All through the night, Bilal and Humaira crouched inside a bus outside the Kabul airport to avoid the gunfire around them. The windows of the bus were sealed against an explosion of noxious gas. They hid for 12 hours; no food, no water.
When the airport gates were finally opened to them and other employees of a Canadian charity, they were among the last thousands of desperate Afghan people to cross the threshold to safety.
As for many, it was the start of a fraught journey for the couple, but one they say has delivered them to a place of peace, refuge and hope, and a future for their unborn daughter.
Bilal and Humaira are two of nearly 1,000 Afghans who have resettled in San Antonio this fall following the United States troop withdrawal from Afghanistan that led to a humanitarian crisis. (The San Antonio Report is not using their full names at their request.) Those who came to the U.S. were permitted under the Priority 2 Direct Access Program, which gave vulnerable Afghans without a Special Immigrant Visa access to the resettlement process.
In San Antonio, several local organizations, including Catholic Charities and RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), responded to the crisis by reaching out to the public for help in housing the refugees and providing food, clothing and hygiene items.
Other groups, such as the Center for Refugee Services, continue to help the newcomers to San Antonio find jobs and access health care. This month, the center is gathering toys and gifts for the families.
Bilal and Humaira say they didn’t anticipate the generosity that has helped put food on the table of their sparsely furnished apartment or get them to appointments and job interviews around town.
But it keeps coming — including in the form of hospitality and friendship.
‘What should I celebrate?’
In Kabul, Bilal worked as a finance officer for a Canadian and U.S.-backed charity, Free to Run, a nonprofit that supports women and girls in areas of conflict through sports activities that build physical, emotional and social well-being. He worked part-time for the nonprofit Hope for Education and Leadership in Afghanistan.
Bilal, 25, is also an athlete, despite a disability caused by polio as a child. He was the first sitting skateboarder in Afghanistan and a member of the national wheelchair basketball team, which traveled and competed internationally.
Humaira, 31, was a prosthetics and orthotics specialist for the International Committee of the Red Cross in her home country. She herself uses a prosthetic. At 6 years old, Humaira was injured when a bomb exploded near her home during the war.
The couple is celebrating their second wedding anniversary in December. They learned Humaira was pregnant in August, about the same time the Taliban took control of the city.
Sharing the news with Humaira’s mother in a Kabul hospital, where she was being treated for a heart condition, was bittersweet.
“On that day, I couldn’t imagine what should I celebrate — my happiness or my sorrow that I have right now,” Humaira said. “The oxygen was on her and she just told me that I’m very happy for you. It was really hard for me because I couldn’t celebrate my happiness.”
Humaira’s mother died just days later, her heart condition worsened by stress and worry for her daughters’ safety.
The takeover of Kabul was “unimaginable,” the couple said. The news led to chaos as thousands of panicked residents flooded into the city streets. Humaira tried unsuccessfully to withdraw money from the bank. Others mobbed passport offices.
The fact that they work for organizations supported by the US embassy meant that the couple’s lives were in danger from retribution by the Taliban, and they knew they had to leave, Bilal said. “Definitely, they will not allow me to stay at home — they will punish me.”
With the help of officials from Free to Run, the couple first hid from Taliban militants in a safe house before taking a bus to the Kabul airport — which had been struck by a suicide bomber just the day before.
After the harrowing 12-hour wait at the gates inside the bus, then a three-hour delay in the terminal, Bilal and Humaira walked the length of the tarmac, guarded by American soldiers to a charter plane. They left behind their families and everything they owned, including a car and all their savings.
The trek to safety took them first to Qatar and Germany for several days, then to a temporary refugee camp in New Mexico, where they stayed a month. On Oct. 12, they boarded a flight for San Antonio.
En route to San Antonio, they met Kate.
What would I want?
A foreign language instructor who lives in San Antonio, Kate (a federal employee who asked that her last name not be used to protect from potential harassment) was returning home from a trip to visit family. During a layover at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, as Bilal used his English-language skills to assist other refugees finding their way around the concourse, Kate noticed the group, and that they looked to be lost.
After helping the women locate a restroom, she talked with Bilal and put him on the phone with a former student of hers from Afghanistan for some advice about resettlement. Kate later stepped in to help the group when there was a problem boarding the plane.
“I also used to work with the refugee resettlement process a number of years ago [so] I’m kind of familiar with the different tasks and special obstacles that face them,” Kate said. “It’s not just getting them to the U.S. There’s a lot that they have to overcome here. And so it’s just important to come alongside them.”
For Kate, the assistance that refugees need often transcends the basics. When Humaira told Kate that her mother had recently died, she could see the mom-to-be was struggling. “I asked her if I could give her a hug,” Kate said.
Before parting in San Antonio, they exchanged phone numbers and Kate asked them to keep in touch. Since then, she has worked to find the couple furniture and brought them a welcome basket of fruit and other food, as well as baby clothes.
Kate sees herself in them.
“I’m sure many of the Afghans were just like us at different levels, different class levels in their own culture, and then suddenly it was all gone because they had to escape,” she said. “So what would I want other people to do? How would I want to be treated in that situation?
“What is the representation of my country that I want to give to these folks? Do I want them to feel welcomed and appreciated? Yes, I do.”
A place of their own
In San Antonio, a resettlement specialist greeted Bilal and Humaira at the airport, along with Bilal’s brother Basir.
For more than a month, they lived in a one-bedroom apartment with Basir, whose wife and children remain trapped in Afghanistan. With the help of a friend, Bilal set up a GoFundMe account that helped them raise the six months’ worth of rent they needed to secure a place of their own.
Help to furnish their new home came from RAICES, the “welcome money” they received from the federal government, and On the Mark, a moving company that donates unwanted furniture to people in need. The movers were one of a number of resources their new friend Kate contacted on the couple’s behalf.
“American people are very good,” Bilal said. “They help each other. In our country, it’s not like this and when I talk to someone online — with my family and friends — I teach them that we should also follow this kind of culture.”
On a recent afternoon, the tidy apartment on the North Side was warmed by the aroma of a savory midday meal Humaira had prepared. Basir had stopped in for a visit. Bilal planned to go out later for a job interview, and Humaira was anticipating a doctor’s appointment the next day.
Several days a week, Bilal practices with the San Antonio Parasports Spurs basketball team, preparing for an upcoming tournament in Austin. He is grateful to Coach Willie Jackson and Morgan’s Wonderland for the sport wheelchair he borrows for practice, even though it’s not an exact fit and is sometimes painful to his hands.
It’s just another example of how people in San Antonio seem to help one another, he said. “A coach [going] with you for a wheelchair is not a small thing.”
Jackson said Bilal can’t always focus on basketball, because he’s still trying to get settled, but it helps relieve some of his stress, while playing for the team will give the Paralympian the opportunity to showcase his talent and open doors in other ways.
‘There is hope’
The couple keeps in touch with extended family members in Afghanistan, some of whom have lost their professional jobs and so are struggling to feed their families. Friends and colleagues who remained are now in hiding because the Taliban knows they were working to support girls, Bilal said.
“Sometimes when I think a lot about my family, her family, my friends, my country, I really become disappointed,” Bilal said. “But still I’m saying that there is hope. One day everything will be changed.”
The child they are expecting this spring will be named Mahsaa, which means ‘moon-like’ and ‘beautiful’ in Persian. They say she has renewed their hope in the future, even as they mourn what’s lost to them for now.
“I’m happy but there is also a problem,” Bilal said. “We are far from our families so it’s very hard for us. But … I see the future of our baby will be very good and will be bright.”
For information on helping refugees resettle in San Antonio, go to AfghansinSA.org, a website created by the City of San Antonio and organizations including Interfaith San Antonio Alliance, the Center for Refugee Resources, SACRD.org, Catholic Charities, and the San Antonio Food Bank. The website features items needed for donation, ways to volunteer, and legal and advocacy resources for Afghans themselves.