‘Their hope is me’: Afghan family in L.A. is running out of time to rescue family in Kabul

When 2-year-old Mubasher sees an evacuation plane flying through the sky above Kabul, Afghanistan, his safe home, he sprints to the living room window.

” “Look, the plane’s here!” he shouts to his mother Madina in Pashto. “It’s coming to take us to my baba.”

Mubasher’s grandfather lives thousands of miles away, in Los Angeles, where he and his niece Paula Nassiri are desperately working to get their family members out of Kabul.

For the last two weeks, Nassiri, a 46-year-old in Woodland Hills, has dedicated her life to assisting her relatives: her cousin, Madina, Madina’s husband, their two- and seven-year-old sons, Madina’s sister, and their mother, a U.S. resident who was visiting from Tarzana when Taliban insurgents overran Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on Aug. 15. Nassiri’s stepmother is also hiding with Madina.

Nassiri sent dozens of emails, and made many phone calls to senators, congressmen and government officials, asking for help in fleeing the war-torn country.

“Their only hope is me,” she stated. “If they are left there they will die there. Madina’s husband, who is the main breadwinner, will be executed. Their life is over.”

Reached by phone Monday morning, Madina, said she and her family remained in hiding in Kabul. She and her family fled Afghanistan after the Taliban overtook them. They have since moved three times. Her husband is a marked man, as he was a former Afghan government employee and helped the U.S. military rebuild the country. Eyewitness accounts and media reports indicate that the Taliban have been targeting Afghan government employees as well as those who work for foreign governments and contractors.

” We are in a very difficult situation. … We are running out of food. Madina stated that we are running out money. “The Taliban is searching for my husband.”

Afghan refugees crouch in a group as British military secure the perimeter outside the Baron Hotel in Kabul.

Afghans seeking to leave the country wait as British military secure the perimeter outside the Baron Hotel, near the Abbey Gate, in Kabul on Aug. 26.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Since the Taliban takeover, the family made many futile attempts at reaching Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. Most recently, last Thursday, they gave up trying to gain entry to the airport just a few hours before a suicide bombing attack that killed more than 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service personnel, and wounded scores more.

Madina’s father was a translator for the U.S military. She now lives in Tarzana and feels abandoned by America.

After President Biden announced in April that he would withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, Madina’s husband tried to contact several of his former American colleagues for help. He sent them an email asking for a recommendation to help him complete the first step of applying in order to obtain a Special Immigrant Visa (for Afghans). He didn’t have much luck at first.

Madina also said that her husband, who requested that The Times not publish his name, didn’t want to leave his country yet. He believed it would take the Taliban months, if not a year, to take control of Kabul.

Both Madina and he speak English and have master’s degrees. She said that her husband had a great job and lived a comfortable lifestyle and was reluctant to give it up.

“He loves the country. Madina stated that he loved the work he was doing. “But everything happened so quickly.”

While Madina, her husband, their children, and Madina’s sister are Afghan citizens, Madina’s mother, the Tarzana resident, is a U.S. green card holder. The mother, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons, flew from Los Angeles, California to Afghanistan in June to close her affairs in her home country. She had plans to sell her property. She also wanted to help her daughters obtain a U.S. Visa and chaperone them out. That proved to be more difficult than they expected.

Both Madina and her husband contracted COVID-19, which derailed their back-up plans of finding visas to other countries willing to admit them, she said. She and her husband had planned to visit the Embassy of India to apply for a visa on Aug. 16, but by then it was too late: The Afghan government had collapsed one day earlier.

Madina and her family fled home the day after the takeover and sought refuge at one of three safehouses in Kabul.

Madina panicked after hearing about the chaos at Kabul’s airport. As desperate Afghans attempted to flee the country, she and her family decided that they would stay in hiding until things calmed down.

Afghans wait at a Taliban-controlled checkpoint

Afghans wait at a Taliban-controlled checkpoint near the Abbey Gate on Aug. 25.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Madina and her younger sibling made many trips in their car to the perimeter of the airport to assess the situation. It was always crowded. She watched her fellow Afghans plead, scream, and fight for their evacuation flights.

” “How can I expose my two young boys to such crowds?” Madina thought. It was too dangerous. She thought they should wait.

Nassiri began her rush of emails and phone calls to local representatives, refugee organizations, government officials and even Vice President Kamala Harris that week in Woodland Hills.

” These individuals are hiding and fearing their execution. Nassiri wrote that they are all well-educated, and would not be a burden to the United States. She didn’t hear from many.

Nassiri is a U.S citizen who fled Afghanistan at the age of 8 after the Soviet military invaded. She said that she has suffered from survivor’s guilt since then.

Her aunt and uncle left Afghanistan several years ago and moved to Tarzana in the San Fernando Valley after her uncle was granted a Special Immigrant Visa to work as translators for the U.S. Armed Forces.

On Aug 20, an official at Congressman Ted Lieu’s office emailed Nassiri back. He informed her that he had sent all of the information she provided to the Department of State’s Congressional link unit. A form letter was also attached by the congressman. Lieu’s representative stipulated, however, that there was “no guarantee as to what effect the letter may have.”

With the letter in hand, Madina and her family decided to try their luck on Aug. 22 and headed to the airport. They didn’t make it very far.

The family was stopped at the fourth checkpoint closest to the airport. Madina claimed that the Taliban beat her husband. He had on a headscarf in disguise.

A family crouches in front of a barbed wire barrier

A family crouches in front of a barbed wire barrier set up by the U.S. military at the East Gate of Kabul’s airport on Aug. 25.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The Taliban made the family stand for hours, then make them sit in a circle of human feces. Sometimes, a bus would stop by to pick up a few Afghans from the crowd and take them to the airport. Madina said that there were many people waiting.

” People were pushing each other so hard that there was no oxygen. Madina stated that it was very hot.

After 19 hours of sitting and standing, Madina’s mother — who suffers from high blood pressure — fainted and was taken to the hospital. Madina’s mother was taken to the hospital. The rest of their family returned home and rested while Madina recovered.

Last Tuesday Madina’s husband was informed that a congressman had recommended his Priority 2 Visa application to the State Department.

Nassiri in Woodland Hills and Madina’s husband in Kabul continue to reach out to anyone who might be able to assist them.

” We are in serious danger and hiding from Taliban. They went to our old residence looking for me. Multiple people, including the guard at our old home, our neighbors, and my sister who lives nearby gave us the report of them looking for me,” the husband wrote in an email. “Please help my family and my children get out of here alive, PLEASE.”

Madina said her husband worked as a senior engineer for a subcontractor contracted by International Technical Solutions, which was later purchased by Gilbane Building Co. — a construction company that the U.S. government contracted to rebuild key infrastructure for Afghanistan.

Over this weekend, Nassiri connected with Madina’s husband’s former supervisor, Tracy Prill, a 51-year-old who was a construction manager who supervised several projects in Afghanistan for Gilbane.

Prill is now in Arizona and said that he was involved in helping several Afghans flee their country, including his former driver, who saved his life following a Taliban bombing. Monday, he wrote Madina a letter of recommendation. He sent it to Nassiri, who then emailed it at government officials.

” “There are so many great people that not only kept me and others safe but they were putting their lives in danger so that we could accomplish our mission,” Prill stated in an interview. “If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today, back home in the U.S.”

Prill said he has no doubt that Madina’s husband is in danger.

Wes Cotter is a spokesperson for Gilbane Inc. He said that officials from Gilbane Inc. have helped many Afghan workers obtain U.S. visas. He said that they are still investigating Madina’s husband claim.

Madina and her family walked back to the airport on Thursday morning. They cleared the Taliban fighters’ checkpoints and made it to the Abbey gate. Madina said.

Madina was eventually able to call a U.S. military member, who allowed her into the airport.

Madina was handed her U.S. green cards and the letter from Lieu by her mother. The family was informed by U.S. officials at the airport that they believed their documents were fraudulent. They also dismissed the pile of paperwork, including Lieu’s letter.

After some back-and forth, Madina convinced a U.S. official that the green cards were genuine.

“Just your mother can leave,” she stated to a U.S. official. “We cannot help you.”

Madina said she begged, telling the official that her husband had worked with U.S. forces and that his visa was in process.

She stated that the official told her to get out of the gate. You must leave .”

Madina’s mother refused to leave her family without her.

“If I am not able to leave you, I cannot leave you,” she said to Madina. “If we die, we die together.”

Madina called Nassiri in Woodland Hills, who urged her to put Nassiri on the phone with the U.S. service members.

” I can explain your situation and they can help you,” Nassiri told Madina.

Madina held onto her toddler and tried to get the attention of the U.S. official again. But at that moment, someone started firing multiple rounds in the air.

Her son began to cry and scream.

“Don’t be afraid,” Madina said to him, and covered his head. “It’s fireworks.”

The family took a taxi to try other gates and ended up at the gate near the Baron Hotel, but it was too crowded to gain entry.

People pushed each other. Madina couldn’t breathe because it was so hot.

Some people fell to the floor.

” I saw five women, dead beneath my feet,” Madina stated. “There was no oxygen.”

She couldn’t get any closer to the gate.

“Go home, or you will die if your house is closer to the gate,” a man shouted.

Defeated. Madina and her family went to their home and collapsed from exhaustion. They woke up hours later to hear the explosion of the suicide bombing.

Madina, who was trapped in her apartment, said that she and her family were tired and anxious. She tries to keep her mood lighthearted during the day. She smiles for her kids. Madina sobs at night after her children go to sleep.

” “What will happen to us?” she asks herself. “Will the Taliban come to take my husband ?

Nassiri texts and calls Madina multiple times per day to check in and alleviate her fears.

” All I do is give them hope,” Nassiri stated.

Madina is rarely outside, and her husband stays at home when she does. Mudaser, her 7-year-old son walks with her to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Many banks are closed or don’t have the cash they need, so her last few bank trips have been disappointing.

On the ground, the once-bustling streets are quiet and empty except for Taliban patrolling with AK-47s in hand. The sound of each evacuation flight makes it difficult to hear, a constant reminder that another flight has taken off without them.

Madina has children who are obsessed with airplanes.

A child's drawing of a colorful airplane

Madina has become obsessed with the idea of refugees fleeing Kabul in planes. Mudaser, her older son, now draws his own versions of the flights.

(Madina)

Her 2-year-old son dances and claps whenever he sees them in the air. Mudaser, her older son, now draws his own version of the flights.

On Sunday he sketched a passenger flight with nine windows, yellow wings and one window.

” “If we go, then we will board this plane to the U.S.,” he told Madina. “It will take me to my baba.”

Staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.

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