SACRAMENTO — They call themselves the lucky ones, the Afghans who got out in time.
Happy, they say, but with guilt, shock and anger.
In the two decades since the US invasion of Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghans have settled in the United States, some of them arriving just days ago.
This week they described the haunted conversations with the relatives they left behind and the pervasive fear that the Taliban, the new masters of the country, would retaliate against their relatives.
“What happens to them when there’s a knock on the door?” said Rizwan Sadat, who flew to the United States from Afghanistan last week after a career with US and international aid agencies. “Our hearts weep for them, for our brothers, for our sisters, for our mothers.”
Nothing has reassured Afghan men and women now living in America, not the videos their friends have posted on social media of the quiet, deserted streets of Afghan cities, nor the Taliban’s statements that they have plans for an “inclusive government.” ‘.
Mohammad Sahil, a former employee of the US Agency for International Development in Afghanistan who settled in Sacramento several years ago, said the images of desperate residents clinging to planes in Kabul can seem almost unreal to Americans.
“This is a kind of movie or drama for the United States,” Sahil said. “When you watch a movie, you may be scared, but then you walk out of the cinema.”
“But this is real for us,” said Mr. Sahil, referring to the trauma of knowing his relatives are still in Afghanistan. “We didn’t sleep, we didn’t eat. I cannot work.”
At least 132,000 foreign-born Afghan immigrants lived in the United States in 2019, along with younger generations born in this country, according to the American Community Survey. Afghans have migrated to the United States in waves, after the Soviet invasion in 1979, during the first Taliban rule in the 1990s, and after the US invasion in 2001.
In the 1980s, resettlement agencies moved many of them to the San Francisco Bay Area because it was cheap, a community program provided cultural resources and it made Afghans think of their home again, said Rona Popal, the executive director of the Afghan Coalition, a community relief organization. Afghans have also congregated in New York, Sacramento, Southern California, and Virginia.
Even Afghans who have lived in the United States for decades say they felt a pang when they saw the speed of the Taliban takeover.
“We’ve all left a little piece of ourselves in Afghanistan,” said Khaled Hosseini, the author of the 2003 bestselling book “The Kite Runner,” who settled in San Jose four decades ago. “While we have built lives in the United States, we have an emotional interest in what is happening in Afghanistan.”
In recent days, resettled Afghans have spoken by phone with relatives in Kabul who described harrowing moments and the fear of not knowing what comes next. Relatives told them that the Taliban went door-to-door questioning people about their connections to Americans. One man described how a former colleague slept in a different house every night to avoid interrogation. Relatives have deleted photos and messages from their phones, expecting them to be confiscated.
A woman in California described being alarmed when a phone call to her sister-in-law in Kabul was interrupted by gunfire.
And in one of the most harrowing stories told to relatives here, a man described how his mother’s aunt was kicked to death on Sunday night when she tried to board a plane.
“People couldn’t breathe on board,” said Shah Mohammad Niazy, who worked for the US military when he was still in Afghanistan. “She died on the ground before it took off.”
Afghan Americans say they are determined to get their extended families out of the country and into the United States. But they have no illusions that it will be easy.
While driving through an Afghan neighborhood in Sacramento, Yasar Ghafoori, a former military intelligence interpreter for the US military in Afghanistan, said he planned to borrow $20,000 to obtain visas and air tickets for 34 members of his extended family.
Pointing to two-story condominiums where hundreds of Afghan families rent two-bedroom apartments for about $1,200 a month, Mr. Ghafoori said America was a paradise for him.
“But not without my family,” he said. “My family is everything to me.”
Ghafoori, who is single, has urged his parents, siblings to leave their home in Nangarhar province – “leave everything behind,” he said. He will find the money somehow.
Farhad Yousafzai, an insurance agent, knows how difficult that can be.
He took his two brothers from Kabul on a flight to Turkey last week, but only after what he described as “black market” transactions.
And even with tickets in hand, the airline threatened to cancel their reservations in favor of passengers willing to pay more. The brothers prevailed, but it was “very, very difficult,” Mr Yousafzai said.
The cultural heart of the Afghan community in the United States is Fremont, a dormitory community on the outskirts of Silicon Valley where Tesla assembles its electric cars. Representative Ro Khanna, the congressman whose district includes part of Fremont, estimates 100,000 Afghans live in the area. With house prices soaring above $1 million, some Afghans have moved to cheaper parts of the country.
But the city still has Afghan kebab shops, mosques and a number of specialty markets.
The Maiwand market is filled with families buying naan breads and fresh halal lamb and goat meat.
Behind the lunch counter on Monday afternoon was Ho Karimi, who showed a series of video clips from Afghanistan. Sayed Sayedi, a plumber who shops in the market, stared at the images and shook his head. “It’s a great tragedy,” he said.
Afghanistan has been in a near perpetual state of war for four decades, but Afghans accustomed to that suffering said they were still amazed at the speed at which the country had fallen into the hands of the Taliban.
In San Diego, a young woman named Mya described the fear and uncertainty associated with her family’s attempts to communicate with relatives still in Kabul.
They shudder when no one picks up the phone.
She and her family teamed up with an immigration attorney to move her elderly grandmother to the US.
“All we can do is pray.”
Mr Khanna said his office had been “bombed” by phone calls asking why the United States seemed so ill-prepared for the collapse of the Afghan government. Mr Khanna, a Democrat, is critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the US withdrawal.
“The question people keep asking me is why they couldn’t evacuate the people before withdrawing the troops,” Khanna said. “What is shocking and hurtful is the lack of adequate care for our allies, for vulnerable Afghans, for women and children.”
As they watch the turmoil, Afghans in the United States are clinging to the thinnest straw of hope that the Taliban understand that Afghanistan is not the same place they ruled in the 1990s.
Mr Hosseini, the author, says a class of urban professionals, including many women, have helped make Afghanistan a “very different country.”
“I hope the Taliban realize that whips and chains and guns and gallows are not the way to run a country,” he said.