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‘There is nobody to stop them’: First Afghan refugee in Utah describes ordeal at Kabul airport

Azim Kakaie arrived in Salt Lake City on Tuesday and is working to get his family here.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Azim Kakaie, the first Afghan SIV, or special immigrant visa holder to arrive in Utah since the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, discusses life and work in Kabul and the days leading up to the chaotic end of the war, Sept. 2, 2021.

Azim Kakaie worked at his job — as an air traffic controller at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan — for as long as he could.

“We tried to do our best,” Kakaie said Thursday in his new home in Salt Lake City, where he arrived Tuesday night. Kakaie became the first Afghan holder of a special immigrant visa (SIV) to resettle in Utah since Afghanistan’s American-backed government fell to the Taliban last month.

On a normal day, Kakaie said, he and his air traffic control team could move 200 to 250 aircraft in and out of Kabul’s airport in an eight-hour shift.

When the Taliban took over Kabul, “it was just a normal day for us, like until 10:30 in the morning,” he said. “Then there was lots of helicopter movement from the [U.S.] Embassy to the airport. We didn’t know that something was going to happen that quick. Like, in 40 minutes, everything just changed, unexpectedly.”

The civilian air control tower got a call, Kakaie said: “[The Taliban] are in the car, and there is nobody to stop them. They’re coming to the airport.” Then, “on the next call we received, they said, ‘They are 5 kilometers away.’”

The controllers split into two groups. One group went to the airport’s alternate tower located across the runway that is secured by NATO and American forces to set up emergency air-traffic operations. Kakaie stayed behind with two other controllers, both Americans, to keep planes moving while the other group worked. Once the second group was ready, Kakaie’s group moved fast.

The controllers worked 18 hours straight, “because the situation was really bad,” he said.

In the alternate tower, the controllers only had one radio. “I was using my cellphone to coordinate the movement with the civilian aircraft stacked there,” Kakaie said. “There was no other way to reach them. I was just asking them, ‘Push! Don’t wait. There’s a hundred people on board. I need them to move. I don’t want them to be stuck in here.’”

(Kakaie’s English is quite good — in part because English is the international language of aviation, and air traffic controllers around the world usually are required to speak it with some level of proficiency.)

Kakaie put in another long shift on the second day, which is when the world saw images of frantic civilians running across the runway trying to grab the landing gear of planes as they took off.

“It was the first time I saw Apache helicopters used to move the people off the runway, for the aircraft to start boarding and taking off,” he said.

He had to put thoughts of his family out of his head. “When I was at work, my focus was to just safely send off the aircraft,” Kakaie said, adding that as an air traffic controller, “I can’t be physically here and mentally somewhere else. I have to be very focused.”

Kakaie said he kept working until his American bosses told him it wasn’t safe to stay. They advised Kakaie to get out of Afghanistan. He said they told him, “That way, you can help your family once you’re out.”

Kakaie had his visa, and within a short time was on a plane to Qatar with only his work clothes and a few possessions, including his airport ID cards.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Azim Kakaie, the first Afghan SIV, or special immigrant visa holder to arrive in Utah since the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, discusses life and work as an air traffic controller at Hamid Karzai International Airport and the days leading up to the chaotic end of the war, Sept. 2, 2021.

While Kakaie was in Qatar, he was on the phone with his wife, Shazia, who was trying to get to the airport, along with Kakaie’s younger brother and Shazia’s mother.

For three days, Kakaie said, his family couldn’t get to the airport, because they were stopped at Taliban-operated checkpoints. The Taliban beat them and sprayed them with tear gas, he said.

On the fourth day, Kakaie helped his family find a different route to the airport, crossing a storm drain to get to the American forces, who saw the family’s U.S. visas and let them through.

At the same gate 13 minutes later, Kakaie said, a suicide bomber attacked, killing dozens of Afghans and 13 U.S. service members — including Marine Sgt. Taylor Hoover, 31, from Salt Lake City.

“They sacrificed their life trying to help those people,” Kakaie said.

By the time Kakaie learned his family had gotten into the airport, he had been moved again, from Qatar to Washington, D.C. He was there for a few days, before being flown to Salt Lake City on Tuesday night.

In the last two days, Kakaie has been settling in with the help of Catholic Community Services of Utah, which is one of two resettlement agencies in the state. (International Rescue Committee is the second.) Kakaie has relatives in Utah among the 60 to 80 families in the Afghan community here.

CCS Utah has been working for weeks to prepare for an influx of Afghan refugees, said Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for the organization.

“The amount of support we’re getting from the community, the responses, have been so great,” Batar said. “The problem right now we’re seeing is that we’re afraid the Afghans might come all at one time.”

Salt Lake City is one of 19 cities identified by the U.S. State Department as a destination for refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq. Gov. Spencer Cox sent a letter to President Joe Biden in mid-August, offering Utah as a landing site for refugees coming to the United States.

Batar said his agency has handled 600 refugees or more in a year — though those numbers dropped sharply because of the Trump administration’s harsh changes to immigration policy. He’s expecting those numbers to rise again under the Biden administration.

Kakaie’s wife, mother-in-law and brother are in Germany, and Kakaie is working with CCS to get them to Utah. A process that could take weeks, Batar said. Kakaie’s elderly mother and another brother, a civil engineer who worked with American forces, are still in Afghanistan, but Kakaie is hopeful they will make their way out eventually.

The American and NATO forces that occupied Afghanistan for 20 years, Kakaie said, “brought democracy to the people. They made the highways.” Before they arrived, he said, “there was no school, there was no highways, no hospital, there was no university, no communication, no democracy or human rights.”

Kakaie was a teen when the Taliban last held control in Afghanistan, and “they are not changed,” he said. “They are the brutal group, the destroying group.” The fact that they beat his wife as she tried to get to the Kabul airport is proof of this, he said.

Kakaie said he’s looking forward to making a home in Utah — whose mountains remind him of where he grew up in central Afghanistan. And he said he and his fellow Afghans will fit in well here.

“They will be hardworking people,” Kakaie said. “They want to be part of this society.”

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For information on how to help incoming Afghan refugees, go to the websites of these organizations:

• Catholic Community Services of Utah: ccsutah.org.

• International Rescue Committee: rescue.org/united-states/salt-lake-city-ut.

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