Khwaga Ghani, an NPR reporter and Afghani refugee, shared her story with freelancer Sharon Sobotta getting from Kabul to Fort McCoy. (Submitted)
For as long as thirty-seven year old Khwaga Ghani has been a reporter, she’s gone wherever her stories have led her. Ghani’s parents always had her safety in the back of their minds as she covered topics ranging from war crimes to educational access. It’s something they discussed over their morning coffee and something they counted their blessings for when Ghani returned safely in time for coffee each evening. When the Taliban took over, safety was all Ghani and her family could think about.
“We had to flee the country,” Ghani says.
The journey that led Ghani, her parents and her sister from Kabul to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin is anything but a short story. Ghani’s family moved from home to a hotel on the outskirts of Kabul on Aug. 19. Four days later, an escort drove them to Kabul airport–a thirty mile journey that took well over six hours.
“There were so many people on the road. Some were in cars. Some were walking. There were checkpoints everywhere. There was shooting to scare off people so they wouldn’t rush in through the airport gates,” Ghani recalls. “Some people were so desperate to leave they clung to the wings of the airplanes and fell to their deaths.”
Just when Ghani believed she was finally on the homestretch to get into the Kabul airport, she got disappointing news.
“We were told that only American passport and visa holders could get in.”
Ghani and her family were neither of those things. But, given her status as an NPR reporter and producer and as someone affiliated with Amnesty International, Ghani’s family was ultimately allowed to enter the airport. The airport wasn’t the same as Ghani had known it to be. “There was trash everywhere. Things were broken. It was completely ruined.”
There wasn’t a clear plan or map of when or where Ghani and her family were heading. “We would move for ten minutes and then sit for several hours.”
Ghani recalls shivering through the night as she struggled to keep her elderly parents and her younger sister warm as they sprawled out on the concrete ground without any warm clothes or jackets. She found some spare bed sheets to cover her parents and sister with and stayed awake til the early hours of the next morning.
“In the morning, we went through biometrics and then boarded a U.S. military plane to Qatar.”
The family spent the next night of their journey in a gigantic air conditioned tent in Doha, Qatar with thousands of other families. They were able to shower, eat and rest comfortably for a day until they began the next leg of their journey.
“We were told to line up,” Ghani says, imitating the harsh tone of the directing military officer. If Ghani hadn’t asked where they were heading, she wouldn’t have known. “He said Germany, (and there was nothing I could say except) ok, we are going to Germany.”
Ghani says her time in Germany was anything but pleasant. At the German Base, the men were separated from women and children, and there was no easy way to communicate with or stay in touch with her dad. On top of that, she says it was dirty.
“We couldn’t take showers. There were so many people from villages and mountains who had never seen cities and had no idea how to use bathrooms. The showers were filled with laundry,” Ghani recalls. “One woman was caring for ten children on her own (because husbands were separated from women and children). The kids were too scared to go to the bathroom and they ended up peeing on the bed. It was a real nightmare.”
On the fourth day, Ghani was so desperate, she convinced her dad to bring her to the men’s quarters for a shower.
“I felt so dirty. I couldn’t take it anymore. A shower never felt so good.”
From Germany, Ghani and her family flew to Washington D.C.
In D.C., she waited for just five hours, before an agent came to speak with her. Just when Ghani was ready to breathe a sigh of relief, the agent collected her documents and put them inside of a yellow envelope emblazoned with the words ‘DEPORTATION DOCUMENTS.’
“My heart dropped. I thought there must be something wrong with my documents.”
The next morning in Washington D.C. (well over a week since her departure from home), Ghani did breathe a sigh of relief when an agent gave her family the greenlight to proceed to the Expo Center, where fellow Afghan refugees gathered to shower, eat and bathe before proceeding to their final destinations. After a night of sleep, a shower and a meal, Ghani needed to make a decision.
“All night long, we kept hearing announcements: If you’re going to Texas go to this gate and if you’re going to Wisconsin, go to that one. These were the two options,” Ghani says. For Ghani, it was a no brainer. “Wisconsin–I said. My dad asked about Texas (and I quickly explained that) from what I knew about Texas, Wisconsin was a more appropriate place for us. I knew my friend was in Wisconsin and I just knew it would be better for us. It was definitely the right decision.”
Nearly two weeks after departing from her home in Afghanistan with a long cold wait in Kabul, followed by a short hot stay in Qatar, four nightmarish days and nights in Germany, a few nights in Washington D.C., seven biometric scans and a deportation scare later, Ghani and her family were en route to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.
When the flight reached its proper altitude, Ghani was relieved about one thing.
“I got my first coffee in more than a week and a half,” Ghani giggled with relief. “We’re so addicted to coffee. We have one cup in the morning and another cup after work around five or six. My mom and dad would be sitting in the yard on the grass with a little table and chairs with coffee all set up so that we could have coffee together when I got home from work and my sister got home from university (back home). I’ve never been so happy to have coffee as I was on the airplane on my way to Wisconsin.”
Life at Fort McCoy
At the base in Wisconsin, Ghani and her family stay in a bunker with four other families. She says that while she’s relieved to be in a safe, warm place where she feels well cared for, she misses simple things like bread, tea and freedom and she is craving for transparency.
“Back home if we didn’t have anything else, we always had tea, sugar and bread,” Ghani says. “If we cooked pasta and rice at home, we’d still have bread. Here we don’t have bread.
“There are many people here (at the base) with health issues like diabetes who need insulin and other meds. On top of that, it’s getting colder and they’re bringing in warm clothes, while also working on our paperwork all at the same time.”
Part of the appeal of going to Wisconsin for Ghani was the fact that her close friend lives in the state and she imagined seeing and spending time with her. As it turns out, for as long as the refugees are at the base, there is no entering and exiting and no guests, which means she never actually got to see her friend.
“Oh well…” Ghani says with a resigned chuckle. “I’m feeling a little bit like I’m in prison. I am a workaholic and I love being busy. I’ve never had this much time to sit idly.”
Ghani is using her freetime to stay in touch with friends and to help with translating and tutoring at the base. She has not yet been reunited with her radio equipment, which she says is held up at the airport in Washington D.C.
The hardest thing for Ghani has been the feeling of being in limbo, of not knowing what her next steps are or what she needs to prepare for.
“When we arrived at Fort McCoy, they said we’d be out in 21 days. Two weeks after being here, we learned we’d be here for at least another 21 days (so they can monitor side effects of the vaccinations). One person says one thing and another says another so I’m not sure who to believe.” Ghani and the other refugees went through three vaccinations–one for measles and two others. She’d already had her Covid vaccine before traveling.
The feeling of not knowing what’s coming next or what to expect is not new to Ghani since leaving Afghanistan.
“We were going from airplane to airplane, country to country and nobody was telling us anything (other than basic orders). (We were given orders like-) Just get on a plane. Get off the plane. Get on the bus. Line up,” Ghani recalls. “We’re leaving, ok. But, where are we going? Until I got to Wisconsin on a Tuesday in August, I was not sure I would make it here.”
In the same way that Ghani hasn’t necessarily known her next step in fleeing from Afghanistan, she says that she really didn’t feel prepared to have to flee her country in the first place.
“If we had known that the United States was going to leave after 20 years, everyone would’ve prepared themselves,” Ghani says.
Even though the Biden Administration warned Afghans about the possibility of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, she describes what she and others imagined as a bit of a ‘boy calling wolf’ scenario.
“Multiple presidents have said we’re (the US is) going to leave. They say we’re going to leave on this date, and then they didn’t leave. They said again ‘we’re going to leave’ and then nothing happened. Biden came into office and said the U.S. was leaving and then boom. The U.S. left.”
While many are questioning what the United States was ever doing in Afghanistan in the first place and some have suggested that its 2021 departure was twenty years too late, Ghani says she wishes the U.S. could have stayed twenty years more.
“When I came back (to Afghanistan) from Pakistan in 2011, people still didn’t value education,” Ghani says. “Slowly, slowly, by 2016 I started to see a shift. People were valuing education. Girls were playing cricket and football (soccer). Boys and girls were in school. Men and women were in college.”
Ghani recalls running into an old illiterate man escorting his 17 year old daughter to school. “I asked him why he was taking his daughter to school now instead of when she was a child. He told me he didn’t understand what an education was, but he understood now and he wanted his daughters to have access to education. He said he was taking her so she could learn something and teach him something.”
Both of Ghani’s parents are educated but she understands the sentiment of that man. “I do the same thing with my parents. I had to teach them how to use a smartphone, a laptop and all of the current technology.”
Ghani has a 19-year-old friend with aspirations of being a professional female athlete who she left behind. The friend played volleyball in a national league. She began attempting to leave two weeks before the Taliban takeover.
“She asked me to help her find a way out so she could continue to play her sport and be a role model for other Afghan women,” Ghani says. “I couldn’t help her and now my heart bleeds for her. Since the Taliban came, she’s not playing, she’s not studying. She’s at home.”
It may be too soon to tell if the Taliban will make good on their promises to be kinder, more inclusive and more humanitarian in their ways this time around. Ghani says the fact that they have even made any such promises is enough to make her laugh.
“I laugh because I never trusted anything they said. When we were sitting in Doha and they were telling us, there would be women’s rights. I said ‘no that’s not going to happen’ and it’s not happening. Women aren’t going to work. Girls aren’t going to school. Even if girls are going to university, there is segregation with curtains separating boys from girls.”
When asked if she thinks it’s the Taliban stopping people or people’s fear of the Taliban that is getting in the way of life as Afghans had recently known it, Ghani says it’s complicated.
“People feel that they cannot trust the Taliban. There is a long history of distrust and people are naturally afraid.”
While fear might temporarily paralyze some people or get in the way as they try to find their way back to work and a sense of normalcy, Ghani says many women refuse to be quiet.
“Women have understood a little bit about their rights and their value. They will not stay calm. They will not shut up. Even if they risk getting killed, they will keep raising their voices.”
Professor Hatem Bazian is the founder of the Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project at U.C. Berkeley. While he has never met Ghani, he follows interactions between the U.S, Afghanistan and neighboring Middle East countries closely. While Bazian worries about the well-being of people like Ghani with the Taliban now being in charge, he’s also critical of the United States occupation of Afghanistan.
“The U.S. shouldn’t have been there to begin with. After September 11, the U.S. said it would engage in offensive operations. What I advocated for at that time was to send food and support, not bombs,” Bazian says. “It’s been four presidents that have used Afghanistan for a broader strategy of the U.S. global hegemonic footprint. The Trump administration, followed by the Biden administration, were trying to get out of a war that had no end (in sight) and no objective specific to Afghanistan.”
Bazian speculates that while the Afghan Army and U.S. military ran the country by day, the Taliban were in some ways in control at night, leading to what some have called a failure on the part of the U.S. military. After the U.S. withdrew, President Biden stated that he could no longer justify American soldiers fighting in a war that the Afghan army didn’t have the will to fight. Bazian says that’s unfair, particularly considering that it’s the U.S. who trained the military.
“To blame the Afghan is to absolve the United States for its failure and all of its military strikes, bomb campaigns and drone attacks in the country.”
Now as thousands of Afghan people are fleeing the country and joining communities in places like Wisconsin, Bazian says it’s especially important to think critically about media messages and to think critically about the narratives we’ve been fed for decades.
“When (former President Bush) and (former VP) Cheney began launching the invasion of Afghanistan, they framed it in the way of liberating Afghan women while simultaneously pushing the war on terror,” Bazian says. “Nobody in their right mind would call either of these men feminists, while they were curtailing women’s rights domestically opposing maternity rights, equal pay for women and other things. Whether it’s Afghanistan, the United States or the world, the reason why there’s an issue with the oppression of women is because of men, not brown men. We need to challenge the oppression of women, gender inequity and oppression in general as global issues.”
Bazian says he has no doubt that the shift in power to the Taliban will happen on the backs of already marginalized groups like women, yet he says he thinks it’s important for the U.S. and the western world to give the people of Afghanistan time and space to have a say in their own futures.
“We can insist (to our legislators) on non-military intervention strategies in Afghanistan when we’re thinking of how to help.”
In terms of how to be allies to the thousands of Afghan people who’ve been forced to flee the country during the Taliban takeover, Bazian says to reduce television news consumption and instead get to know and find out how to support real refugees arriving in your communities.
“I’d say to tune out the mainstream news for sometime. There is no breaking news. Six companies control the media that we use, watch and consume and we tend to replicate the opinions that guests share,” Bazian says.
Ghani says the most compassionate way to welcome Afghan newcomers to communities across the United States including Wisconsin is with patience, kindness and transparency.
“Give them a chance to understand the rules and regulations. They will understand everything gradually,” Ghani says. “Also (we hope the U.S. government can) be as transparent as possible so we understand what the real situation is and we can prepare ourselves for whatever is coming.”
In terms of the most important lesson she’s learned from the lens of a self-proclaimed workaholic journalist who fled her country abruptly to live on a military base in the middle of Wisconsin, Ghani says it’s simple yet profound.
“Be strong,” she says. “So you’re ready to face everything that comes in front of you.”
When Ghani gets the green light this week, she plans to go to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has an opportunity to pursue a human rights and journalism fellowship in Berkeley while being closer to relatives. Even though Ghani’s next stop is in California, there are plans for dozens of other refugees to make their way to the Wausau area as the idea has been approved by the federal government.