Refugees in Albuquerque holding out hope for their Afghan family members

By: - September 8, 2021 6:15 am

Mohammad Ismail worked as a translator for the U.S. military. Last week, he tried to get family members — in danger because of his work for the U.S. — out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He said he’ll keep trying, even though there’s no clear path forward. (Photo courtesy of Mohammad Ismail)

Although resettlement and other migration-related coordination is typically under international and federal jurisdiction, Afghan people living in Albuquerque continue to work with state officials to help their relatives. Still, today, there’s no clear path forward.

As time ticked down last week in Afghanistan after two decades of war, Mohammad Ismail — the refugee coordinator with Albuquerque Public Schools — was trying to evacuate four family members. “We did our part, we filled out multiple forms,” he said. “But there is no news yet. There are no updates. There are no guidelines. We just wait.”

Tens of thousands of Afghan people, including allies who worked with U.S. military and their families whose lives are at-risk, tried desperately to flee the Taliban-controlled country. Some have family members in the United States, including hundreds of people with family connections in Albuquerque. 

“My family is in hiding now in a self-imposed house arrest with limited resources, and they are running out of  money,” Ismail said.

As the deadline approached

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote a letter on Aug. 20 to President Biden welcoming Afghan people to New Mexico, saying the state has a “proud tradition of welcoming refugees.” But getting people into the overrun, Taliban-guarded airport in Kabul was increasingly dangerous and difficult, and getting them on a flight to New Mexico was becoming nearly impossible. 

“The evacuation deadline was the biggest barrier, the lack of time,” Ismail said. He worked closely with four other families to try and evacuate 107 specific relatives in danger in Kabul. The list included several babies, children, a pregnant woman and elders. One week after the evacuations ended, none of those 107 people had managed to escape, even with help from the offices of Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan.

Ismail came to New Mexico in 2013 on a special visa after his life was threatened by the Taliban for working as a translator with the U.S. military — a critical role in the longest war the U.S. has engaged in.  “We have the highest bounty on our head,” he said.  

Now, his family left in Kabul is under threat by the Taliban because of his work. “When I was going inside detention facility cells with the prisoners, they were telling me that ‘You’re an infidel. We will kill you. First, we will kill your family, we will kill your relatives, and we will kill your entire community.’ ”

The land borders of Afghanistan were closed by the country’s neighbors, and his family cannot reach the border with Pakistan, he said, which many people tried to do. His family members have the correct visas to come to the U.S. — or have applied for them — but there was not enough time for them to safely get to the airport, he said.

As the Aug. 31 deadline approached, every time he managed to get ahold of his family members, he didn’t know whether it would be the last time they spoke.

Every day, when we talk to each other somehow, when we make connections, we speak and say goodbye like it's our last.

– Mohammad Ismail

‘They beat them back’

Another refugee who’s been in Albuquerque for five years was worried for her family and described the chaos on the ground as people tried to flee. “There’s no way to get inside of the airport because of the explosions,” she said. “The Taliban don’t let anyone through even with papers and passports. They beat them back.” 

She declined to use her name for fear of retaliation against her family. She said she was trying to facilitate the evacuation of her niece and nephew — both young adults. Neither has made it out yet. 

She said coordinators from Heinrich’s office in New Mexico and Washington D.C. worked “night and day” to find a way to get loved ones onto evacuation planes in Kabul. The process is complex and risky. In her case, after several days of direct communication with U.S. Marines in Kabul, she said, a coordinator from the senator’s office was able to have her relatives included on a flight list to board a plane. 

Both have Afghan Special Immigrant Visas and valid passports to come to the U.S., she said, but those documents proved useless as her niece and nephew struggled to find a way into the airport. They’d been trying for days. “We are so far away,” she said, “trying to help them find a way into the airport through talking on the phone with them.”


Thousands of Afghans could have been temporarily housed and processed at Holloman Air Force, according to state officials. But many never made it there; those who could not reach the airport because of the Taliban checkpoints were left behind.

Critics of the rapid and disorganized evacuation say leaving people trapped, people who helped U.S. forces for two decades, will dampen future collaborations with local communities during military conflicts.

Ismail said he, too, is struggling with the responsibility. “When I signed up for this, I signed up without thinking about the consequences,” he said. “Now, I do feel this responsibility on my shoulder, when my family is reaching out to me for help or support.”  

Both people interviewed for this story said they are still working to help their families escape Afghanistan or stay safe while inside the country.

Ismail started a crowdfunding campaign to help raise money to get his family members across an international border, and to keep them alive with food and supplies while they are in self-imposed house arrest.

He said he will work hard to “get them out myself,” even without a timeframe for resuming evacuation flights. “But as of right now, I am hopeless,” he said, and his hands are tied. “I cannot do much.” 

Sen. Martin Heinrich continues to encourage anyone trying to evacuate Afghanistan to reach out to [email protected]. New Mexico congressional delegation staff are working with federal State Department and Department of Defense authorities to help those still trying to flee Afghanistan.


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Yasmin Khan
Yasmin Khan

Yasmin Khan covers worker's rights in New Mexico, with a focus on Spanish-speaking residents. She is finishing her Ph.D. in human geography and women & gender studies at the University of Toronto where she studies refugee and humanitarian aid dynamics in Bangladesh. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from UNM. Yasmin was director of The Americas Program, an online U.S. foreign policy magazine based in Mexico City, and was a freelance journalist in Bolivia. She covered culture, immigration, and higher education for the Santa Fe New Mexican and city news for the Albuquerque Journal.