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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Hope fades for Spokane immigrant as he watches and worries about Afghanistan

Mohammad Ahmadi, left, and his wife, Sorayya Mohammadi – both Hazaras refugees, a persecuted Shiite sect of Muslims – pose for a group photo with Steve Lympus, head pastor with Shadle Park Presbyterian Church, and Esmatullah Hashem and Sayed A. Hussaini in June in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Mohammad Ahmadi, left, and his wife, Sorayya Mohammadi – both Hazaras refugees, a persecuted Shiite sect of Muslims – pose for a group photo with Steve Lympus, head pastor with Shadle Park Presbyterian Church, and Esmatullah Hashem and Sayed A. Hussaini in June in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Before most people were paying attention to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Sayed A. Hussaini was paying very, very close attention.

Weeks ago, Hussaini was fixed on the news out of his home country and concerned that America was about to abandon thousands of Afghans who, like him, worked alongside the U.S. during the seemingly endless war and nation-building effort.

The fall of Kabul happened suddenly. But the disaster has been unfolding for months, and people like Hussaini have been watching anxiously. His sister, his nieces and nephews, his uncle and cousins, his mother-in-law – Hussaini fears for their safety, and for the safety of everyone in Afghanistan, Sunni or Shiite, and he’s heartbroken that his homeland is reverting to a terrorist regime.

The events of the past few days were just what Hussaini feared when President Joe Biden announced plans to withdraw all troops, following the long, costly, and ultimately failed 20-year effort to drive out terrorists and build a new Afghanistan.

There’s a lot to say about what happened during that time, and enough blame to go around forever. From Hussaini’s viewpoint, though, it’s hard to reconcile the reasons the U.S. first showed up with the reasons it is now leaving.

“What’s different between the Taliban before 2001 and now?” he asked during an interview in June.

This week, as images of desperate Afghanis chasing a plane on the tarmac at the Kabul airport seized the world’s attention, he had the same unanswered question, as well as a grief that he compared to the death of a parent. He lost his father when he was 9, and his mother when he was 18.

“To me, it’s a feeling like that, but even worse,” he said. “When we lose a parent, we still have hope. But in this situation, there is no hope. … You see only darkness. There is no light.”

Hussaini is a native of Kunduz, a Shiite Muslim and member of the Hazara ethnic group. Hazaras are native to central Afghanistan, and for both religious and cultural reasons are a particular target of the Taliban, who enforce an extremist, militant Islamism. The Taliban has a long history of terrorist attacks against Hazara people, and it’s been intensifying in recent months, with hundreds of bombings of police stations, hospitals, schools and other public places. Children are often numbered prominently among the victims.

Hussaini worked alongside U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, as an environmental, health and safety manager. He came to the U.S. with his wife in 2014, and later earned his citizenship. He and his wife are raising three children here, and he works at the Community Colleges of Spokane as an environmental health and safety officer.

He is a member of Spokane’s small community of Hazara and Shiite refugees. Like several others, he came here on a special visa that was developed specifically for the many Afghans who fought and worked alongside Americans – many of whom remain in that country at great risk, given their association with the U.S.

I interviewed several members of this community June 13 at the Shadle Park Presbyterian Church. The congregation there has begun forming a relationship with the Spokane Hazaras, who do not have a place to worship. (Spokane’s mosque is Sunni).

Hussaini arrived for the interview with a printed list of Taliban atrocities against his people. He hoped that if Americans understood the kind of brutality facing his fellow Afghans back home, they might rethink the withdrawal plans.

Now, he is sorrowful that Afghanistan will be returning to Taliban rule, which will bring an end to women’s rights, free speech and other vestiges of the attempt to establish a more democratic country. He’s also afraid for the lives of his family and friends there, and not just Hazaras and Shiites – everyone is in danger from the Taliban, he said.

Hussaini’s sister moved from Kunduz to Kabul, seeking safety. In the past few chaotic days, she and her children are staying inside, trying to lie low and avoid trouble, and uncertain about what the future may hold.

“Nobody knows what to do or what they should expect next,” he said.

His mother-in-law, who has diabetes and other health problems, is also in Kabul. When the Taliban began moving into the city, her in-home caregiver went home to her family, and Hussaini’s mother-in-law was in her apartment for two days without care – and with a spotty phone connection.

He’s worried for many others, as well. He has an uncle in Kunduz whose sons worked with the Afghan military. A fellow refugee who now lives in Spokane is worried about his wife and two children, who traveled to Kabul to see family and are now uncertain how they will make it home.

It’s a mess of confusion and grief, and on top of it all, Hussaini has the feeling that the world has abandoned his home country.

“These things are happening in Afghanistan, but the whole world – they are just watching,” he said. “They’re not doing anything.”

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