After a two-year separation, this Afghan family has finally been reunited in Kentucky, and they couldn’t be happier.
It had been a journey of two long years, but at last Khaibar Shafaq — a case manager and paralegal for the Catholic Charities in Chicago — was reunited with his wife and three children, who had flown into the city earlier that day.
The story starts when the Shafaq family took a flight from Afghanistan to Turkey, amidst fears of the Taliban.
Before the regime change in Afghanistan, Khaibar Shafaq had been with the United States. When the US troops finally withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021 amidst fears of imminent civil war, the Taliban took over Kabul.
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan meant danger for many Afghan citizens, especially those like Shafaq, who had worked with and supported the U.S. government.
While Shafaq was spending the time with his family in Turkey, he had not anticipated that the situation back home would change so quickly in a few weeks and Kabul would fall into the hands of Taliban.
In fact, after spending 20 days in quarantine (due to COVID-19 protocols), he had planned to leave his family in Istanbul and fly back to Afghanistan to assist those in need.
During his stay in Istanbul, Shafaq had turned of his phone and did not check his emails, in order to cherish his quality time with his wife and kids. However, little did he know that the 20 days they together in one room would be the last time they would see each other until two years later.
On the last day, Shafaq caught a plane back to Afghanistan, imagining he would return to Istanbul before too long. However, as soon as he landed, he learned Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban.
“As soon as I landed, I learned Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban,” he said. “The kids were used to me being gone for months for work, but we didn’t expect this.”
Shafaq was trapped in Afghanistan for two weeks until finally he found a way to escape to the United States. “I sent (my family) a video telling them I’m leaving the country!” he said. “Everyone was really happy.”
Meanwhile, in the US, Susan Montalvo-Gesser, the director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro, had been working with her team to help Afghan refugees resettle in the in the western Kentucky city.
Susan and her team had helped people from various countries resettle in Kentucky, including those from Afghanistan. But until now, they had never seen such a large number of Afghan refugees arriving at once. Susan estimated that they went from 2-3 arrivals to nearly 170 arrivals in just three months.
On November 15, 2021, Shafaq arrived in the US to stay temporarily at Owensboro’s Comfort Suites Inn, through the efforts of the International Center of Owensboro.
“Khaibar was one of our clients when all of the Afghans arrived in 2021,” said Diane Ford, the site director for the International Center of Owensboro. Ford said she witnessed the people of Owensboro “open their arms to the Afghans” to help resettle their new neighbors. Shafaq, especially, became a leader in the community as he helped his fellow arrivals get adjusted.
Shafaq then joined the Catholic Charities as a case manager and paralegal
Shortly after his arrival, Shafaq met Susan and told her about his international disaster credentials, asking if he can volunteer with her team to help other Afghan refugees get settled. Shafaq had spent 18 years helping disaster relief in other parts of the world before coming to the US.
Catholic Charities welcomed Shafaq’s help and enlisted his expertise with translating and organizing lists and applications. Later on, when historic tornadoes devastated western Kentucky in December 2021, Shafaq helped those who survived the tornado along with his team and other Afghan refugees.
Over the next year, Shafaq became a fixture in the Catholic Charities office as he led more resettlement work — which included multiple road trips per week to take other Afghan families to Chicago for asylum hearings — all the while hoping that his family would soon join him in Owensboro.
Shafaq’s asylum paved the way for his family to come to the US
Shafaq had his asylum hearing in April 2022 and which was finally approved in May. His asylum opened the path for his family to apply to come to the U.S. Meanwhile, Shafaq’s coworkers would pray for his family every day, and during Christmas 2022, the diocesan staff secretly amassed houseware items for when Shafaq’s wife and children would arrive.
Finally on March 15, 2023, Shafaq received an email from the U.S. Embassy that his family’s application had been accepted. Their appointment with the embassy was March 20, and the next day their visas were approved.
When Shafaq, his wife and children pulled up in front of their house April 2, they were greeted by a “welcoming committee” that comprised of his coworkers and friends. And to their surprise, his friends and co-workers had spruced up Shafaq’s home with the collected homewares and spelled out “Welcome Home” with yard signs. And to top it all off, a large spread of traditional Afghan cuisine was provided in the kitchen. Talk about a warm welcome!
Shafaq was over the moon, saying, “This has been amazing, I am so thankful for all the prayers, for Bishop Medley’s support, for the diocese.”
A few days later, Shafaq said that his children already love their new city and were excited to start attending school.
Zuhal Shafaq plans to continue her education in medical school. She had previously worked at her mother’s medical practice back home and was almost finished with her degree when they had to leave Afghanistan.
But the journey isn’t over yet. Shafaq acknowledged the long road ahead for him and his family to ultimately acquire U.S. citizenship, saying that it takes an average of 36 months for someone like him to get a green card, and then another five years to apply for citizenship.
But for now, he is just thankful for this “amazing journey” that brought his family back together. “Sometimes when I wake up, I think I’m in my old house, my mind still doesn’t accept that they are here in Kentucky with me,” he said.
This heartwarming story just goes to show that with a little help from our friends, anything is possible. Let’s continue to welcome and support refugees from around the world. After all, we’re all in this together!