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‘The plan for me is to get them out, no matter how’

Afghan refugee, college scholarship recipient focuses on helping family escape

Wyoming — It is just days before Zabihullah “Zabi” Najafi is scheduled to move into his dorm at Western Michigan University as a freshman and recipient of the full-tuition Medallion Scholarship.

The Afghan refugee has spent the last two years focused on his education, excelling academically at Wyoming High School while working full time at Amway. He made his mark at school with his drive to learn and his unbelievable work ethic. Last spring, he was thrilled to be looking forward to college, thanks to the scholarship, and the chance to pursue a degree in political science. Now, everything is uncertain.

Zabi’s world has shifted precipitously, and he is consumed once again with stress, fear and the uncertainty that comes with being a child of political unrest and war— even thousands of miles from the country he fled. Instead of classes and student life, his singular focus is on his family and the plight they face in surviving the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and getting over the border to Pakistan.

“It has been really tough in the past two or three weeks,” said Zabi, tears streaming down his face while he sat at a local coffee shop. “When they attacked our village, I wasn’t able to communicate with my family for six days. I didn’t know what happened to them, and it was terrifying,” he said. 

“The plan for me is to get them out, no matter how.”

After communication channels resumed in Afghanistan, Zabi was able to connect with his family members, who are trying to flee Jaghori, where Zabi was raised, and in Kabul. Jaghori, in the Ghanzi province, has a population of about 600,000 people. The mountainous region is home to the Hazara people, a historically persecuted ethnic group targeted by the Taliban. “When Kabul and every other part of the government collapsed, that is when Jaghori collapsed too,” Zabi said.

“Everybody is anxious; everybody is devastated; they are terrified of what the future holds for everybody,” he said.

Zabi’s family consists of his mother, four sisters, a brother and other relatives. His sister is a journalist. With them in mind, Zabi has watched developments in Afghanistan closely, fearing U.S. troop withdrawal could throw the country into chaos.

“I honestly told my family to get out five months ago… I told them to get out and my mom said, ‘Where? Where should I go? How can I leave our home? How can I leave everything behind? When I go, how would I live in another country? It would cost a lot to live in another country as an immigrant. You are not allowed to work. You have no home. You have nowhere. Everything just doesn’t fall from the sky.’”

Zabi urged them to go. “I told her I would try to support her if she can cross the border… Now everyone regrets (staying) and she is trying to get out now.”

Zabi fears that, as the Taliban settles in, it will become even more difficult to escape. Already, videos show Taliban fighters entering houses in search of weapons and people who fought against them. “They are going door to door, home to home … They are going to the people’s houses and they take the young women who are divorced, unmarried or who lost their husbands. They are taking them by force as their sex slaves. It is just terrifying to watch what happens with women’s rights. I have four sisters who are there right now.”

Watching his country collapse has been heartbreaking, he said.

“Nobody understands the pain of being an Afghan. Nobody understands the feelings of seeing your flag being lowered and replaced. Nobody understands the fear and how devastating and terrifying it is to see your country collapse. Nobody understands (what it’s like) to see your people die and be murdered every day while the rest of the world is watching in silence.”

Family First

Zabi left Afghanistan in 2015 because of war, discrimination and violence that he faced as a Hazara youth. His perilous journey spanned four years and included being held in an Indonesian detention center before he was resettled in the U.S. and began attending Wyoming High School. He thrived in school, becoming an award-winning member of Business Professionals of America and earning the Alpha Wolf Champions of Character award for embodying the characteristics of kindness, compassion and graciousness. He graduated with a 3.96 GPA.

He realizes he may have to put his personal goals on the sidelines. If his family is successful in escaping, he plans to work more than full-time to support them financially and pay for his own costs of living.

“I already accepted and thought at some point I might not be able to go to college. I worked two years. I did everything I could. I worked my best to be able to go to college. Right now, if my family crosses the border to another country, that is when I have to support them and I have to get back to work and that is when I have to leave college. ….That is totally OK with me. I just hope they cross the border safely.”

“Nobody understands the pain of being an Afghan. Nobody understands the feelings of seeing your flag being lowered and replaced. Nobody understands the fear and how devastating and terrifying it is to see your country collapse. Nobody understands (what it’s like) to see your people die and be murdered every day while the rest of the world is watching in silence.”

— Zabihullah Najafi, Wyoming High School graduate and Western Michigan University Medallion scholarship recipient.

Though he said he will do his best to attend college and help his family, their well-being supersedes everything else.

“It is a one-time opportunity for me to have a scholarship— a full-ride to a good university,” he said. “Sometimes things happen, and you have to let other things go and you can’t control it. I understand college is important to me. It is my dream, but the safety of my family comes first. I want them to be safe. I want them to have life.”

He also wants the world to pay attention.

Right now there are a lot of political opinions, Zabi said, but examining and debating policy and decisions must come later. Now it’s time to help both those who fled and those who remain in the country.

 “Everybody argues. To me, right now it is not the time. That is what we will do later… It is time to help people who are in need right now, who can’t evacuate, who can’t flee, those who are trapped. I’d say to the President even, ‘Take a bold step to take those refugees, help those immigrants as you yourself left them and left the country to fall into this situation that we are in right now.’”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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