Everyone remembers the chaotic images of panicked Afghans swarming the Kabul airport in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. Iffat and Azar* — two sisters now living in Lexington — were among the crowds of people hoping to get on one of the last flights out of the country before the Taliban took over the airport.

The view from the sister’s flight to the US

The story of how they ended up here includes a life-altering decision made in the blink of an eye, nights spent in a tent with only a thin blanket for comfort, endless tears and paperwork, a healthy dose of therapy, and finally, some semblance of stability and a feeling of home here in Lexington. 

The sisters were raised in Kabul, in a tight-knit family that valued education and freedom for women. Azar was born in 1995, during the Taliban’s first reign. “I had the experience of the first Taliban period and I still have nightmares,” Azar says. With school unavailable to girls, her mother and other neighborhood women would get together to knit and homeschool the children. “My family was open-minded enough to let us get an education,” Azar says. 

A year after Iffat was born, the US invaded and the Taliban was removed from power. After that, Azar says, “as a female in Afghanistan, things were getting better and better.” Iffat’s childhood was perhaps a little easier than her sister’s. “I’m the youngest, so I always got what I wanted,” she laughs. “My focus has always been school and being a good student and getting perfect grades.” 

Both Iffat and Azar went on to college and jobs, and both were working for a company that did some contract work for American organizations when the US announced its withdrawal after 20 years in the country — Iffat’s entire life. “They came with me, and they left with me,” she says.  

The day the Taliban took back Kabul, both sisters went to work. The company they worked for said there might be a chance that employees who had worked on US projects could be evacuated. But that would mean leaving the rest of their family behind. “We had heard that the Taliban announced that they may force single women to marry,” Azar recalls. “We thought we might be raped or forced to marry someone that we don’t want to.” The sisters decided to leave if they could. 

They boarded a bus and headed to the airport. “I never got the chance to say goodbye to my mom, my brother, my sisters,” Iffat recalls. Taliban shot at the bus on the way to the airport. When they finally arrived, they had to go from gate to gate. But because they were prepared with paperwork, they were among the lucky ones. They got on a plane that day. Two explosions went off at the airport right after their plane took off. 

The chaos at the airport lasted for weeks. Desperate civilians climbed over the perimeter walls and even tried to cling to a plane as it took off. Nearly 125,000 people were evacuated, and several people were killed in the process. 

The tent the sisters stayed in on a US military base in Germany

Iffat and Azar were taken to a US military base in Germany, where they had no internet access and no way to let their family know they had arrived safely. They spent five nights there, sleeping in a tent, then were taken to a different base in Virginia. 

“Every step of the journey, I thought, after this it’s going to be easy.”  Iffat says. “But when I got to the next step, it was like, no, this is also difficult.”

“We just needed a place to be safe, to be welcomed and to hear positive and kind words,” Azar says. While staying briefly with a family they knew in the Midwest, they figured out how to get work permits and Social Security numbers, and began calling resettlement agencies in Virginia and Massachusetts, where Iffat had a friend. That led them to LexRAP

LexRAP grew out of the Syrian refugee crisis. A group of Lexington residents were upset by the pictures they were seeing in the news every day and decided to try to help. The volunteer-run organization helps refugees with job training, education, healthcare, transportation, and other needs to help them adjust to life in the US. In some cases, LexRAP also matches refugees with host families who they live with until they are ready to go off on their own. 

Azar and Iffat were matched with a family who were first generation Americans themselves. The family worked hard to make them feel welcome, making sure they had everything they needed before they even arrived. “All of those small little things made me feel like, ‘oh, these people really care,’ Iffat says. “I was like, I think I love this place already.”

After a few months, both sisters were accepted to American universities — Iffat now studies economics and psychology in New York, and Azar is studying business administration in Texas. 

Life in Texas can be difficult. “I had a different experience than my sister because I want to have certain things from my culture and religion,” says Azar, who wears the hijab, which she says can make her stand out at her school in Texas. “I wasn’t ready for the US culture — the way I dress, the way I talk, my English.” 

Both sisters now think of Lexington as home. “I like being here for so many reasons,” Azar says. “People here are open minded. They don’t care what you wear, how you dress, or how you talk. They’re welcoming.” Though they are now studying in different states, the sisters come back to Lexington for holidays and summer break. They are now living with LexRAP President Bruce Neumann, and his wife, Pat Moyer, who have also hosted refugees from Uganda and Jamaica. “It’s rewarding, it’s a good use of skills we learned in more than 30-40 years of parenting, and it’s also fun,” Neumann says. “You get to know people really well, you laugh about the English language, tease each other about different customs and have some interesting conversations.”

The sisters call Neumann and Moyer grandma and grandpa. They all have dinner together every night, take turns cooking, and “because of us, they eat halal meat,” Azar says. “It feels like a family.”

“I would love to see more people stepping in and opening their doors to refugees and helping in any way that they can,” Iffat says. “It can be as big as offering them space in their houses or as little as mentoring or having a cup of tea or just listening to their story — a little act of kindness that can go a long way.”

“I care about having a community, that’s why I love Lexington,” she says. 

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the subjects and the safety of their family. 

Find out how you can support refugees in the Lexington area at LexRAP

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