They lost their mom to a Kabul bombing. Now their dad finally joins them.
The Washington Post September 23, 2022
DULLES, Va — Mina Stanekzai stared at the families happily greeting each other inside the Dulles Airport terminal, some of them holding flowers and balloons bearing "Welcome Home!" messages.
It had been more than a year since she had seen her father and oldest brother, the day a suicide bomb killed her mother outside the airport in Kabul - sending Mina, 8, and her other brother Faisal, 14, on a journey to Northern Virginia to live with their aunt, Ferishta, as they recovered from injuries caused by the explosion.
Now, the children's father, Wali, and older brother, Masi, 16, were due to arrive. Two hours after their plane landed Monday, they had not come through the security gate and were not responding to text messages.
Mina's initially cheerful demeanor was again darkening, the red velvet hair band she had put on that afternoon to impress her father appearing crooked and ready to fall off.
"My dad is not coming, why you do that to me?" she said to her aunt in English, after Ferishta had spotted a group of Afghans entering the baggage claim area and suggested that Wali and Masi were not far behind.
Mina had spiraled into anger and depression since the bomb at the Kabul airport wall changed everything. The explosion, set as the Taliban retook power last summer, killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 Afghans - a tragedy broadcast around the world.
Mina and Faisal would not learn of their mother's death until several months after they joined Ferishta in Alexandria, Va., a revelation that happened by accident. The fact that their father and brother were still hiding in Kabul made it even worse.
Despite becoming more acclimated to their American life, now easily speaking English and thriving in school, the girl's temper tantrums at home were intensifying.
Once, during an argument with Faisal over what to watch on TV, she threw a toy into the screen, shattering it. Other times, she would blame her aunt for her mother's death, insisting Ferishta could have helped from Alexandria.
After so many fits and starts, it was hard to trust that this day was real. The constellation of efforts that had brought them to this point was remarkable - one of thousands of stories of families fighting their way out long after the war had ended. Many remain.
But retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. John Bradley - a friend of Ferishta's who helped the family during their initial escape - had committed himself to ensuring this moment.
"I've spent a lot of time on it," the former chief of the Air Force Reserve said in March, sounding exhausted. "I work on it every day. Think about it every day."
Wali and Masi ranked behind hundreds of others the U.S. government was still trying to get out after the Taliban began in September 2021 allowing commercial flights out of Kabul.
Top priority went to American citizens and their immediate family members, the State Department told The Washington Post. After them were legal permanent U.S. residents and family members of American service members.
The Stanekzais were among the hundreds of cases of Afghan families separated during the Kabul airport chaos.
On paper, they were just ahead of the thousands of former Afghan interpreters and former contract employees who helped in the U.S. war effort and qualify for special immigrant visas. But many of those visa recipients were already being flown to the United States.
Bradley worked with polite insistency to get the State Department to treat the family's case with more urgency.
"We very much want to reunite the father and son with the father's two small children now in Alexandria, Virginia," he wrote to a State Department official in a November email shared with The Washington Post. "Losing their mother was a traumatic experience."
It was in November, after months of evasion on the topic, that Mina learned of her mother's passing - by stumbling upon photos of Zakya's body dressed for her funeral in Kabul that had been sent to Ferishta's smartphone.
During a phone call that day, Wali let the awkward apology to his angry, grieving daughter tumble out of his mouth, knowing the words were hollow.
He tried to explain to Mina that he was trying to spare her and Faisal more anguish when he asked Ferishta not to tell them about their mother's demise.
"My plan was to tell you when I get there," Wali, who spoke through an interpreter, recalled saying as his daughter listened in stony silence.
In reality, he could no longer see that day happening.
For several months, Wali and Masi lived in one room at the crowded Kabul home of a family who had agreed to secretly take them in.
Father and son lost all their documents in the bomb blast and, without IDs, felt stuck.
They were unwilling to venture into the city, where Taliban officials who might know that Zakya worked for a U.S. government contractor in Kabul before she died might decide to punish them for it.
Masi grieved for his mother, keeping close to him the small black purse she carried the day of the airport bombing that was retrieved along with her body.
Phone calls with his younger brother and sister - during which they shared details about their new lives in Northern Virginia - were painful reminders that he was left behind, no longer able to go to school.
"I have lost hope," Masi told Ferishta.
From his home in Nashville, Bradley continued to lobby State Department officials and recruited other people with influence, including several current and former members of Congress, to do the same - a mission driven in part by his guilt over sending the family to the airport that day with a letter meant to help them escape.
The office of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and former senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) were soon helping. So were others, including the office of Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), who joined the effort after Bradley's daughter, Leigh Ann Kosmas, wrote about the Stanekzais on Facebook. A friend from high school now married to one of the congressman's top staff members read her message.
That turned out to be a stroke of luck.
In December, after a phone call between Scott and A. Elizabeth Jones, the newly appointed State Department coordinator for Afghan relocation efforts, a senior State Department official assured Bradley that the agency would work to get Wali and Masi on a flight out of Afghanistan.
"They. Will. Be. Manifested," Bradley recalled her saying in a phone call about the flight manifest lists of outbound Afghan passengers kept by the State Department.
By then, Afghan government offices were partially functioning.
At Ferishta's urging, Wali and Masi ventured to a government administrative office in the now emptier city to procure new Afghan identity cards, which they did without incident.
The passports would be trickier because the Taliban was mainly issuing those to people in need of medical attention abroad.
Bradley wired $1,000 to a friend of Wali's that could be used to persuade a doctor to write a letter stating that Masi's depression required psychological treatment in Pakistan. The money would also be used to prod Afghan civil servants to expedite the paperwork.
But the country still heaved with violence.
In December, Taliban security fatally shot a woman who was trying to detonate a bomb at the entrance of the administrative office issuing passports, where several hundred people waited to get inside.
A few days after that incident, Wali and Masi headed there, arriving at 2 a.m. in hopes of getting a good spot in line when the office opened.
Several hundred people were already ahead of them and they were turned away. The same thing happened the following day.
On the third try, they got inside.
With their passports in hand, the machinery for a departure was in motion. A State Department contractor put Wali and Masi up in a hotel at an undisclosed site in Kabul with other Afghans anxious to leave.
Then, everything sputtered to a halt. A dispute between the Taliban and Qatari government - which handled logistics at the Kabul airport - kept all international flights from leaving Afghanistan.
Finally, in mid-April, came word that they would be leaving the following day.
"I can't believe this is happening," Masi told Ferishta in a phone call, alternately crying and laughing.
In Alexandria, Mina danced around their apartment, running from room to room in giddy excitement.
That night, Wali and Masi made a brief trip to Zakya's grave, where they prayed and said goodbye.
On the bus, Masi stared at the relatively empty airport grounds, swallowing the fear and excitement that took turns assaulting his belly.
He thought of the bombing that ripped apart his family, pleased that he had remembered to pack his mother's purse so she could in some way be with them in Northern Virginia.
"Everything was in front of my eyes," Masi said through an interpreter, recalling the site where Zakya died and where he wandered around in bare feet in the smoky aftermath that night searching for his family.
At the terminal entrance, a gate agent paused while reviewing Wali's documents and declared that the spelling of his name on the ticket didn't match what was on his passport.
"You have to come back tomorrow," the agent said, suggesting Wali get a new ticket.
Wali's heart dropped. But thanks to a flight delay, the State Department contractor had enough time to correct the error, allowing them to safely board.
Amid the confusion, however, their luggage never made it on the plane. Inside one suitcase, now lost for good, was Zakya's black purse.
Government bureaucracy and the fact that hundreds of other refugees were being processed to enter the United States had kept Wali and Masi inside a refugee camp for five months.
The wait gnawed at Mina and, when told the day of their arrival had finally come, she was incredulous.
At Dulles Airport, she distracted herself with a toy camera, taking silly pictures of Emran Ibrahimi, a family friend who was also there during the Kabul explosion and wound up chaperoning the children on their journey to the United States.
Two hours after the flight landed, the toy camera had been put away. Mina briefly stood vigil at the security gate and, when it looked like all the passengers had come through, gave up.
"I think they had the wrong flight," she told her aunt in English.
Then, suddenly, there they were.
"Hello, hello!" Mina shouted in Dari, hopping with laughter, while Ferishta held Wali in a tight embrace.
"I can't believe you are here," she told her brother through tears.
Faisal - who had grown quiet during his time in the United States - melted into Masi's grasp, holding his hand and beaming.
Bradley, who had flown from Tennessee for the reunion, was hoarse, sharing his relief again and again.
"I feel responsible for Zakya's death on a certain level," he said as everyone climbed into a shuttle van that would take them to Ferishta's two-bedroom apartment in Alexandria. "We had to get this problem solved."
Inside the apartment, festive balloons and a bounty of Afghan food awaited while friends arrived to celebrate, including Aleena Turekian, 13, a Washington, D.C. student who created an online book club for Afghan refugees that became a source of comfort for Mina and Masi.
As a jet-lagged Wali and Masi took it all in, the scene resembled a holiday gathering, minus a departed loved one. Ferishta scurried around to make sure everyone was eating while the others talked over one another, trading stories about the past year.
Mina bounced around the living room. Her ninth birthday, in early October, was approaching. This time, her father and brother would be there to help celebrate as they all built a new life together.
As the chatter continued, she began playing with one of the party balloons, tapping it, volleyball style, as it floated from person to person with specks of gold glitter inside twinkling in the light.