After fleeing Afghanistan – first to Qatar, then to Indiana, and finally, to Philadelphia – Ghulam Sakhi Danish said the first thing he bought was a pair of running shoes.
“Coming from Afghanistan, most of us barely came with shoes or clothes,” he said of the rushed evacuation. The new sneakers are a return to an old pleasure, and one step towards establishing a new life in the United States. On Saturday, he will run an 8k race as a part of the Philadelphia Marathon.
“First of all, running is my hobby, and second thing, I really wanted to get in with Philly people,” he said.
Danish is one of the estimated 800 Afghan evacuees expected to resettle in Philadelphia as a result of the U.S. troop withdrawal and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The Nationalities Service Center will place around 500 including Danish’s family, according to Adi Altman, manager of Welcome and Community Supports for NSC.
At least 27,588 Afghan evacuees have already filtered through Philadelphia International Airport, according to city officials. From there, they headed to military bases around the country for processing. While this group includes a mixture of U.S.citizens, green card holders, and allies of the American military, the majority are Afghan natives fleeing life under Taliban rule.
Danish’s story is one of constant motion and displacement.
He grew up in the Ghazni Province, southwest of Kabul.
“We had no education there,” he said. When the Taliban first came to power, his family fled to Pakistan, where he was able to attend a school for refugees.
In 2008, he returned to Afghanistan. At that point, the U.S.-backed government was in control. He got scholarships to study business in India, completing his MBA in 2016. Then, he returned once more to Afghanistan for work.
Before the U.S. withdrawal, Danish said he worked for Janus Global, defusing mines and improvised explosive devices, before a turn as a translator for a U.S. security contractor. Danish’s wife worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In his spare time, he organized a hiking club, going into the mountains of West Kabul every Friday.
And, he ran. In 2018, Danish placed second in a half-marathon in Kabul, though he downplayed the accomplishment saying, “it wasn’t a very important” marathon.
When the Taliban took over Kabul in mid-August of this year, everything changed. “We got panicked,” said Danish.
The work he and his wife did, as collaborators with the United States government, put them at risk to be targeted for retribution. Through Danish’s wife, the family had been trying to apply for a special immigrant visa to come to the United States since 2017, but that process had a large backlog when the United States withdrew, with many allies languishing in limbo.
The family managed to flee Kaubl, and was taken to Qatar, one of several international satellite sites the U.S. military took Afghan evacuees. Then, they were sent to Camp Atterbury, a military base in Indiana, for processing. Danish’s wife gave birth to their second daughter while there.
At the base, Danish also started running again.
The family’s final destination was Philadelphia, said Danish, because a contact formerly with the group Keeping our Promises, a non-profit that helps to resettle endangered wartime allies and who helped them escape, lives here.
Beyond that, “we don’t have any friends in the USA at all,” said Danish.
This week, he walked from the hotel his family is staying in Center City to the race route along Kelly Drive, and did a practice run.
Danish said running is something he can do to help set up a new life, and a way to claim his place here.
“I need to start from somewhere … I am feeling this new city as my home, and I want to be part of it,” he said.
He is also running as a tribute to his mother, who died of cancer in 2016, as a way to honor her when he cannot visit her grave.
Next year, Danish wants to run the full marathon.
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