“I want to help the people left behind.”
For Faziya Nematy, of Schenectady, the desire to assist refugees, and even members of her own extended family, make it out of the violence that has erupted as a result of hostile Taliban forces in her homeland of Afghanistan, has developed into the utmost urgency after narrowly escaping with her own life last week.
Through the harrowing efforts of two New Hartford volunteer firefighters — Sean D. Mahoney and John Jensen — who went from contacting their congressmen and senators to speaking directly with high-raking military officials — they were able to help orchestrate a mission that brought Nematy, her children, mother and brother’s children back home to the U.S. last Thursday.
Recently Nematy reflected on how fortunate we all are to be Americans and the desperation to assist the Afghan people “who have lost everything.”
Nematy said she and Mahoney had been Facebook friends and he reached out one day asking how she was doing.
“I said, ‘I’m not doing too well, and I can’t really talk,’” she recalled.
Nematy explained to Mahoney how they had been in Afghanistan to find a wife for her brother and be there for his engagement — a summer trip that was only meant to last about three weeks. But when Taliban forces started moving in, they were unable to leave.
She showed Mahoney photos and video of the chaos erupting, “And he was like, “What?.’”
Nematy said, “There was no media coverage — no one was there. Or if they were, they were only at the airport” in Kabul.
She said CNN had done a report featuring some of the video she captured locally with footage from the hostile takeover, and even “Good Morning America” and WRGB in Albany televised coverage featuring Nematy and her story.
“Once I got on the air — the BBC in Afghanistan — that’s when we had to hide and make sure everyone was safe,” said Nematy, explaining that the Taliban had started hunting her once they saw the report on television. That is when her nightmare truly began to unfold.
From the beginning, Nematy said she had a “bad feeling” about making the trip in the first place, but was unable to convince family members otherwise. She took her two young daughters, and left her teen-age son behind.
“It was supposed to be a three-week vacation. My mom was like, ‘We need to get a girl for your brother and get him engaged,’” Nematy recalled. “Mom said, ‘I can’t go without you.’ Then my sister-in-law wanted to go too because she hadn’t seen her parents in seven years, so they” and their children “tagged along.”
As the Taliban moved in, “I was calling my agent and asking, ‘Can you forward my tickets? The situation is getting worse over here,’ and I was told there were no flights,” Nematy said. “Flights were getting suspended and they were all canceled. I was told I needed to call the airline directly, but when I called, I was just told that a lot of flights were being suspended because things were getting bad.”
She said, “My main thing — the first thing — was to go over there to get my brother engaged. And then last year during COVID, I had been making face masks and doing some fund-raisers and raising money that I collected to help out the people over there. I figured I would give them those things while I was there. I didn’t know the whole thing would turn out like this.”
When Mahoney and his fellow firefighter and friend John Jensen started making calls to politicians and a volunteer group comprised of mostly veterans who had served in Afghanistan — Digital Dunkirk — they were eventually connected with high-ranking members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Once the military was involved, Nematy said they were able to establish a secure “chat” where they, Mahoney and Jensen, and Nematy’s family, were able to keep constant communication with each other as efforts began to get them safely back to the U.S.
“They started giving their information and we started giving them information of others — we were exchanging numbers and eventually we got into this big circle,” Nematy said. “We had a group chat set up — something more secure than Facebook. The Army had this ‘group thing,’ and we were the Nematy Family group.”
In the meantime, the Armed Forces were working on at least a dozen similar cases — trying to get citizens, as well as Afghan refugees, to the U.S.
While on the run from the Taliban, Nematy said it had been 10 days since she had taken a shower, but recalled that Mahoney advised her not to take one once she had arrived to her uncle’s home in Kabul so that she could “blend in” and remain undetected. She was already forced to change out of her baby blue burqa she had been seen wearing on the television news report, so Taliban guards would not recognize her.
“I had to go to the pharmacy, but I had to disguise myself just to do that,” said Nematy. “I was having to do everything a CIA agent would do.”
And when Taliban guards demanded to look at her phone at specific checkpoints, “I said, ‘This is my kid’s phone and I don’t know the password,’ and I’d say I could only receive a couple calls because I had no balance,” Nematy recalled. “I would act broke and say, ‘I don’t even have the money for food, so I can’t even get a card” to add minutes “for my phone, none of the stores are open to get a card to put in there anyway. And if there’s no money for food, how can I get a card?’...I gave them this long BS story.”
Out in public, Nematy said Taliban forces were putting on a front and “acting nice,” but in reality, natives were being threatened, especially if it were known or inferred they had been working with U.S. Forces or Afghanistan Police.
Nematy said, “They went to my uncle’s house and were looking for his son. My uncle cried and said, ‘I haven’t seen my son in a month.’ And he’s been hiding, going from one friend’s house to the next, because he was working with the police. The Taliban said if you were helping the Afghan police force you were ‘trying to kill one of us,’ so they were after him. We don’t even know if he’s alive.”
The Taliban guard said, “’Don’t lie to us, we will be back for him,’” she said. “My other uncle sent his kids to Kabul and then they climbed over the walls surrounding his house and came and grabbed him. But somehow he escaped, and he’s been lost for about a week. His wife came back from Kabul and looked for him, and they (the Taliban) came back. She cried, ‘My husband had nothing to do with the air base or had never worked for the government — that he just tried to provide food for us and you’re doing this...Let him go!’ She then packed up all their stuff and disappeared.”
For now, Nematy said, the Taliban “is playing the nice role in front of certain people, but what they’re really doing is collecting data from people, so that’s why they’re being friendly. They’re asking people which family member worked for who and even little kids, they’re giving them bullets or letting them hold and play with their guns, trying to get them to talk. Can you imagine giving a 4 or 5-year-old a gun and telling them they can go ahead and shoot with it like it’s a toy? They’re trying to lure them (the children) so they can give them information.”
Nematy said there are at least 30 of her family members who remain in danger in Afghanistan. She has an 18-year-old cousin who hasn’t been able to go back to his house in days.
“My aunt called crying because where she lived, it was the area where the bombings started — it was first in Lash Ka Ghar — they bombed a lot of people’s houses,” said Nematy. “She said, ‘I have nothing left. My house was bombarded, is there any way to help us out? There’s no food for anyone.’ So I got up and sold my couches to send her $500, so she can get food or things for the kids, and get medication for herself.”
As for her own escape from Kabul, Nematy said she was among 15 others, including seven children. Fifteen of the 16 are U.S. citizens, she said.
Nematy remembered the anxiety and confusion as she tried to prepare the children among them for their rescue. She, as well as Mahoney and Jensen, have been directed by Armed Forces officials not to give out specific information about the operation.
“With the kids, we had to tell them a day ahead” what was going to be going on, Nematy said. “I said, ‘Don’t be scared. This will be like that game, ‘Call of Duty,’ or it will look like one of those Army movies when someone comes to rescue you. I got them prepared and once we got to the actual spot, it was so dark. There were little pointy bushes” like cacti — “we were in a deserted area. I got bit by something, I don’t know if it was a spider or what, but it stung really bad. We were standing there for about 10 minutes, and then they finally got us.”
As they were standing there, awaiting for the soldiers’ arrival “Even little babies were screaming and we were trying to keep them quiet because all around us were Taliban houses and checkpoints,” Nematy said. “Once we got to the airport, we felt safe. The military people were so happy to see us. The majority of people who were already there were refugees, so they were like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got Americans here.’ There were some New Yorkers and we got really close to them. Because they had no translator, I started translating for them for about five days. All the families were in a very sad situation.”
One of the soldiers from New York who Nematy and her family befriended, was unfortunately killed during the suicide bombings at Kabul Airport last Thursday.
“It made me so sad. We were driving from Virginia back to New York, when we got a message from one of the troops that he didn’t make it,” she said. “I was heartbroken — I just started crying. I remember him saying, ‘You’re such a good mom. Why don’t you adopt me?’ I keep remembering his smile, and that he said he didn’t sleep for 38 hours and was exhausted. Now he’s asleep forever, that’s the sad thing.”
Today back in the safety of her own home in Schenectady, Nematy is still unsettled by the thoughts of those left behind and the terrors in the wake. She, with the help of Mahoney and Jensen, are in the midst of organizing some fund-raisers to help additional family members and other refugees get out of Afghanistan. Additional information will be made available soon.
“There are people there who say they have nothing left to live for, and I want to be able to help them out,” Nematy said. “For us to not think of the people, basically living in hell over there — it would be selfish of me and my siblings to not think of them and try to help. My brother is still in Kandahar.” When escaping, “we grabbed whatever we could and ran. We grabbed his son, but they couldn’t make it out. My brother and I are like cat-and mouse, we fight all the time, but we love each other so much.”
Nematy explained that her brother stayed behind to help his brother-in-law, who is also their cousin, and both are now volunteering at a refugee center. She and her family were stuck in Kabul Airport and had not yet been processed, but once they were, her brother told her, “I’ll stay, but take my kids home.”
Once their flight landed at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., she said all those aboard were “stuck” in U.S. Customs for about 10 hours. They weren’t even allowed to exit the plane. She said two women suffered heart attacks an three children fainted during the excruciating wait. Help was called and it took about an hour for paramedics to arrive once U.S. Customs officers started coming aboard, Nematy said.
“There were about 50 of us total. We were in the front, and the back was all refugees, and they had to take them (refugees) off first,” Nematy explained. “It took two hours to get everyone out of the plane and all you could hear were kids crying the whole time. There was no food, no water.”
Tears of joy flowed and there were plenty of hugs once the Nematys arrived by bus back home to Schenectady. Hale Transportation, of Clinton, donated a bus and drivers volunteered to make the trip to Dulles to bring the family back.
“When I received the phone call from Sean (Mahoney), he told me what the situation was and I said, ‘Well, let me know what I can do to help,’” said Stephen E. Hale, president of Hale Transportation at 37 Kirkland Ave. “I am also a volunteer with Clinton Fire Department, and giving back is what we do.”
Even the two drivers who volunteered to make the trip refused any compensation, Hale said.
“When we finally had confirmation that they landed in Washington, D.C., during the night I reached out to two drivers and asked them to do this job, and without question, they did,” he said. “Pay was never discussed until they came home and told me that both of them do not want pay, as this was one of their most rewarding trips they have done. We have a great team of drivers and without Chris and Todd answering the call, this trip might not have happened. I just helped in a way I could — providing a vehicle.”