How a former U.S. military translator escaped Afghanistan with his family and started over in Texas

After working as a translator for the U.S. military for a decade, Lucky is building a new life in Texas. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune)

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In Afghanistan, Lucky spent 10 years working with the U.S. military, serving as a translator between American soldiers and the Taliban. He said he saw friends die during their missions, and he had to leave his wife and child behind for two years when the military relocated him to America in 2016.

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The 36-year-old, who asked to be identified by the nickname his friends in the U.S. military gave him because he is worried for the safety of his family members who remain in Afghanistan, said it took two and a half years to get the proper documents to bring his family to join him in San Diego. He could focus on his family — which grew with the birth of his second daughter earlier this year — and his work as an interpreter and Amazon truck driver.

He said he finally felt at peace.

That all changed with one phone call. In May, Lucky’s brother in Afghanistan told him that their mother was in the hospital with kidney problems and her condition was serious. Lucky told his wife they had to go back.

They were returning to a country in turmoil: Twenty years after the start of the war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden had announced in April that U.S. troops would be removed from the country by Sept. 11.

The announcement and its effects have caused more than 70,000 Afghans to flee to the U.S. since August. Thousands more remain at U.S. military bases, waiting to resettle, because of the time it takes to connect the thousands of evacuees with resettlement services like language training, transportation and assistance finding a job.

According to the Associated Press, Texas could receive close to 4,500 Afghan refugees. More than 500 — including Lucky and his family — have already come.

According to Refugee Services of Texas, 9,762 Afghan refugees — including Lucky and his family — have come to Texas since August.

“I feel like it’s our responsibility to provide them with that safe haven, provide them with whatever help is needed,” said Zeenat Khan, the founder of Dallas-based DFW Refugee Outreach Services, which has helped more than 500 Afghan families with job applications, medical care and mental health services. “Just guide them so they are able to stand up on their feet.”

Save The Children, a nationwide nonprofit that runs shelters for refugees in El Paso at Fort Bliss and in Washington, D.C., said it has assisted more than 20,000 Afghans. The Fort Bliss shelter provides families with children essential supplies such as diapers, cribs, blankets and learning materials for kids.

“Afghan children and their families are coming to America with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and many without even shoes on their feet. They desperately need our help to begin to adjust to their new lives here in the U.S.,” said Jeanne-Aimee De Marrais, Save the Children’s senior director for U.S. emergencies.

Escaping the Taliban

Within days of getting the phone call, Lucky and his family flew to Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. At the hospital, Lucky said, his mother’s completion was pale and waxy. He was shocked at how severe her condition had become.

Doctors told him that his mother needed to go to nearby India to get proper treatment. But the Indian embassy was not accepting interviews for medical visas because of COVID-19, so Lucky and his family had to stay longer than expected.

Months passed, and his mother’s condition was getting worse — and so was Afghanistan. U.S. military troops were being pulled out, and the Taliban were quickly taking over the country, invading villages and killing those who opposed them.

On Aug. 13, Lucky said, he received a short phone call from his 4-year-old niece in Orgun, a village 277 miles from Kabul. She was crying. “They’re going to come kill all of us,” she said. Shortly after, the phone call disconnected.

The call alarmed Lucky, who wanted to go to Orgun and check on his niece and his other brother. Maybe he could help them get to the U.S. too, he thought.

“No, it is too dangerous. The Taliban will be looking for you,” Lucky’s wife said.

He went anyway, and arrived at his brother’s home to find everyone safe. But soon after his arrival, the Taliban surrounded the village and refused to let anyone enter or leave.

Lucky knew that if the Taliban caught him and discovered he had worked with the U.S. military, they would kill him and possibly his family too. Suddenly he had an idea: to find a truck and disguise himself as a truck driver. Lucky said he contacted a friend and asked to borrow his truck.

When Lucky reached the gate of his village, he said, a Taliban soldier stopped him and asked him to step out of the truck.

He didn’t move a muscle. Lucky could hear his own heartbeat and the footsteps of Taliban soldiers approaching. ​​Lucky’s heart began to beat faster, but he had to keep his composure.

Lucky said he had done his best to look like a truck driver — his clothes were dirty and unwashed. The soldier let him pass.

Long journey to Texas

After making his way back to Kabul, Lucky said, he made another phone call to one of his friends in the U.S. military and asked if the friend could help his family get on a plane back to the United States.

His friend said he would be able to help only Lucky, his wife and his two daughters. He would have to leave his mother and brother behind because they didn’t have the proper documents to come to the United States.

With his brother’s blessing, Lucky and his family left the same night with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Once they got to Kabul’s airport, Lucky said, it felt like a war zone: Thousands of people pushed one another trying to get on military planes as guns and bombs exploded around the airport.

Lucky said he saw children get shot, mothers pushed to the ground. He and his wife held on to their children tightly as they made their way through the crowd. Their children burst into tears, pleading to go home.

“I couldn’t continue any longer. I just gave up and said it’s not possible,” Lucky said.

After 15 hours at the terminal, Lucky called his friend again and explained his situation. The friend said he would find another plane to get them out.

Around midnight, Lucky and his family went to another terminal at the same airport and waited until the next day to get on the plane. First, they went to Qatar, where he said they spent 10 to 12 days in the airport terminal with little to no food or water before another military plane took them to Germany.

Eventually, Lucky and his family were able to arrange a flight to Texas, where Lucky’s brother-in-law was living.

In August, Lucky and his family resettled in Fort Worth with his brother. Within a few weeks, Lucky said, he was able to get a job as a truck driver. But after their experience in Afghanistan, his children became fearful every time he left the house, thinking he wouldn’t come back, Lucky said.

So he decided to pursue another job.

On Dec. 1, Lucky and two Afghan friends opened Afghan Halal Market Texas in Fort Worth — a food shop for Afghan refugees having a hard time finding Afghan halal food in Texas for an affordable price. It’s close to his brother’s home, so he is able to come home during the day and spend time with his family.

“I’m happy that I’m helping those new Afghan refugees that are struggling because there’s all the new people that came here with no nothing, no clothing,” he said. “They left everything in Afghanistan, so I’m trying to help them with what I can do.”

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