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The Story Of How An Afghan Interpreter And His Family Escaped Afghanistan

Updated August 25, 2021 at 5:16 AM ET

Reggie, an Afghan interpreter who worked with the U.S. military, watched in fear from his roof as the Taliban took over Kabul last week. He knew that he and his family were in danger of being killed by the Taliban in retaliation for his work helping the U.S.

Reggie is the nickname given to him by the Americans. For security reasons, NPR is not using his full name.

When Reggie spoke with NPR on Aug. 15, he said he couldn't sleep or relax "for a single minute" with the insurgents now in power. His family was scared too, but Reggie held on to hope that they would reach the U.S. safely.

"Because of my service, my family is suffering right now," he told Morning Edition last week. "My family, my kids is telling me that, 'Bad guy is going to come and is going to kill you, then us.' And I keep telling them, 'No, there are a lot of good friends that I have in America. I have made a lot of good friends and they're going to take us, baby, you don't have to worry about it.' "

It turned out Reggie was right.

Veterans worked to get them out

They had the help of veterans in the U.S. who haven't forgotten those who served with them in Afghanistan and are doing what they can to help.

One of them is retired Capt. Flo Groberg, a Medal of Honor recipient who lives in Washington state. He heard Reggie's story and recognized him. While serving in Afghanistan in 2012, Groberg was approached by a man wearing a suicide vest. Groberg protected other members of his unit by shoving the bomber aside, but the vest detonated and Groberg lost some of his hearing and much of the use of one leg.

The person who helped him control the bleeding was Reggie, the interpreter, even though Reggie too was injured.

Groberg has been pulling every string he can to get Afghans on planes. He called Reggie and told him to take his papers to the airport.

The U.S. has control of the Kabul airport, where it's evacuating thousands every day. But the Taliban control the rest of the city.

The situation outside the airport is dangerous and chaotic. Thousands of Afghans also hoping to flee the country have been thronging its gates in the past week. Taliban fighters have fired into the air and beaten back crowds.

Reggie tried hard to push through the crowds but was worried about the safety of his kids. He and his wife have five children, ranging in age from 3 to 13.

They got special instructions on where to go

Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on Friday, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. Reggie and his family were able to get in through a different entrance.
Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on Friday, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. Reggie and his family were able to get in through a different entrance.

Reggie went home and called Groberg back to tell him what happened. Groberg made another call, to a friend, and gave Reggie fresh instructions: Take your wife and kids. Hide your documents, bring no luggage and pass the Taliban checkpoints. And this time, go to a different entrance to the airport, not the one that's mobbed.

An Army sergeant will be waiting for you.

The drive there was tense. Reggie told his family to tell anyone who asked that they were bringing food to visit a sick cousin across town. His kids "were feeling they were going to die at any moment," he says. Reggie himself wasn't sure the plan would work.

But it did. The family made it through the Taliban checkpoints and to the airport, where the Army sergeant was waiting.

Once inside the airport's gates, his kids finally smiled. "I told them, 'We are safe.' And I took a very deep breath."

Sometime after midnight on Friday, a military transport took off from Kabul. Reggie, his wife and five kids were sitting with other refugees on the floor of the plane. The few windows were covered.

There was no final glimpse of their country.

They're now on a military base in Italy, waiting on visas to the U.S.

They first arrived at a base in Qatar, then two days later, boarded another transport and arrived at a military base in Italy. Since arriving in Italy, he's finally been able to shower. His kids got donated toys. He's been helping interpret for other refugees.

Reggie expects to stay on the base in Italy while the visa process is completed for him and his family. His work as an interpreter with the U.S. Army gave him the option to apply for a special immigrant visa. It's a lengthy 14-step process that takes more than three years to complete. He has been trying to get a visa for over a decade but was stuck in a massive backlog.

He's hoping that once everything goes through, they can go to Texas, where he has a brother in Fort Worth.

He says he's both relaxed and excited, but for now, he waits. He's waiting for the U.S. government to get a system on the base up and running to process Afghan evacuees.

Reggie says he already has old buddies calling him asking when they can see him in America. He's looking forward to seeing his friends from the U.S. military and Afghan friends who made it to the U.S. years ago.

Reggie is also getting calls from his family still in Afghanistan. He recently spoke to his sister who is still in Kabul. She was crying.

Reggie says that somehow, he needs to get her out next.

Bo Hamby, Arezou Rezvani and Chad Campbell produced and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Nell Clark is an editor at Morning Edition and a writer for NPR's Live Blog. She pitches stories, edits interviews and reports breaking news. She started in radio at campus station WVFS at Florida State University, then covered climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. She joined NPR in 2019 as an intern at Weekend All Things Considered. She is proud to be a member of NPR's Peer-to-Peer Trauma Support Team, a network of staff trained to support colleagues dealing with trauma at work. Before NPR, she worked as a counselor at a sailing summer camp and as a researcher in a deep-sea genetics lab.