Afghan Interpreter Escapes Kabul, Plans New Life In St. Louis
Just hours before the U.S.-backed Afghan government fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, ZZ was at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul with a ticket for an afternoon flight.
“The security situation was not good, and I thought maybe the flight would be canceled,” ZZ said. “I was scared.”
Taliban fighters encircled the city as Afghanistan’s president fled the country.
ZZ’s flight was delayed — but she got out. “Whenever our flight left, I was crying so hard and I was so happy,” she explained on St. Louis on the Air.
After a stop in Doha, Qatar, and then a flight to Washington, D.C., ZZ landed in St. Louis last week. The 24-year-old is among the thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghans to leave the country in recent days. (We’re using only ZZ’s nickname because she’s fearful about her family’s safety in Afghanistan.)
ZZ was issued a Special Immigrant Visa. The federal program allows Afghan translators and interpreters who helped the U.S. war effort come to America.
ZZ’s quest to come to the U.S. took nearly a decade. The Taliban kidnapped, and tortured, ZZ when she was just a teenager in 2011. She escaped after three days in captivity, but only after she promised to return and marry her captor. She said it was a false promise she never intended to keep. Once with her family, she promised herself that she would never go back.
After the Taliban continued to threaten her family, ZZ took their plight public, telling her story on TV. That made her a bigger target. She hid in a basement for two months until a U.S. intelligence officer became aware of her story and reached out to see if he could help. ZZ began working for U.S. coalition forces in 2012, laying the groundwork for her eventual flight to St. Louis.
With support from the Americans, ZZ graduated from university and was certified as a linguist. To help U.S. forces, she became proficient in translating, typing and speaking English, Pashto, Dari and Farsi, even while serving as a bridge between cultures.
In March 2019, ZZ met U.S. Navy Lt. Allen Nash. As part of the NATO mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan people, Nash worked on a reverse osmosis water treatment plant at a hospital.
Nash, who lives in St. Peters, Missouri, explained on St. Louis on the Air that ZZ immediately made an impression.
“Oftentimes military people go over there and they serve their mission, but they don’t always have the opportunity to know the people who they are helping,” Nash said. “ZZ brought that to us. She personalized what we were fighting for.”
As part of the mission, ZZ spent five weeks translating an English operations manual so local engineers could operate equipment themselves. In some cases, the local language didn’t have words to describe the equipment — for example, Dari has no word for “speedometer.”
ZZ said other translators in the office didn’t feel up to the challenge of technical words. She relished the opportunity.
“I want to translate them because I want to improve my skills,” she said. “I learned a lot from that. Everybody was amazed with that.”
ZZ said she first applied to leave Afghanistan as a refugee nearly a decade ago. Those efforts intensified earlier this year after it became clear the U.S. was pulling out of the country. With the help of staffers for U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, her SIV application started moving through the appropriate channels. She said she won approval in May, but COVID-19 shut down the local office, and she couldn’t get paperwork. Security across the country deteriorated.
“Just a couple days before [the government fell] is when they finally emailed her and said, ‘Come get your passport,’” Nash said. “And then a day or two later, they said, ‘Here’s your ticket, get to the airport however you can.’”
All the while, ZZ had kept in contact with Nash and other people from St. Louis with whom she worked in Afghanistan. A few months ago, she told Nash that she wanted to come to St. Louis.
“You’re welcome to come and stay with us.” Nash told ZZ. “Our home is your home.”
With resettlement help from the International Institute of St. Louis, ZZ has moved in with Nash and his family in St. Peters.
Arrey Obenson, the president and CEO of the International Institute, said on yesterday’s St. Louis on the Air that he expects a wave of Afghan refugees to come to the area. Fifty-three have arrived in recent weeks. The organization has said it has the capacity to welcome as many as 1,000 Afghan refugees.
ZZ said much of what’s happened over the last week and a half still feels like a dream. She said she‘s happy but much of her attention is focused back on Afghanistan.
“I’m here, but my mind and my heart are with my family,” ZZ said.
“My family is a target, especially my brother,” she continued. “He’s younger than me and the Taliban keeps sending him messages to ‘return your sister to us, and if you don’t return her, we will kill you.’”
ZZ said her family made it to the airport in Kabul a few days ago, but the U.S. military said they didn’t have the right paperwork to leave the country. They left the airport yesterday.
ZZ said she doesn’t see herself ever returning to Afghanistan. The Taliban, she said, will take away freedoms that coalition forces helped to bring to the nation.
“As a woman in Afghanistan, it was a good thing that Americans came over there,” she said. “Women didn’t have rights over there, and women didn’t have education opportunities over there. Americans gave us that.”
While in St. Louis, ZZ wants to get a master’s degree in international relations and politics. She also plans to write a book that details her experiences and helps inspire women.
Earlier this week, ZZ had the chance to visit Forest Park. The visit marked the first time she’d ever seen a lake, other than on TV.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.