Colorado Dad Who Pleaded for Help on TV Details Family's Long Escape Out of Afghanistan

Haroon Zarify knew that if he didn't go back to his home country to see his family this summer, before the Taliban took over, he might never be able to return — but he didn't imagine what it would take to get back out

Haroon Zarify
Haroon Zarify (right) with his daughter Hura. Photo: courtesy Haroon Zarify

Haroon Zarify, a Denver transportation coordinator, and his wife, Farhat, quit their jobs and flew with their two young daughters to Afghanistan in June — around the time that the Biden administration was warning Americans there to leave.

Zarify, 29, says he knew Taliban fighters were gaining control of smaller cities, often meeting little resistance, and he knew what it meant if they took control of the entire country, as in fact they soon did.

"I'm not going to be able to go again — never, ever — to Afghanistan," he says.

He also knew this: As an Aghan native who had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military and was now a U.S. green card holder, he would be at increased risk under Taliban rule.

"I was trying to take this as a last chance to go see my parents, get these documents to get them out of the country, all my brothers and my family," he says.

Zarify's father was ill, and Zarify planned to take him for surgery in India and then return with Farhat, a 25-year-old preschool teaching assistant, and their children Ava, 4½, and 2½-year-old Hura to their home in Colorado on Aug. 28.

But the situation in Afghanistan changed: The government fell in mid-August and Kabul fell into disarray in the shadow of the Taliban's return.

The family's long journey home began.

"I wake up in the morning on the 15th, the Taliban is in the city and, of course, they shut down the airport. Thousands of people went to the airport to try to get out. Everyone is scared of Taliban. I can't blame them," Zarify says. "Everyone was trying to get out, especially people with 20 pages of documents, who had worked with Americans, put their lives in danger to help the American people complete their mission."

Zarify safely relocated to the U.S. in 2015, but his father, who worked as a a security supervisor with a U.S. contractor, was declined for a special visa around that time because the contractor was no long in country and his employment couldn't be verified.

After the Taliban arrived, Zarify went to the airport with Farhat and their kids and joined the thousands of people trying to flee. He grabbed his daughter's U.S. passport, thinking it would help if he showed it to the American forces guarding the airport, and snaked his way to the front, alone, through the roiling crowds.

This was Aug. 16 — one of the most chaotic early days around Kabul's airport after the Taliban takeover. U.S. troops were working to re-establish security control to begin evacuations en masse while many people surged forward outside and through the perimeter, desperate.

Haroon Zarify
Haroon Zarify in Panjshir, Afghanistan. courtesy Haroon Zarify

"Even if they said, 'Go get your kids,' it would have taken hours to do that," Zarify says now.

He says he fell on barbed wire and an Afghan solider beat him with a stick. He fell bruised and bleeding. He turned around to find his family and leave the area while dodging flash bombs, one of which burned his daughter on the side of the head and on her leg.

They went home.

Zarify tried to think of a better plan, returning a few times to the airport hoping for a chance to convince someone to let him inside. "It was not possible," he says.

He turned instead to the international media, speaking with reporters in Colorado and appearing on Fox News.

He soon received a message from Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton's office offering to help.

A staffer who heard about the family's plight worked with military contacts in Afghanistan to offer assistance. A Cotton spokeswoman says the Republican lawmaker "and his entire office spent the last 12 days working around the clock to help American citizens and Afghan allies escape Afghanistan."

Zarify says U.S. military were sent to transport his family to the airport around Aug. 20. The family was again met by barbed wire, but this time Zarify got close enough to the troops to show his passport. The service members set up a ladder and lifted his daughters (and their backpacks) over the wall. He and his wife climbed up and, finally, the whole family was inside the airport. It was a half-hour operation.

Haroon Zarify
Haroon Zarify's daughter Ava. courtesy Haroon Zarify
Haroon Zarify
Haroon Zarify's daughter Hura. courtesy Haroon Zarify

"As soon as you get on the other side, you feel safe," Zarify says. Around him at the airport were hundreds of other people waiting in line for hours to board departing military planes, having reached the end point of a harried string of checkpoints and bureaucratic requirements to leave the country. (The U.S., under much criticism, says more than 120,000 people have now been evacuated from Kabul in what they tout as a major logistical feat.)

The plane Zarify and his family boarded was likewise carrying hundreds of others, all sitting on the floor with their bags. His wife and daughters slept on each other for the flight to Qatar — and to freedom — where they arrived at a military hangar.

Those conditions were a challenge. "It's nasty, dirty, trash all over. If you don't really have to, you prefer not to go to the restroom," he says.

People were camped at the hangar in Qatar for hours or days, but Zarify says his family was plucked from the crowd. Authorities looked over his documents and sent him to wait for a commercial flight to Washington, D.C. The plane — which first headed to Bulgaria to change crew and stopped once for fuel — had 200 seats but had only 41 passengers, Zarify remembers. "Everybody got to sleep where they wanted, which was nice," he says.

The family's nearly 50-hour trip out of Kabul ended as they stepped foot on U.S. soil.

Haroon Zarify
The flight out of Afghanistan that Haroon Zarify's family took earlier this month. courtesy Haroon Zarify

Zarify then bought plane tickets to Denver for the final leg. His heart still ached.

"Myself and my wife, we were happy to save our lives, but inside we're not happy still," he says. "Every second I'm thinking about what's going to happen to my family and her family in Afghanistan. Usually we take a lot of pictures and video, but we totally forgot since we are so sad inside, emotionally. All I'm doing is thinking about is finding a way to get my parents and my family out."

His father-in-law, like his dad, also worked in security for a U.S. contractor. The two are applying for special immigrant visas, which would allow them to leave and bring their families as well, a total of 14 people. But the system is infamously backlogged — thousands deep — which drew new attention this month in the wake of the increase in potential refugees.

"I'm working on my parents' documents and my father-in-law's documents, so I'm here physically but mentally I'm not here," Zarify says.

"I know their lives are not safe and I know they're going to lose their lives somehow — by Taliban or by suicide bombing or somehow they're going to find out, since I'm interviewing every day on the TV, and one TV [station] showed my family's picture," he says. "And it's not just that. The Taliban are seeing them every day going to the airport, trying to get out. You have to show your documents to the Taliban at the checkpoints. They know why you're here, because you've been working with Americans."

The fear, Zarify says, is that with the U.S. now officially withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Taliban will go door-to-door searching for people who worked for the U.S.

"My parents are already being targeted," he says. "When my brothers go out to shop for food, people they don't know ask questions: 'When are you going to leave? Your father worked for the Americans.' "

He says it's impossible to tell who is a member of the Taliban, since they are dressed the same as ordinary citizens.

After last week's airport bombing — which killed more than a 100 Afghans in addition to 13 U.S. service members — Zarify says he will not let his brothers go to the airport any more to try to get out. It's also unclear how the airport will continue to operate without the U.S.-led coalition in charge.

There has been no answer on the family's applications for special visas, Zarify says. He is in contact with a senator's office, a general's office and the Denver branch of the FBI and, he says, they are all trying to help.

Late Monday, the last U.S. military plane left Kabul.

Promises by the Taliban that Afghans with paperwork — and any remaining American or dual citizens — will still be able to leave are viewed with skepticism by many, even as the U.S. says it is a diplomatic priority.

The U.S. military withdrawal
A U.S. Air Force aircraft takes off from the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday. AAMIR QURESHI/getty

"This is what I am asking from the government, the Department of State, the department working with immigration: They need to find a way [to help] the people who are waiting for the documents to get approved," Zarify says. "They should not just focus on the people who have their citizenship, green cards and visas. I know they have priority because they are citizens of America, but what is their plan for people whose special immigration visas are pending and they haven't gotten an answer yet? And they don't know what to do?"

He pleads. "The only thing they can do is keep trying to go behind that wall, and now they know that they can get killed. So what else can they do? That's my question."

Though he is back safely (and adjusting to the time zone change), Zarify feels an urgency to get a new job to pay his own mortgage and to send money to the family back in Afghanistan, where economic activity remains shuttered.

"At the moment, they don't have any jobs, and my father-in-law's side, I have to help them a little bit if I can," he says. "I have to work harder. I need to do something else."

If you would like to support those in need during the upheaval in Afghanistan, consider:

* Donating to UNICEF to aid Afghans in the country or

* Donating to the International Refugee Assistance Project to help those fleeing.

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