First in an occasional series.
The two Afghan men once worked together as security guards for the Americans.
Now, on a late summer afternoon, the pair traded greetings 1,200 miles apart.
Sher Mohammad Mulakhail sat on a toshak in the Bloomington apartment he shared with his wife and six children. His family had found the place far too small at first, and the view was hardly scenic — overlooking asphalt instead of the orange trees and gardens outside their old house in the eastern fields of Afghanistan.
But they had found happiness here, and Mulakhail asked his friend on the phone if he was happy, too, staying in Fort Pickett, Va., weeks after escaping Kabul. Did he feel safe?
Yes, the colleague said, he was happy and safe.
Sitting alongside their father, Mulakhail's children knew how much he worried about his native country. They often saw him pray for help, sometimes cry. But now he laughed and chattered excitedly in Pashto about plans to host the friend and his family when they arrive this fall.
The Mulakhails knew how hard it could be to start over in America. Like many who left Afghanistan for the U.S. in recent years, they believed it was their duty to help those now fleeing the Taliban.
Adjusting to America
Over the last two decades of our nation's longest war, the United States has admitted nearly 100,000 Afghans, mostly those with special immigrant visas who helped Americans; another 50,000 are expected to resettle here in the wake of the Taliban's takeover. The Minnesota Department of Human Services projects as many as 315 Afghan evacuees will come to the state by the end of September.
The Mulakhail family and those in their orbit are among the new Afghan Minnesotans trying to reconstruct lives riven by decades of war, unrest and failed government policies here and in their homeland.
War, in fact, had been as constant in Mulakhail's life as the winding valleys and stark forests of Kunar, a province near the Pakistani border where he was born in 1977.
He grew up during the Soviet occupation, and insurgents forced him to drop out of school in 10th grade when the country collapsed into civil war. He took up work as a cleaner and food vendor, his fortunes worsening as the Taliban rose to power.
Sher Mohammad and his wife, Nilofar, had their first child a year before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. As their family grew, he became a security guard for the U.S. Institute of Peace. The post offered a good living for nearly a decade, but grew increasingly dangerous. Kunar also was a rugged hideout for violent extremists that made it one of the deadliest places for American soldiers. When the Mulakhails departed for the U.S. in 2018, the children could not tell their friends they were leaving.
Sher Mohammad's eldest son Bashir saw how trying it was for his father their first winter here, when he worked as a cook at the airport.
"It was a hard job but my dad has to do that," Bashir, now 18, recalled. "… He waited for the bus outside. It was very cold and far. When the bus comes, [he] took the train."
Sher Mohammad was accustomed to navigating country roads on his motorcycle, but in Minnesota, he had to learn to drive highways and city streets in a car.
Bashir made a handful of Afghan friends at school, who encouraged him to speak English instead of Pashto. The Mulakhail children, now age 5 to 21, quickly became fluent. Sher Mohammad practiced the language with his Somali co-workers at Walmart, where he found a job stocking shelves, and Nilofar worked with a tutor at home.
The Mulakhails settled into a two-bedroom apartment in Bloomington. It was hard at first, the kids admitted — they had four bedrooms in their sprawling house in Kunar — but they made it their own.
The family hung the flag of Afghanistan on the wall and decorated the living room with rugs and curtains from a Somali market. They befriended an Afghan family across the hall and another downstairs — one who was especially forgiving of 5-year-old Maryam's jumping. The girl was usually cheerful, but when her father asked if she liked the apartment, she stomped and said, "No!"
This spring, Sher Mohammad surprised his family with two parakeets. The pets brought joy and comfort, reminding the Mulakhails of their homeland, where it was customary for families to keep birds.
Old helping the new
After Mulakhail's father fell ill back in Afghanistan, the son flew out to see him and other relatives. Two weeks later, the Taliban took control.
Mulakhail's green card helped him escape, but he hardly felt relief. With extremists in power, his relatives in Kunar huddled in their home, relaying a stream of fear to him from one phone call to the next.
The Mulakhails were now maneuvering two worlds, progressing in America as they grieved the unraveling of Afghanistan. The contrast in their old and new lives played out in the long days Bashir spent at the Mall of America, where he worked at a phone kiosk and carried himself with the sureness of a teenager who had lived here much longer than three years.
On a recent afternoon, a woman approached and wanted to know if Bashir had a case for a Motorola Moto G Stylus.
"Actually, I don't," he said, telling her of another store that did. He began opening boxes of iPhone 11 cases as crowds rode past him up the escalator.
Bashir and his Afghan immigrant boss "John" were running too late to conduct their Friday prayers at the mosque, so the men took turns laying out a rug behind the counter of the kiosk and praying to Allah, trying to tune out the clatter of commerce around them.
John came to America in 2014 after U.S. Army leaders praised his work as a translator, "showing reliability and dedication through countless combat and civil military operations." (He asked to be referred to only by a nickname the Americans gave him, in order to protect his family in Afghanistan.) He had befriended Sher Mohammad after welcoming the Mulakhails upon their arrival in town. The pair bonded over their Kunar roots; John gave him a phone and later, hired his son.
Bashir would be quitting the kiosk as his last year of high school began, and John needed workers. He was ready to hire new Afghans if they wanted jobs. John and other Afghan immigrants were already gathering donations for evacuees at Fort McCoy, Wis. He wanted to help Sher Mohammad's friend in Fort Pickett, too. That was the way of local Afghans, the older immigrants helping the new.
Back at their Bloomington apartment, the Mulakhails cleared space in the living room for the new Afghan family of 10, whom they anticipated hosting for a week or two until they could help find them a home nearby. Sher Mohammad's friend called that afternoon from Fort Pickett. He couldn't say precisely when he would arrive. Soon.
Even with this happy news from his fellow security guard at the U.S. Institute of Peace, thoughts of Mulakhail's stranded relatives haunted him. That day, his father in Kunar cried to him on the phone.
A week passed, and Mulakhail's evacuee friend called again. He eagerly assured him he would travel to Minnesota after his family finished their medical screening. Mulakhail went to the mosque afterward, and as he always did, prayed to Allah for the well-being of all Afghan people.
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210