7 of 8 San Diego-Area Families Stuck in Afghanistan After Summer Vacation Have Made It Home: Officials

"They saw a lot of things. I see the fear and hopelessness in their faces but they can't say in words," one advocate says

School children
Schoolchildren. Photo: Getty Images

Seven out of eight San Diego-area families who found themselves stuck in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover have now made it out of the country, thanks in part to their local school district, officials say.

It was a happy ending for some of the parents and children, who range in age from preschoolers to teenagers. All of the families had traveled individually during summer vacation to visit relatives.

"They returned to the open arms of their teachers and classmates," says Cajon Valley school district spokesman Howard Shen.

But the story isn't over: The eighth family wasn't able to evacuate before the U.S. withdrawal completed late Monday, officials said this week.

"We are exploring strategies to rescue and bring them home," the school district said. "Our employees and rescued families estimate that more than one thousand children who are either US citizens or the children of SIVs [special visa participants] are still trapped in Afghanistan."

Estimates vary on the number of people who remain in Afghanistan and want to leave, and less than 200 Americans are believed to be there with some intention of getting out.

The Biden administration insists they are committed to diplomatic solutions to helping them.

The seven families who escaped the turmoil in Afghanistan include four who have now returned to El Cajon — totaling seven adults and 14 children — as well as two families who were back in the U.S. and returning to California, officials said on Tuesday.

A seventh family was out of Afghanistan and headed back to America.

The plight of the eight El Cajon families made headlines last month amid the U.S. withdrawal and ensuing Taliban invasion, which met little resistance from the Afghan army.

The families had become ensnared in the country in recent weeks, as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan's regional capitals before taking Kabul in mid-August. Suddenly the parents and children in an otherwise normal atmosphere were thrust into the chaos of a country being taken over.

It was an experience the suburban kids could not have imagined.

US , Kabul, Afghanistan
MSgt Donald R Allen/AP/Shutterstock

"What happened, it shocked everyone and we still aren't believing it yet," Fraidoon Hashemi, a district employee who sounded the alarm early about the families after getting a message from a student, told PEOPLE on Monday

"When I talked to the families, this is like something you see in a movie, not something in front of your eyes," says Hashemi, 40.

Some were at Kabul's airport in mid-August when images of panicked Afghans began flooding TV screens back home in America.

"They saw a lot of things. I see the fear and hopelessness in their faces but they can't say in words," Hashemi says. "It's trauma you can see."

He might have been one of those stuck in Afghanistan, too, if not for his son's expired passport, which could not be renewed in time to take the trip this summer to see his immediate family.

He had made the trip in 2017 and 2019 with his family without incident and wasn't concerned about going this summer. Now he and other Afghans in the San Diego area — home to many immigrants — are stunned.

"My daughter is 10 and when she hears me talking with our family she cries about her grandmother, my mom, worried that she and others won't get out," Hashemi says. "Time is running out."

So Hashemi and others helped the families they could. The school became involved in getting them home after Hashemi, the district's liaison for the Farsi/Dari community, received notice on Aug. 16 from a student asking to hold his spot in class because he and his relatives would not be able to get back in time for the start of the school year on Aug. 17.

That led Hashemi, who immigrated from Afghanistan, to take action. He quickly discovered that the family who had contacted him was not the only one in the district still in Afghanistan after the announced military withdrawal. There were at least 24 people from El Cajon there. (The U.S. government has for months warned people about traveling to the country.)

The Cajon Valley district contacted California Rep. Darrell Issa's team to help extricate the families.

The district has more than 17,000 students, with a high population of Afghan emigres. To serve the population, the district set up native speaker liaisons to help families assimilate.

"We had constant contact with the families while trying to help them out. Congressman Darrell Issa was instrumental in getting them out of Afghanistan," Shen says. "But without the liaisons, we would never have known they were missing."

The first family from El Cajon — two adults and five kids — returned to the U.S. on Aug. 25. Two additional families arrived afterward.

At the request of the district, families who have safely been returned home have been given privacy to rest and recuperate.

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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