LYNNWOOD — Ziaurahman Ahadi and his family are grateful for their new lives in America.
Still, they can’t help but worry about loved ones left behind under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
“Everyone misses where their childhood was, and of course we miss our beautiful country, and our relatives who are still there,” Ahadi told The Daily Herald, in an interview conducted via interpreter. “We speak to them every day and their situation is very bad, but nobody knows because the Taliban is cutting communication with the rest of the world. It is not like Afghanistan is fine because there is no news. Because it is not. People are suffering.”
October will mark one year since Ahadi, his wife and their six children, ranging in age from 1- to 15-years-old, started their new lives in Lynnwood. They are just eight of hundreds of Afghans expected to resettle in Snohomish County. For safety reasons, Ahadi asked that the rest of his family not be identified.
Today, Ahadi builds fireplaces for a living in Lynnwood. It’s quite the change of pace. Every day for the prior 17 years, he would return home to his family, not having told anybody else about his “day job.”
From 2004 to 2021, Ahadi worked as a trauma medic for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Ahadi started his career on battlefields, treating the wounded, putting his life at risk daily. In the following years, he continued his field work while also teaching incoming trauma medics.
Because, as Ahadi puts it, he was working for what some considered the enemy — the United States — his job needed to be kept secret.
“The years of 2001 to 2021 were filled with war and suicide bombers,” Ahadi said in Dari. “Those years were not easy by any means, my family was living in, and I was working in, a war zone.”
Afghans who worked for the United States were promised refuge in America, but hope of a brighter future was not the most important reason Ahadi pursued this career.
“In 2004, other countries had been in Afghanistan for a few years, so I started my work in the medical field because I wanted to make a living but also benefit and save people,” Ahadi said.
After 10 years of service, Ahadi applied for a U.S. visa in 2014. It took four years to be approved.
Immigration to any country can be challenging. Ahadi’s situation posed additional obstacles.
The pandemic further delayed Ahadi’s immigration plans. On top of that, the birth of a new child required more paperwork to satisfy the visa application.
On Aug. 15, 2021, Ahadi’s family was finally approved to travel to the United States under temporary refugee status — the same day the Taliban entered Kabul and assumed power. Ahadi and his family chose to delay their departure to treat the wounded and help others flee the country.
Within two days, Ahadi and the rest of his trauma medic team had set up a makeshift hospital in Kabul International Airport. In one room, Ahadi and his team treated thousands of injured people seeking to leave Afghanistan.
This building now tripled as an airport, emergency room and delivery room.
“My family and I could have left right away, but I stayed to help others for another 10 to 12 days, day and night, no sleep, helping the wounded,” Ahadi said.
When the time came for Ahadi and his family to leave, they helped with the evacuation of others before boarding a C-17 Globemaster cargo military plane themselves, on August 28, 2021 — 7 years after Ahadi applied for a U.S. visa.
The military planes removed seats to create more space. All of the passengers on Ahadi’s flight sat knee to knee, on a metal floor, with the screams of hundreds of children ringing in their ears.
There was only one bathroom for 800 people. Proactively, Ahadi had his family wear diapers for the plane ride to avoid the hassle of using the plane bathroom.
Yet Ahadi and his family wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
“We were the fortunate ones,” Ahadi said. “We saw people hanging onto the wings of the plane and dying, we were lucky ones, to be on this plane.”
Ahadi attributes his family’s smooth transition to life in Lynnwood to Lutheran Community Services Northwest, as well as volunteers Lynn and Ron Heitritter, who help refugees through Edmonds Methodist Church. The Lutheran organization has relocated almost 1,000 Afghan refugees in the Puget Sound area according to Matt Misterek, director of communications for the organization.
The Heitritters, who volunteer up to 15 to 20 hours a week, think of their refugee families they take on as their own. Volunteers have helped refugee families transition to life in America — driving family members to doctor appointments, celebrating their first Thanksgiving or whatever else comes up.
“I attended the delivery of (another family’s) most recent child, and a nurse happened to spell the name of the child wrong on their birth certificate,” Heitritter said. “This has taken us nine months to change. I can’t even imagine how long this would take for families who don’t have help, or know any English.”
The past year has been positive, Ahadi said. When you have a problem here — medical, mental or financial — there is a solution to it, he said, whereas in Afghanistan, there isn’t always a way.
“My experience here is that the law is for everyone, and they don’t look at what religion you are or where you are from,” Ahadi said. “You can be free and say who you are, and get help, because the law is working for everybody.”
The Ahadis plan to stay in Lynnwood for the foreseeable future, where the father hopes all of his children will receive an education and work to build a life in America.
As for himself, Ahadi wants to return to the medical field as soon as he can, so he can help others.
“I want to use the knowledge I have,” he said. “If I can improve my English I will pursue medicine again, because this is what I am good at and what I like to do.”
Correction: This article has been updated for clarity.