Members of Maine’s Afghan-American community gathered in Monument Square in Portland on Friday afternoon to call attention to the plight of loved ones facing turmoil in Afghanistan.

Sona Zaheer of Portland wipes tears from her eyes during Friday’s demonstration. Zaheer says she fears for her brother, who is a journalist in Afghanistan. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

About 50 Afghan-Americans attended the demonstration, chanting slogans in Afghan and English, and carrying signs such as “Free Afghanistan,” “Afghan Lives Matter” and “We Do Not Trust the Taliban.”

Many criticized President Biden and other world leaders for failing to stop the Taliban from seizing power as U.S. forces withdrew. Some cried out as they described how the Taliban have hurt their families in the past and still threaten them today.

“We stand here today under tragic circumstances,” said Neilab Habibzai, 23, of Portland. “The world failed Afghanistan.”

A recent graduate of St. Lawrence University, where she studied government, Habibzai called the withdrawal of U.S. troops an “irresponsible exit.” She urged the United States and the United Nations to step up humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, to ensure the safety of women and children there, and to expedite visa applications of Afghan people who helped U.S. forces.

Afghan-Americans watched in horror last weekend as news reports showed the Taliban seizing power again just two weeks before the United States was expected to finish withdrawing troops after two decades of war in the South Asian country. Many question whether the oppressive Islamist military organization will form the “open, inclusive” government that has been promised by a Taliban spokesman.

The Afghan community in Maine numbers 50 to 70 families, about 500 people in all, some of whom came here after helping U.S.-led forces oust the Taliban from power in 2001. Now, the Western-backed government that replaced the Taliban has collapsed and many Afghans are being evacuated or attempting to flee the country.

On Friday, Biden pledged to bring all Americans home and help U.S. allies trying to leave Afghanistan. He said 13,000 people have already been evacuated since Saturday. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said this week he’s counting on the Taliban’s desire for international recognition as leverage to press for an inclusive government that respects human rights, particularly for women.

The 3 p.m. protest was held beside the Portland Soldiers and Sailors Monument, also known as Our Lady of Victories. It ended an hour later, when about half of the demonstrators marched a few blocks up Congress Street and back to Monument Square. Some bystanders listened quietly and applauded to show support, while a few motorists tooted their horns in acknowledgment. A couple of pedestrians shouted disapproval as they passed.

Adel Shir, 15, left, and Zareema Vrwiar, 15, both of Cape Elizabeth, hold the flag of Afghanistan during Friday’s event to call attention to the plight of loved ones in Afghanistan. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Masuma Sayed, 43, of Portland joined Friday’s demonstration holding a poster strewn with photos of family members she said were maimed or killed by the Taliban in the last five decades. Among them were her mother and a sister, who died before her eyes, she said.

Now, Sayed worries about other family members who remain in Afghanistan, especially as rumors and news reports swirl about the Taliban going door to door, looking for people with ties to the United States.

“I want to help my family to get out of Kandahar, but I am helpless,” said Sayed, a former waitress. “I don’t know how in the world I will help them.”

Sayed told the crowd she campaigned and voted for Biden but is so disappointed with his handling of the troop withdrawal that she will vote independently next time. She also voted for Gov. Janet Mills, she said, and called on her to offer safe passage to those now seeking refuge in the United States.

Others voiced more measured concerns but still questioned how the Trump administration could negotiate a treaty with the Taliban, and how the Biden administration could follow through with it.

“I’m not mad at the U.S.,” said Mina Jamal, 27, an insurance coordinator who lives in Westbrook. “We want the people to hear our voices. We want freedom for Afghanistan.”

Jamil Shah Sayed speaks to a small crowd on Friday afternoon in Monument Square. About 50 Afghan-Americans attended the demonstration. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Rahmi Habibzai, 56, father of Neilab Habibzai, told the gathering that he was an Afghan freedom fighter before coming to the United States in 1988. He also expressed disappointment with the Biden administration and urged the president to evacuate all Afghans who helped U.S. troops.

“We don’t know which way the Taliban is gonna go,” said Habibzai, a transportation supervisor who lives in Portland. “We want Afghanistan to be a free, democratic country.”

Sahar Habibzai, 19, also a daughter of Rahmi Habibzai, expressed frustration that Afghanistan always seems to get trampled or discounted in world politics.

A pre-med student at Wellesley College, Sahar Habibzai disputed the notion that the turmoil in Afghanistan is a civil war.

“It’s a terrorist attack by the Taliban,” Habibzai said. “They’re tearing families apart … I’m only asking for peace and support from the U.N. We’re all human.”

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