September 27, 2023


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One Afghan’s Life: The Turbulent Journey of Young Jalil Pazhwak, Refugee in America

Jalil Pazhwak in the Foladi Valley, Bamyan Province, Afghanistan, in 2019 (Courtesy photo)

The turbulent journey of young Jalil Pazhwak

Editor’s Note: The below is an expanded version of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.

The catastrophe that has befallen the people of Afghanistan is hard to imagine. Many are starving. Three and a half million people are displaced within the country. Abroad, there are two and a half million refugees, most of them in Iran and Pakistan. Every Afghan has a story to tell, no doubt. Perhaps we could focus on one: a single Afghan and his life.

Jalil Pazhwak is a journalist and translator. He has made it out of Afghanistan and to the United States. I met him in 2019, at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights gathering in the Norwegian capital. Jalil was serving as translator for Laila Haidari, a leading civil-society figure in Afghanistan (before the return of the Taliban to power).

“Some friends of mine urged me to try to stay in Norway and never leave,” Jalil says today. “One of them told me, ‘You should rip up your passport, stay in your hotel room, and wait until the police come, to take you to a refugee center.’” Jalil, however, wanted to be at home, where his family was, and where he had a career.

He is 23 years old, born on June 10, 1998. He grew up in the village of Sabz Nala, in the Nawur District of Ghazni Province. His parents had come from another district: Malistan. They were driven out because Jalil’s father, a doctor and pharmacy owner, was harassed by political and religious extremists. Also, people were envious of the family’s success.

A common human story, barely changing over time and place.

Jalil and his family belong to the Hazara ethnic group, which has its roots in Mongolia and other Central Asian lands. The Hazaras speak Dari Persian and tend to subscribe to Shia Islam.

It was in late 2001 that the United States invaded Afghanistan, overthrowing the Taliban, who had hosted al-Qaeda. Jalil was three. He has a couple of memories.

At some point, his mother asked his father, “Why does the money look different? Why have the bills changed?” His father explained that the Taliban were out and the Americans in.

The village kids couldn’t help noticing that jets were flying around, and flying low. Why? Jalil’s father explained about the Taliban and the Americans, and said that U.S. pilots were now looking for Taliban fighters, who may have been in hiding.

He was a broadly educated man, Jalil’s father. He could speak a little English, which helped him deal with the Americans suddenly in his country. He traveled to the provincial capital to see whether he could get a school built in the village. He succeeded. So happy were the villagers about this, they said, “You are no longer a stranger here.” (Jalil’s parents had come from elsewhere, remember.) “We are glad to have you.”

Jalil’s father served as headmaster of the school, and he also filled in as a teacher: of biology, Pashto, and English.

The year 2006 saw an exceptionally interesting day. An American PRT — Provincial Reconstruction Team — paid a visit to the village. Jalil could try out the English he was learning. And the people looked so different: bigger, taller. Also, they were of various races. The village kids had never seen people from these races before. Indeed, they had no idea such people existed.

There was something else, too: The American women acted differently. They did not wear headscarves. And they showed no fear of men. In fact, they acted the same as the men, on an equal footing with them.

Jalil’s family had the first color TV in the entire district. Fifty or 60 people would gather around it at night, mainly to watch Indian movies out of Bollywood. Later, Jalil’s father bought a large generator. With this acquisition, he supplied everyone in the village with electricity, free of charge, for three years.

But resentment reared its head, as it does, and the villagers began to gossip: “That family has so many things. They don’t have to work in the fields. They don’t have to go to the mountains to collect wood for the winter.” And so on and so forth. The rumor spread that Jalil’s father had become a Christian, for which the Americans had paid him.

Eventually, Jalil’s parents moved again.

Before that, however — while his parents were still in his home village — Jalil qualified for a technical institute in Kabul. He started there when he was twelve. Shortly before Jalil entered the institute, his father made him a present of a laptop computer. “I loved it,” says Jalil. “It was a magic box with which you could do anything.”

The school changed and shaped Jalil. His classmates were Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks — an array. His two best friends were a Pashtun and a Tajik. Back in the village, there were only fellow Hazaras. Jalil graduated from the institute in 2015, at 17, with an associate’s degree in architecture.

But he went to work for a TV network, Ayna (meaning “Mirror”), the first privately owned TV network after the fall of the Taliban. He did a variety of things, including reporting. Some of the reporting had difficult effects on him.

In July 2016, he was asked to cover a demonstration: a demonstration in Kabul by his fellow Hazaras, who were protesting a government policy concerning infrastructure. He had friends among the demonstrators. Accompanying him was a cameraman who wanted to leave the demonstration for a while and go to lunch. He wanted Jalil to go with him. Jalil balked, wanting to remain, but his colleague insisted, and Jalil relented.

While they were away, the Islamic State bombed the demonstration, killing about a hundred people. Jalil says that they themselves would have been among the dead, had they been there.

On the street, Jalil saw something that gave him pause. He thought it might be another bomb. He examined it — and found it was a body part. This haunted him for a long while.

In 2017, he went to work for a newspaper, Etilaat e Roz, which means, roughly, “Daily Information.” Jalil assisted the publisher with a number of projects. Everything came crashing down on August 15, 2021 — the day the capital fell to the Taliban, upon the Americans’ evacuation.

At 10 in the morning, everyone’s phone began to ring or buzz. They’re here, was the message. The Taliban are at the edge of town. By 11, no reporter could get a government official on the phone. Female employees could no longer return home unaccompanied — it was unsafe. The capital was choked in fear. Victorious, gloating, vengeful Taliban fighters were riding around in Ford Rangers.

Jalil pondered his options, such as they were. He and some of his school friends talked about going to the Panjshir Valley, in northeastern Afghanistan, to be trained to fight: to fight the Taliban. Some people urged Jalil to leave the country, if he possibly could. Journalists like him were obvious targets. Jalil thought a lot about his parents, whom he wanted to help take care of.

What would you have done? Relatively few of us are forced into that situation.

Jalil’s father said to him, “I have never told you what you should do in life. I have left you free to make your own decisions. I trust you to make your own decision now.” Jalil’s mother, however, had a point of view — an adamant one. She implored Jalil to leave. She said her two brothers had been involved in war, on opposite sides. She did not want her son Jalil to kill or be killed.

Between August 15 and November 1 — the day Jalil left the country — every day had drama. Horrible drama. There is so much to tell. I will relate only a little.

As Jalil had dodged a bombing in 2016, he dodged another one, at the Kabul airport, on August 26. This one killed almost 200 people. (Again, the Islamic State was the guilty party.) With a group of friends, Jalil had been at the airport earlier in the day.

Through September and October, he assisted foreign journalists, who were covering the chaos. He risked his neck to do so. Two of his colleagues from Etilaat e Roz — Nemat Naqdi and Taqi Daryabi — were arrested by the Taliban. Taliban agents tortured the journalists for three hours. The journalists survived the ordeal. Photos of their tortured bodies went viral around the world.

In Washington, the National Endowment for Democracy was organizing chartered flights out of Afghanistan. Jalil boarded one of them on November 1. It was going to a U.S. military base in Doha, Qatar. The jumble of thoughts and feelings that Jalil had is, naturally, hard to describe.

For a long time, Jalil had been running — literally running. He was spooked by the bombing of the Hazara demonstration, in 2016. He was also spooked by a street crime, of which he had been the victim. Two ferocious types robbed him and bludgeoned him. Without really thinking about it, Jalil ran — habitually ran — from place to place. Family and friends would say, “Hey, slow down! Why are you running?” Jalil would generally reply, “It’s dangerous here in Kabul, you know. Better to keep moving.”

In Doha, he kept up the habit of running — of moving very quickly. But it was pointed out to him, “You’re safe now. You’re surrounded by the entire American military! No one is going to hurt you. Slow down.” It took him about a month to adjust — but Jalil slowed down, walking at a normal pace.

On December 4, he boarded another plane, which went to Philadelphia, by way of Bulgaria. In the Philadelphia airport, there was a glitch, or near glitch.

A translator was assisting the U.S. immigration officer — a translator of Pashtun ethnicity, evidently. The translator did not know that Jalil knew English. He told the officer that Jalil should not be allowed in the country, because his passport was soon to expire. Why did the translator do this? Why did he try to block Jalil? In all likelihood, because Jalil is Hazara (and looks it). Afghan tribalism followed him to America, so to speak.

But the immigration officer said to the translator, “Look: He’s a refugee. He is staying in this country. I don’t care about his passport.” And that was that.

In Philadelphia, Jalil marveled at the tall buildings. They reminded him of American movies. He was put on a bus to Fort Dix, in New Jersey. En route, he saw people decorating their houses for Christmas. He felt that he himself was in a movie, about the American way of life.

At Fort Dix, a woman doctor embraced him and said, “Welcome to America. You’re going to be safe and happy here. And wealthy!” She gave Jalil seven vaccination shots, for Covid-19 and other ills.

Jalil Pazhwak will almost certainly do well in America (just as the doctor said). He plans to further his education and perhaps work in the field of cybersecurity. While his mind is on the future, it is also on the Afghan present. He gets calls, regularly, about friends and relatives back home. In trouble. Deeply upsetting calls.

In the last week of February, he told me about some fellow Afghan refugees he knows — refugees in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin had just begun his all-out assault on the country. I thought of a phrase from American culture — plucked from the Bible, Isaiah: “tempest-tossed.” We who live in free and unthreatened countries are incredibly lucky.

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