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An Afghan refugee’s long journey from U.S. interpreter to a life in Vermont

When the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan in August, Musa — who had previously worked as an interpreter for the United States Military — fled the country. Now, he’s headed for Vermont. (VTDigger is obscuring Musa’s identity to protect his safety and that of his family.) Photo illustration by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Musa was working his typical shift at the hospital, when it became clear he would have to flee Afghanistan.

The former interpreter for U.S. forces in the country — who asked to be identified only as Musa in order to protect his safety and that of his family — was five years into his medical studies and worked at the hospital in Kabul. Since the United States began its withdrawal from Afghanistan over the summer, the Taliban had quickly been encroaching on the newly established Afghan government. 

Then, in mid-August a group of injured men were brought into the hospital.

Musa did what he always did when a patient would arrive at the hospital: He took down their history. The men told him they had been injured by the Taliban while attempting to flee Kabul. 

“They [were trying to go] to the airport,” Musa said, “but [the Taliban] did not allow them and fired.”

The men informed him that the Afghan government had fallen and that the Taliban had taken control of Kabul. 

Musa knew then that he had to get out.

After a harrowing journey, in which he was aided by a friend in the United States Military, Musa is now at a refugee camp in Indiana, where his documents are still being processed.

Next stop: Hartland, Vermont, which will be his new, permanent home. 

Musa spent years working as an interpreter for the U.S. military. In his northern Afghanistan village, he was well-known for the work he had done for U.S.-led coalition forces aiding the Afghan army. His duties included assisting in negotiations and helping American troops become more familiar with local dialects. When the Taliban began to seize control of the country over the summer, he knew he may eventually have to flee.  

Musa said that if they received a report that he was in the capital city of Kabul, they would come for him.

Early in the summer, once U.S. forces had begun their withdrawal in advance of the Aug. 31 deadline that had been set, Musa applied for a Special Immigrant Visa to enter the United States. He initially planned to wait in Afghanistan until his paperwork was processed, but upon learning Kabul had been taken over by Taliban fighters, he knew he no longer had the luxury of waiting. 

From the hospital, he called a friend of his, a fellow Afghan national who had helped the United States. 

“We have to escape Afghanistan because they will come after us and they will find us,” Musa said he told his friend on the phone. His friend agreed there was no time to waste and that they had to escape immediately. 

The escape 

Musa and his friend began reaching out to Americans they had worked with in the country. One of them was an officer with Vermont ties who had served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He immediately offered to help.

The officer, who is still on active duty, asked that only his first name be used because his efforts and those of veterans groups assisting refugees trapped in the country are ongoing and not officially sanctioned. 

Although Musa’s family was still in his home village in northern Afghanistan, John instructed him via WhatsApp to head to the Kabul airport. 

Arriving with only the clothes on his back, the former interpreter said the scene there was “unbelievable.” Musa said he saw a large number of people climbing over the gates onto the tarmac and others hanging off a jet as it took off. Some of them fell from the sky when they could no longer hang on to the moving plane. 

“I saw a mother, she left her 4-month-old child outside of the gate, and when she got inside the airport and she was not able to take her child … she just fled away,” Musa said. 

The chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces concluded on Aug. 30, ending a 20-year presence during which time the ruling Taliban had been routed after the invasion that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“In the past when [the Taliban] used to govern they tortured people, they killed people, they prohibited women from going to school,” Musa said. “That’s why this time when the Taliban came to Kabul people were so afraid and so worried about their future.” 

Because some airport gates were controlled by the Taliban and others by U.S. soldiers, Musa was careful to avoid the Taliban-run sections out of fear he would be recognized and killed. 

After several days at the airport, Musa’s U.S.-based friend John was able to get him inside the gates by communicating with some U.S. service members who were working the gates. Musa and a friend — who had also helped the U.S. forces — were allowed inside and eventually got on a transport plane. 

Left behind were his family members who were far from Kabul and not able to get to the airport in time to travel with him. Musa’s wife, sisters and parents remain in Afghanistan.

Musa was flown to Qatar, where he spent about 20 days at a refugee camp in Qatar before eventually landing on U.S. soil. For the past several weeks, he has been at a refugee camp in Indiana where his documents are being processed.  

A network of veterans  

For John, Musa’s escape was the first of many he would help arrange for Afghan citizens hoping to leave the country.

When he initially was contacted by Musa, it was late at night in California, where John is currently based. Knowing he would do whatever he could to help those he had served with, he immediately began reaching out to anyone who might be able to help. 

“We made a promise to them; you work for us and support us and we will support you … these are people who believed in American values,” John said.

“For [Afghans who helped the U.S.], it was all day every day for years on end. There was never a break. The interpreters were at just as much risk as the U.S. forces, in some ways more,” he said.

“Just imagine being in combat for like five, six, seven years straight. It never ended for them,” John said. “You don’t see them just as friends, it’s someone that you know you can trust your life with.”

As John spoke to more and more people in his network, he realized he wasn’t alone in trying to help his friend flee. 

“You find out there’s thousands of veterans all doing the same thing. It was just this giant internet network of chat rooms and various apps, all of us trying to coordinate and get people out,” John said.  

“When the Taliban took over Kabul, every Afghan who had served with the U.S. sent up an SOS to any service member who they still had contact with and thought could help them,” the U.S. officer said. “So within a matter of days, thousands of veterans are getting hit up on Facebook, email, WhatsApp, anywhere.”   

John remains frustrated that there is still no formal channel for mobilizing such an undertaking. Most of the evacuation efforts have been led by this network of past and present U.S. soldiers in chat rooms, he said. 

By communicating through these informal channels on the ground in Afghanistan and at home in the U.S., the group has been able to get a fair idea of what things look like. 

“So we just compile that information and create a picture,” said John, “then you just push it back down to your person like ‘hey this is my understanding of what’s going on, I recommend this, do this to get out.’”

Following the withdrawal of U.S. forces, those options for getting out are even more limited now — including for Musa’s family.

Family left behind

Though Musa was able to successfully evacuate Afghanistan, his family remains there. And because of his work with the U.S. government, his wife, siblings and parents are in danger. 

John and his network of soldiers have worked to move Musa’s wife within the country so she would be in a place where the Taliban would be less likely to find her. 

Musa said he is regularly in touch with his family.

“They are upset I have left them back in Afghanistan and I explain to them that I am working for them and I tell them ‘don’t worry, one day you guys will be here with me,’” Musa said.

He said he planned to ask for help for his family when his documents are reviewed at the Indiana refugee camp. John is also trying to help, having set up a fund to try to extract Musa’s wife, along with other high-risk Afghans. 

“They are afraid. Everybody is afraid,” said Musa. “The [Taliban] are searching house to house and finding the people and families who have worked with the U.S. troops, especially the interpreters. … If I’m not there and they find my family they will punish and they will torture my family because of me,” he said.  

“It’s a very bad feeling when you leave your home country fleeing away, especially when you leave your family back. … I always think about it. I’m just trying to find a way to bring them here.” 

Life in Vermont 

Musa is expected to arrive soon in Hartland. John is from the area and has worked with community members — including residents John Basette and Matt Dunne, a former state senator — to help prepare for the arrival of his Afghan friend. 

“We’ve got people on the right and people on the left rallying around this cause,” said Basette, who explained that helping prepare for Musa’s arrival has been unifying for the community. Basette described himself and Dunne as “two people who are very well connected but have never done this before.” They say they are learning as they go. 

Although not closely aligned politically, the two have been working together the past several weeks on preparations. They set up a bank account for Musa, reached out to local churches for food and clothing donations, and are trying to find him a car.

“I don’t think any of us can really imagine the transition he is going through in such an abrupt period of time and we want to make sure he is placed in a strong position,” said Dunne. 

Dunne also has reached out to his contacts at Dartmouth College to help find a job for Musa, who was five years into his medical training when he fled Afghanistan. 

Musa, who hopes to become a doctor, a nurse or a physician’s assistant once he gets to Vermont, said he is eager to continue with his medical training.

Dartmouth has been receptive and is exploring short- and long-term opportunities for Musa, including medical training down the line, and perhaps a job in the immediate future. 

“People have been wonderfully receptive, they’re willing to help on all sides of the political spectrum because it really isn’t a political issue, it’s a human issue at this point,” said Basette. 

Musa is looking forward to life in Vermont. He is from a northern part of Afghanistan that has colder weather, so he feels mostly prepared for the Vermont winter, he said. 

More than anything though, he wants his family with him in Vermont. He hopes in the future his parents, wife and sisters will have joined him in Hartland, and that he will be working in medicine and helping Vermonters stay healthy. 

“I’m just trying to manage a way to bring my family here, but I don’t exactly know how to do that,” said Musa.  

Basette and Dunne want to do everything they can to make Musa’s move as comfortable as possible as he awaits the eventual arrival of his family. 

“Vermont has been very proactive during this time saying we want to help as a state, it’s an easy commitment to make but harder to follow through on,” said Dunne. “But I feel confident that we can make sure these people who are disconnected from their home and community — and in many cases their families — feel as supported as possible here.”

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