A perilous journey, a will to survive

April 6, 2006, midnight | By Katy Lafen | 14 years, 9 months ago

Blair science teacher recounts her escape from Afghanistan and her new life in America

When armed assassins were spotted waiting for her husband at the end of the street with guns concealed beneath their robes, she knew it was time to leave.

After making all the necessary arrangements for their departure from their home in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Science Laboratory Assistant Mary Nawabi and her husband, Hafiz, helped each of their four children into two layers of clothing. They left the lights on, locked the front door and said their final goodbyes to their beloved home country.

It was January 1984, and Nawabi had been watching the conditions in her country deteriorate for several years. The Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan six years earlier and had begun to persecute educated members of the upper class in order to establish a new power base. This group included Hafiz, a leader in the Afghani petroleum industry accused of conspiring with the U.S. against the Soviet regime. Nawabi soon had to choose between an uncertain future in her old country and the hope of security in a new one. She and her husband decided to flee Afghanistan and take the chance for their children's sake.

Twenty-two years later, the wounds have not yet fully healed. Nawabi admits it is still difficult to speak of her family's hurried exit from Afghanistan and the troubled years that followed. Last October, Nawabi took a three-month hiatus, during which she recovered from the longstanding emotional effects of the trauma of leaving Afghanistan and stress from her husband's nine-year battle with throat cancer. She returned Feb. 11 to her job at Blair, which she has held for 20 years. Nawabi is grateful to have found an accepting community at Blair, she says, but while she is proud of the life she has made in America, she will never forget the one she left behind in Afghanistan.

Salvation or death trap

As Nawabi and her family drove away from their house in Afghanistan for the last time, she was sure they were doing the right thing. Although she and her husband had visas and could legally exit the country, the government refused to allow their children to emigrate. According to Nawabi, this was a ploy by the Soviets to keep her family in the country long enough for Hafiz to be executed.

The Nawabis had arranged for their children, ages eight to 14, to join a secret group that smuggled Afghani citizens across the border to Pakistan. Nawabi and her husband were to travel to New Delhi, India, where they would wait for their children. Although Nawabi and her husband knew and trusted the people in charge of the group, they would have no contact with their children during the weeks it would take them to cross the border. They had every reason to fear the worst.

According to Brian Spooner, professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and a representative for the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, this type of underground escape was common among Afghani citizens who opposed the Soviets' progressive reforms. "It was too much, too fast for such a traditional country," he says. Many of these refugees were discovered and executed on location by the Soviets.

For all Nawabi and her husband knew, they might have been sending their children straight to their deaths.

Family bonds

Despite the sinking feeling in her stomach as she hugged her children goodbye, Nawabi knew that this was her family's best chance for a happy and secure life. She is positive that, had they stayed, Hafiz would have been murdered.

Growing up in the bustling educational district of Kabul in pre-Soviet Afghanistan, Nawabi lived in an affluent household and experienced none of the fear and danger that her children did. "We were very lucky," she says. "My father worked hard to give us a nice life." With a full staff of servants, a chauffeur and a pool, Nawabi was one of the more fortunate Afghani citizens.

Nawabi's father also instilled in her the importance of education. As soon as Nawabi began school, she excelled. She skipped three grades by studying ahead during winter breaks, became the assistant editor-in-chief of her school's newspaper and directed conferences and forums held at her school. She attributes her success, not to any innate genius, but to her parents, who always encouraged her to focus on her schoolwork.

Although Nawabi wed Hafiz in an arranged marriage shortly after she completed high school, she continued to pursue her career. Hafiz was always very supportive of her studies, Nawabi says, and she feels lucky that her parents chose him for her husband.

Despite the large age difference between them — he was 32 and she was 16 — Nawabi felt completely at ease meeting her fiancé for the first time. She simply opened the front door to Hafiz and his parents and offered her hand. "My husband still says to me, 'I can't believe how brave you were,'" she says. "And I don't know why I was. It just felt right."

Even though Nawabi had four children with Hazif by the time she was 24, she was determined to continue her education. She participated in a work-study program at a university in Kabul, teaching in the morning and attending classes in the afternoon. Eventually, she became the supervisor of all elementary-school teachers in the city. Somehow, in between all her work and studying, she found time to spend with her children.

So, when Nawabi found herself cooped up in a New Delhi hotel room with nothing to do but think of her children in the snowy mountains of Afghanistan, she nearly went insane. "It almost killed me," Nawabi recalls. "I couldn't sleep. I had no appetite. I was depressed." She wasn't even able to bring any photos of the children in her rush out of the country. Her only consolation came from reading the Koran, the sacred religious text of Islam. Hafiz, she believes, internalized the pain much more than she did and blamed himself for the family's separation.

But Nawabi continued to remind her husband that what had happened in Afghanistan was no one's fault. "[The government] tried to find bad things to accuse us of, but we were innocent in every way," she says.


But even with Hafiz, Nawabi's life was incomplete without her kids. When she saw them for the first time in two months at a bus stop in India, she was taken aback by the impact the journey had upon them.

Nawabi learned that during the trip, the children's bus had been stopped by soldiers working for the Soviets. The soldiers surrounded Nawabi's eldest son, demanding to know where he and his siblings were traveling. He lied, saying they were visiting their grandmother, and the soldiers threw him down in the aisle of the bus. One held a gun to Nawabi's son's face and threatened to kill him. After a few minutes, however, they moved on to harass other passengers on the bus, and luckily, all escaped the incident unharmed. Speaking of those two months still upsets Nawabi, and her children, now grown with families, still have nightmares.

Starting anew

Within three months of their reunion in India, the family was able to move to the U.S. because of Hafiz's good relations with the U.S. embassy. During her first few months in America, Nawabi felt conflicted about the changes that had taken place in her life. "On the one hand, I missed [Afghanistan], but on the other hand, my kids were alive and we were making it," she says.

Still, Nawabi had to adjust to working 12-hour days without any hired help to assist at home. Her husband could not find work as an engineer because he lacked U.S. citizenship. He was frustrated with his new job that he had taken out of necessity. "My husband was an expert on the petroleum industry in Afghanistan, but here, he went to a carpet store for work. His boss had a high-school degree. It wasn't easy for him," she says.

Nawabi, finding herself drawn towards teaching again, took evening English classes at Montgomery College so that she could pass the test required for a teacher's license. Here at Blair, she does not lead her own class but rather assists students in the Magnet program by preparing chemicals and ensuring that the necessary safety precautions are taken. "I love to be with students and books. It doesn't bother me if I'm not a teacher here. I still have a responsibility to help the students," she says.

And, she says, she has kept her responsibility as a mother and a wife over the years. She has supported her children throughout their schooling — all attended college — and has cared for her husband through his illness.

She is proud of her family and knows that, without her children's bravery, they would not have made it to where they are today. Her children never protested when Nawabi told them how they were to leave Afghanistan, nor did they complain about their situation once they arrived in the U.S. "They are heroes," Nawabi says. "I tell them that all the time."

Katy Lafen. Katy Lafen loves the Beatles, the Rutles and Spinal Tap. More »

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