They were attracting international media headlines and winning support from US-based NGOs and the Afghan government. But now, the Taliban’s return to power in the country, which took place far more swiftly than American or Afghan officials said was possible, has upended the family’s fortunes 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 the US’s actions in the country will live on through families such as Wajdi’s as well as the terrifying, often perverse consequences they face. Wajdi’s organization attracted coverage in outlets like the Guardian, BBC News, and Al Jazeera as well as recognition and financial support from international organizations like the US-based Asia Foundation and Global Citizen. The Afghan government even donated repossessed motorbikes to the nonprofit. But it’s that attention that ultimately forced him to leave his country last year — and is now putting his family at risk.
Wajdi lives in Virginia, where he moved last year to seek asylum after ISIS militants threatened his life, he said. He made it to America ahead of his parents and siblings, and he planned for them to join him eventually — but none of them had realized how little time they had left before the government collapsed. Since the Taliban swept to power, Wajdi’s family has been in hiding, and he has contacted everyone he knows to try and get them evacuated. Many people and organizations have tried, but nothing has worked.
Their family’s food cart nonprofit enabled women to sell quick lunches like pasta and rice to pedestrians in Kabul. Street food is popular in Kabul, but it’s usually sold by men. When Wajdi started the organization with the help of his family in 2010, one problem was that the women had to push the carts themselves, which was a taboo, Wajdi said. “Culturally, it's considered very bad for a woman to push the cart,” he said.
As a result, Wajdi and his father, who was knowledgeable about electronics, worked together to design carts powered by solar panels. His mother, he said, counseled and helped the cart vendors. They faced verbal abuse and threats, Wajdi said, but the carts helped them earn money for their families, which made a particularly big difference for those who were widows.
Last year, after Afghanistan went into lockdown because of COVID-19 and street food vendors could no longer operate, carts were turned into mobile disinfection units.
“Seeing that my mom had empowered herself, it helped make my vision clearer, that I have to help more women to be like my mom,” Wajdi said.
But not everyone supported the project. Last summer, Wajdi began getting threatening phone calls.
“With the fame, there came a danger to us,” he said. “One guy called me from a private number and said you’re promoting western ideology in Afghanistan.”
More calls came. At first, he didn’t take them seriously. But then he received a Facebook message, which he shared with BuzzFeed News, threatening to “target [his] workplace and home” and that his “final destination will be hell.” The account that sent it, which appears to still be on Facebook, identified itself as part of Khorasan Province Islamic State, a regional affiliate of ISIS that uses the historical name of a region covering parts of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. The message said Wajdi was being targeted for employing Hazara minority women as cart vendors. “If you surrender yourself to us, we can lessen your punishment,” it said.
“I was scared,” Wajdi said. He closed the office and took about 40 carts to an area near his house. His parents took the threats seriously. Years of living through war had shown them that they had to.
The family decided that Wajdi would travel to Virginia to seek asylum, since he already held a tourist visa to the US and had an uncle who lived there. His parents, who did not hold US visas, could not go with him.
It was a gut-wrenching decision, but at the time, Wajdi assumed he could eventually help his parents join him. But then everything changed.
“As soon as the Taliban took over, we quickly abandoned our house,” his parents told BuzzFeed News in an email. Their neighbor had told them that militants had broken into their house while they were out and searched the place, asking about them. On the day the Taliban swept through Kabul, Wajdi saw TV news reports of people streaming to the airport, and there were rumors of Afghans getting on planes simply by being at the right place at the right time. It was dangerous, but considering the threats, staying behind could be worse.
Wajdi’s parents decided to risk it. With their young kids, they left everything but a few bags of food and drinks behind, asking a neighbor to keep an eye on the house. For days, they stayed in the areas near the airport, sleeping on the street to avoid missing any opportunities and moving from gate to gate based on rumors they heard about where people were being allowed inside. Waving paperwork, they shouted for help at foreign military officials and interpreters. Nobody would intervene.
They kept running out of water while at the airport, Wajdi said. “Only people can pass through — it's just you with your documents and your kids. No bags, no luggage.”
The family spent days camped out near the airport, praying to be evacuated. (BuzzFeed News is withholding their names to protect their safety.) Wajdi spent his nights on the phone with his mother, who was charging a cell with a power bank. Both his parents kept saying the same thing: “Son, there is no progress happening.” He spent the days making calls to anyone who could possibly 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 as well as 13 American service members, Wajdi’s family were outside the airport — but at a different gate, where they could hear the blast but did not feel the impact. They’re now in hiding again. Wajdi heard about the bombing on the news — he immediately tried to phone but could not reach his parents. “I was so worried,” he said. Eventually, when cell signal returned, he was able to get in touch.
Now that the US has pulled out of Afghanistan, Wajdi is trying to keep hope. The Taliban has promised to allow Afghans who hold visas to other countries or foreign passports to depart, but Wajdi does not believe them.
“It's very hard,” he said. “When you're seeing the situation on TV, when you see the future of your country, it looks really gloomy. You think, what if one day your parents are executed before your eyes?”
These days, his mind is filled with what-ifs. Wajdi rues the overly rosy projections made by the Afghan and American governments about Kabul’s stability. “That's why my mom and dad didn't have passports already,” he said. “We weren't mentally prepared for leaving the country.” If Wajdi had not trusted a friend in the Afghan government who had sought to allay his 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 for things to change so quickly? I never thought everything would collapse so easily.”