This story originally published online at The Assembly.
Taj Bibi Ahmad Zai’s eyes are focused on the ornate red carpet. It’s one of the few things that reminds her of her old life—nearly everything has changed in the past six months.
Most of her 38 years were spent in a nomadic and rural province in eastern Afghanistan. Now, she finds herself in a third-floor apartment in Durham, surrounded by boxes, duffel bags, plastic containers, and an imposing tower of 24-packs of bottled water.
Ahmad Zai’s thin fingers fidget with eight dark-green Afghan passports, while her children vie for her attention. Five-year-old Asma clings to a large brown teddy bear in one hand and balances an overflowing bowl of Lucky Charms with the other. Nearby, 1-month-old Ayeshah rocks in a bassinet.
The apartment was already home to her husband’s cousin, Yousaf Mangal, his wife Raayata, and their five kids. After Ahmad Zai and her seven children arrived on February 10, the number of people living here grew to 15. Mangal and his wife picked them up from Raleigh-Durham International Airport—a reunion years in the making, but hardly what they’d pictured.
Ahmad Zai’s husband Ainzargul Totakhil had been living in the United States since 2016, working to save up enough money to bring her and the kids over. He’d recently earned American citizenship, and the couple had plans to build a new life together.
But Totakhil was shot and killed on December 30 while driving for Uber. According to Durham Police, the 40-year-old was found dead in his car around 11:00 p.m. at the intersection of Holloway Street and South Adams Street in East Durham, a predominantly residential area. There were no suspects, and six months later, the police say there still aren’t any leads.
It was Mangal who first learned of his cousin’s seemingly random murder when an officer called with the disturbing news on New Year’s Eve. For days, dread consumed him. He kept the information from the rest of Totakhil’s family. He made up excuses about why Totakhil wasn’t answering his phone. Could the news trigger a miscarriage for Ahmad Zai or a heart attack for Totakhil’s elderly parents?
But the family’s suspicions were growing.
“I think you’ve been lying to us,” Totakhil’s father told Mangal over the phone. “Because we’ve been having bad dreams.”
His loved ones knew something was wrong. But how bad could it be? Totakhil was in America, the land of opportunity.
The American Idea
Totakhil had come to the United States seeking the promise of safety and security for his wife and children, a priceless commodity for someone who witnessed every botched phase and broken promise of America’s longest war.
But Totakhil believed in America. In 2007, as the United States dug its heels deeper into Afghanistan, he signed up to work for coalition forces. For nearly a decade, he and Mangal both served alongside U.S. Green Berets on a remote outpost near Paktia Province, filling various roles from base barber to interpreter.
The trust built between a soldier and their interpreter is understood only by those who have experienced it firsthand. “They are a different breed. I expected him to fight alongside me just like anyone else,” recalled an active-duty U.S. Special Forces officer who worked with the cousins in 2011.
The Green Beret, who served five tours in Afghanistan, asked not to be named for security reasons, and says his Afghan interpreters saw more combat action than most American servicemembers. “We were breaking bread with them. We were burying their dead,” he said. “When we were in an ambush, my Afghans were right next to me.”
Which is why as the war entered its second decade, life in Afghanistan became more dangerous for Mangal and Totakhil. By 2013, four other cousins had been killed in combat while working for American troops. Countless friends and comrades had lost their lives in the war, and many of those still living endured a near-constant state of fear. Totakhil and Mangal’s devotion to the war effort made them, and their loved ones, enemies of the Taliban.
In June 2016, Mangal and his family were able to get Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), a program established to provide a pathway to legal permanent residency for America’s wartime allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. They settled in Durham, and Totakhil joined him the following November. From 2009 to the beginning of 2021, the U.S. Department of State issued just over 22,000 SIVs to Afghans, most of whom had experienced immediate threats to their safety.
The process wasn’t easy. Mangal’s Green Beret commander spent five years navigating bureaucratic red tape to get his visa approved. Many soldiers across Fort Bragg were doing the same for their former interpreters—filing paperwork was the least they could do for the Afghans who’d risked their lives to support them.
Ahmad Zai and her children stayed behind when Totakhil left; he insisted on building a more stable life before bringing his family to the U.S. And he did.
In the six years leading up to his death, Totakhil bounced between jobs in and around Durham. He drove for an airport taxi company then found a job at a Japanese steak house. Totakhil eventually made his way into food delivery, working for Grubhub and Uber Eats, a marginally more lucrative position.
By 2021, Totakhil and Mangal were both driving full time for Uber. Mangal, the more seasoned driver, had picked up a useful trick behind the wheel. He realized sharing stories of his military service with his passengers consistently earned him five-star ratings.
Totakhil adopted the tactic; every ride got him closer to reuniting with his family.
As Ahmad Zai waited with their children in rural Paktia Province, America’s military investments fell deeper out of political favor. When the U.S. finalized its hasty troop withdrawal in April 2021, the Taliban quickly moved into desolate areas like Paktia, easily appropriating land from a crumbling government.
By August, they were approaching Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital and largest city. Many citizens still hoped for a compromise between the government and the Taliban. But on August 15th, then-president Ashraf Ghani fled the country, signaling the official end to talks of a coalition government. Hours later, the Taliban entered Kabul without opposition.
For many Afghans, there was nowhere left to go. Ties to coalition forces or diplomatic efforts placed targets on the backs of America’s wartime allies. Scenes of chaos ensued at Hamid Karzai International Airport as desperate crowds waited outside heavily fortified walls, battling heat and fatigue and constant abuse from Taliban soldiers.
The chaos did not let up inside. On August 16, three days into the evacuation, at least two people fell to their death while clinging onto the wheel well of a U.S. Air Force C-17. A teenager was crushed by the same plane on the tarmac. On August 26, a suicide bomber detonated his vest, killing 169 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members.
Mangal’s former commander likened the evacuation to Saigon, except much worse.
In the two weeks following the Taliban takeover, more than 120,000 Afghans managed to fly out of Hamid Karzai. Since August 2021, the effort dubbed “Operation Allies Welcome” has resettled nearly 90,000 in the United States, according to the State Department. More than 1,600 have come to North Carolina.
Ahmad Zai and her children waited more than a year under the Taliban’s tightening grip, quietly planning their escape.
In Durham, Totakhil’s financial outlook slowly brightened. While he went home to visit several times, the family was separated for six years before he decided it was time to bring his wife and children to the U.S. Last July, he flew back to Afghanistan to solidify their plans. He waited for months for their visas to be approved, calling Mangal, his former U.S Army contacts, and the State Department weekly. By October, Afghanistan had become too dangerous for Totakhil to stay any longer.
He said goodbye to his newly pregnant wife and flew back to North Carolina. The baby they were expecting in the spring might be an American citizen if all goes according to plan, Totakhil told his cousin over the phone.
Just one day after Totakhil left Afghanistan, the State Department approved eight Special Immigrant Visas for his wife and children. They soon boarded a flight to a U.S. base in Qatar for their final processing.
Life as a family in the United States seemed to be within reach, and it came with help. SIV candidates are eligible for various short-term government assistance programs when they arrive. Cases are assigned to local resettlement agencies through the State Department. In North Carolina, two federally funded Department of Health and Human Services programs offer financial, medical, and employment services for up to 12 months.
But they wouldn’t need much help. Totakhil had been working hard.
Ahmad Zai waited in a large barracks room at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar for her daily call with Totakhil. In Durham, Mangal overheard his cousin’s end of the conversations. “I’m doing everything I can,” Totakhil would tell his wife. “It’s not in my hands.”
On November 15, he called with good news: He’d become an American citizen. He was hopeful his wife and children would soon join him in experiencing the same joy.
Each day at Al Udeid mirrored the one that came before. Ahmad Zai tried to keep the children entertained the best she could, but the months passed slowly as she and dozens of other hopeful Afghans worked to clear the necessary medical and security screenings before they could enter the United States. Her hope that what was waiting on the other side would be worth it carried her forward.
But on December 30, Mangal answered that late-night call from a Durham Police officer.
“I was totally shocked. I thought he might be joking,” Mangal said. “This is America.”
It seemed unspeakably cruel that Totakhil had survived the brutality of war only to be shot and killed where he sought refuge.
When she learned his fate, Ahmad Zai wanted to return to Afghanistan—how could she live in a strange land without her husband by her side?
Their evacuation effort, however, was well under way. Mangal convinced Ahmad Zai, then seven months pregnant, to continue. The U.S. still seemed like the safest option, especially given her fast-approaching delivery.
Totakhil’s death helped convince the State Department to expedite the effort. On February 10, Ahmad Zai and her children arrived in North Carolina. It had been 42 days since Totakhil’s murder.
Ahmad Zai tries to maintain hope her children will have more than she ever did, something her husband believed. She’d never learned to read or write, and under the Taliban’s ban on educating girls, her three daughters likely would not have either.
Asked what she wishes she could have learned in school, Ahmad Zai replies: “Everything.”
She looks down at her baby girl, a new American born nine days after she arrived. “She can do everything,” Ahmad Zai whispers.
But her hope is slowly languishing in a system struggling to keep up with their needs. Setting aside the unresolved police investigation, more immediate needs arise like providing for eight children in a new environment that couldn’t be more foreign. The support they expected and benefits often allocated to those with refugee status have not come.
Newly arrived refugees are often assigned to local resettlement agencies, private nonprofit organizations tasked and funded by the federal government to facilitate a family’s transition to the U.S. In the Triangle area, four refugee resettlement organizations serve families. One is World Relief Durham, the agency that worked with Mangal and Totakhil. Their case workers coordinate housing assistance, school enrollment, and other essential services like a temporary, government-funded stipend to ease a family’s adjustment to the U.S.
Mangal expected the same assistance would be offered to Ahmad Zai and her children once they arrived, especially given the horrifying circumstances. Day after day, he waited for their caseworker to call back. When the phone didn’t ring, he became Ahmad Zai’s only lifeline. He gave up driving for Uber almost completely as he spent days applying for social security cards, attempting to enroll the kids in school and searching for rental properties.
After a month, Mangal learned his cousin’s family wasn’t eligible for the same assistance. As Adam Clark, World Relief Durham’s executive director, explains, Totakhil’s family is known as a “walk-in” since they entered the country “independently and not through traditional pathways.”
While the State Department initially granted the family SIVs, when Totakhil received his citizenship in November Ahmad Zai and her children became eligible for a family-sponsored visa instead. Entering as the family of a citizen meant they did not have access to the aid refugee resettlement organizations like World Relief typically provide. Totakhil’s untimely death left his family navigating a peculiar predicament.
The State Department’s Reception and Placement Program offers $2,375 in assistance to qualified SIVs and refugees during their first three months in the United States. The funds are distributed through local agencies such as World Relief and can be used for resettlement costs such as rent, food, employment assistance, school enrollment, and legal services. A State Department spokesperson told The Assembly that recipients “must be determined eligible based on the type of visa issued.”
Aid also exists for qualifying new arrivals from programs funded by both state and private organizations and can sometimes offer assistance for up to five years.
Ainzargul’s family’s initial request for any type of aid was denied, but Clark said his organization is still actively attempting to help. “Once given the go-ahead, we plan to do so.”
Legal challenges are nothing new for World Relief, which like many resettlement organizations has been inundated with new Afghan arrivals since the August 2021 withdrawal. “We’re designed for longterm resettlement support, not disaster assistance,” said Clark. World Relief had to quickly overhaul its meticulously crafted resettlement plans; every week, a new family was arriving, most of them with small children.
Clark says the system wasn’t well set up for the influx; changes in immigration policy under the Trump administration led several refugee resettlement organizations to downsize or close altogether. World Relief Durham stayed afloat by offering new programming and diversifying services. They’ve provided aid to more than 200 new Afghan arrivals in the last two years.
Strength and Survival
When Mangal arrived in 2016, the Special Forces officer he served alongside in Afghanistan would often visit. He and his wife would drive from Fayetteville and pick up Mangal and his family for a day at Carowinds.
He proudly watched his former interpreter’s children quickly learn English and embrace life in the United States. He knows the same will happen for Totakhil’s family if they’re given the chance. “The investment is absolutely worth it,” he said. “They’re little American kids now.”
Following Totakhil’s death, Mangal started a GoFundMe page to cover funeral costs and assist the family. After his death made local news, they were able to raise over $70,000. But the money won’t last forever, and support isn’t only needed in the form of cash.
Two months after her arrival, Ahmad Zai and her children moved out of the cramped three-bedroom apartment when Mangal was able to co-sign for another unit in a nearby building. He pieced together all the paperwork to get the family approved for food stamps and Medicaid. And in late April, her younger children finally started school in Durham.
Ajeer, the oldest, is 19 now and too old for school. His uncle said he feels he must now carry the family’s burden, though four job interviews have yielded no offers—likely because he’s still learning English. While he hopes to become a mechanic, he’ll take any work he can get.
Most days, Ahmad Zai stays home with the baby. Her eyes are tired, but she rarely shows emotion—there’s little time when tiny hands pull at her veil and the baby begs to be nursed.
Mangal says he’s only seen her cry only twice: First, when he and his wife greeted the family at the airport in February. He remembers her asking, “Where is Ainzargul?” She knew. They all did. But she needed to acknowledge his absence.
The second was when she first visited her husband’s grave. Standing in front of a small stone positioned near the back of a Durham Islamic cemetery, she allowed herself a moment to grieve.
When asked where Ahmad Zai finds strength, her demeanor changes. She glances down, then up, and opens her arms wide to show the size of her heart.
Strength, she says, is ingrained in Afghan women. It was necessary to survive decades of war. She’ll need it in America, too.
This story was published through a partnership between the INDY and The Assembly. Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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