Farooq Safi, left, and Yousuf Alokozay were pilots in the Afghan Air Force and now are neighbors in Lewiston. They are standing Wednesday in front of Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services on Bartlett Street, where they both work. Safi has a tattoo of a Black Hawk helicopter on his forearm. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — “You sleep tonight, tomorrow morning you wake up and everything is gone. So what are you going to do? Nothing, except take your child with you and the important stuff in one bag and that’s it,” Farooq Safi said. “You just leave the house.”

Safi is recalling Aug. 15, 2021, the day the Taliban took over Kabul. At the time, he was a pilot in the Afghan Air Force and had been trained by the U.S. military.

When he heard of the takeover, he and a few other pilots boarded a plane and flew themselves to Uzbekistan, where they contacted their supervisors in Afghanistan and the United States. They were transferred to the United Arab Emirates and then to the U.S., landing safely in Philadelphia.

They stayed at Fort Pickett in Virginia until Safi and the other pilots got a memo from his mentor back in Afghanistan describing Maine as a beautiful state with nice people and a large immigrant community.

Safi and 25 other pilots, engineers and maintenance crew came to Lewiston between Dec. 1, 2021, and the end of January 2022.

The Sun Journal spoke with Safi and fellow pilot Yousuf Alokozay about their journeys from Afghanistan to Lewiston and their future in their new home.



Safi grew up in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, a heavily forested province with mountainous terrain. He joined the Afghan Air Force and spent four years at the Afghan Air Force Academy where he learned the basics of aviation and studied English. When he graduated, he began his practical flying training in the Czech Republic, learning to fly three types of helicopters — including Black Hawks provided by the U.S.

Farooq Safi standing in front of a UH 60 Black Hawk helicopter in 2020 during his Air Force practical training in Slovakia. Farooq Safi

He finished his training in 2020 in Slovakia and moved back to Afghanistan. After three months looking for a job he found one at the Kabul International Airport working as a pilot.

On Aug. 15, 2021, Safi went to work like usual. In the 10 days prior, the Taliban had been advancing quickly across Afghanistan, gaining control of provincial capitals as they went.

“I went there and everything was not normal in a way,” Safi said. “When I was inside the airport there were no more safety guards.”

He asked his friend, “What’s going on, why isn’t anyone working like regular?” They didn’t know but there was a sense that something was about to happen.

“It was like the zombie movies,” Safi said.


By noon nearly everyone in the airport had gone home, fearful of whatever was to come.

“People were saying the Taliban incited Kabul and we should close the airport. ‘They are here. They are there,’” Safi said.

But Safi stayed and went out to the runway with a friend.

“Once we get (to the runway) the gate just closes,” Safi said. “They closed the gate and they said no one can go out, no one can go in.”

By then there were reports that the Taliban had entered Kabul. Safi recalls confusion and fear over where the Taliban fighters were in the city.

With the news, Safi and 10 other pilots decided to board a plane already on the tarmac and evacuate the country fearing for their safety.


“Once we take off from the runway we think about where we’re going, what are we going to do, and nothing was coming to mind,” Safi said.

He remembers looking out the window and seeing people running around the city in chaos.

They decided to fly to Uzbekistan, but they had no knowledge of the airport or communication with the country they were entering until they crossed the border and connected via radio.

They landed safely and learned they weren’t the only people with the idea to come to Uzbekistan. The former president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, landed in the same airport shortly after.

The pilots surrendered all of their belongings, including their phones, to the government and were taken to a camp in the desert bordering Afghanistan.

“The first three nights were crazy because there was nothing there,” Safi said. “There were tents and there was desert.”


Their camp was only 10 minutes away from the Afghan border and without phones they had no way to contact their supervisors in Afghanistan or the U.S. for help.

“One or two guys were hiding their phones, which helped a lot,” Safi said. “Because they messaged someone, ‘We are here right now and the situation is not great.’”

Safi found out later that Uzbekistan officials were “talking to (the Taliban) to give us back to them.”

Fortunately, they were able to contact the U.S. and were taken to a different camp in Uzbekistan with better housing farther from the border. They stayed there for a little more than a month while U.S. officials worked to get them visas for the United Arab Emirates. Once in the UAE, they stayed one month until they had arrangements to fly to Philadelphia on Nov. 28. They were sent to Fort Pickett in Virginia, where they received English classes and cultural orientation.

During this time he received the letter from his mentor in Afghanistan with glowing reports about Maine and decided to move to Lewiston.

Before leaving, he recalls saying to a fellow pilot, “‘Come with me,’ because his family is not around here. I’ve known him a long time and we are each other’s brothers,” Safi said. The pilot and 23 others in Virginia ended up going to Lewiston.



Yousuf Alokozay grew up in Helmand Province in the south of Afghanistan. He attended college where he studied political science and was just one semester shy of graduating. But he changed paths and worked at the Police Minister of Interior in Afghanistan for three years handling confiscated narcotics and supplying ammunition for police.

In 2014, he changed his mind again and joined the Air Force and began training to be a pilot. He was inspired by his uncle who was a pilot in the 1970s. To do so, Alokozay attended the Afghan Air Force Academy where, like Safi, he learned the basics of aviation and studied English. He graduated in 2018 and began his practical flying training. In 2021, he was sent to Dubai to continue his training.

Yousuf Alokozay in the cockpit of a Bell 206 helicopter at the Abu Dhabi Al Ain International Airport in the United Arab Emirates in 2021. Yousuf Alokozay

While Alokozay was in Dubai, the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

“Then Aug. 15, the horrible day that the government collapsed in Afghanistan,” Alokozay recalls. That day, Taliban forces advanced into the capital, taking over Kabul and overthrowing the Afghan government.

Safe from the Taliban, he stayed in Dubai for two-and-a-half months as U.S. authorities coordinated evacuation to the U.S. “There was no way we could return to Afghanistan,” Alokozay said.

On Oct. 31, Alokozay flew with his fellow pilots to Philadelphia and then took buses to Fort Pickett in Virginia, taking the same path Safi and his group would take in about a month.


He stayed there for 45 days and, during this time, Alokozay was very concerned for the safety of family. “My family is still in Afghanistan,” Alokozay said. “My three kids, my wife, my parents, one of my brothers and one of my sisters.”

His family is safe and well but he was worried that his involvement with the Afghan government and affiliation with the U.S. could put his family in peril. His father had also worked as a colonel for the Afghan military in collaboration with American forces.

While in Virginia he received the same memo as Safi. “They told us to come to Maine. Maine is nice place and nice people,” Alokozay recalls.

Before going, he went to the library to do some research. The first thing that piqued his interest was the lighthouse in Fort Williams State Park in Portland.

“When I was a little kid, like around 6 or 7, I had a desktop with a big computer. And there was, on the screen, the lighthouse when I was turning it on. So I was eager. Then I got some information that (there were) Iraqi families and Afghan families here.”

He sat with the decision for a month and a half until deciding to make the move.


“I came to Maine Jan. 6 of 2022 and I started a life in the United States,” Alokozay said.

Someone from the Lewiston-based Maine Immigration Refugee Services picked him up at the airport and coordinated his residence at a rental donated by Airbnb in Portland.

“After five days I go to walk to McDonald’s because I was stressed,” Alokozay said. “I have to earn money.”

He walked into the McDonald’s and asked if they were hiring, they were and he spent the next three months working there.

Alokozay speaks fondly of his time at McDonald’s, but remembers how expensive transportation costs were after he was moved to an Airbnb farther away.

“I told (my friend) ‘life in the United States is very hard. We are paying $2 just to the bus,”’ Alokozay said.


In March 2022 MEIRS decided to bring the pilots in Portland to Lewiston and his co-workers at McDonald’s threw Alokozay a going-away party.

“I still have the pictures and they made a cake for me. And that was unforgettable for me. Life was just moving on,” Alokozay said.


In Lewiston both men were greeted by MEIRS, a resettlement agency that provides various services to New Mainers. Alokozay and Safi both got jobs at Abbott Laboratories which allowed them each to save and purchase their own car. Alokozay has the Maine Lighthouse Trust specialty plate with his name on it.

Both men recall working 50 to 60 hours a week, but Alokozay says he was glad to be able to send money to his family in Afghanistan. At the time there was a lot of starvation in Afghanistan and, according to Alokozay, the Taliban did not subsidize food.

“We were supporting families because the currency of the dollar is very high in Afghanistan. Imagine if you send a $200 check to your family they can go buy (food) for one month,” Alokozay said.

Now, Alokozay is working as a culture broker at the Brunswick School Department and both men are employed at MEIRS as case managers for the Afghan Placement Program.


In April, Alokozay’s asylum application was approved and the Brunswick School Department threw him a big celebration.

“It was cool and they wrote a letter for me and the teachers came to me and the superintendent came to me and said, ‘Congratulations you got your asylum,’ and I said, ‘Yes sir.’ I was shocked,” Alokozay recalls.

Alokozay notes that many asylum seekers wait much longer than he did. Afghans are eligible for P-1 visas, which is a priority status given to Afghans who have work affiliations with the U.S.

Alokozay is in the process of applying for asylum for his family, but because there is no U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, his family will have to travel to a neighboring country to be interviewed.

“My family is still in Afghanistan. And hopefully they will be here, fingers crossed, by the end of this year,” Alokozay said.

Recalling Aug. 15, 2021, the day the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Safi talks about all that Afghans lost. “The house you build, the place you live for more than 20 years is something that can be lost in one day,” Safi said. “It’s not just one house. It’s a billion houses, a billion people.”


He’s still grieving the Taliban taking over his country. “​​Imagine if you lost the things you wanted to be built in your house or the place you wanted to build it. And you lost a thousand friends or family members, everyone, in one day. It’s hard,” Safi said.

After the Taliban came to power they targeted Air Force pilots because of their role in the Afghan defensive.

“I lost a lot of my friends. They were flying right next to me,” Safi said, getting emotional.

Safi hopes to bring his parents to the U.S. as well, but seems less optimistic than Alokozay that he will be successful.

While they wait, they are both looking for pathways back to the air. Despite training with NATO and American forces they will have to pay to be retrained in the U.S. to become pilots.

“They spent a lot on us, but when I came here, they didn’t take care of us. They didn’t even ask how many pilots we have,” Safi said.

He wishes the government had built a program to retrain the Afghan pilots. “The first chance I get I’d go back to the military. Because I spent my life there,” Safi said.

Lisa Day, director of engagement at MEIRS, points out that there is a national pilot shortage. “If somebody could put a little money into it, they could be flying for any of the major airlines,” Day said. “They could be in the military and a lot of them would really like to be in the military.”

Alokozay hopes to get his pilot’s license to fly commercial planes or join the U.S. Air Force like Safi.

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