West Valley City • He wraps a scarf around his face, ostensibly to block the wind and dust, but really to hide his identity. He wears sunglasses, keeps his head down and moves.
This man once served as an agriculture adviser to U.S. military contractors. He has a special immigrant visa and was offered a spot on a plane leaving Kabul. But he didn’t take it. He couldn’t leave his wife and children, his two brothers and four sisters, or his mom, who uses a wheelchair to get around.
His reasoning is that if he is caught by the Taliban, they will likely kill him. But if he leaves, the Taliban may exact revenge on his family. He now is in hiding, shifting locations each day on the outskirts of Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, the last remaining territory fighting the Taliban.
Quite possibly his best hope of survival is Malal, his older brother in West Valley City. They communicate frequently, though intermittently, one voice message at a time.
Malal has a wife and five children. He also has his father and one brother in Utah. He works three jobs — at Costco, at a university and at a 40-acre sheep and goat farm he owns in Tooele County.
He now has a fourth job: doing everything he can to help his family. His gaze never leaves his phone for long. He is reaching out to anyone he can think of who may be able to help, and he is communicating with his loved ones.
Each time he gets a message, he feels a jumble of hope and fear. Maybe someone found a way to get them out. Or maybe his brother has been killed.
“If something happens to my family or my brother,” Malal said, “at least I can say I did everything. I knocked on every door.”
A helpful friend
Malal is not his real name. It is a nickname he went by years ago. Concerned about his family’s safety, he asked The Salt Lake Tribune not to fully identify him or his relatives. But he wants people to know their story, hoping that it may make a difference.
Malal has helped the U.S. military himself, but here in the United States. He taught language and culture classes. He has reached out to every contact he has through that experience. And he has reached out to his former boss, Jabra Ghneim, who runs the translation company.
“He really stepped up,” Malal said of Ghneim. “He is a helpful friend.”
His helpful friend has a neighbor who is related to Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah. Ghneim connected with the congressman.
Stewart’s staff has submitted papers to the State Department on behalf of Malal’s family members, getting them on a list of potential refugees. He also is coordinating with Florida Rep. Mike Waltz, who worked with Malal’s brother in Afghanistan. But Stewart is unsure about what comes next, now that the U.S. military has left Afghanistan and Taliban fighters have taken over the airport.
“Right now there’s just nothing but uncertainty,” Stewart said. “We don’t have communications with them. If they were to call us, I don’t know what we’d tell them.”
Generally, he would urge people to try to get to the border and avoid Kabul, but he said he would “hate to give advice when you don’t have any better eyes on the ground than anyone.”
Stewart is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He receives classified briefings frequently. “At the end of those classified briefings, I didn’t leave any smarter because no one really knows.”
Stewart said his team was able to get a few people to Kabul and on flights. His aides were able to warn people about the threat of a suicide bomber before the blast killed 13 U.S. soldiers, including one from Utah, and scores of Afghans. He feels they have done some good.
“It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need,” Stewart said.
“It’s heartbreaking for these individuals and, frankly, just heartbreaking for our country,” he added. “Our standing in the world is greatly diminished. We promised these Afghan allies that if they worked with us, we’d never abandon them. And some of them, we did.”
Malal has not talked to Stewart. Instead, Ghneim has represented the family. Ghneim and Malal are grateful for his efforts and appreciative that the congressman has personally taken an interest in their plight.
If Malal had a chance to say something to Stewart, he would say this: “Please do more. Please don’t wait.”
The dark mentality
Malal, a calm and optimistic man by nature, said he is grateful for the 20 years the United States stayed in Afghanistan and for the schools the U.S. built, the revival of art and culture the U.S. fostered, the women who have been empowered. He understands why the Americans decided to leave, but the quick collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government shows a “mistake politically.” Malal said that mistake was having an Afghan president who wasn’t a military leader.
Suddenly, his people face the return of the Taliban and its militant form of Islam. He says the Taliban have a “dark mentality” and will forcibly stamp out any diversity of thought.
Malal left Afghanistan when he was 7. He lived in Pakistan, Libya and England before moving to Utah in 2003. He became a U.S. citizen in 2009. Malal still traveled to Afghanistan each year to visit his family, his last trip taking place in 2019, before the pandemic hit.
Now, he is unsure if he will ever go back.
His family lives in one big building in a tightknit village. Everyone knows who sided with the Taliban and who supported the U.S. Malal said his brother can hide for some time, but not forever. Taliban fighters continue their offensive in the nearby Panjshir Valley, clearing homes of any potential threats.
Malal tracks the news incessantly and doesn’t sleep much. The emotions of the past few weeks overwhelm him at times. He has found quiet moments to cry — when he is driving his truck or working at his farm or in an empty aisle at Costco.
But he hasn’t stopped working. He won’t stop working. He is determined to care for his family in West Valley City and those in hiding in Afghanistan.