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The story of one Afghan teen who was separated from his family while evacuating Kabul

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It's been nearly two years since some 80,000 Afghan refugees were airlifted out of Kabul on military aircraft as the Taliban closed in to take over the country. They're now trying to adjust to a new life in the United States, and they're facing hurdles, ranging from finances to language difficulties and worrying about family members left behind. NPR's Tom Bowman and producer Lauren Hodges sat down with one of those refugees and bring us this story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I like the seashells.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I buy bunches...

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: It's midday at Goodwin House, a retirement community just outside Washington. Residents stroll through the revolving door with packages.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. See you later.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: See you later.

BOWMAN: Some slowly move down the hallway, aided by walkers. Others chat with each other by the elevator, introducing their pets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is Sammy (ph).

BOWMAN: In the middle of all this is a lean young man dressed in black, with a trim beard. He could be mistaken for a visiting family member, but his family is 8,000 miles away and in danger.

B H: Very...

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman. Nice to meet you.

B H: Nice to meet you.

BOWMAN: We'll call him B.H. We're just using his initials because most of his family is still in Kabul, often forced to change addresses because they fear the new Taliban regime. His uncle worked for the Afghan and U.S. militaries, making the whole family suspect. B.H. remembers the last time he saw them, 10 of them, as they pressed through a desperate crowd at the Kabul airport...

(CROSSTALK)

BOWMAN: ...All trying to board planes as the Taliban took over the city.

B H: And everyone was pushing each other. And they didn't, you know, care about old people or childrens. Yeah, everyone was afraid.

BOWMAN: Were you afraid?

B H: Yes.

BOWMAN: In the crush of thousands of terrified Afghans, B.H. was separated from his family, and somehow he got through the gate. But the rest of the family was still outside.

B H: I called them several times, but no one was answering because it was in the crowd, and no one heard the phone ring. It was a dark day for me because I lost my whole family, you know?

BOWMAN: He soon found himself sitting on the floor of a massive C-130 aircraft packed with refugee families. He had only the clothes he wore and some IDs. The plane arrived in Doha, Qatar, the first leg of a flight to the U.S. There, he finally reached his mother on the phone back in Kabul.

B H: She was crying. That's the only thing she did.

BOWMAN: B.H. was just 17 and all alone. Next was a dizzying hopscotch west - Germany, where the refugees slept on cots in a massive airplane hangar; Washington Dulles Airport in Virginia, more cots inside a convention center; then to an Air Force base in New Mexico for vetting and medical tests, spending two months talking with other Afghans.

B H: Everybody in the camp had relatives around in the U.S. And they say, hey, come to California. You know, it's a good place. And I say, I don't have any relatives here. Then I found out about Virginia has a good education system, and that was my goal to achieve.

BOWMAN: So B.H. flew back to Dulles Airport in Virginia. The State Department offered counseling, help for jobs and education, and the refugees got three months' financial assistance. He got an apartment and enrolled in Alexandria City High School as a junior. He studied hard and worked doing odd jobs, not able to socialize much. He noticed something different about his American classmates.

B H: You know, this is a culture - just one family, two family members who work in the family, and the rest of them just spending that money and have free times and have funds all the time. But here, everyone should work. You know, it's not a choice. You should work, you know, if you want to live here in this country.

BOWMAN: A teacher found out he lived alone and was financially strapped. The school staff reached out to Christ Church in Alexandria, whose parishioners have banded together to help the Afghan refugees. Melanie Gray is the church's director of outreach and mission.

MELANIE GRAY: He needed financial help, period. You know, he's going to school full time. He's working full time. He described to me in his little time he has, he showers, eats and studies.

BOWMAN: Christ Church, along with other faith groups in the area, raises money to support the newly arrived Afghans. Most of that money goes to rental assistance. The church is helping more than 50 families, but B.H. especially stood out to them because he didn't have his family.

GRAY: So imagining him here alone, without a family, the burden, I believe, is extra heavy.

BOWMAN: Gray says worrying about his relatives overseas was a huge weight on B.H.'s shoulders.

GRAY: The stresses of his family remaining in Afghanistan. I mean, he has sent me pictures of a brother who had been stabbed. And when I see that, I'm like, I can't imagine how you go to school the next day. And yet he does.

BOWMAN: B.H. got a job working the front desk at Goodwin House. He talks with his family frequently, sends them money when he can and is looking for additional work. He picked up a scholarship from his high school to study computer programming at Northern Virginia Community College. It's a safe life, but he misses Kabul - the food, hanging out with his friends and playing soccer. But it's dangerous now, and he wonders if his family will ever get out.

B H: All the time, I'm worry about my family because they are in danger. They have no rights here, no freedom of speech. Our Afghan girls can't go to school.

BOWMAN: B.H. is luckier than most Afghans in the U.S., thousands of whom struggle with English and have only temporary work permits. His application for asylum was accepted, and he's on his way to becoming a permanent U.S. resident.

B.H. walks to his apartment in Southern Towers, a massive complex just behind Goodwin House. It's home to many Afghans and other refugees who settled here years ago from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

There's a cluster of people outside the towers - a woman wearing a hijab, a man in a long tunic shirt hopping off a shuttle bus.

B H: Today's Eid, Muslims' holiday. And in this time, you know, in our countries, everyone is going their relative house and hanging out with friends. It's a big celebration, you know?

BOWMAN: And you miss that?

B H: Yeah.

BOWMAN: As families greet each other outside, kids dart around the parking lot on scooters.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

LAUREN HODGES, BYLINE: Oh, my God. Are you all right?

BOWMAN: You all right?

We head through the lobby to the elevator, where the hum of families in the lobby gives way to silence. We head up to B.H.'s studio apartment on the 10th floor.

Can we take our shoes off?

He invites us in and apologizes for the bags of laundry in the living room floor.

B H: This is how I collect all the clothes to go to the laundry, you know, so...

BOWMAN: So this is all your laundry?

B H: Yeah.

BOWMAN: The only decoration is a massive photo of a beach and a vast stretch of sea with mountains in the distance. He folds up his prayer rug, opens a window shade to an urban landscape of highway and apartment buildings.

HODGES: Oh, wow. Look at your view.

BOWMAN: It's very nice.

HODGES: Yeah. So if you had so many people in your house, and now it's just you, is that weird?

B H: Yeah.

HODGES: Is that - I mean, what is it like?

B H: Yeah. There's no choice for me, you know? And that's the thing, you know?

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Alexandria, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.