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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: For Afghani Shiites in Spokane, a tension between a new home and the tragedies unfolding in their old one

On an August day nine years ago, Sayed A. Hussaini was riding in a car from Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, to the province of Ghazni, when the driver crashed into another car – one driven by a member of the Taliban.

Soon, about 10 more Taliban members arrived, armed with Kalashnikov rifles and demanding that Hussaini’s party follow them to a nearby police station. They proceeded in their car, following one vehicle driven by Taliban, and trailed by another.

“It was terrifying,” Hussaini said.

He had ample reason to be fearful. He was working for the U.S. government, managing safety considerations for the construction of roads, bridges, clinics and other projects. That alone had exposed him to repeated death threats from the Taliban.

In addition, Hussaini is a Shiite Muslim, and members of his faith have suffered sustained Taliban violence for years.

While they had achieved a measure of safety and protection during two decades of U.S. presence, in many rural areas, the Taliban still held power.

Fortunately, on that day – Aug. 2, 2012 – one of the Taliban drivers lost control of his car, hit a speed bump and flipped.

“That was a gift from God to us,” Hussaini said. “We had a chance to escape.”

Like other Shiite people who worked alongside the U.S. government, 40-year-old Hussaini later immigrated to the United States on a special visa program. He’s now an American citizen.

He and a small group of around 25 other Shiites have come to Spokane, where they are working, going to school and establishing new lives. Most of them are Hazaras, a Farsi-speaking ethnic group that has been the focus of more than a century of oppression.

Among the cultural connections they have made in Spokane is a budding relationship with the congregation at Shadle Park Presbyterian Church, where they are building friendships and ties across religions.

And yet this is an extraordinarily difficult moment for them, as they learn of near-daily atrocities against their people back home and fear for loved ones there. As the U.S. and NATO have begun a final, full withdrawal, militant violence has surged, and the Taliban is believed to be at its strongest point in 20 years.

In recent weeks, the reports of violence by Taliban, Islamic State and other terrorists have been relentless. Truck bombs have been driven several times into police stations. In May, bombings at a Hazaras school in Kabul killed 100 people, most of them children.

Nearly 1,500 Taliban attacks have been carried out since the withdrawal began, according to Afghani government estimates.

Meanwhile, many of those who worked alongside Americans there feel abandoned and in fear for their lives. The visa program developed specifically to help those who were U.S. allies in Afghanistan is facing a backlog of more than 18,000 requests – which observers say will be impossible to eliminate before the withdrawal is complete.

Every day, when the members of Spokane’s Hazaras community log on to social media, they find reports of the latest atrocities from their friends and family back home. They feel a complicated mixture of gratitude toward the U.S. and baffled sadness about what’s happening now.

“During the last 20 years, because of USA and NATO presence in Afghanistan, we had a better situation,” said Esmatullah Hashemi. “But now everything is going to get worse and worse, for all, but especially for Hazaras people.”

Hashemi, 39, said the day he heard the news that America was withdrawing “was one of the worst days of my life.”

“Personally, I’m very disappointed,” he said. “I’m very, very worried for the community and my family. My mom is there. My brother is there. I’m worried. We’re all worried.”

‘They’ll attack anything’

Hussaini arrived for an interview on a Sunday afternoon, bearing a six-page list of atrocities that have been committed against his people by the Taliban.

It includes repeated attacks on mosques. Thirty-two dead and 62 injured at Kabul’s Baqer al-Uloom Mosque in December 2016. Thirty-two dead and 70 injured at a mosque in Herat in August 2017. Fifty-six dead at Imam Zaman Mosque in Kabul in October 2017.

There are many more.

The list includes attacks on schools. Forty-eight dead at the Promised School near Kabul in August 2016. Twenty-four dead at a separate attack on a school in the same city, and 100 dead in yet another.

The attacks are conducted against seemingly all aspects of civilian life. Cultural and community centers. Sports facilities. Weddings. They include hostage-taking, suicide bombings and targeted assassinations.

In one instance, 24 people were killed in a suicide bombing of a 100-bed maternity hospital in Dasht-e Barchi in 2016.

It’s not new, but it’s getting worse.

“They’ll attack anything,” Hussaini said. “They had a suicide attack in a hospital. They killed children – babies!”

Spokane’s Afghani refugees remember what life was like under the Taliban in the years before the American military arrived in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Before that, Hazaras people, and Shiites generally, were a persecuted minority under the strict Taliban fundamentalism that ruled the country from 1996 until 2001.

They were second-class citizens in ways both formal and informal; men could serve in the military, for example, but not hold positions of authority. Women could not go to school and were largely required to stay at home. Listening to music, watching movies and other entertainment forms were prohibited.

The U.S. toppled the Taliban initially and maintained a presence that has waxed and waned there ever since – a mission that has been part military operation and part nation-building. As one piece of that, the government employed Afghanis who became Taliban targets. That was the case with Hussaini and Hashemi.

A resurgent Taliban signed a power-sharing agreement with the U.S. last year, and President Joe Biden has accelerated the U.S. withdrawal this year. Though there have been withering critiques of the U.S. efforts and effectiveness in Afghanistan – pointing to failures in execution and unintentional fostering of widespread corruption, among other problems – the sped-up withdrawal comes against the wishes of military leaders who support leaving a small remnant force in place as a check on militants.

Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, decried the withdrawal plan in an essay in The New York Times last week. He noted, among other things, that more than 71,000 Afghani and Pakistani civilians died in the war. He urged Americans not to abandon our partners in Afghanistan.

“We turned our backs on Afghanistan after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989; we must not do so again after the last of our troops depart,” he wrote.

For Shiites in Spokane, they see the Taliban returning to power and wonder what has changed in the eyes of the U.S. and the world. What was the goal?

“If it was safety and security,” said Sorayya Mohammadi, “they haven’t accomplished that.”

Hussaini asked, “What’s different between the Taliban before 2001 and now?’

‘The reality destroys everything’

Mohammadi grew up in Kabul, and when the Taliban came into control, they imposed strict rules that were particularly limiting for girls like her.

“They couldn’t send us to school, because under the Taliban it is forbidden,” she said.

Her parents took the family to Iran in 2000, when Mohammadi was a teenager. It is not uncommon for Shiite people to leave Afghanistan for Iran.

While there, she met Mohammad Ahmadi, whose family had also fled Taliban violence. Ahmadi had grown up in Bamyan, a town that is a Hazaras cultural center; his father was a leader in the community who had been targeted by militant attacks.

The couple met and married in Iran, and then migrated to Turkey in 2010. In 2014, they came to America. Mohammadi’s life here could not be more different than the one she experienced growing up. She and Ahmadi are raising two children. Ahmadi is working at a restaurant, and Mohammadi just graduated from Whitworth University.

Starting in the fall, Mohammadi will begin working as a first-grade teacher at Whitman Elementary.

“It feels so good,” she said. “It’s like making your dreams come true.”

As she and Ahmadi see what is happening in Afghanistan, it presents a challenge in terms of how they raise their own children and what they tell them about their home country and culture.

“It’s so hard to keep the balance, your culture, the love of your country and still see the reality,” she said. “The reality destroys everything.”

‘Attack, attack, attack’

As disappointed as she and others are with the decision of the U.S. to withdraw, they remain grateful for what the country has done for them.

Hashemi said the efforts of the U.S. government and NATO helped to lay the groundwork for progress in Afghanistan – building roads and bridges, hospitals and schools. They also helped drive efforts to establish democratic government and norms in the country, he said.

If those efforts didn’t succeed, the blame is not all on the U.S., Hashemi said. The withdrawal is fueling longstanding problems in the country, problems that grow from poverty and the lack of education on which the “dark ideology” of the Taliban can feed, he said.

Hashemi grew up in Ghazni, the rural province under Taliban control where Hussaini had his terrifying car crash. Hashemi worked for seven years for the U.S. government overseeing construction projects. Working in Kabul, he couldn’t travel back home for fear of his life.

He came to America in 2014 on a special immigrant visa, a program targeted toward Afghanis and Iraqis who assisted the U.S. government and whose lives were at risk as a result.

Hashemi is working on a master’s degree in public administration at Eastern Washington University, and he’s working at Lowe’s as a salesman and at Amazon as a problem-solver.

He and his wife have three children.

Hussaini is also making an American life for himself. He came here on an SIV in 2014 with his wife; they now have three children, all born here, and he is working for the Community Colleges of Spokane as an environmental health and safety officer. He holds two master’s degrees, including one from EWU.

Ali Hashemi, 27, is another Hazaras man who came to Spokane in 2014. He and his family moved from Afghanistan to Iran when he was a child. He just graduated from Spokane Community College in fire science, and has a new job working as a firefighter for the state in Chelan.

“(Graduation) was the end of one chapter of my life, and I’m starting another chapter,” he said.

All of the Hazaras people quoted in this story have earned their American citizenship. They want people here to know – from their neighbors in Spokane to the White House – how dire things have become in their home country, and what may happen to their loved ones if they are left even more vulnerable to terrorists.

They talked about the daily deluge of heart-breaking news from home. Even if they manage to avoid reading or seeing news reporting, they encounter it continually on their Facebook pages, they said.

“I see Facebook and see every day – attack, attack, attack,” Ali Hashemi said. “That is your country. That is your heart.”

‘My home forever’

As they establish new lives here, they have begun building a cultural bridge with the congregation at Shadle Park Presbyterian Church.

Because they are a relatively small group, local Shiites people have been mostly worshiping together in homes but have not had a place to gather for special religious observances, such as Eid al-Fitr. (The Islamic Center of Spokane in Spokane Valley is a Sunni mosque.)

Steve Lympus, the head pastor at the church, said Mark Finney, the executive director of World Relief, reached out before the pandemic to ask if his church might be willing to let the Hazaras use its facilities for an Eid celebration.

“It took us a long time to figure out how we felt about that,” Lympus said. “We decided, yes, we’d love to have your community here. Then COVID came.”

Now that the pandemic is easing and people are gathering again, the connections between Spokane’s Presbyterians and Hazaras are being strengthened, and the potential for future events together are again on the table.

Meanwhile, they live in a daily tension between their new lives in Spokane – and their sadness and fear over what’s happening in their home country.

“What I’m thinking now is, this is my home forever,” Mohammadi said. “This is the place where I feel safe for the first time and I’m free to do whatever I want … I’m able to make my dreams come true.

“The U.S. did a lot for us. Now it’s our time to give it back to our new country.”

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