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In Their Shoes: Reserve Citizen Airmen from Afghanistan help evacuees settle into their new lives

  • Published
  • By Army Private First Class Anthony Sanchez

A pair of Reserve Citizen Airmen helping Afghan evacuees settle into their new lives in the United States are in a unique position to offer advice and encouragement to the refugees.

Senior Airman Kalmullah Ghobandi, a Reserve Citizen Airman assigned to the 349th Air Mobility Wing, Travis Air Force Base, California, and Airman First Class Ahmed Sofizada, a Reserve Citizen Airman assigned to the 38th Intelligence Squadron, Beale AFB, California, have been temporarily assigned to Holloman AFB, New Mexico, since August to support Operation Allies Welcome – the Department of Homeland Security-led effort to support vulnerable Afghans as they safely resettle in the United States.

In addition to providing critical language assistance, Ghobandi and Sofizada can offer personal insight into what it’s like to make the move from Afghanistan to the United States.

To escape the Taliban, Ghorbandi’s family began the immigration process to the United States in 2000.

“I’m originally from Afghanistan in the Parwan Province,” Ghorbandi said. “I was 8 years old when I moved to the U.S., and it was about a three- to four-year process. We were supposed to come in 2001, but after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it got pushed back to 2004.

“When I came to the U.S., I knew very little English – just the basics. I spent about a year and a half in English as a Second Language class. It took me a good two years to be fully conversational.”

Sofizada’s journey to America began a little differently. In 2001, the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan, which forced Sofizada and his family to flee their home in Kabul when he was a teenager.

“We heard on the radio that the Taliban were taking Kabul City,” he said. “We got onto a bus, and it was really overloaded. It was around midnight that we started moving towards the Panjshir Valley. There was a big convoy of people – civilians just getting in their vehicles and trying to run away before the Taliban got to Kabul. I remember looking out the window, and, as far as I could see, there were lights coming in behind us and going towards the northern part of Afghanistan just to run away from the Taliban.”

After arriving in the Panjshir Valley, which fell under the control of the United Islamic National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, he had to adjust to life during the reign of the Taliban.

“There were some days where you would go without food, and just try to find something like an apple or a mulberry,” Sofizada said. “The supply routes were blocked off by the Taliban. If you were lucky, you would have bread.”

Sofizada and his family stayed in the Panjshir Valley until the occupation was over. They then returned to their home. Sofizada would later learn English and help U.S. forces in Afghanistan as a translator and linguist.

“Those guys are really brave, and they were willing to sacrifice everything to keep our family safe,” Sofizada said. “That’s what I learned from the Green Berets – to be selfless, always do the right thing and put your life on the line for others.

“It took me a while to earn their trust, because they were in a foreign country. Once I earned it, I felt like I was part of a brotherhood. I never felt they looked down on me, and I was treated like a soldier.”

Sofizada immigrated to San Francisco in June 2009.

“I thought that since the U.S. has given me a new life and I really enjoy living here, it would be a good idea to serve and actually wear the uniform,” he said.

Ghorbandi joined the Air Force Reserve in 2016. Sofizada joined in 2018. Both said the selfless service of the American forces in Afghanistan inspired them to enlist.

The Airmen said they were excited to serve at Holloman and ease the transition of Afghan evacuees into their temporary home on base, dubbed Aman Omid Village.

“I get a lot of gratification from helping out people who I know are in the same situation I was in,” Ghorbandi said. “It’s just been amazing seeing their faces and seeing the kids who are now getting a chance – especially since a lot of these kids are the age I was when I first came here.”

Sofizada had the unique opportunity to welcome his own family to Aman Omid Village. His four brothers, two sisters and parents came through the village.

“I’m really happy that they’re here and safe with me,” he said.

“Talking with the kids has been the best experience for me,” Ghorbandi said. “You see the light and the hope in their eyes, and it makes you think about how much suffering they must have gone through. They will still go through a lot of obstacles in their lives, but as long as they keep that hope, I know they’ll have a chance in this country.” #ReserveResilient

(Sanchez is assigned to the Task Force Holloman public affairs office.)            ■