Over 70,000 Afghan evacuees are rebuilding their lives after having to flee the country, now under Taliban control following the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the chaotic end of a 20-year war.
Amir Sidiqi is one of them. After starting a family and building a life in Afghanistan, the Strath Haven High School graduate is back in Delaware County, living in Wallingford with his wife and daughter. And despite a harrowing escape and the collapse of the country as he once knew it, Sidiqi said he wants to be on the first flight back to Afghanistan to help rebuild.
“We can … start a new beginning for this country,” he said.
Sidiqi’s new home is just a few blocks from that of Kevin Haney, his former Strath Haven High School English teacher, the man who may have helped save his life.
The two met in 2002, when Sidiqi was a freshman at the high school and the 9/11 terrorist attacks the year before were still fresh in many people’s minds.
“Nobody knew where Afghanistan was until 2001, but everybody knew where Afghanistan was after 2001,” he said.
Sidiqi, whose father was born in Afghanistan, said he endured years of racial profiling; he was always the subject of “not-so-random” searches at airports. Haney said he remembers hearing students use Islamophobic slurs at Sidiqi in the school hallways. He pulled Sidiqi aside one day after class.
“I said, ‘Listen, you have an ally in me. And if anything comes up, anybody bothers you, anybody says anything, come directly to me and I’ll take care of it,” Haney recalled. “That’s like the genesis of our relationship.”
At 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 260 pounds, the self-described “teddy bear” is someone Strath Haven students both figuratively and literally look up to. So with Haney on his side, Sidiqi said, he felt protected.
“Having my ninth grade English teacher come to me and kind of reassure me that, ‘Hey, you’re an American and we’re all Americans and, you know, you should feel safe here,’ he was somebody who had a profound effect on me throughout my high school years, always stayed in touch with me,” Sidiqi said.
After high school, Sidiqi, unsure exactly what he wanted to do next, joined the Air Force and worked in avionics in New Jersey.
He yearned to visit Afghanistan, his father’s native country. Sidiqi’s mother worked there as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. They left for the United States in the 1970s during another period of political turmoil, as the Soviet military invaded the country, clashing with fighters known as the mujahideen.
“To have your whole country and identity taken from you has an effect on you. We would hear about Afghanistan, but it was just an unattainable place that we couldn’t go to,” Sidiqi said.
He finally got there in 2010, working as a military contractor with the U.S. Defense Department to stabilize the post-invasion Afghan economy. Sidiqi said he helped rehabilitate an oil field and worked on various construction projects around the country.
“It was a real place again. It had so much hope and so much potential,” he said.
Later, he started several coffee shops in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and was eventually promoted to overseeing the embassy’s morale and welfare activities. He also worked transporting troops around U.S. military bases across the country.
When Sidiqi’s brother won a government contract to open a copper mine and gave him the job of running it, he said he hoped it would become “a good vessel to help bring jobs for the economy and get Afghanistan going to the direction we need to go to be able to sustain itself.”
Life was going smoothly for Sidiqi, his wife, and their infant daughter until last month, when attacks by the Taliban in his neighborhood in Kabul began to intensify.
The State Department told Sidiqi to leave, but he stayed put because he couldn’t get visas for his wife and daughter to come with him. However, as the Taliban closed in on the Afghan capital, he decided to try and escape with them anyway.
His first attempt to leave through the Kabul airport was traumatic. He said he attempted to go through a gate guarded by Afghan police.
“They start firing in the air to distract people, deter people from trying to come in and get away, but they got bumrushed. And so then they started firing into the crowd of people coming in, and they started killing people,” he said.
“We followed a bunch of dead bodies onto the right side that had been moved to the side. One guy to the left where the gates closed was sitting, and somebody was trying to put pressure on him. And there’s just blood shooting from his chest,” Sidiqi said. “I’m sure he died. Women and children died. People were trampled.”
He eventually fought his way out of the airport and made it home, exhausted and dejected.
“I was just completely drained, and having to go through walking past all these dead bodies and people getting shot up in front of you with a kid is just very, very challenging,” he said. “And very taxing on your mind and your body.”
Just a few days later, that same gate Sidiqi and his family attempted to flee through was the site of an ISIS-K attack in which over 100 Afghans and over a dozen U.S. troops were killed.
After seeing the chaos on the news from thousands of miles away, Haney reached out to Sidiqi, to whom he hadn’t spoken in months, and asked if there was anything he could do for him. Sidiqi’s State Department connections had already left the country and could no longer help him.
Haney said Sidiqi’s text that night gave him chills.
“He said, ‘If you’re a man of God, pray.’ And he left it at that,” Haney said.
Shaken by the message, Haney turned to social media to raise awareness of Sidiqi’s situation. Haney eventually heard from a friend in South Philadelphia who worked at the State Department and had been flown into Kabul to destroy documents and clear out the U.S. Embassy. He said he could help Sidiqi, so Haney connected them.
Sidiqi excitedly told Haney he felt confident he and his family would finally be able to leave the country. Then, Haney heard nothing from his former student. He grew worried, as he watched the situation in Afghanistan deteriorate on TV.
Then one day, to his “unbelievable surprise,” he got a knock on the door.
“I run outside. Sidiqi’s there — big embrace, hug, tears … He hugged me so hard, I felt like my ribs were going to break,” Haney said. “It was unbelievable to see him. And I was just so overwhelmed that he was able to get home safely and to be back stateside with his daughter … I’m still overwhelmed.”
Sidiqi was just as excited to see his former teacher for the first time in years.
“I said of all the connections that I had in my 10 years, 11 years in Kabul, I think it was my ninth grade English teacher that managed to get me out. I said it was embarrassing, and we started laughing,” Sidiqi recalled. “And we had a really good time catching up.”
Just about three weeks into his new life in Delaware County and despite barely escaping Afghanistan alive, Sidiqi said he wants to go back there as soon as possible.
With the evacuation of foreign contractors and the lack of banking infrastructure in the country, Sidiqi said, employees at the copper mine are unable to get paid right now. But he is still optimistic about the business, and the future of the country.
“It’s going to be hard. We’re really hard-pressed to keep going unless some things really start changing,” he said. “And that’s why we need to get back on the ground. And hopefully, the U.S. government is supportive of that.”
Sidiqi said the best way to help Afghanistan emerge from political turmoil is to help people make a living and become self-sufficient. Only then, he believes, will Afghans have the freedom to choose how they want the country to be run.
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