‘My Homeland’: A Poet’s Quest to Help a Family Flee Afghanistan

Zohra Saed was an infant when her family, ethnic Uzbeks, fled Afghanistan because of the Soviet-Afghan war, a conflict that killed many of her relatives. But she absorbed her parents’ stories as she grew up in Brooklyn, using them as she became a poet and editor who preserves the literature of Afghan writers.

Three years ago, Ms. Saed, a professor at the City University of New York, began working with a writer from northern Afghanistan to preserve and publish lyrical folk poems in the Uzbek language.

She translated many into English, including this one — simply titled “Afghanistan.”

You birthed me like a mother.

My soul, my body.

You are the land of my ancestor.

My homeland.

But that homeland was torn apart in August as the United States withdrew its military forces and the Taliban seized control. Like many Afghan New Yorkers, Ms. Saed watched and worried as the Taliban takeover forced the writer whom she worked with and his extended family of 12 into hiding. Ethnic Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan have long been a target of Taliban hostility, she said.

Ms. Saed put aside her poetry work and rallied a group of literary cohorts in a grass-roots campaign to move the family to safety among the thriving community of Afghans and other central Asians in New York City.

“We realized the whole family was in danger,” said Ms. Saed.

By putting out the word out in group chats and social networks, Ms. Saed tapped into her network of Afghan writers and artists and filmmakers as well as colleagues and students from CUNY.

One of her former literature students, Mayha Ghouri, now an immigration lawyer, agreed to file applications for the family’s evacuation at no cost to the family, through a U.S. humanitarian parole program that admits select people temporarily for emergency or urgent humanitarian reasons.

Ms. Ghouri, who was born to Pakistani immigrant parents in the Bronx, was already swamped with similar Afghan evacuation cases but was not about to turn her former teacher down. She had taken Ms. Saed’s course on Arab American literature when she was an undergraduate at Hunter College in Manhattan, and later had become an immigration lawyer after graduating from the CUNY School of Law in Queens.

She got her agency, Neighbors Link, a Westchester-based nonprofit that provides free immigration legal work along with other comprehensive services to immigrants, to take the case.

But Ms. Ghouri warned Ms. Saed that the family would be joining perhaps tens of thousands of humanitarian parole applicants from Afghanistan seeking entry to the United States, and that approvals could take months if granted at all.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said that more than 11,000 Afghans have been permitted to resettle in the United States, including 300 in New York State.

In all, 65,000 Afghans will be admitted to settle in the United States this fall, including many who have already arrived. An additional 30,000 are expected over the next year.

Ms. Saed is determined to make sure the writer and his family will be among them. Her group of volunteers began collecting required documentation from the Afghan family for the applications. Ms. Saed asked that the names of the writer and his family, as well as other identifying information, be withheld to protect their safety.

Because he is a writer — he named his four children after prominent Afghan literary figures — he is a target of the Taliban. He is also suspect because of his former day job as a government worker running youth athletic programs that included girls, which is prohibited under Taliban rule.

When the Taliban took over, the writer destroyed the program’s attendance records to protect the girls, Ms. Saed said, “so the Taliban was chasing him and he had to go into hiding with his family.”

Ms. Saed was reminded of the plight of her family, which first relocated to Saudi Arabia and then moved to Brooklyn when she was 5. “That’s probably why I felt responsible for his family,” she said. “For me, it touched a chord.”

In Brooklyn, her family settled among Central Asian immigrants in the Sheepshead Bay section, which she noted is affectionately known to some who live there as Shish Kebab Bay for its layers of Turkic migrants and restaurants along Coney Island Avenue.

Later, Ms. Saed earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brooklyn College and in 2001 helped found UpSet Press, a micropress, along with a Brooklyn College classmate, Robert Booras. It publishes literary works largely by CUNY-affiliated poets and writers.

She earned a doctoral degree in literature from CUNY’s Graduate Center and now lectures on justice and equity at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College.

CUNY has long served as a way for struggling immigrants to gain a quality college education and a foothold into middle class. Ms. Saed credited the mind-set of the city’s public university, the largest urban university system in the country, with helping to push the community to rally for the writer and his family.

“This community was formed out of this catastrophe,” she said. “We all became clerical workers filling out forms and coordinating the evacuation — we were totally out of our element.”

Through a GoFundMe campaign and other donation methods, the group has raised nearly $7,000 toward relocation expenses and application processing fees, which alone are $575 for each of the 12 family members.

First, the family has a daunting, risky journey, Ms. Ghouri said. They would most likely have to also find a way to cross into a neighboring country to pick up their visas at an American embassy or consulate and then arrange costly flights to the United States, where they would be further screened and required to apply for asylum.

“It’s a ton of risk,” Ms. Ghouri said.

Sending documentation for the applications was also precarious for the family, which has remained indoors in hiding. Via WhatsApp, they sent selfies and images of required documents and promptly deleted them from their phones to avoid detection by the Taliban, said Ms. Saed, who has stayed in communication with the writer through his brother, a scholar in England.

As the family’s sponsor, Ms. Saed had to sign an affidavit vouching for them and present U.S. immigration officials with proof of her financial stability. She hopes to raise another $32,000 for travel expenses and has been exploring which schools and colleges might be right for the children.

And if all goes well, there is still a book of Uzbek lyric poems to publish.

“Literature is at the heart of all this,” she said. “It’s a respect for culture and the preservation of a literary tradition.”

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