BALTIMORE — In a brick building in downtown Baltimore, across the street from a psychic, sits The Helmand.
The Afghan restaurant has been around for 32 years and is named after both the longest river in Afghanistan and the son of its owner, Qayum Karzai — who happens to be the older brother of the country’s former president, Hamid Karzai.
The restaurant’s enduring popularity is a testament to the vibrant Afghan diaspora that calls the Baltimore area home, one that is now reeling from the bloody end of a 20-year war that saw the Taliban seize Kabul and force a hasty, tumultuous U.S. departure.
On Sunday night, at a large round table with a white tablecloth covered with white butcher paper, sit Azim and Fatima, whom I’d been connected with via a local mosque.
The couple met in Afghanistan in 2001, when Azim returned to visit his home country from the U.S. for the first time since 1982, when the country was convulsed by another guerrilla war with another occupying power — the Soviet Union. He escaped the country in the ‘80s with his family for a highly compelling reason: He and his dad ended up on a “kill list."
“I literally dressed my dad as a woman and I had my mom and my two sisters and we ran to the back of the bus and stayed there and had them be covered completely,” Azim says with a face that conveys a continued sense of surprise that the plan worked. They went over the border to Pakistan and eventually made their way over to America.
The couple now lives in Ellicott City, Md., with their three daughters. Azim is wearing a maroon button up and glasses; he’s professorial and does most of the talking. At first glance, Fatima is either quiet or unsure whether having a conversation about her home country with a reporter she’s never met is the way she wants to spend her Sunday evening.
But in actuality, she has a terrible migraine from the lack of sleep over the last two weeks. And it makes sense why. Unlike her husband, Fatima still has family in Afghanistan, including her two teenage nieces.
Like thousands of other girls back home, her nieces are in a state of constant worry and it’s only been getting worse. “I’m upset for my family,” she says, her voice shaking and hoarse from a lack of sleep.
These are the lingering tolls of the end of America’s longest war. Physical traumas, for sure. But deep emotional ones, too. One of Fatima’s biggest fears is that the Taliban will take the two girls out of their home and force them to marry Taliban fighters. It’s something those on the ground have said has been happening since the Taliban took over, despite the group’s public professions of mercy.
The Biden administration managed to evacuate more than 23,000 "at-risk" Afghans to the U.S. between Aug. 17 and 31, when the U.S. military mission ended, according to the State Department.
For the Afghan American community, that represents a major influx. More than 80,000 foreign-born Afghans currently live in the United States, including more than 70,000 who have immigrated since 1980. Maryland has been one of their more popular destinations over the years.
And, as recriminations fly over the war’s traumatic ending, more are coming. Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, says that since 2009, his group alone has resettled more than 10,000 Afghans and expects “thousands more in the weeks and months ahead.”
The Helmand, with its obvious political connection to the country — Qayum Karzai ran for president of Afghanistan in 2013; Hamid Karzai remains there and has been part of the negotiations with the Taliban in recent months — and objectively delicious and authentic food, is a place of congregation for the Afghan community in the area.
Having personally experienced the process of assimilation, the people here have a unique perspective on what tens of thousands of Afghans all over the world are now going through. They are, at once, devastated about the fate of their home country and terrified for the many who were left behind. Their sisters, brothers, parents. The Biden administration has touted its evacuation effort as “successful,” but few at The Helmand feel like there is anything worth gloating about, with so many of their family members stuck in limbo and no way of knowing what comes next.
A tall, 21-year-old medical student at nearby Johns Hopkins University joins the table. Muzzammil, who I met through the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, was born to two Afghan refugees in Sacramento, Calif., one of the metro areas with the highest number of foreign-born Afghans in the country. He’s soft-spoken and when he sees the older couple, immediately puts his hand to his heart as he introduces himself to his elders.
The three have never met but they greet each other like family. For the entire dinner, Muzzammil will only address Azim and Fatima as Kaka and Khala, which mean “uncle” and “aunt,” no matter how many times Azim and Fatima try to get him to use their names.
“I would never say first names. My parents were going to be very upset if I said first names. It’s just out of respect,” he says, hand back on his heart.
Azim speaks Farsi to the young man, who responds apologetically that while he understands the language, his family mostly speaks the other official language of Afghanistan, Pashto. But no worries, so does Azim.
After the pleasantries, I ask them to rewind and reflect on the last 20 years of the American engagement of their country. What do they think of it, looking back?
Azim is the first to speak up, leaning forward, “The intention was probably good to free the country from the atrocities of the Taliban. However, what we see today is back to worse than it was before,” he says. Fatima nods. She agrees with everything her husband just said.
He continues on, giving a quick history lesson as he does in almost all of his answers, before adding that the U.S. military “should have left a long time ago. The decision to leave is a good one.”
A tall server in The Helmand uniform — white dress shirt, black pants and mask — comes to the table. He’s blonde and sticks out a bit from the rest of the staff, all of whom have dark features, suggesting Central or South Asian descent. It’s time for appetizers.
Azim and Fatima order a soup and Muzzammil, sensing my indecisiveness, chooses an appetizer for me: Mantwo, a dumpling-like pastry shell filled with beef.
I ask Muzzammil about his feelings as an Afghan American watching what’s happened in his parent’s home country. He says growing up, his dad took the family back every four years or so to Jalalabad, a rural city to the east of Kabul. Two things always stuck out to him, he recalls: the American presence and the sadness of his family in the country, even after the Taliban were first defeated.
“You can't go from one place to another without stopping at some checkpoint. You see an armored Humvee here, the troops here, troops there, you would see them everywhere,” he says. “I don't think a lot of the people who grew up there have a future. And that’s the part that eats away at me. I'm only here for my summer and then I'm going back [to the United States]. You guys have to live here.”
All three commiserate that even with the American presence, Afghanistan still lacked the infrastructure to educate its people or develop its economy. And now, with a complete lack of American troop presence, and a Taliban government no one trusts to actually do what it promises, they fear the worst for their family members.
Azim is working to help helping his wife’s family members figure out the Special Immigrant Visa system — his brother-in-law worked for Americans for years publicly and they fear for his safety. The process is confusing and slow, and after submitting an application, Azim laments, it’s unclear where you are in the queue.
He’s furious at the Biden administration for the process — “it’s so frustrating” — and with how the pullout went, despite the number of people ultimately evacuated.
“They mismanaged it. They didn't plan it. They had no idea how quickly they felt it was going to fall,” Azim says, still sounding like he’s giving a lecture in front of a class. But he also blames the country’s former president, Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country instead of trying to broker an orderly handover of power.
“I think if he had stayed, for example got on TV and said, ‘I'm the leader of this country, I'm the president and I'm going to ask the world community to make sure that we are protected and in the meantime, I'm going to do a peaceful transition to the Taliban,’” Azim says.
The blonde is back to take our dinner orders. Three lamb dinners, one chicken. We order quickly to get back to the conversation. And it hits me that after about an hour of talking, Muzzammil hasn’t said the word “Taliban” once. His go-to seems to be, “said group.”
When I point it out, he laughs like a kid caught trying to pull a fast one. He says he refuses to use their real name for one big reason: He doesn’t think they deserve it.
“Talib means student. And I'm assuming what they envisioned when they called themselves that is that they’re students of knowledge, I don't think they're students of knowledge,” he says. For Muzzammil, it’s a small way to rob the group of the legitimacy it now craves — the only real power he has.
Otherwise, he and his fellow Afghan Americans are in a constant state of anxiety. “You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow,” he says. “I'd be lying if I said that at any point I felt like there's hope or it's getting better.” His family in Afghanistan has mostly stayed home for weeks.
Fatima’s family has done the same. She talks to them two to three times a day on the phone, checking in and making plans as they sit around and hope and wait for a call they will be evacuated.
Last Thursday, they got sick of waiting.
“Everybody's hearing that there are so many people who have gotten out just by going to the airport and hopping on a plane. ‘OK, maybe we'll get lucky,’” Azim says.
The family of nine piled into a car and headed to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. As they were driving, two suicide bombers struck a crowd they were hoping to be a part of right outside the airport, killing scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
The family was a block and a half away from the blast. When the bombs exploded, they turned their car around and went home. And since then they’ve been scared to leave the house, and even more terrified to go to the airport, even if by some miracle they are chosen to leave the country.
“My advice to them is, ‘Follow the process, don't leave, don't go anywhere until you receive an email and a phone call of how to leave,’” he says.
The whole ordeal has made Fatima wish the American troops had never left. She is thinking of her nieces, “They are all so sad. And scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them.” She says if President Biden had been sitting at the table with us, she would tell him “to go back” and help her people.
The dinner is mostly and appropriately somber. Each of them called attention, both explicitly and implicitly, to just how complicated and chaotic this entire process is and will continue to be. They aren’t sure what the future holds, but their prayers are that the United States keeps its word to get people who worked with Americans out of the country. That Biden and the U.S. government, as Azim puts it, “pressure [the Taliban] to not be as brutal, at the very least, and respect the rights of everybody there and not isolate them.”
At one point in our conversation, I ask if they have any hope when it comes to a country that has endured decades of civil war, physical suffering and emotional wreckage.
Azim, who says he is a “glass-half-full man,” says that despite all the terrible things they are watching, despite all the uncertainty and fear, they have to continue to pray and have faith.
“For us to get upset, that's not going to help,” he says. “You do your best by being a good, faithful Muslim. You be a good Afghan, keep your culture. You do your best to respect your family and leave the rest to the lord. And he's going to take care. We just have to have patience.”
Behind him, Fatima wipes tear after tear from her face and shakes her head.
The two men exchange numbers, but not before Muzzammil apologizes if he’s offended his new Kaka and Khala — terms of respect for elders that are akin to uncle and aunt — with any of his opinions (he hasn’t). They promise to get together again, a new connection in a wounded Afghan American community that is about to welcome tens of thousands new souls.
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