For Afghan refugees, a harrowing escape to the U.S. — thanks to an ag expert in Higginsville, Missouri
Kyle Wilkens, an agriculture policy expert in U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s office in Higginsville, Missouri, has already helped evacuate 30 people from Afghanistan. Among them is Zamzama Safi, who escaped execution by the Taliban but whose family remains at risk.
As many as 95,000 Afghans are expected to resettle in the United States following the collapse of Afghan military forces this summer and one of the largest airlifts in history.
Many of them, including small children, endured shocking cruelty and made harrowing escapes from their home country. Now they confront monumental challenges in the U.S., including trying to save the loved ones they left behind.
Zamzama Safi is an Afghan refugee who began her journey to the United States 10 years ago, when a car full of Taliban gunmen kidnapped her and her brother as they were walking home from school.
“Three, four guys with the Kalashnikovs and pistols, and they put the guns (to) our heads,” Safi recalls.
She says the kidnappers grabbed them by the hair, shoved them into the car and sped off, threatening to kill them on the spot if they made any noise.
Safi was just 15 at the time, her brother 13. The gunmen drugged her brother but eventually let him go. She was the real target because she was a smart, bookish girl advancing in school. Worse yet, she was studying English, an “infidel language.”
They told Safi her schooling was finished. She told them she planned to be an educated woman.
“And they torture me with saying that. They hit me badly. And I was like, well, I cannot stop saying this. And they, they hit me a lot.”
They drove hours into the mountains and force-marched her to a house up a mountain path.
“Then they put me in the basement and lots of people coming in and they raped me. And I was yelling,” Safi says. “And then, in the morning they come in and they try to rape me again, and I was crying so hard, I was like, please leave me alone. And they didn’t listen to me.”
By the third night, she says she was resisting forcefully. In retaliation, they put a gun to her head and forced her to eat excrement.
She got away by vowing to marry a Taliban commander, with one stipulation. She told them she would need to see her family first.
Soon after returning home, she joined American forces as a translator. The job came with a promise: a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, that would allow her to move to the United States.
It came at a huge cost. Safi says the Taliban put a bounty on her entire family.
The Cleaver connection
She worked on and off translating for U.S. and Afghan forces in the field. But by 2020, her visa application process had stalled and she was in hiding.
One of the Marines who’d worked with her wanted to help and contacted his friend Kyle Wilkens, an agriculture policy expert in U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s field office in Higginsville, Missouri. Wilkens had connections at the State Department and the Pentagon. He began leaning on them to expedite Safi’s SIV.
Then, as President Biden’s deadline for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan approached, the Afghan military abruptly collapsed.
“We never think it will happen like this. It shocked everyone in Afghanistan,” Safi remembers. “Nobody, nobody expect that.”
Her country’s collapse meant that the scant protection she had from being executed was quickly slipping away.
On the day Taliban fighters took Kabul, she sneaked past their checkpoints, made it to the airport with all her paperwork intact and managed to board a plane out of the country.
“Oh, when the planes take off, I breathe a sigh of relief. I was happy. I was like, no, I'm safe now I'm feeling safe,” Safi says. “I couldn't control my happy tears.”
But thousands of others were mired in chaos as Afghans trying to flee packed around Kabul Airport’s gates. Among them was Bashir Kashefi, his wife and three small children.
“A huge explosion happened. There was fighting, shooting, screaming, people run away,” Kashefi recalls.
Kashefi was trampled and temporarily lost track of his family. But they risked going back to the airport again and again.
Kashefi had been an interpreter for U.S. forces and emigrated to the U.S. in 2017. He and his family were visiting relatives when the Taliban seized power.
Kashefi and his wife are permanent U.S. residents and two of his kids are U.S. citizens. Their paperwork was in order. It didn’t matter. They couldn’t get through the crowds massing at the airport to present them.
A go-to guy
Eventually one of his California friends contacted Kyle Wilkens. By then, news stories, including one that aired on NPR, had made Wilkens a go-to guy for people trying to get their loved ones out of Afghanistan. Kashefi says Wilkens was able to make connections that allowed his family to get through the airport and onto a plane.
“He did a great job,” Kashefi says. “Because he gave us a sense of power. I thought that someone is behind me. I could say that U.S. people are behind me. They do not leave us alone in Afghanistan.”
Wilkens says it was easy for him to put himself in the shoes of someone like Kashefi, someone desperately trying to get himself and his family out of an indescribably horrible situation.
“They want the same American dream that most of us got born into,” Wilkens says, standing on his farm outside Higginsville. “You know, we don't really get a choice where we're born and, you know, they happened to be born in Afghanistan and it’s a tough spot for a lot of those people.”
Working with others in Cleaver’s office, Wilkens has now helped evacuate 30 people from Afghanistan. That, in turn, has prompted more calls, often U.S. veterans of the war in Afghanistan. The list of people he’s trying to extricate has now grown to 300, including Safi’s family, some of whom are hiding in basements in Kabul.
Safi herself has moved to St. Louis and enrolled in community college to polish up her English. She plans to pursue a master’s degree and someday hopes to write a book about her experiences.
Working with so many refugees has changed Kyle Wilkens, too. He says he’s more grateful than ever for his family — and the life he’s free to lead in the United States. And he says he’s more mindful of how readily democracies can collapse, and how shockingly fast it can happen.