Area duo aids family’s return to U.S.

Pair of New Hartford firefighters help one’s old friend flee war-torn Afghanistan for safe return home

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It all started as a chance encounter on Facebook — a friend reaching out to an old friend to see how she was doing — that turned into a real-life “James Bond” mission for two New Hartford volunteer firefighters who helped save the lives of an Afghan native and her family.

Firefighter Sean D. Mahoney said when he sent Faziya Nematy, of Schenectady, a random message through social media back on Aug. 13, he was told she was unable to talk and would be in contact when she was able.

Mahoney said Faziya arrived in the United States when she was 6-years-old and is an American citizen. The two have been longtime friends, Mahoney said, who have kept in touch over the years — so the hurried, brief response was out of the ordinary.

Still, he didn’t know anything was wrong until he later learned that Nematy had gone to Kandahar, Afghanistan, with her mother and children to visit family earlier in the summer, believing the country was stable and safe to make the journey.

It was during her stay that things drastically changed with startling speed— the Taliban began to move in, and the U.S. was forced to begin hurried evacuations amid the chaos within the Middle Eastern country with a looming deadline of Tuesday, Aug. 31, to airlift tens of thousands of Americans out of the country safely.

After receiving Mahoney’s message, Nematy secretly began sending Mahoney pictures, videos and audio messages showing him what was going on in Afghanistan during the Taliban takeover, including how she narrowly escaped being identified as an American as she was forced to pass through Taliban checkpoints.

Nematy told her old friend that when first arriving to Afghanistan, friends or family said she “walks like an American,” and so she had to learn how to portray herself as a “proper Afghan woman.”

Luckily, Mahoney said, Nematy spoke Farsi fluently, which is also known as Afghan Persian and one of the two official and widely spoken languages in Afghanistan. She is also fluent in Pashto, the
other native language, he said.

“She could speak Farsi and have an accent, which was perfect to help her really blend in,” he said.

When they first began talking, Mahoney recalled a conversation with Nematy about her arrival from Kandahar to her uncle’s home in Kabul, and how she couldn’t wait to take a shower. “I told her that might be a bad idea and hurt her ability to blend in,” said Mahoney, as Afghan people were accustomed to walking about barefoot. “I said, ‘If your feet are too clean, you’ll stick out,’ so she didn’t end up taking a shower.”

There was a point a few days after Mahoney first had contact with Nematy that “Good Morning America” and Newschannel WRGB in Albany shared video and a news report about her distressing situation of being trapped in Kabul with her children as a U.S. citizen, not being able to get out. She took video of the chaos at the Kabul airport as crowds were desperately trying to flee as the Taliban seized control.

“There is no help here, there’s not one single American troop here,” Nematy could be heard saying in the video. “Now this whole thing is just full of people.” She described how her body was “shivering” in panic and could also be heard telling her child, “Get down, get down,” as the taxi they were riding in screeched to a stop.

While those news reports helped gain exposure to Nematy’s story and situation, what was detrimental was how quickly information circulated, with the Taliban also learning of her plight. “At one point, she was made aware she was being hunted,” Mahoney said. “But we don’t regret the news story, it helped us make connections to get her out, it just increased the risk level.”

In the first video broadcast, Nematy was wearing a baby blue burqa, “which was very recognizable, so she knew she had to change that at one point,” said Mahoney. “Thank God she wore one with a face covering so that she could bluff the Taliban because they couldn’t see her face. Then she had to hide her phone and passport in her underwear” to go undetected. “That’s the thing with the Taliban, they’ll behead you, but they won’t check your underwear.”

It turned out Nematy was going through the Taliban checkpoints when Mahoney first reached out to her, which is why she couldn’t speak with him right away.

“When I reached out to her, she immediately had video that she had been documenting. They were looking for anyone with U.S. passports and they had to keep those hidden,” said Mahoney. “She told me, ‘I don’t think anyone’” back home “‘really knows what’s going on over here.’”

At one of the checkpoints, Mahoney said the Taliban took Nematy’s phone and was searching through it for any evidence that she may be an American.

“When she knew she would be out and about, she would just wipe her phone,” Mahoney said. “I considered using a translator app to communicate with her. For example, I have one person I speak with in Serbian and if I’m not sure of the exact translation, it can come out as broken English. So if I sent something and it came out as broken Farsi, then that would set the Taliban off. So we were pretty much in constant communication with each other during her journey, except in the checkpoints. I was in a group chat with her and pretty much her entire family.”

To describe what Nematy and her 14 other family members were going through as a “nightmare” was an understatement, Mahoney said, as they were forced to witness the terror first-hand.

When the family arrived in Afghanistan for their visit, “Everything looked stable at that point and they actually had about three days of sanity, but then things started happening where you could see the writing on the wall and everything popped off a few weeks ago.”

The Taliban “knew about the previous agreement with (former President Donald) Trump” considering the deadline to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan, “and we extended that four times, so during that extension, they were already ramping up their forces,” the firefighter said.

It was when Mahoney was sharing his story about Nematy with friend and fellow New Hartford firefighter John Jensen that the pair embarked on a journey that would not only help get Nematy and her family back home, but other Americans, as well as those applying for American citizenship an opportunity to escape their homeland.

Through the Syracuse University College of Law, Jensen has a background in National Security and Counter-terrorism, and he volunteered to start making some phone calls to see if he could help get Nematy and her family out of Afghanistan safely. Calls made were to some former classmates, who included aides to senators and congressmen. Mahoney said he too “made a lot of connections” in politics and he started making calls.

“He (Jensen) started calling his Republicans and I started calling my Democrats,” said Mahoney. “We had a lot of help from Sen. (Kirsten) Gillibrand’s Office and the Capital Region’s Rep. (Antonio) Delgado was helpful, Rep. (John) Katko from the Syracuse area was very helpful.”

Mahoney said the calls accomplished a number of things, including efforts to get Nematy and her family home. They also began working with senators’ offices to get visas for those citizens who were part of the SIV (Special Immigrant Visas) program — those who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces who still needed help. For example, Mahoney said one of Nematy’s brothers stayed in Qatar when everyone else came back because his brother-in-law had not yet gotten his visa. They are both now volunteering at a refugee camp, he said.

“Here Faziya’s family was going through hell, and all they were thinking was, ‘How can we help someone else?,’” Mahoney said.

Between Sean and John’s contacts with various Congress people, a volunteer organization comprised of mostly veterans and with Nematy’s story breaking on the news — minus other individuals who must remain “anonymous” — they were able to connect directly with high ranking officials with the U.S. Armed Forces.

“We were put in contact with sources, and we ended up in a conference call with military officials — like during the whole planning phase” of Nematy’s rescue, which was about a 72-hour process, Mahoney said.

“Saturday morning (Aug. 21) about 2:30, we had a series of conference calls to discuss with the players on what was going down, and what our people needed to expect and how things would go,” as far as getting Nematy back to the U.S., Jensen said. “It was a pretty drawn out process working around the clock with folks on the ground in Afghanistan. Sean and I are still trying to help Afghan nationals fleeing from the Taliban — lawyers, interpreters and other officials.”

Jensen said, “I can’t disclose any names because we’re still coordinating some evacuations, but we were going through a conversation” with major military personnel “and one of the people said to Sean and I, ‘What organization are you with, USID (Next Generation Uniformed Services ID)?,’ and sort of tongue-and-cheek, I said, ‘We’re with New Hartford Volunteer Fire Department,’ and I got a little laughter out of that. When we were in contact through secure applications with (military) people in Afghanistan, we would have friendly jabs going back-and-forth, typical friendly things to help lighten the mood. There was a lot of tough stuff going on, and we were trying to keep their spirits up the best we could.”

Both Jensen and Mahoney remained in the “group chat” with military officials on a 24/7 basis, with Jensen making calls and remaining on top of efforts during the evenings while Mahoney “worked the day shift.” Jensen and Mahoney said that in addition to Nematy and her family’s situation, the military was dealing with “at least a dozen” similar cases.

Meanwhile Nematy and most of her family had to embark on the dangerous trip to Kabul, where they met up with other family members, leading up to an evacuation which the New Hartford firefighters said they were forbidden by U.S. authorities to discuss.

“We were available to the family and we would get information from them and then we would relay information back to them, like if it was safe to go to the airport and what routes to take in order to get there,” Mahoney explained. “We had real time intelligence to the point where we knew where the bus was for their ride home.”

He said, “Thursday, we watched the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport maybe an hour before the media even knew it happened. A soldier from New York who was killed in the bombing, Faziya actually knew. If troops were sent there they were interacting with the people and actually became part of the community. They (Faziya and the soldier) bonded because they were all from New York and were coming together almost like we did on 9/11 — being New York strong. She showed me a picture of him from two days before the bombing, and she told me it was a very quiet ride home” after she learned of his death.

Mahoney said Steve Hale, of Hale Transportation in Clinton, generously donated a bus and drivers volunteered for the trip to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. to pick up Nematy and her family, and transport them home to Schenectady Thursday.

“This all worked out basically from the extraordinary actions by the U.S. military to get them safely out of there,” Mahoney said. “The resources the military is putting into this for each person is astounding. It’s not a case of anyone being left behind — it’s not we’re going to pull out and whatever happens, happens.”

Mahoney said he was able to see his old friend in person and rode with the Nematys on their way back from Washington to Schenectady.

“Faziya is the only one from the family who knew me, but her brother came up to me and I figured maybe he would shake my hand, but he hugged me and wouldn’t let go,” said Mahoney. “He kept saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you for everything.’ It was definitely an emotional moment.”

If nothing else, both Mahoney and Jensen hope what people gain from this story is how a few Americans came together to help others, because they feel it was something “they were suppose to do.”

“I want people to know that while in Afghanistan, people asked her (Faziya), ‘Why are you trying to help others?,’ as she was trying to get her own family out, and she said, ‘Because I’m an American, and that’s what we do.’”

Asked why he continues to help citizens and refugees in Afghanistan now that Nematy and her family are home, Jensen had a similar sentiment.

“At the end of the day, it’s really no different than being a firefighter — you never know what call you’re going to get or when the next big response will be,” said Jensen. “You have to be ready for anything. Obviously this is different, but if someone has a problem and we can help, it’s just what it means to be an American.”

Jensen said he doesn’t exactly consider it a second career, but during evenings after his day job, he and Mahoney have continued their efforts to help others escape the chaos.

“Some people reached out to Sean after we succeeded” in getting Nematy and her family out, he said. “Friends of friends have told us about situations…One person in the Syracuse area, a friend of my wife’s, is a veteran and they had some family members of interpreters struck there…There was an SID applicant who started applying in 2018 but because it’s such an expensive and complicated process, was still stuck there with no prospect of getting out because they weren’t family members of Americans. We’re trying to do what we can for people with limited resources.”

As for why their helping out, “We’re both volunteer firefighters — our feeling was if we have the ability to help, even if it’s directing people to a website with the right information they need, we should just do it. They are just regular people, like you and me, just trying to live their lives — they’re no different than any of us living here in the Mohawk Valley. There are tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of people in the same or similar situation, so it’s tough to find them assistance and for them to get out of the country. Airports are being closed, and it’s a tough situation. Effectively, they’re prisoners in their own homes and they don’t know what the Taliban will do next.”

What both the volunteers pride themselves in is that the humanitarian efforts they have been directly involved in have nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with proudly calling themselves Americans.

“At the end of the day, this is by no means a political thing — I try to stay out of that as much as possible,” Jensen laughed. “I have nothing but good things to say about all the politicians we’ve worked with. Everyone’s ultimate goal was to help the citizens as much as possible, and the refugees. This is an American thing — not a left or right thing — and we’re also helping people who are friends of the United States and supported our mission in Afghanistan.”

Jensen said he and Mahoney are also grateful for the assistance they’ve received from a group called Digital Dunkirk, which is mostly comprised of veterans who served in Afghanistan. They too have been making calls and sending emails to coordinate people around Taliban checkpoints. The group also helped Mahoney and Jensen connect with the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan and Department of Defense — people who could actually help with Nematy’s situation.

He said, “We still have folks we’re working on — one is working on a visa that could take months. There’s a lot of moving parts, and our down time has become this — doing something to help other people. It’s not a job, just kind of what we do. We can’t direct someone to give somebody a visa, but we can reach out and see what we can do, and Sean can even reach out to family members. The State Department needs to process thousands of refugees, and we pulled off a miracle in the last couple weeks…The silver lining is that we were able to save a lot of people, and we’re hoping to save more.”

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