The desperate calls kept coming.
In the Twin Cities, a new Afghan family summoned Roman Khan at midnight to call the police and help find their patriarch who had gone missing for days — the man, facing a mental health crisis, soon surfaced at a hospital. A pair of Afghan men called Khan to say they could not sleep because of a mysterious beeping — he came over to show them how to put a battery in the smoke detector. An Afghan couple demanded to know why he had moved them into a house haunted by ghosts — he looked around and told them, laughingly, that the eerie noises were the whirs and bangs of a heater.
From Afghanistan, Khan's relatives pleaded for help upon the Taliban's return to power. When was he going to send more money? How could they escape?
Over the last year, Khan, 37, has been on the front lines of resettling Minnesota's 1,200 Afghan evacuees while working to save his family left behind. The war that began after Sept. 11, 2001, ended when the last U.S. military plane left Kabul on Aug. 30, 2021 — but as he learned in wrenching detail, the turmoil would only deepen for the Afghans coming here and those trapped at home.
"On one side was my family in danger, and the other side I had my wife and kids here that I have to work [to support], and the third side is new refugees that came here and needed help," Khan said.
He was one of the earliest Afghans to come to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) in 2007 after serving the military as an interpreter, and went on to train troops around the nation for their mission in Afghanistan. Khan built a comfortable life for his family in St. Paul Park — an American idyll where he played volleyball with his children in the backyard, barbecued kabobs with his friends and planted a vegetable garden.
He felt as if he'd made it.
Then the Taliban seized control in Afghanistan last summer, and Khan counted 32 kin, including his parents, who were at risk — not only because of his own alliance with the Americans, but also because of his brother Adil, who served as an interpreter, and his brother Zahid, who worked on nuclear energy projects with the U.S.
He implored everyone he could think of to help evacuate his family — the American and European military leaders he knew from Afghanistan, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office, veterans advocates. The Coalition of Allied Vietnam War Veterans helped arrange for some of Khan's family to take a private chartered flight out of the country. But a terrorist attack at the airport thwarted the departure.
As the Taliban's grip tightened, many of Khan's relatives went into hiding. Further efforts to get them chartered flights to Abu Dhabi fell through when the U.S. said it would not process more refugees in that city. Khan regularly sent funds for them to survive through MoneyGram in St. Paul. He wondered how long he could afford it.
'Never accept defeat'
Khan's sixth child, Hamza, was born that Thanksgiving — a bittersweet occasion, given that his full family could not be here to honor the day in customary Afghan fashion.
He invited over his friend Mahmood "Moody" Khan (no relation), who had befriended Roman Khan and his brother Adil while deployed in Afghanistan as a sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard. Over a meal, they talked about a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for Khan's family. He feared that soliciting money went against his cultural values, but decided it was forgivable in a life-or-death matter.
The effort raised $6,430.
In January, Roman Khan sat in the corner of Big Marina Grill in Columbia Heights, sharing samosas and tea with Mahmood Khan, straining to hear his brother Zahid's call. "Hello, salaam alaikum. Did I wake you up?"
They talked over the encrypted app Signal about how Zahid was doing at a safe house in Kabul. The call dropped, then reconnected.
"We do not have enough decent food in the safe house — our life is at risk," Zahid told the Star Tribune. "People are searching houses and homes and they're finding those people that worked with the U.S. government."
Soon Roman's call with Zahid dropped again. If the connection was this poor in Kabul, Khan knew there would be no point in calling Jalalabad, where Adil was hiding.
Sometimes Khan's mind drifted to January 2007 at Camp Phoenix in Kabul. Khan stood at the gate of the U.S. military base when a car roared up and slammed into a barrier. Khan confronted the driver and saw wires sticking out as the man frantically pressed a button. "Bomb in the car!" Khan shouted, and everyone ran. He wrestled the suicide bomber to the ground.
The U.S. military presented him with bonuses and awards for his work not just on that day but also for helping other missions to thwart terrorist groups. He received a medal from Dick Cody, then vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, that read:
NEVER ACCEPT DEFEAT
NEVER LEAVE A FALLEN COMRADE
All these years later, Khan still liked to take the awards out of a box and look at them, part of an annual ritual reflecting on his life's work. It once brought him pride; now it stirs frustration.
"I have shown my loyalty, I have shown my bravery, I have shown my courage … Now my family's lives are at risk," he said. "Why the U.S. military can't save my family?"
Many Afghans and veterans were raising alarms that the Biden administration had betrayed America's promises to protect tens of thousands of allies and their relatives still stuck in Afghanistan — Khan was upset every time he saw the president on TV.
Overwhelmed, he turned his attention to the new arrivals pouring into America.
Calls for help
Khan spent six weeks in late 2021 at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico as an interpreter and cultural adviser, tending to the weary masses of evacuees. When they asked how they could bring the rest of their families, he encouraged them to temporarily set that worry aside.
"The priority," Khan would say, "is you have to think about yourself first now."
He took up a job resettling Afghans for the International Institute of Minnesota, then in January began overseeing caseworkers for evacuees at an organization called CAPI. More Afghans were moving out of military installations into hotels, and his team worked to house them and guide them to self-sufficiency.
The calls for help rapidly escalated.
One snowy night, a distraught Afghan family told him their son, who didn't speak English, had left for the grocery store hours before and never returned. Khan drove around in his Suburban looking for the young man and was ready to call the police when he finally spied him clutching two bags and walking without gloves. "OK, get in," Khan said.
Another Afghan called at 3 a.m., suffering a terrible toothache: "I'm dying, I'm dying. For God's sake, come save me," he told Khan.
Others called to say the water was leaking. The heat didn't work. He pressed landlords to make repairs. He delivered space heaters. He answered queries about buying groceries, enrolling in schools, finding bus stops. Khan translated for a woman who was going into labor and needed a ride to the hospital.
Khan's team of caseworkers included four young Afghan women who themselves were new evacuees. By summertime, they had finished moving hundreds of Afghans into homes.
The colleagues enjoyed a meal together in late July at Afandina Café in Columbia Heights, trading stories over kabobs, bread and rice. There was an undercurrent of loss to their reminiscing: the Afghans at the table had buried themselves in this consuming job while mourning the relatives they left behind.
Some progress, then delay
All along, Khan had pressed Klobuchar's office to act on his family's case, and he approached her again when she visited Fort Snelling on Memorial Day.
The office was working on other similarly complicated Afghan cases. It sent his family's names to the State Department to be put on an evacuation flight manifest, leading to the departure of 13 relatives — including Zahid and his parents — to Doha, Qatar, where they have waited more than three months.
Two other brothers are among those in Afghanistan still trying to escape, including Adil, who has a pending Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) application and faces delays because the contractor that employed him no longer exists and cannot provide a letter on his behalf.
In August, Klobuchar and other senators introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act to allow evacuees to apply for permanent status after a year in the U.S. The measure would ease the enormous backlog of SIV and asylum applications, and broaden SIV eligibility.
Khan recently began enjoying long, open days for the first time since the evacuation. He took his wife and children on vacation to Missouri in August.
Yet the appeals for help did not stop.
In late August, Khan went to an Afghan engagement party and yet again, someone asked him how to bring family members over. There was still no clear path. Khan knew many couldn't afford attorneys. He didn't want to be discouraging.
As usual, he smiled, looked in their eyes and said everything would be OK.