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Refugee family settled in SLO County shares their story of Kabul airport attack one year ago

A newly arrived Afghan family stocks up on donated household items at a refugee resettlement office in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Joel Rose / NPR
A newly arrived Afghan family stocks up on donated household items at a refugee resettlement office in Fairfax County, Virginia.

John and Maria are two Afghan refugees who use pseudonyms for their safety. They arrived in SLO County with their daughter in early May.

“My journey starts in Kabul during the withdrawal of U.S. from Afghanistan on 15th of August 2021,” John said. He's sitting with his wife Maria, describing what happened one year ago when the Taliban reclaimed power in Afghanistan.

“Our aim was to just flee out of the country anywhere, because at that time the border was sealed. And, we didn't have any government to have a diplomatic relationship with any country, and to issue us a visa,” John said.

In April 2021, President Biden announced the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. By August the Taliban seized power in most of the country — except for the capital, Kabul. This led thousands of people to make their way to the Kabul airport.

John said the first flight to leave the airport was for American humanitarian groups and diplomats. Once they left, Afghan families trying to get flights out of the country found themselves with no security at the airport. John says people began running in fear.

“They were climbing on the airplanes and stuff because of the fear,” John said.

He said people were desperate to find a way out of the country. And then the Taliban entered Kabul, meaning they had now seized control of the entire country.

Shortly after, an attack at the Kabul airport killed nearly 200 Afghan citizens and 13 U.S. service members. The attackers were two suicide bombers and a gunman of the militant group ISIS-K, a branch of the Islamic State.

The same day of the attack, President Biden held a press conference.

“Here is what you need to know: These ISIS terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans who are there. We will get our Afghan allies out, and our mission will go on. America will not be intimidated,” Biden said.

But getting Afghan allies out of the country wasn’t easy or quick. Many of them were left vulnerable to the violence around them.

John said this was a terrible moment in his life — it was about 90 or 100 degrees outside, and there was no food or water.

“It [was] kind of like thinking it was the last day of your life,” John said.

John’s wife Maria said the memory of the airport has stuck with her, and she’s grateful that their daughter is too young to remember what happened.

“The children were in a bad situation, you know. I have still the videos. Whenever I think about those days, it makes me very sad,” she said.

With those memories behind her, Maria said she’s happy to now be here with her family. She said she feels relaxed on the Central Coast, and it's a huge contrast to her final days in Afghanistan. She loves to go hiking, bike riding, and to the beach.

“We like it so much here, you know, living in very different country than Afghanistan. I'm so happy for my daughter, for my family, for my mom, and dad, and my sister, and everyone. I hope you know people are waiting to get in here. I hope they will make it, because everyone deserves a good life,” Maria said.

She said it’s extremely difficult right now for women to get an education in Afghanistan, so she hopes to pursue an education here in the U.S. sometime in the future.

“Maybe I will go for nursing here, [and] I will start my medical education,” Maria said.

Doctor Vance Rodgers is the President of SLO4Home. He said once he and a fellow colleague heard about what happened at the Kabul airport they decided to take action. Within six months from October, they had 155 volunteers, and a quarter million dollars in donations.

“We thought well, maybe there's some way we can help these folks. And so we started talking [to] people in the community and in a short six or seven months, we had 450 people who were supporting us. So it’s a community-wide organization,” Rodgers said.

A couple of months ago, Maria’s family was able to join them in SLO County, but now they are waiting to reconnect with John’s family. He said he misses his family and friends.

“To be honest, I miss my home and of course the food, the barbecue, and the friends which I used to hang out with. But unfortunately I can't do that anymore," he said.

Still, John said he’s grateful to SLO4Home and the local community for making them feel at home.

“I don't know when this life will give me the chance and this opportunity to have that kind of life again, but still I'm enjoying my life here and I would like to thank everybody,” John said.

SLO4Home staff said they hope to bring in more families from Afghanistan, and to start bringing in refugees from Ukraine as well.

Gabriela Fernandez came to KCBX in May of 2022 as a general assignment reporter, and became news director in December of 2023. She graduated from Sacramento State with a BA in Political Science. During her senior year, she interned at CapRadio in their podcast department, and later worked for them as an associate producer on the TahoeLand podcast. When she's not writing or editing news stories, she loves to travel, play tennis and take her 140-lbs dog, Atlas, on long walks by the coast.