The relative amiability and warmth of the Khan family home, located on a leafy street in Rhinebeck, give little indication of what the family’s life was just over a year ago, nor does it hint at what they endured to get to where they are today.
Gulab and Razia Khan, along with their four children – Tamana, 9; Arman, 7; Sana, 4; and Arhaan,1, were sponsored by The Episcopal Church of the Messiah, in partnership with the Rotary Club of Rhinebeck, which helped relocate the family to Rhinebeck last February from the upheaval in Afghanistan. The couple’s gratitude toward their sponsors, who remain a regular presence in their lives, is more than evident. “It’s my very happy time,” says Razia. Gulab said he can finally “relax and enjoy life.”
It is a life Gulab and Razia could never have imagined possible when they left Afghanistan in the chaos that followed the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rapid Taliban takeover of the capital city of Kabul on August 15, 2021. That was when they embarked on a harrowing six-month journey that the couple was not sure their family would survive.
Rhinebeck Reacts to the Crisis
As Father Richard McKeon of The Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Rhinebeck watched Afghans desperately trying to flee the Kabul airport in August 2021, he knew he was witnessing what he calls an “overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe.”
“Being a child of the 60’s, it reminded me of our evacuation of Vietnam,” said Father Richard, as he is known to his congregants. “It was shameful and I did not want to see it go unaddressed.” Members of his church started discussing ways to help the Afghan refugees by sponsoring a family. “When the possibility that we might be able to do something was floated, it immediately had energy because it was something we could do that was tangible. We didn't know that we would succeed, but we thought we would try,” he said.
Early in the discussions, the Rhinebeck Rotary Club joined in the fledgling effort as a partner. The first step was to find a resettlement agency. They chose the International Rescue Committee, or the IRC. Rotary Club member Al Ragucci said things moved very quickly. “We’re casually discussing this at the food program one day and next thing I know, we’re Zooming with the IRC,” he said.
Deb Alexander, a member of the hurch and a special education teacher in the Rhinebeck School District for 37 years, said the IRC gave the steering committee a much-needed framework to manage the process of sponsoring a family’s resettlement. She would eventually take on the monumental task of handling the reporting and paperwork required in the resettlement process. “It was daunting, but it was also a purpose that I felt so strongly about: this was a wonderful family coming here to be safe,” she said.
In January, 2022, the Rhinebeck group was officially approved by the IRC to sponsor a family and went through cultural sensitivity training and process training. They also secured a home in Rhinebeck for a family to live in, even though they did not yet know who the family would be.
Father Richard says the group felt strongly about settling the family locally so that they could have “a direct tangible relationship with them.” And, with three retired teachers on the steering committee, it was important to them that the children go to school in the Rhinebeck Central School District, which they were confident could provide the support the children would need.
With preparations complete, they waited for a family to sponsor.
The Khans’ Harrowing Escape
Prior to the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, Gulab Khan had lived and worked for extended periods in New York City and had an American Green Card. His wife Razia and their three children were living in Kabul and Razia was nine months pregnant.
As the U.S. withdrawal date neared and the Taliban advanced into cities across Afghanistan, Gulab decided to return to Afghanistan to be with his wife and children. Family and friends urged him not to go back, he says, warning that he might not be able to return to the U.S. That was very nearly the case.
The morning after Gulab arrived in Kabul, Taliban forces began rolling into the city. Hearing the news, he and Razia decided he would drive to the airport with their then 6-year-old son Arman to try to get information about getting their family out of Afghanistan.
After hours of trying to navigate blocked roads, they found themselves directly in the path of the battling Taliban fighters and the Afghan Army soldiers. “Taliban cars [were] on all sides, firing at people, killing Afghan soldiers,” he says. He and Arman were caught in the crossfire as bullets shattered their windshield. And then Razia called Gulab, begging him to come back home. Their neighbors, a family of six, had been shot and killed by the Taliban, she said. She was terrified.
They decided to make one more attempt to flee to the airport. Gulab recounts how the family got in the car and he said to Razia, “If anything happens on the road, I will never stop my car [even] if they shoot me with a thousand bullets.”
But when the car was stopped at a Taliban checkpoint, they got past it by saying they were taking the visibly pregnant Razia to the hospital.
Kabul Airport Chaos
After hours on the road and amidst the surging crowds at the airport, Gulab finally got the attention of a U.S. soldier at the gate by waving his Green Card.
After verifying the validity of his Green Card, the soldier at the gate presented Gulab with an unthinkable choice: he can take his children and leave Razia, who had only an expired Afghan Passport, or he can stay with his wife in Kabul. Gulab refused to leave Razia, again saying, “If we die here, we die together.” But Razia told him to go. “If you are alive, my kids are alive. This is everything to me,” she said.
As Gulab and the three children walked away from Razia, Gulab says Tamana and Arman began crying and asking why their mother was not coming. When they reached a second gate, a man Gulab identified as a U.S. Army captain asked why the kids were crying. When Gulab told him they left their mother behind, the man ordered another soldier to go back with Gulab, and a gun, and find Razia. “He was a great man,” said Gulab.
After more than seven hours of waiting on the tarmac with no food or water, the family was loaded onto one of the U.S. military cargo planes. When the plane took off, they had no idea where they were going.
Separated Again in Qatar
The plane landed at a U.S. Army Base in Qatar, but the doors did not open. After more than three hours of sitting in the plane, Razia began to have pain and believed she was going into labor. An ambulance was called and Razia and Gulab were let off the plane but were told they couldn’t take the children. Once again, the family faced being split up. Out of desperation, Gulab left his passport and Green Card with 8-year-old Tamana and went with Razia.
At the Base hospital, Razia was told that it might be two to three weeks before she gave birth, but she must stay in the hospital. Gulab left her and went back for the children. However, when he arrived, he says, the plane was empty and they were nowhere to be found. For 48 hours, the children were lost, wandering unaccounted for on the base with Tamana alone caring for her younger brother and sister and unable to speak any language that would enable her to communicate. Eventually, a soldier found the children and took them to the Base police station and they were identified and reunited with their parents.
On September 2, 2021, 23 days after fleeing Afghanistan and arriving in Qatar, Razia gave birth to a healthy baby boy they named Arhaan. Two days later, the family was on a flight to the U.S.
Waiting for a New Home
The Khan family was taken to housing facilities for refugees at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey. Though Gulab is a Green Card holder, Razia is not, and the family had to go through the refugee resettlement process. But as other Afghan families came and went, the Khan family, who wanted to be relocated in New York, seemed to be stuck.
In late January, nearly five months after arriving at Fort Dix, the Khan family was informed they would be moving to Rhinebeck. Two weeks later, they were transported to the Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, where their sponsors waited to greet them.
“When we got there, all four of those beautiful children came tumbling out of the van,” says Ragucci, who was there to drive them to their new home.
“I remember when they got to the house, they walked around and Razia said, is all this just for us?” Alexander recalls. As the family settled in, steering committee members kicked into high gear. The team used detailed checklists provided by the IRC to conquer the mountain of tasks required in the resettlement process.
Liz Schembri, the coordinator of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at the Church of the Messiah who is used to working with new immigrants, took on the tasks of managing the family’s English education, school enrollment and health screenings. Ragucci handled all of their applications for social services.
According to Schembri, every member of the Rhinebeck steering committee believes they have received more than they have given. “My life has been so enriched by learning from immigrants’ experiences and developing a relationship with them.”
Volunteers like Alexander and Schembri continue to help shuttle the kids to school and daycare, help with their homework and take Razia to doctor’s appointments. “It’s just being family, helping to replace what they had before,” says Alexander.
The children are thriving in school and making new friends and Razia and Gulab are meeting other parents. “We would like to see them stay in the community,” said Alexander. Gulab has already passed his U.S. citizenship test and obtained a driver’s license and a good job in Rhinebeck. Razia is rapidly learning English through ESL classes and private tutoring. She hopes to have a job soon to help the family reach financial independence.
When asked what she hopes will happen in the future, Alexander’s voice cracks with emotion. “I just want to see the children graduate,” she says.
The Church of the Messiah and the Rotary Club of Rhinebeck are committed to supporting the Khan family until they can be completely independent. They welcome help from the wider community who may want to contribute. If you would like to make a donation, you can visit the Afghan Refugee Family Support page on the Church of the Messiah website or you have the option to mail support directly to Afghan Refugee Family Support at PO Box 248, Rhinebeck, NY 12572.