‘They want to get out’: As Afghan evacuees resettle in Valley, many worry about those left behind

  • Shirzad Saifi of Afghanistan, makes tea in the Northampton apartment he shares with one other evacuee on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Saifi, of Kabul, arrived in the United States in September and has been living in Northampton for about three weeks. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Shirzad Saifi of Kabul, Afghanistan, holds up three articles of clothing, all he took with him when he left his native country in the August airlift evacuation. Photographed on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Northampton where he has been living for about three weeks. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Shirzad Saifi talks Thursday about his experience leaving Afganistan in August. Saifi, of Kabul, has been living in Northampton for about three weeks. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Shirzad Saifi, who was evacuated from his native Afghanistan in August, relocated to Northampton about three weeks ago. Saifi, who lived at home in Kabul with his parents, brother and two sisters, now shares an apartment with one roommate, also from Afghanistan. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer 
Published: 11/22/2021 9:05:16 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Safely evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan and now living in a Northampton apartment, Shirzad Saifi can’t help but worry about his family still in Afghanistan.

Unlike Saifi’s successful boarding of a military cargo plane at the Kabul Airport that brought him to Dubai, his mother and father, and a younger sister, were not able to get out in August when U.S. troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over its governance.

“We were together at the airport, but because of the crush at the airport, they were left in Afghanistan,” Saifi says.

Though he is able to stay in regular contact with them by text messages as they move around and avoid interaction with the Taliban, Saifi fears the worst. He said his father’s five years working for Afghan intelligence might mean a death sentence for him, while his sister’s education, and her interest in continuing to learn, could be in jeopardy if she is forced into marriage.

“Their situation is not too good. They can only stay one weekend at one house, then they have to move to another,” Saifi said. “My younger sister, my father and mother — they want to get out.”

Saifi, 28, is one of 1,500 refugees expected to resettle across Massachusetts, with close to 400 of these individuals and families likely to find their new homes in the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires.

Catholic Charities of Springfield is assisting Saifi and has placed him and a roommate, who had been a military pilot, into an apartment. Catholic Charities is also working with a number of families and other individuals on many aspects of their arrival. This includes support from volunteers who are part of a “circle of care” making sure evacuees have furnishings in their apartment and can get food and other necessities at places like the Northampton Survival Center.

Saifi spent eight years at the National Directorate of Security, or NDS, in Kabul, supporting the provision of weapons and ammunition to troops in the capital city and at other military bases. “Important work” is what Saifi calls what he did, overseeing six people and commuting the 10 to 12 minutes each day from his home.

But he left his homeland with just the clothes on his back, wearing a traditional perahan and tunban, even losing his cellphone at the airport. He has since obtained a new device and accessed his personal information, including photos, through his Samsung account.

Saifi reflects on the horrors he saw in leaving Afghanistan.

“There was lots of rush to get to the airport and the airplanes,” Saifi said, noting that the flights were provided by the United States, Canada, Germany and other NATO nations

“It was so nervous there, and a lot of children died because of the crush,” Saifi said.

After 18 days in Dubai, he came to the United States on Sept. 9, staying at an off-shore military base handled by Marines for another 32 days until Oct. 12, when he moved into the retreat wing at the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Assisi site in Holyoke. He left the Holyoke location after 25 days for the city apartment.

Next, Saifi will try to get work, though he first has to get a Social Security card. Saifi is proficient in English and has skills with computers and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Kardan University in Kabul. He gets to stay in the apartment for three months, but will need to begin making income so he can rent his own home.

Aside from time spent in the apartment, enjoying the black tea that is a custom of Afghans, he takes time to walk the streets of Northampton. But much of his time is spent hoping the welfare of his family will improve.

His younger sister studied day and night to pass exams and continue her learning. “She loves to study,” Saifi said.

“They can’t work, they don’t have money to buy anything,” he said. “It’s so risky for them.”

Catholic Charities is one of three agencies in the region, alongside Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts, also in Springfield, and Ascentria Care Alliance in West Springfield, resettling evacuees from all regions of Afghanistan.

Jewish Family Services Executive Director Maxine Stein said for her agency, about 60 people are staying in the Springfield area, with a handful also in Amherst and Northampton. Another 60 are heading to the Berkshires, which she said, like the two apartments being used in Turners Falls, is a new outpost for the agency.

So far, Stein said sufficient housing has been found and that is giving people the stepping stones to independence, but also not isolating people.

The largest family is one with several children, with a father who worked alongside troops, and the new arrivals also include a family of three with a newborn child.

Stein said she is optimistic about the state budget and the allotments that will be made for both those arriving from Afghanistan and some people from Haiti.

Numerous volunteers are aiding the evacuees, and there is also a legal team helping with asylum work and significant wraparound services give them a better chance for success.

These services include an employment program to help them get jobs appropriate to their skill levels, a comprehensive English as a Second Language program, and a robust behavioral health program, trained in dealing with trauma, which she said many could be experiencing from what they witnessed in their home country.

“It was a very, very fast leave, and there is fear for people left behind,” Stein said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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