An Afghan journalist, now a refugee, is rebuilding life in 'big-hearted' Kansas City
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan one year ago, journalist Qasim Rahimi made a harrowing escape to Fort McCoy and eventually to Mission, Kansas. He hopes to be a voice for the country he left behind.
Editor's note: Author Qasim Rahimi writes primarily in Dari/Persian. He wrote parts of this essay in English with assistance, including the use of Google Translate. It was then edited by C.J. Janovy.
As usual, I reached the office at 8 in the morning. A journalist by training, I now served as director of information and public awareness at the National Environmental Protection Agency of Afghanistan.
I supervised a staff of 21 people: Our job was to provide public information to protect the environment and manage climate change. That morning, I looked at the daily schedule and assigned duties to my employees.
It was Aug. 15, a Sunday. Afghanistan was going through difficult times. Every day, news of provinces falling to the Taliban and the surrender of the Afghan National Army intensified people’s anxiety. That day, the office seemed chaotic.
I could see confusion on my coworkers’ faces. All the employees, especially the women, were panicking. During the Taliban’s first period of ruling of Afghanistan and their anti-government activities while the United States forces were present, the Taliban committed many crimes.
They killed women, youth, journalists and hundreds of other people. Everyone knew this.
One of my colleagues requested that female employees be allowed to leave. By 11 a.m., rumors of the Taliban's arrival at the gates of Kabul intensified. We decided to leave the office.
The roads of Kabul were filled with terrified people. Everyone was trying to escape from the city. It took me a long time to make it home.
I had built a beautiful house with five residential units, which I rented out to several other families. I was well-known and trusted by local residents because of my position in the government.
As soon as she saw me, my mother calmed down a little. She insisted that I leave the house — we were worried that the Taliban would search our home and I would be arrested. So I hid in a neighbor's house. It was a rough night; I was up until midnight, trying to find news about what was happening. All the domestic media of Afghanistan stopped their broadcasts or broadcasted repeated programs of the past.
BBC was the only media covering what was happening in Afghanistan. Former President Hamid Karzai and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the political partner of former Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, appeared on the TV screen. Both talked about the president’s escape and the Taliban's entry into the presidential palace.
Al Jazeera's pictures of the Taliban's entry into the presidential palace circulated on social media. The fall of Afghanistan was officially confirmed by the Taliban.
My anxiety intensified. I barely made it through the night and left the place in the morning wearing different clothes than usual so I wouldn’t be easily recognized.
In search of escape
It was promising to hear that people under threat were being transferred out of the country by international forces through Hamid Karzai International Airport. My two older brothers, one of whom was a journalist and the second of whom worked with international forces, had received calls to leave Afghanistan.
After a few days in hiding, I left Afghanistan with my brother Arif Rahimi, his wife and three children, and my younger brother, Asif Rahimi. It was painful to leave my mother alone, but I entrusted her to God.
The roads leading to the airport were crowded with people who did not know their destination. Everyone was looking to escape.
We tried for several hours to enter the airfield, but each time we retreated. The crowd was so dense it was hard to get enough air, which increased the risk to children. The Taliban also used tear gas to disperse people. At 2 a.m., we managed to enter the airfield and present ourselves to the international forces.
At 9 a.m. on Aug. 20, my older brother and his family were allowed to fly; they were informed that in a few minutes, Spanish military forces would take them to Spain. But I waited another 24 hours for permission to fly.
Life in the USA
Escaping from the terror of the Taliban was good news for me. But losing my homeland and being away from my family and friends was bothering me.
Living in a military camp with no idea what would happen to me and fear of the future tortured my soul more than anything else. But there were also things that gave hope to me and hundreds of other Afghans living in the camp.
The kind and human treatment of the soldiers living in the Fort McCoy camp was instructive for me. Their behavior was very different from the soldiers I had met in Afghanistan.
Dealing with thousands of Afghan refugees in one day is not an easy task, but the staff of Fort McCoy camp and the soldiers living there listened patiently, kindly and respectfully to each and every problem of the immigrants. In the first few days there were problems in preparing and distributing meals because of the number of people, but gradually this problem was solved.
Afghan women and children living in the camp felt the most freedom. Deprivation of women's freedom and abuse of children, even within families, is not uncommon in Afghanistan. But I also observed men who treated their women and children like they had in Afghanistan — they did not allow their women in public without a burqa.
After two months, with the help of aid organizations, I left Fort McCoy for Mission, Kansas, in early November 2021. My sister’s family had lived there since 2018 because my brother-in-law had been eligible for a special immigrant visa for Afghans who had worked for the United States.
I had chosen Kansas to continue living in America, although I still don't know where the wave of my life will take me. Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, an organization that takes care of some Afghan immigrants in Kansas City, helped me to prepare documents. In the first week, I managed to get a work permit, but I waited months to get Social Security.
Many people volunteered to help me solve my problems and didn't let me feel left out. Volunteers Barbara and Eli Durante, Mary Sexton and Shawn Cooper, as well as Catholic Charities employees Greg Bole and Jennifer Kornfeld, are names that I will never forget. They took my hand and helped me at the height of my poverty and need.
I started my first job in America assembling eyeglasses for Duffens Optical in Lenexa. I had to stand for eight hours a day. For a person who used to work with a pen, desk and computer, this kind of work was not easy. In the first few days, my legs hurt from exhaustion and I was not able to sleep. I was realistic and tried to look to the future.
I continued my work in this department for nearly four months. Respect, honesty, patience and hard work were among the lessons I learned in this process. In my opinion, the shortest definition of life in America is work, work and work.
I am very happy now that I am working as an employee in the immigration department at Jewish Vocational Services. I have friendly and lovely colleagues, I learn from them every day.
I found the people of Kansas City big-hearted and friendly to immigrants. I still have a lot to see and learn here.
I am safe here, I am respected, I have enough food to eat. But I cannot forget that my compatriots in Afghanistan do not have enough food. I am far from my family, friends and colleagues. They are now enduring great suffering.
I am worried about my family and my wife. The husbands of my two sisters are still in Afghanistan, and both have worked at the American Embassy in Kabul and for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Both of them are qualified for special immigrant visas. Their lives are threatened. Most of their colleagues have managed to leave Afghanistan, and I hope the U.S. will help them.
My wife, Samia Tahiri, has been an immigrant in India for more than five years. She went to India to study and has not been able to return to Afghanistan since 2018, the year we got married.
Samia supported me a lot during this time. I hope we will be together soon and make our dreams come true. I hope my friends in the United States will help me move her from India, and my mother, Fatima Rahimi, and my sisters from Afghanistan. I really appreciate my wife, my family and all my friends.
I want to be a journalist as I was before, but I have to be patient. I know the media experience I brought from Afghanistan is different from what I will need to join this profession in the United States. I hope I will have the opportunity to continue my education. I was a war correspondent for many years, so I know the pain and suffering caused by war.
Afghanistan lost everything: human rights, women's rights, civil liberties, the national army, the national police. But the future can still be ours. The people of Afghanistan are still waiting for the international community and the United States of America. An unstable Afghanistan with a terrorist regime is not in the interest of the future of the world.
I want to be the voice of Afghanistan, a voice to be heard. Afghanistan does not have good neighbors — everyone sees Afghanistan with greedy eyes. But the future is in the hands of us humans. We have different experiences, but what we have in common is our future.