REPORTED BY: JORDAN BOYD | APRIL 29, 2022
It had been more than a year since Hashmatullah Niazy, a U.S. citizen, last saw his wife, Freshta, and four young children when they finally reunited in Austin, Texas this month.
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While thousands of illegal immigrants pour across the southwest U.S. border daily, Afghan refugees abandoned by the Biden administration during the Afghanistan withdrawal are still struggling to gain legal entry to the United States.
It had been more than a year since Hashmatullah Niazy, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Afghanistan, last saw his wife, Freshta, and four young children when they finally reunited in Austin, Texas this month. Niazy became a U.S. citizen in 2020 through the Special Immigrant Visa program after working as a translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. He began translating and training recruits at the Kabul Military Training Center in 2007 after his older brother died in combat while working with special forces. When Niazy obtained his U.S. visa in 2014, he resigned from his job and flew to the states.
Niazy told me he wanted to bring his family over with him, but every time he tried to initiate the immigration process, his wife was pregnant and wanted to avoid strenuous travel. Freshta and the children eventually joined the backlogged SIV immigration process before the Taliban took over the country, but their quest for permanent U.S. residency was derailed when President Joe Biden initiated the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan last fall.
I first reported on Niazy’s family situation in September 2021 when his brother, wife, and kids were all stranded in a Taliban-infested Kabul. At the time, Niazy was already in the United States, working nights and eagerly building a life for his family in Texas. But his excitement for his family’s new life in America was blunted when he realized they might not make it past the crowds at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to get on an evacuation flight out of Afghanistan.
“Suddenly the Taliban took over the country and now we were like lost,” Niazy told me.
That’s when “angels from the sky” came in.
After weeks of chaos at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, where some translators and their families were among the more than 200 people killed by a suicide bomber on August 26, Freshta and the kids, ranging in age from 3 to 12 years old, finally escaped Kabul at the end of September with the help of a large group of former U.S. soldiers, some trained in special operations.
Jim Young, Dan Fickel, Keye Perry, Joe Penkala, and another man named “Tom,” who is still in active government service and declined to give his last name, all graduated from West Point in 1994. When they saw the crisis in Afghanistan, they banded together to do everything they could to rescue Americans and Afghan allies the Biden administration had left behind. They enlisted the aid of several other former service members including Ryan Timoney, West Point class of 1993 graduate Dave Abrahams, retired Special Forces officer Matt Coburn, former Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, and Helen Jbeily of California Republican Rep. David Valadao’s office to actively shepherd Freshta, her brother-in-law, and her kids to the overcrowded, dangerous airport for evacuation while avoiding the Taliban as much as possible.
I talked to Penkala, a retired U.S. Army officer, about the rescue efforts after the Niazy family’s first attempt to seek evacuation at the airport.
“We had sort of an up and down type of situation, even after we had taken over his case, and had managed to get the family back to [the airport]. And it was through no small effort on the part of some folks from the Special Operations community, one individual in particular who was retired,” Penkala told me over the phone. “We actually got them to the North Gate [of the airport] so this is the second time they had made it to the airport. And even though there was an obvious way to bring them in, frankly, they were still left stranded. Nobody would open the gate for them even though at one point we only had about 25 people in front of the North Gate.”
At one point, Penkala told me that, “the Taliban began beating some of the local Afghans,” forcing the on-the-ground rescuers to adapt as the Niazy clan retreated to their apartment.
During that time, Niazy said his wife “never lost her courage.”
“There was the time that I lost my hope. That was the time when my wife said ‘It’s okay. Whatever it takes me to get my kids to their dad, I will do that,’” Niazy said. “So that was a time when she gave me the courage, she gave me the hope and I needed it.”
Efforts to orchestrate the evacuation of the Niazys and hundreds of others from the clutches of the Taliban were largely funded by one of Young’s business partners, Zekelman Industries out of Texas, which donated $1 million out of the $1.1 million required to reunite the Niazy family and other refugees after another sponsor backed out.
After days of chaos, the Niazy family and 528 other American citizens, legal permanent residents, their spouses, and their children were finally able to flee Afghanistan unharmed.
“We’re so thankful for all these great humans. From God first and then from all these humans that helped me and came into my life, me and my wife,” Niazy said.
Evacuation Was Only The Beginning
Even though the Niazy family applied to permanently rejoin the head of their household in the United States, it was a long and difficult process between September of last year and early April this year, when they were finally permitted to set foot on American soil.
“This was a family who was already in the process and had paperwork prepared. And, frankly, the wife was married to a U.S. citizen. This is the immediate family of a United States citizen and it took private efforts,” Penkala said. “And once we got them out of harm’s way, it took an additional five months to come into the country.”
During that time, Freshta and her children were at a refugee camp in the United Arab Emirates. While the family was safe from the dangers the Taliban posed to them, they were stuck in limbo and at the mercy of the American bureaucracy.
Penkala said “there were some folks who were kind enough to work through their connections to get them some additional food and supplies and that type of thing” but that didn’t help reunite the family.
Niazy admitted that the experience induced many “sleepless nights” for him as he anxiously waited for the green light. In total, it took more than five months for Niazy, an American citizen who served with U.S. forces in combat, to legally relocate his wife and kids to Texas.
The American Dream
The Niazy family may have had to jump through multiple hoops that illegal immigrants at the Southern border don’t, but a lack of help from the U.S. government hasn’t hampered their enthusiasm for the American Dream.
While Niazy works as an engineering technician, Freshta and the children are acclimating to their new lives along with Niazy’s parents, who also emigrated to the United States. Once the family moves to a new apartment, three of the four children will start attending school.
In just a couple of weeks, Freshta and the Niazy children are expected to receive their Social Security numbers. But for now he is thankful that his immediate family made it to a free country where his daughters can attend school.
“It’s the teaching of our parents that wherever you live, treat it as your home, keep it clean, and keep the environment clean and also treat your neighbors good,” Niazy said. “With this [Taliban] regime, no one is happy and everybody lost the hope that [Afghanistan] will ever be a free country.”
When I video chatted with the family last week, Niazy had just woken up after working a night shift at his engineering job and Freshta was preparing food in the family’s apartment kitchen. The children were happily chattering with each other as they played with toys. The youngest one gave me a shy wave.
“This is a beautiful life,” Niazy said as he bounced his daughter on his lap. “I’m very excited and very happy. And I am praying for those who helped me, these beautiful humans in my life.”