Updated June 26, 2022 - 9:32 am
Editor’s note: This is the third story in an occasional series. For this story, Mohammad “Benny” Shirzad agreed to the use of his full name and more details of his background, now that his wife and parents have fled Afghanistan.
Mohammad “Benny” Shirzad, who fled Afghanistan in August, had recent cause for celebration, along with the Henderson couple who welcomed him into their home after their son, a military pilot, flew him out of Kabul.
Shirzad’s wife and parents, who for nine months remained in hiding in the Afghan capital, in late May made it safely out of the country. Traveling after midnight by automobile, they passed through Taliban checkpoints — including one where a soldier threatened to beat his father with the barrel of a rifle — to cross the border into Pakistan.
Elation over this news quickly evaporated. “We were happy and relieved for about three hours,” said Ellen Hoffman, whose son, U.S. Air Force Capt. Christopher Hoffman, piloted evacuation flights out of Kabul for at-risk Afghans when the country fell to the Taliban with the U.S. government’s withdrawal.
The temporary medical visas that allowed the family to enter Pakistan were due to expire at the end of June. “The clock is now ticking,” she said.
She and husband Scott have made it their mission to assist Shirzad, in the U.S. as a humanitarian parolee, in reuniting here with his family. Their return to Afghanistan would be unthinkable, they said.
“Should they be returned, they will be killed due to past activities in support of the U.S.,” Scott Hoffman, a retired Air Force pilot who now flies for a commercial airline, said in correspondence with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
As a teenager Shirzad, now 27, began to dream of coming to the U.S. after befriending American soldiers training local police in his village, regularly serving as their volunteer translator. One of the soldiers years later would write a letter in support of his immigration application.
After graduating from college, Shirzad faced “extreme danger” working for a U.S. government contractor providing internet technology services to the ministry of interior affairs, an American military officer stated in a separate letter. The work aided the U.S.-backed government installed after 9/11.
Following repeated threats, including that his mother would be kidnapped, and after shots were fired at his car, Shirzad changed jobs, becoming a flight attendant for an Afghan airline. As the Afghan government collapsed, he assisted with evacuation flights out of Kabul for six straight days without returning home.
With the Kabul airport under siege, U.S. soldiers told Shirzad and his fellow crew members to board a flight piloted by Capt. Hoffman. On the evacuation flight, Shirzad, who is fluent in English, agreed to translate communications between the crew and the Afghans aboard.
Shirzad’s wife and parents, meanwhile, were turned away from the airport during the violence and chaos that ensued.
Escape from Afghanistan
Although the Afghan family’s situation remains precarious, Shirzad’s mother said she relishes their relative freedom in Pakistan.
“We were in prison in our apartment for nine months,” she said in a recent video chat with a reporter. She and her daughter-in-law rarely left the apartment for fear of the Taliban, which put an end to women moving freely within the city.
The mother in her late 40s developed joint pain during her confinement, but now walks each morning for two hours. She feels her strength and a sense of happiness returning, she said in the Dari dialect translated by her multilingual son.
She feels safer now but still not safe. There also are Taliban in Pakistan. Each interaction with Taliban soldiers has put their lives at risk.
A few days after Shirzad was evacuated, Taliban soldiers searched the family’s apartment. His mother, who had worked for U.S.-affiliated aid organizations, felt sure that the family’s identity had been revealed and that “this could be the last moments of our life,” she said.
Shirzad’s wife, when questioned about the whereabouts of her husband, said he was working as a laborer in Saudi Arabia.
Shirzad’s mother described it as “one of the worst nights of my life,” with gunshots sounding and lighting up the night sky.
The Taliban would return months later to again search their apartment, telling the family members they would be shot if they interfered. The soldiers demanded to see their passports and other official identification, which the family had hidden in curtain rods and said they did not have.
The soldiers said they would take with them a college graduation photo of Shirzad hanging on the wall, but relented when his wife began to cry, begging them not to. Instead, they photographed the portrait, telling the family to take it down and to “stop copying infidels.”
They asked if the man in the photo was “one of the unlucky Afghans who escaped to America,” which the family denied.
The family decided that they must leave the country as soon as possible. Using money sent by their son, who works full time in IT services at a Strip resort and by the Hoffmans, they purchased visas for $650 apiece. The visas turned out to be fraudulent. However, they were able to exchange them for temporary medical visas.
The family packed their bags and left after midnight in a rented car with a driver arranged by a relative. At the first checkpoint, soldiers searched the cars and demanded to see the faces of the women, who were covered head to toe in burqas, their travel documents hidden underneath.
“My husband said, ‘They will not show their face and this is not allowed in Islam,’” in an effort to avoid detection, Shirzad’s mother said in a written account of their journey. “How can you dare to ask a woman to show her face? Isn’t that one of the laws that you (Taliban) announced recently?”
One soldier was about to beat the man with the barrel of his rifle, until the driver, who spoke the soldier’s dialect, blocked his way. Given the explanation that the older woman needed medical attention, the soldiers allowed the family to continue.
At a second checkpoint, the family was again questioned and their bags searched. They passed a third checkpoint without incident, and showed their passports and visas at the border.
Now in Peshawar, the family is renting an apartment and awaiting word that they can enter the U.S.
“I believe the United States has been the most loved country in the world because it has generous and kind people, and it has been so diverse and it has accepted all races, all religions, all people of all colors,” the mother said during a video chat.
The family’s only desire, she said, is to “reunite with our son and live together in peace.”
‘Paid a price’
With his family out of Afghanistan, Shirzad has been feeling optimistic, but said, “I still don’t have a clear picture of what’s going to happen next.” Nobody has guaranteed that their immigration cases will be approved, or that they will be approved in time.
The family’s immigration applications for humanitarian parole, filed in November, have been stalled behind thousands of other such applications.
“We can’t push through this bureaucracy,” Scott Hoffman said, despite countless hours of phoning, emailing and writing government agencies and officials.
“These are folks that stood up for the U.S. and paid a price for it,” he said of the Afghan family. “That’s what’s so frustrating.”
He described the attempts to help the family as the biggest thing the couple has ever done, even considering that he’s gone to war and and “gotten into the most dangerous airplanes there are, after I’ve lost friends in them.”
To break the logjam, the Hoffmans pleaded for assistance from Nevada’s senators, Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen. The senators’ offices this month sent a letter to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ”strongly urging” expediting their applications and scheduling immigration interviews at the consulate in Peshawar before their temporary visas expire.
The immigration agency has since been in direct contact with Shirzad and the Hoffmans.
The senators’ offices said they do not comment on specific cases, citing privacy and security concerns.
In the past week, Shirzad’s family crossed back into Afghanistan briefly to renew their medical visas for another 30 days.
It proved to be another harrowing journey through multiple checkpoints. At the border, people who stepped out of line were lashed with a whip.
The Shirzad and Hoffman families — one Muslim, one Christian — are praying that the U.S. visas will come through.
“Hanging out illegally is much more difficult than it is here,” Scott Hoffman said. Pakistan requires all visa holders to register with the local police, and the visas are tracked.
“We must get them out,” he said. “There is no plan B right now.”
How to help
Ellen and Scott Hoffman have set up a GoFundMe account to assist Mohammad “Benny” Shirzad and his family. Funds are to be used for immigration fees, assistance with housing, food, education or training, and transportation.