Hashem Majidi, 32, who fled Afghanistan last year, speaks with Ruth Morrison, chair of the Automotive Technology Department at Southern Maine Community College. Majidi learned how to fix cars in his father’s shop in Kabul and plans to enroll at SMCC to keep building those skills. He wants to learn how to repair electric vehicles. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

They left home just after breakfast and joined the crush of people pushing through the streets of Kabul, trying to avoid the sticks and rifle butts of the Taliban.

Fatima Askari and Hashem Majidi, who were newly married, and his best friend Hassan Merzaiy, were heading for the airport. Each shouldered one bag of belongings, a few necessary travel documents and the desire to reach safety and freedom in the United States. She had been a professional athlete until the Taliban returned to power and dismantled women’s sports programs. Majidi fixed cars in his family’s shop and Merzaiy ran a pharmacy.

Maine wasn’t in their initial travel plans, though they are among more than 260 Afghans who have settled in this state since U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan on Aug. 30, 2021, ending a 20-year war and ceding the country back to the militant Islamists.

They had been planning to leave for nearly a year and were aware they faced great risk. But they had no idea how close they would come to being killed before a cargo plane lifted them to a whole new life.


Hassan Merzaiy, Hashem Majidi and Fatima Askari at Southern Maine Community College, where they plan to enroll in courses. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

They knew time was running out when they stepped into the throng on Aug. 25, 2021. They feared the evacuation of Afghan civilians would stop without warning, slamming the door on their dreams. They threaded their way through Kabul, one after the other, with Askari sandwiched between the two men for added protection. When foot traffic bottlenecked, Majidi found a back route to the airport’s Abbey Gate, where U.S. officials were processing Afghans.

Soon they were knee deep in putrid sewage, slogging through a high-walled, stone-paved drainage canal that leads to the airport. Despite the stench, they jostled forward with hundreds of others who had the same idea.


“It was bad,” Askari, 24, recalled. “But we had to go there. We knew they would close the airport in a few days.”


Fatima Askari and Hashem Majidi at Kabul’s airport on Aug. 26, 2021, as they waited in line to board a U.S. military cargo plane for Qatar, their first stop on a months-long journey to Maine. A few hours later, a suicide bomber struck outside the airport, killing at least 183 people, including 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghans who were at the gate where Askari and Majidi stood the previous day. Photo courtesy of Fatima Askari

When they neared Abbey Gate, they started boosting each other out of the canal. American troops reached down and lifted them to the processing area outside the gate. State Department officials checked their documents.

It was noon when they entered the airport. Majidi took note of the time as they walked through the gate.

“I was excited and relieved,” said Majidi, 32. “All people wanted to leave. Only the Taliban wanted to stay. It was a very bad situation. But we made it.”

The next day, with their sneakers still reeking of sewage, the three boarded a military cargo plane. When they landed in Qatar a few hours later, they learned that a suicide bomber had struck right outside Abbey Gate. Investigators ultimately determined that 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans had been killed. The bomber wore a belt packed with ball bearings that shot through the crowd. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

The three saw videos of the explosion and realized just how narrow their escape had been – that it could have been them caught in the bomber’s blast as they waited by the canal.


“All of the water turned red with the blood of humans,” said Merzaiy, 26. “Everyone felt bad for the people who were killed. Children, women, all kinds of people. After that, no one could go in the airport.”

The door they slipped through had closed. Afghan civilian evacuations ended after the attack.


Askari, Majidi and Merzaiy landed in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 29, 2021.

Merzaiy recalled the moment he stepped onto U.S. soil.

This image from a video shows Marines outside Abbey Gate at Kabul’s airport after a suicide bomber’s attack on Aug. 26, 2021. The high-walled sewage canal where Askari, Majidi and Merzaiy walked to reach the gate and be processed into the airport runs across the top of the frame. The blast killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans. U.S. Department of Defense via AP

“I’m feeling very good because we are safe and American people there clap for me,” he said, his smile breaking into a grin.


The next day they flew to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, where they would be housed for several months among 13,000 Afghan evacuees before coming to Maine in January. They were treated well by U.S. military members there.

“They helped us very much and have everything for us,” Majidi said, listing some of the supplies they received, including food, toiletries and winter clothing. “They are very kind.”

Majidi has a family member in Texas, but an official suggested Maine and the trio decided to head Down East.

“I like the ocean and nature,” Majidi said. “And I don’t like it too hot.”

Since last August, 260 Afghan evacuees have been resettled in Maine by social service agencies, according to the Office of Maine Refugee Services at Catholic Charities Maine, which is assisting 116 of the evacuees.

In addition, a few recent arrivals were sponsored by family members or friends – all of them adding to the estimated 400 Afghan-Americans who lived in Maine before the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan.


The evacuees have settled in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Biddeford, Bath, Brunswick, Lewiston, Auburn, Augusta and Waterville, with help from Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services in Lewiston and the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine in Portland.

The JCA has resettled 38 Afghans since January, providing English classes, social programs and other services, said Molly Curren Rowles, executive director. Helping newcomers find permanent housing continues to be a major challenge given the scarcity of affordable apartments, she said.

“But these are people who are incredibly motivated and want to restart their lives and become part of this community,” Rowles said.

Askari, Majidi and Merzaiy have lived in Portland area hotels, their stays funded by government programs. Two months ago, Merzaiy moved into an apartment on Munjoy Hill that he and Majidi cleaned and renovated at no cost to the landlord. They painted walls, removed soiled carpeting and replaced it with laminate flooring.

“It was hard work,” Merzaiy said, but it looks much better now. The landlord promised his next available apartment to Majidi and Askari.



The three know how lucky they are to be among the 86,000 Afghans who have come to the United States since the withdrawal. Like most, they came as humanitarian parolees in a special program that granted temporary entry but no pathway to get green cards and become lawful permanent residents. They still had to apply for asylum and go through a screening process that could take years.

Askari and Majidi’s situation was better than most parolees.

In October 2020, they had applied for green cards through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which uses a yearly lottery to select people from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S.


Fatima Askari, at right, wearing No. 12, was a member of the national women’s volleyball team in Afghanistan before the Taliban resumed control of the country and dismantled the sports program. She plans to enroll in the pharmacy technician program at Southern Maine Community College. Photo courtesy of Fatima Askari

They met in the spring of 2020, after he saw her play volleyball in Kabul as a member of the Afghan national women’s team. He looked her up on Facebook and they exchanged messages for a while before their first date. They married in March 2021.

Like all Afghans who were evacuated, the couple were given work permits soon after arriving in the U.S. But they also learned early on that they were among 2,100 Afghans who would get one of up to 50,000 green cards given out through the annual visa lottery. They expect to get their green cards within weeks, they said, which will allow them to live and work here permanently.

Merzaiy’s situation also is better than most. He recently was granted asylum, he said, which means he can stay and work, apply for government assistance, and petition to bring family members here. After one year he can apply for a green card, which now takes an average of three years to receive. Four years after he gets one, he can apply for citizenship, like any green card holder.


All three want to bring family members here. Askari thinks of her parents. She and her mother speak almost daily.

“She is very overprotective and she misses me,” Askari said.

Majidi wants to bring over his younger sister, who was stripped of her government job when the Taliban resumed control, and his younger brother, who excelled at school but was barred from university because the family are Hazaras, a persecuted ethnic group in Afghanistan.

His brother still works in the family’s car repair shop.

“They deserve to be in America,” Majidi said.


Hassan Merzaiy, 26, ran a small pharmacy shop in Kabul before fleeing as U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan last August. He plans to enroll in the pharmacy technician program at Southern Maine Community College. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer



The family reunions could take awhile. Most Afghans who have left the country or are trying to get out still struggle.

“There is a fair amount of luck involved in getting here,” said Jennifer Atkinson, an immigration attorney in Damariscotta. “Some people also had foresight, taking steps to prepare in advance. The one commonality among those who succeeded is not waiting for the perfect moment.”

Many who fled Afghanistan are stuck in neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Atkinson said, where their visas are running out and conditions are deteriorating after recent monsoon floods displaced more than 30 million people.

Since July 2021, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has received nearly 50,000 humanitarian parole requests, but the agency has adjudicated fewer than 10,000, and it has denied about 95 percent of them, the Associated Press reported. Processing of Special Immigration Visas (SIVs), granted to Afghans at risk of Taliban retaliation because they worked for U.S. forces, also is severely backlogged, Atkinson said.

For thousands of Afghans still trying to get here, chances are dim.

“It’s been extremely frustrating for individuals here in Maine who are trying to assist family members oversees,” Atkinson said.


Responding to criticism, the Biden administration this month announced a new policy meant to help Afghans achieve permanent residency more quickly.

Under Operation Enduring Welcome, the United States will stop admitting most Afghans on humanitarian parole and beef up efforts to provide green cards much sooner to those who are admitted, Reuters reported. To be eligible to come here now, Afghans must have immediate family members here, or have worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan, or be identified as being among the most vulnerable applicants to the U.S. refugee program. The new policy takes effect Oct. 1.


Reza Jalali, second from left, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, walks with Hassan Merzaiy, Hashem Majidi and Fatima Askari at Southern Maine Community College, where he and his organization are helping newcomers access educational opportunities. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Majidi, Askari and Merzaiy were resettled by Catholic Charities. The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center is providing additional assistance, including access to an online English learning program and other educational opportunities.

The center has been working with the three evacuees as a model program, helping them navigate immigration interviews, job applications and other challenges together, said Reza Jalali, executive director.

The hope is to repeat the process with other small groups of newcomers who can benefit from supporting each other as they settle in. The evacuees are ideal as a pilot group because they came with work permits that allowed them to pursue employment immediately, unlike asylum applicants, who now wait more than six months for work authorization.


“They are all very eager to find jobs,” Jalali said. “It’s the kind of workforce Maine needs.”

The center also has helped the trio highlight both the skills they have and the value of their lived experience as they prepared to enter a labor market desperate for workers.

All three plan to attend Southern Maine Community College. Merzaiy and Askari plan to enroll in the pharmacy technician program, which is offered online. Askari also would like to resume studying accounting; She received a two-year degree in Afghanistan.

Majidi wants to take the auto mechanics course – building on skills he learned in his father’s shop – and learn how to repair electric vehicles.

But first, they all want to improve their English. Askari and Merzaiy knew some English before evacuating. Majidi pretty much started from scratch. When communicating with English speakers, they help each other along.

“I want to learn English very well,” Majidi said. “I write a little poetry and I would like to write poetry in English in the future.”



Fatima Askari and Hashem Majidi married a few months before leaving Afghanistan as the United States withdrew its troops in August 2021. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


They also want to master English so they can raise international awareness of the discrimination and persecution that women and others experience in Afghanistan.

Askari said she was crushed when the Taliban disbanded the national women’s volleyball team just before she left. A star member of the junior team was beheaded in October 2021 and militants were trying to “hunt down” women athletes who remained in the country, according to news reports.

“It was heartbreaking because we practiced so hard,” she said. “Without the Taliban, society had improved. Girls could go to college and play sports if your family allowed it. When the Taliban returned, all of that stopped. Everywhere women worked, that stopped. Now they can only go to primary school. After that, they should stay home with their family.”

All three are Hazaras, which is the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, after Pashtuns and Tajiks. Like most Hazaras, they are Shiite Muslim, while 90 percent of Afghans are Sunni. So, Hazaras are targeted for both their ethnicity and their faith.

“Unfortunately, this is the story of all Hazaras,” Majidi said. “For 300 years they have been persecuted, kept out of good jobs and not allowed to be educated.”


Majidi worries most for his younger sister, who used to run an accounting department for the city of Kabul. She has two degrees, in science and economics, and she participated in an American-sponsored empowerment program for women. Then the Taliban booted her from her job.

“The Taliban sent her home and said she could send a male family member to take her place,” Majidi said. “It didn’t matter if he wasn’t qualified. Now her (career) is finished. She is at home. She’s trying very hard to get to the U.S. so she can contribute to society.”

Hassan Merzaiy stands in the pharmacy shop he ran in Kabul before fleeing Afghanistan last August as U.S. troops withdrew. Now 26, he recently moved into an apartment on Munjoy Hill and plans to study pharmacy technology at Southern Maine Community College. Photo courtesy of Hassan Merzaiy


Unfortunately, at this moment the three can do little for their loved ones back in Afghanistan, Merzaiy said.

But they are making fast progress in their efforts to establish themselves here, secure good jobs and get diplomas and degrees that will advance their careers.

Their diligence in applying for jobs hit a double win this month when all three were hired for part-time work in the stockroom at the Burlington Coat Factory store in South Portland and for full-time positions at Abbott Laboratories in Scarborough.


“We are very happy,” Askari said. “We need the work so we can make money and take care of ourselves.”

Two jobs is not too much, Merzaiy said: “I want to start studying with SMCC.”

They have big plans. Their dreams have not dimmed.

Merzaiy would like to become a pharmacist, he said, possibly even a physician. He’s also interested in construction and hopes to become a property developer.

Majidi would like to open a large auto repair shop. He and Merzaiy also sold used cars in Kabul, and they would like to open a dealership together here.

Askari looks forward to having a career and a home again. Living in a hotel room has been fine, she said, because it’s temporary. But she wants her own apartment, and one day a house. But not just any house.

“I want to build a new house,” she said, “of my own design.”

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