Afghan evacuees in Philadelphia say faith sustains them amid upheaval


PHILADELPHIA — American troops shouted over the chaos of the crowd, Ahmad said, telling him to get inside Kabul airport while he still could.

The air was in panic, with Western governments warning of impending terrorist attacks.

“Come to us!” shouted the soldiers from a doorway.

No, recalled Ahmad – his father and mother. He pleaded with the soldiers to leave their post and help pull his parents to the side of a drainage canal, so the family could evacuate Afghanistan.

The older man was too weak to climb, the mother only slightly stronger.

“Go ahead,” the father insisted to Ahmad, settling the matter. “Go, my son. We are fine. Just move on.”

Their hands parted. Ahmad rushed to the door. Hours later, a suicide bomber tripped his vest and an explosion ripped through the crowd, killing dozens of civilians and 13 US soldiers.

The trauma of the August 26 separation followed Ahmad – his last name withheld for the safety of his family – all the way to America, to temporary quarters at a military base in Indianapolis, and from there to a hotel room. in Philadelphia, where he awaits resettlement with his wife and younger brother.

His faith followed him too.

In an interview at the Marriott Residence Inn in Center City, he was asked, after suffering dramatic upheaval, dislocation and danger, after losing his country, his family and his friends, what does he say to God?

Is he furious? Grateful? Bitter?

This may seem like an odd question in a country where 30% of Americans claim no religious affiliation.

But for Afghans – 99.7% are Muslims, praying five times a day – their relationship with Allah is of paramount importance, perhaps never more so than now.

“I pray for God to help me,” Ahmad, 26, said. “To solve problems.”

He is angry at the circumstances that have divided his family, left his parents behind and, due to his father’s military ties, in danger of retaliation from the Taliban.

But “there is no anger against God,” he said. He is grateful that despite decades of war and a perilous evacuation, “I am still alive”.

The largest resettlement since the end of the Vietnam War continues to unfold across the United States, with the Philadelphia area playing a pivotal role in receiving Afghan evacuees – and government and military officials recognizing the importance of Muslim religious belief in this effort.

At Philadelphia International Airport, which has received more than 30,000 evacuees as the main national landing center, a section of the reception area has been designated specifically for prayer.

It’s the same at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey, one of the military installations that provides temporary housing for evacuees awaiting relocation. Two large tents have been erected to serve as mosques for men and women in the “Liberty Village”, which currently hosts 6,100 of the approximately 9,000 evacuees on US bases.

Prayer rugs and Qurans continue to be regular requests on the wish lists of families and resettlement agencies.

“Afghans, their history of faith is strong,” said Mullah Mohammad Yunas Saleh, who has long led prayers at Masjid Omar Al-Farook in East Frankford. “They never gave up their faith no matter what happened in Afghanistan.”

Muslims believe that Allah is the only true God, transcendent, omnipotent and merciful, the creator of the world and everything in it. Allah is infinite, the Quran teaching that he has 99 names, each related to a certain attribute and all making it more accessible.

When Muslims pray, facing the direction of Mecca, it is an opportunity to praise and thank Allah, and also to offer a du’a, a specific personal request for guidance, help or protection. , explained Zain Abdullah, associate professor in the department of religion. at Temple University and an authority on Islamic studies.

“The idea of ​​being blessed, of having your prayers answered, is not just about the material objects that you are able to collect,” he said. “What’s important is the peace you get, the inner peace.”

Most Afghans who made it to America arrived with only the clothes on their backs, and many endured harrowing escapes in which they could easily have been injured or killed.

Saharnaz Muniri and his family are barely getting by.

In the days after the fall of the government, she said, armed Taliban roamed the streets outside their home. Some people have been evicted from their homes. Others were killed. Her father was in particular danger, she said, because he worked with the US government.

Their evacuation began a four-month odyssey that took them to a refugee camp in Qatar, where food and water were limited, and then to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

“We haven’t forgotten our prayers,” said Muniri, 25. “We prayed five times a day.”

She, her mother and sister wore their hijabs even in the scorching Qatar heat, she said, the scarves demonstrating submission to God.

In November, the family of five, including her father and brother, moved into a house in the city’s Holmesburg neighborhood. Muniri continues to be awakened by nightmares of their escape from Afghanistan.

She never blames Allah, she says. Completely the opposite.

“We believe [our escape] was all from Allah, and he helped us to do that,” Muniri said.

Others say their faith has been a calming constant amid the turmoil of evacuation and resettlement.

“My relationship with God hasn’t changed. But my idea of ​​religion has totally changed,” said Mahdi Ahmadi, a 25-year-old former Afghan forces helicopter pilot now based in South Jersey. “The Taliban are totally bringing something [wrong] of Islam. The Taliban always call us infidels.”

His daily prayers are reassuring, Ahmadi said. In some ways, he can’t believe everything that happened.

He reached Kabul on August 13, as Kandahar fell behind him. Two days later, the Taliban entered the capital. He was told that the war was over, that he had to prepare to evacuate.

Soldiers and airmen burned their uniforms and even their medals, knowing that detection by the Taliban meant death. The symbols of his dedication to Afghanistan have gone up in smoke.

“When I was burning them,” Ahmadi said, “I was burning myself.”

He misses flying helicopters, he misses being in the sky, he said. From his room on the base, he can see American helicopters carrying out tests.

“I am grateful to God – my life belongs to him,” Ahmadi said. “Grateful to be alive, well and in one piece.”


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