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Half a world away, Afghan family waits and worries

Aug. 16, 2021 Updated Mon., Aug. 16, 2021 at 10:04 p.m.

Yalda Shirzai graduated this year from North Central High School. She moved from Afghanistan to the U.S. in 2018 and is ready to pursue her studies at Gonzaga University, but first she worries about the safety of her sister in Kabul as the Taliban seizes control.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Yalda Shirzai graduated this year from North Central High School. She moved from Afghanistan to the U.S. in 2018 and is ready to pursue her studies at Gonzaga University, but first she worries about the safety of her sister in Kabul as the Taliban seizes control. (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Yalda Shirzai should be celebrating.

Four years from fleeing her native Afghanistan, she is about to go off to Gonzaga University and begin her dream of being a doctor.

“But I’m not even thinking about it right now,” Shirzai said Monday. “I’m just thinking about my sister.”

As the Taliban seizes control of her family’s hometown of Kabul, the Shirzai family, including Yalda, her parents and five siblings, can only watch the events from their home in north Spokane and worry.

There were gasps of disbelief at the collapse of the Afghan army. The scenes of violence. The panic at the airport.

“I was surprised how fast it happened,” Shirzai said.

But mostly there were tears, because Shirzai’s sister, her husband and two young children are still there and laying low.

They have plenty to fear: It was partly through their mother’s employment at the United States embassy that the rest of the family was able to obtain special visas. Two other siblings were too old to qualify.

Growing up in Kabul, Shirzai worried that hostile neighbors might tell the Taliban about her mother’s former employment – such was the paranoia even when the city was in friendly hands.

Now the fear is all-consuming, and it stretches to the other side of the world.

Internet connections in Kabul are spotty, so Shirzai’s mother spends hours with a phone to her ear, praying for the sound of her daughter’s voice.

“She’s always been worried,” Shirzai said of her mother. “All the time, she sits and asks ‘why isn’t she calling me?’ ” Shirzai said.

“This makes the rest of my family very upset,” Shirzai said.

It doesn’t help that Shirzai’s brother-in-law recently lost two jobs and has no way to support a family that includes a 3-year-old son and an infant daughter.

There is still hope. A brother was able to leave Afghanistan earlier this summer, leaving only Shirzai’s sister behind.

Recently, the family sought help through the local office of World Relief. However, the Shirzais are not yet American citizens – that’s another year away. Only then can they begin the process of lifting the rest of the family out of the darkness that swiftly descended last week on the capital.

“I think about all the people there, especially the women and the girls,” said Shirzai, who expects schools and other opportunities in Kabul to be closed to women – if they aren’t already.

“The Taliban don’t believe in education for women, and they don’t like women to have any rights,” Shirzai said. “They just want them to be at home.”

Added Shirzai: “I can’t imagine being there now.”

Four years ago, Shirzai couldn’t have imagined going to college.

Arriving midway through her freshman year at North Central High School, she couldn’t speak English.

“I watched a lot of YouTube videos,” Shirzai said. She also absorbed every other medium she could find. She never took summers off but went to the library every chance she got.

She also became a leader at North Central’s English Language Development program, encouraging other ELD students to leave their comfort zone.

Teachers gave her confidence, enough to apply for a scholarship through the Act Six Program, which serves mainly low-income families and first-generation college aspirants.

Shirzai learned about the program during visits to local universities, but had to be encouraged to apply. “To believe in myself,” she said.

Two weeks from now, Shirzai will be a freshman at GU. She’ll have a lot more on her mind than parties and term papers.

“I’m very afraid,” she said.

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