· 9 min read
‘A miracle’: Nebraska team aids escape from Afghanistan
As a former University of Nebraska–Lincoln student settled into his new home in Omaha last week, he was still a bit stunned that he, his wife and two sons were sitting in the United States.
“I’ll say it as my wife did,” said Farooq, whose last name is being withheld for safety reasons. “It is a miracle that we’re here.”
He is still astonished at how a group of people half a world away who he hadn’t seen in nearly a decade — and some he had never met — surrounded him with hope through a harrowing escape from Afghanistan and ultimately brought his family to safety.
“Everything changed for us in a few hours — we lost everything,” Farooq said. “But it was the grace of God. Here, people were turning every stone to get us out, and telling us not to worry, that they’d sort it out. That support kept us fighting through the miseries we went through. There was light, the people here.”
Worry, then action
The situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating rapidly in August, and Alice Kang, associate professor of political science and ethnic studies at Nebraska, knew Farooq had made his career with the government there and through supporting the U.S. mission.
She had stayed in touch with her former student after he completed his master’s degree at Nebraska through the Fulbright program. Farooq is a bright, affable person, who made friends quickly, Kang said, and she’d kept up on his life through Facebook posts and the occasional emails.
Two days before the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, Kang opened up the Messenger app and sent Farooq a message:
“I hope you and your family are hanging in there these days. If there is anything we folks in Nebraska can do, please let me know.”
Farooq responded Aug. 17 that he was in hiding and needed help.
Kang began making contacts to see if anyone knew how to help the family evacuate. Two emails landed in the inbox of her colleagues, Ari Kohen, a professor of political science, and Patrice McMahon, professor of political science and director of the University Honors Program, who’d served as Farooq’s thesis adviser. Both Kohen and McMahon reached out to Nebraska representatives on Farooq’s behalf, contacting the offices of Rep. Don Bacon and Sen. Deb Fischer.
Kohen also contacted Jane Kleeb, director of the Nebraska Democratic Party. She put him in contact with her husband, Scott Kleeb, who, aside from his full-time job in sales with Morgan Ranch, was also a member of the Truman National Security Project and was already working with Afghan people to help them evacuate.
Tobin Beck, who became friends with Farooq as students together at Nebraska, had also emailed Farooq. Beck, who is pursuing his doctorate at Nebraska and is an assistant professor at Concordia University in Seward, joined the effort.
“He and I became good friends as study partners in the master’s program, and it’s wonderful to be able to help him and his family,” Beck said. “Farooq is great in how he cares for his family, has stood up for his principles at great cost, and has worked to try to make the world a better place.”
Beck, Kang, Kleeb and Kohen all continued working with one goal in mind — to get Farooq and his family to safety, preferably to the United States.
Within days, the team had cast wide nets, contacting various elected representatives and officials with the U.S. Department of State and Homeland Security. Staff in Bacon’s office assisted in getting Farooq and his family clearance to be on an evacuation flight. Things were looking promising.
“We were ready to go, to give them the go-ahead, to get them to a gate,” said Kohen, who also serves as director of the Harris Center for Judaic Studies. “And just before we had everything rolling, we were notified not to send them to the airport because of a security threat, and right after that was the ISIS bombing that killed more than 180 people.
“That effectively shut down the ability to evacuate people from the airport. That’s the first hurdle that comes to mind, but there was just hurdle after hurdle.”
The team asked Farooq what he wanted to do. They discussed all options, including staying in Afghanistan. Every possibility was extremely risky, but they agreed that staying was the biggest risk, especially for Farooq’s youngest son, who had been diagnosed with leukodystrophy, a disease that affects the brain’s white matter. He would need care not available there to have a good quality of life.
They cast their nets even wider. Eventually they found a way to get Farooq to Pakistan, but he wasn’t safe yet. He still risked being found and arrested.
“For Farooq, Pakistan was really no safer than Afghanistan, given the relationships between the intelligence services in Pakistan and the Taliban,” Kleeb said.
From September to December, Farooq and his family remained in hiding, having to move often to new hideouts. Things took a turn for the worse when his son’s health began deteriorating. He developed fevers and seizures in November. The stress of the ordeal was taking its toll, Farooq said.
“We thought for a while we might lose him because he became too weak,” Farooq said. “Those were tough days, but we knew they were working to help us. Otherwise, it would have been unbearable.”
Finding another way
In Nebraska, the team met with immigration lawyers and filed multiple rounds of paperwork to apply for various immigration programs, including Special Immigrant Visas, which had been offered to Afghans who’d worked with the U.S. government in Afghanistan. The team realized they had to find another avenue, as SIV applications received by the United States were numbering in the tens of thousands.
“We were told to pursue all paths, all options,” Kang said. “We started filling out paperwork for several different statuses, asylum, refugee. What we were told by multiple immigration lawyers that the situation was changing so much that they couldn’t see which path would work, so whatever he was eligible for, we were told to apply for it.”
It was a stroke of luck that illuminated a possibility none of them had thought of, because most had never heard of it. A lawyer in Alabama and in Omaha suggested applying for humanitarian parole. Because it is a different type of application, with a fee, they said it would be more easily trackable.
The team looked further into it. Humanitarian parole allows an individual admission into the United States for a temporary period for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.
“Another light bulb moment came when reading a document that had been FOIA’d that walked through how officials review humanitarian parole applications, and it mentioned that you could request humanitarian parole on multiple grounds,” Kang said. “We were thinking about applying for threat of life or emergent risk but realized you could also apply for it for medical emergency reasons.
“It became very clear, because Farooq’s son was so sick, that we had two grounds on which to ask for parole.”
In many ways, it was still a long shot. Only about 1,000 parole applications are granted a year, and more than 26,000 applications had been made in September alone. But the team gave it a try, working every angle they could to help get the paperwork to the right person.
One more dangerous hurdle
On Dec. 10, at 9:06 a.m., they received an email confirming that the Department of Homeland Security had approved the humanitarian parole application and that it had been sent for final approval to the U.S. Department of State. At that point, Kleeb said, he knew they were on the downward slope.
The team worked to find Farooq and his family safe transportation to a medical clinic and to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, for their health checks and final interviews.
In Omaha, Kohen had an acquaintance who offered a rental home for the family. Kohen’s wife, Sara, organized a donation drive, which brought in nearly everything needed to furnish it.
Plane tickets were purchased with the aid of No One Left Behind, and Farooq began to feel like the impossible just might happen. But, there was a final hurdle — airport security.
As Farooq and his family made their way through airport checkpoints in Pakistan, they were detained and threatened with arrest. Farooq feared the worst.
U.S. Embassy staff in Islamabad stepped up and made phone calls for three hours to sort out the issues. Kleeb worked with staff from No One Left Behind to change plane tickets. Eventually, Farooq and his family were allowed to board a plane, with just seven minutes to spare.
“It wasn’t their responsibility, but we had people going to bat for us at 3 a.m., making sure we were taken care of at the airport,” Farooq said.
Farooq, his wife and two sons landed in Omaha Jan. 4. They were welcomed by Beck, Kang, Kleeb and Kohen.
“We were all just elated,” Kleeb said. “Tears of happiness and joy, and a release of tension after five months, I think, was felt by everyone.”
Hope for the future
Through a team that Farooq’s friends and professors helped establish between Children’s Hospital of Omaha and two neurologists in California and Massachusetts — including a leading expert on leukodystrophy — Farooq’s son began receiving care the day after they arrived in Nebraska. Farooq said after the first appointment that he was impressed with how the doctors and nurses interacted with his son, and breathed a sigh of relief that now his son will be comfortable.
“This is the best thing a parent can do is to get to a safe place for medical care where they’ll do the best they can for my son,” Farooq said.
Farooq isn’t sure what the future holds. There is still work to be done to attain visas for his family, as humanitarian parole is only granted for a limited amount of time. But he’s looking forward. He may even end up as a student again at the university.
“I hope to continue my education and get my Ph.D.,” he said. “That would be a dream come true. I have huge questions bothering me, and don’t see the answers. I think I could not only find the answers, but I think I could help change lives for a lot of people.”
When he thinks back to when he first learned of his Fulbright award, he feels beyond fortunate to have chosen Nebraska for his studies the first time.
“They came back to save us and it is extraordinary,” Farooq said. “It sounds like fiction, but we are a living example of what the people here do. When they found out that things had gone wrong, they dropped everything to help us.”