Aug 20, 2021 - News

The many ways the fall of Afghanistan hits home in Charlotte

mural at US Embassy in Kabul, July 2021

A mural outside the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in July 2021, weeks before the Taliban took control of the city. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Arzoo’s daughter asks when they’ll be able to go back to Afghanistan to see her grandmothers.

The girl is almost 7 now, and she still buzzes about their trip two years ago, the mountains and the tea and the family.

She’s far too young to understand the images flashing on the television in their east Charlotte home now, the ones that show desperate Afghan families — and some U.S. citizens — trying to flee an Afghanistan where the Taliban is now in charge.

So her mom deflects the question.

“We’re going to bring them to America,” Arzoo says. “God willing.”

Arzoo and her husband, Tourialai, and their two children are among dozens of Afghan families living here in Charlotte with their minds on friends and family in Afghanistan this week.

  • They don’t think they’re in immediate danger, but they know what Taliban forces are capable of — even with those, like Tourialai, who were not directly involved with the U.S. mission there. He was an HVAC technician at Bagram Airfield from 2011-2013.

The lessons span generations now: Arzoo was a child herself when her mother fled Afghanistan to Iran in the late 1990s because of the murderous regime. They returned in the 2000s after the U.S. military helped oust the Taliban.

Now the U.S. is leaving, and if you’ve read this far you’ve surely seen the images of what’s happened this week.

  • “Afghanistan is a pot without a lid,” Arzoo says. “[Other countries] come and they stir it once, they take a scoop and then they leave.”

Why it matters: As the two-decade war in Afghanistan comes to a chaotic conclusion with the Taliban back in power, it can seem like news happening far from Charlotte. But for many people — the refugee Afghan families, the thousands of U.S. military veterans, and the countless others with ties to U.S. relief efforts in this state with some of the largest military bases in the country — it’s been the only thing on.

  • Welcome Home, the organization that helps refugees and other families resettle in Charlotte, says they’ve received two new families from Afghanistan in the past month, and they expect more. But most refugees coming to North Carolina are coming to the Triangle.
  • Welcome Home founder Amarra Ghani says her organization is “ready to welcome” refugees if Charlotte becomes a selected area.

Ways to help: Welcome Home Charlotte, or INCARelief in the Triad, both do great work.

Zoom out: For most folks with connections to Afghanistan, the end of the U.S.’s participation looks way too much like the beginning. The Taliban ruled and terrorized Afghanistan’s people — women, especially — from 1996 to 2001, before the U.S. and its allies toppled the regime for its harboring of Al-Qaeda.

Isra Naushad at refugee camp
Isra Mohamed at a refugee camp in Greece in 2016, where most of the refugees were either from Syria or Afghanistan. Photo: Courtesy Isra Mohamed
 Isra Naushad and her mom and kids
Isra with her mom outside of Abbey Place apartments when she was a baby (left), and with her two kids (her “Halfghans,” as she calls them) today.

For all the discussion about who’s at fault, to people like Arzoo and Tourialai the story is rather simple and sad: Yet another generation of children are now left to wonder when they’ll see their grandmothers again.

Tourialai and his kids
Thumbs up, lil’ man. Photos of Tourialai and his kids. Courtesy.

Data: The Refugee Processing Center; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

***

I keep thinking about this one eight-month-old boy. It was August 2004, and he was bouncing on his grandmother’s knee while staring at a casket with an American flag draped over it.

The boy’s dad, Sgt. Craig Cherry, had been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan along with another U.S. soldier and an Afghan interpreter.

I was a young reporter at a small-town newspaper, and it was my first time covering a funeral with military honors. I still remember the sound of “Taps” in the breeze, but mostly I remember that little boy.

Assuming nothing else tragic has happened, that little boy would be almost 18 now. Eighteen.

The Afghan interpreter who died in the same explosion had kids of his own. They, too, would be young adults now, living thousands of miles from that little boy, all having grown up robbed of a father by this long war.

***

“Every statistic you see coming out of Afghanistan, it was a set of lungs that once had breath in them,” Isra Naushad Mohamed told me Tuesday.

Isra, a volunteer with Welcome Home Charlotte, served as the translator in my conversation with Arzoo.

Isra has a different story. She was born in Charlotte, not long after her parents and her older sibling fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of the late 1970s and early 1980s. A church sponsored them and brought them to Charlotte, where they had four additional children, including Isra.

Isra was a student at Myers Park High on Sept. 11, 2001. After a few months of side eyes and verbal abuse, she told her mom to set up homeschooling for her. She graduated at 15 years old.

She still has aunts and cousins in Afghanistan. She’s worried about them, especially the girls and women.

Now Isra has two children of her own here, 12 and 9. She spent last summer explaining to them the Black Lives Matter movement and protests. This summer, though, as the Taliban took control of city after city, she’s been left to explain some of the same scenes her parents had to explain to her back during her own childhood.

“It feels like we’ve been doing this since we were kids, just waiting for what’s on the other end of the phone,” she says. “At least now with technology we’re past the time of old white men getting on TV and telling us something. Now there’s no more excuses to be ignorant; if you are, you’re willingly ignorant.”

  • She was upset as she watched President Biden’s speech on Monday, and listened to him say that after 20 years, American troops could no longer die in a war Afghans “are not willing to fight for themselves.”
  • She bristles when she hears someone here say they “served” in her country; she doesn’t believe the U.S. mission was worthy of the purity of that word. And now she surely doesn’t.

“I want us to stop treating Afghan refugees as anything but people trying to escape death and destruction,” she says. “They deserve more than what’s happening right now. They deserve more than a regime being put in place that was torturing and maiming them.”

***

Even in Charlotte, a business-first town where the biggest argument this year has been over zoning codes, the ties to this long war run deep and often in disguise.

They’re buried in the stories of the Afghan refugees who’ve fled and resettled here. They’re carried by former interpreters like a man nicknamed “Booyah,” who became a citizen last year, and who shared his story with the CLT Newsmakers podcast.

They’re also in stories like of WBTV’s Nick Ochsner, a good friend of mine. Nick was 15 when his dad, Sgt. 1st Class Jim Ochsner, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. To many TV viewers in Charlotte, Nick comes across as a brash investigative reporter who asks tough questions on camera. But I’ve always seen him as someone who’s just trying to make his dad proud.

That last phrase is key: There are many perspectives. But one clear thing that links most folks with close ties to the Afghanistan of the past two decades — American or Afghan — is that they want to talk more about the people than the politics.

I was 21 on Sept. 11, 2001, just two months into my first full-time job in Virginia. The attack and wars that followed defined my generation. Friends and family members enlisted. I spent nearly half of the 2000s as a reporter in Fayetteville, working for the newspaper that covered Fort Bragg. Every day we told stories about the toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts here in North Carolina.

  • We called families of fallen soldiers from the area after each solemn fax or email from the Department of Defense, which usually included the phrase that an Afghan interpreter was killed in the attack, too.
  • Soldiers came home with issues. At one point we had a shocking string of murders of military spouses.
  • I still remember the ones who’d see roadkill and have panic attacks, because animals were often what the Taliban used to hide IEDs.
  • And there were many smaller ways of life most Americans wouldn’t recognize: Youth sports teams in the Fayetteville area, for instance, were coached mostly by volunteers because 20,000 of our city’s moms and dads were overseas.

In other words, things that might make the arguments of Charlotte today seem trivial. But they’re never far from the forefront, even here:

  • About 50,000 veterans live in Charlotte. Nearly a quarter of them were classified as “Gulf War (9/2001 or later)” in a 2019 U.S. Census survey.

State Sen. Jeff Jackson signed up after 9/11, and was in Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006. In his letters home, he wrote of showing Afghan children their first taste of American music on his iPod.

Jackson’s in the middle of a 100-county tour running for Senate now, and he was trying to put thoughts about Afghanistan down this week when I talked to him.

“The piece that I keep going back to, for all of the tragic things about this, is the realization that we never even got close to succeeding,” Jackson said. “All the people who worked so hard every day, and none of it was sustainable beyond the moment of our departure. It makes you realize that … the notion that this was going to be possible was always three or four steps beyond optimistic.”

***

For the Afghans living in Charlotte, the scenes unfolding in Afghanistan are about more than success and failure: They’re about life and death.

Arzoo talks to her family every other day. Her mother, four brothers and sister (and spouses) live in Afghanistan. She says there’s no gunfire in the background of their calls yet, and that the Taliban keep saying this time will be different.

  • Tourialai, wearing a blue Charlotte Hornets shirt, jumps in as she’s talking about this part: “People haven’t forgotten how [the Taliban] treated the Afghan people 20 years ago. … If the people were happy with them they wouldn’t be attaching themselves to airplanes and falling from the sky.”

They moved to the U.S. in 2017, in part because it was no longer safe there for them after Tourialai worked alongside the U.S. troops. Their daughter was just a toddler.

They moved to Phoenix first, but found it too hot, and came to Charlotte soon after. They like that we have four distinct seasons here; Afghanistan has four seasons.

  • They say it’s peaceful here for them. Tourialai works as a delivery driver. Arzoo stays home with their kids — they have a son who was born in the U.S.

I ask them if there’s anything Charlotte folks should know about the events of the past week, and as usual, they come back to the people.

  • “If you meet an Afghan, the first thing they’ll say is salaam (hello), and the next thing they’d say is ‘come have tea with me.'”

They talk often about that trip to Afghanistan two years ago, and wonder if they’ll ever be able to get back. And here is something they certainly have in common with Isra — the volunteer with Welcome Home who was born refugees of early 1980s Afghanistan, a generation before the refugees of late-1990s Afghanistan, a generation before the refugees waiting to escape Afghanistan as you read this.

Given the choice, they would all go back as soon as they could. Nothing against Charlotte or anywhere else, but it’s not home.

“We’re a part of the dirt of Afghanistan,” Arzoo says through Isra’s interpretation. “No matter where we are, our hearts are always in Afghanistan. Any Afghan you meet, no matter in what corner of the earth, their dream is to go home. Live in their country. Walk freely.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details about Tourialai's job at Bagram Airfield.

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