The interpreter slogged through human sewage up to his knees, two trips back and forth through steaming sludge, each time carrying two of his children on his shoulders. At the walled gate separating fear from freedom, he heaved them into the arms of his anxious wife. It was Aug. 22.
The next day, Ahmad and Horia Siddiqi and their four children aged 9, 8, 3 and 1, would leave Afghanistan for Colorado via Qatar, Italy, Philadelphia and New Jersey.
The weeks leading up to their escape read like an international thriller. As Kabul disintegrated, Ahmad Siddiqi sped his family across the crumbling city to reach the airport where Marines promised safe passage out of the country. The once-proud Siddiqis were now homeless, bumping along in the family sedan armed only with a backpack carrying the baby’s milk, a diaper and a couple of shirts.
For weeks, Siddiqi, 35, hid in the shadows of Kabul, a moving target to keep the Taliban guessing his whereabouts. He knew that the rebels were cruising for those they considered traitors, riding the streets in former U.S. Army vehicles with big guns. They had a list with his name on it, peeking in windows, even asking children if they'd seen him. For a time, he left his family to protect them.
“All you have to do is Google my name and you’ll see photos of me with ambassadors and U.S. soldiers,” said Saddiqi. The Taliban knew that the interpreter had also translated for the Americans during intense interrogations and considered him a spy.
As he cased the airport looking for an escape plan, Siddiqi stepped over the body of a man killed the day before. As countless Afghans obliviously ran by, Siddiqi pulled the corpse to a nearby field and buried it. It was then that he started to lose hope. "I couldn't take it any more," said Siddiqi. He called a friend with the U.S. State Department and pleaded with him, "Sir, I think I'm in trouble. Please help us."
A life of foreign service
Saddiqi's relationship with the U.S. government started when, as a teenager, he got a good job as an interpreter on a NATO provincial reconstruction team. His first assignment? Winning hearts and minds in Zabul province, a Taliban stronghold in the scrub-brush dotted high desert surrounded by mountains on the Pakistan border. “I was like ‘Let’s do it!’ But it was hell,” said Siddiqi.
He was considered a traitor by his people, leading camouflaged U.S. soldiers door to door in a campaign to convince villagers who were mostly aligned with the Taliban to embrace the idea of democracy.
“There were no police buildings, no courts for the judges, no salaries, no banks; but you have to establish things. ... And now people are selling their homes to buy bread,” he said.
A 20-year career as the conduit connecting American soldiers with tribal leaders and statesmen, Siddiqi's resume included work with the State Department, the United Nations, the Department of Defense and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Despite leaving family and a lifetime of possessions behind, the loss that breaks Saddiqi as he recounts his evacuation is less tangible.
“I left a life of service for a country that we built from scratch and overnight they destroyed everything. Down to ashes,” he said. “I knew that if we stayed, my three daughters would not be able to go to school.”
He spoke with The Gazette from a tent-city at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where 3,500 other refugees await relocation. In the background, his children squealed while playing with new friends in a strange land.
Siddiqi recently revealed his mysterious job to them, a secret he’d kept for fear their friends would find out and tell their parents. “I had to tell them they were in danger because their dad worked for the U.S. government,” said Siddiqi, “I don’t care about my car, my house. At least we are safe. But what about the 30 million who are still over there?”
Call me 'Kevin'
The dangers in rural villages were all too real. Siddiqi changed his Afghan name to “Kevin,” initially so that the Americans could pronounce it and then to keep his identity a secret from suspicious rebels who would kill him for turning his back on his kind.
“We were in the middle of nowhere and we were attacked many times,” said Siddiqi. Once when their GPS lost signal, a villager gave the five-person reconstruction team the wrong directions into a remote area, directly into an ambush. A bullet whizzed above Siddiqi’s head lodging in a wall behind him, covering him with dust and debris. Minutes before, his supervisor, a young Army captain from Broomfield, had asked him why he didn't get out of Afghanistan.
That question from Scott Henkel, of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, would be answered 400 missions and 15 years later.
Tuesday, a United Airlines flight carrying Siddiqi, 35, his wife, Horia, and their four children will approach snowy mountain peaks that look strikingly like the ones back home. Their promised land is Colorado, where a house in a field, a horse named Merlin, and an old Army buddy await.
Siddiqi and Capt. Henkel were a team from January 2006 until April of 2007, with Siddiqi handling translation and Henkel in charge of field strategy. Their small unit made daily runs from their forward operating base to remote mountain villages.
“It builds a strong bond,” explained Siddiqi.
Turns out, it was a bond for life.
Farmhouse with a purple door
“When Scott came home from his tour in the spring of 2007, he and Kevin always talked about seeing each other again,” said Scott Henkel’s wife, Heidi. The Henkels and Siddiqis will be neighbors, as she’s found a house with reduced monthly rent on acreage just blocks away. “Who knew this would happen?”
As Heidi and her volunteers unpack boxes of donated goods, the modest farmhouse with a purple door looks like a big indoor garage sale.
Heidi nearly tips a mountain of boxes and opens a narrow closet door revealing an ironing board and iron, a vacuum cleaner, and hangers. Behind the front door, three brand-new backpacks hang above a rack of tiny shoes, all donations from Colorado residents responding to a plea Heidi put out on Next Door. A GoFundMe has brought in $22,000. A free and clear Black Toyota Sequoia sits in the driveway, children's bicycles wait for riders in the garage and a cedar wood playground in the back field sits empty, for now.
"We're trying not to forget the everyday things most people take for granted, like car seats,” says Heidi. The fire department will install those for her. Siddiqi will need a driver’s license. “I think he can drive,” laughs Heidi. “He drove the family from their home to the airport as their city fell!”
Jane Cole, a fellow volunteer, is holding a tape measure to make sure the baby's crib fits just so by the window. “For Heidi and Scott to pull this off is just amazing … to save a family’s life,” says Cole. “I’m here because I admit I’ve gotten caught up in it.”
Outfitting the house has been a culture immersion. The donated vanilla in the kitchen cabinet had alcohol in it which, as an intoxicant, is prohibited for the halal diet, as defined by the Quran. Even a well-meaning donated treat like Gummi Bears, which are made with pork, are forbidden.
“When Kabul fell, Scott’s face went from happy-go-lucky to depressed to stark and distant," Heidi Henkel said. "He knew that Kevin would be a target.”
The plan to save Ahmad/Kevin was launched with midnight conversations, endless texts and reams of paperwork. “I don’t know what I’m doing!” Heidi said as her phone rang for the umpteenth time. “This is a bad time if this is a long chat,” she told a representative from U.S. Rep. Jason Crow’s office.
Crow and Rep. Joe Neguse's offices have helped the Henkels as well as Reps. Ken Buck and Ed Perlmutter and Sen. John Hickenlooper.
In an interview from Washington, D.C., Rep. Crow said that in the first two weeks after the fall of Kabul, his office sent 3,500 visa requests to the State Department. “This is one that was successful,” said Crow, who served two combat tours as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan. “We made a promise if they served and fought we would stand by them.”
Crow has been on the political front lines in the effort to protect Afghan refugees who served the United States. When President Biden announced plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Crow helped found the Honoring Our Promises Working Group and started pushing for an earlier evacuation, which did not happen. One of his bills, The Allies Act, passed this summer, expedited the visa process to get more Afghan translators and other partners out of harm’s way.
Unfortunately, that law did not help Siddiqi, whose request for a Special Immigrant Visa bounced around the system for six years and was never approved, he said, because of a blip on his polygraph regarding a question about alcohol. With the help of the Henkel family and an army of others, he and his family entered the U.S. legally under humanitarian parole status.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, humanitarian parole is a measure which enables immigrants to stay in America for a time without a visa for “urgent humanitarian reasons.”
Like all of the Afghan refugees, Siddiqi and his family will receive a one-time stipend of $1,200 per person from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which must be used within 90 days. That’s $7,200. But he has gotten three job offers.
“Ahmad is on humanitarian parole, so he should be able to work and get state benefits,” Heidi explained to a person on the other line of another phone call. She still needs to sign up the three oldest kids for school, and she also must create a schedule for people who want to drop off meals in the big blue cooler which sits in front of the house.
She lifts the door of a stand-alone freezer full of Halal chicken, meat which conforms to Islamic law through a particular slaughter practice. She says they’ve been overwhelmed with donations of Middle-Eastern spices and children’s underwear, some of which she will donate to a local mosque.
It’s an embarrassment of riches for Siddiqi, whose family was packed into a C-17 with 380 people when they took off from Kabul International Airport headed for Qatar just over a month ago. “I was smelling so horrible from the sewage canal,” he laughed.
There’s been soul-crushing personal news. Friends have messaged Siddiqi that the Taliban bombed his house, which is in the Panjshir area. His parents, brothers and sisters are still living nearby and “… my heart is beating to see them.”
A stamp in Siddiqi’s passport says “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” a country that officially collapsed on Aug. 15, 2021.
“So, technically, I’m from nowhere,” he said. But then he thought for a bit and changed his mind.
“This is honest. I’m very thankful for how Scott and Heidi accepted us. They made a home for somebody who lost a home and now Colorado will be our home forever.”