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2 Volunteers Share Their Experiences Helping Afghan Refugees Reach Freedom

A group of vulnerable Afghans board a domestic United Airlines flight out of Dulles International airport on Aug. 26, 2021. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.
A group of vulnerable Afghans board a domestic United Airlines flight out of Dulles International airport on Aug. 26, 2021. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.

On Aug. 22, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called on the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to support evacuation efforts underway in Kabul. The Department of Defense needed help transporting U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans from military bases in Europe and the Middle East after the Taliban's swift advance across Afghanistan forced more than 120,000 people to flee the country. A total of 18 aircraft from six airlines were activated. Each flight was staffed entirely by volunteers from the Air Reserve. Here are the stories of two volunteers.

Lorin George has spent the last 35 years working as a flight attendant with American Airlines. Each year, she has registered for the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a program in which airlines voluntarily assist the Defense Department during a time of crisis.

In the late-night hours of Aug. 23, her call finally came.

Like much of the world, George was aware of the chaos unfolding on the ground in Afghanistan. So, when an American Airlines employee called to see if she still wanted to volunteer for the Civil Reserve, she knew exactly where she was going. George wasn't able to fall back asleep after she hung up the phone. Instead, her mind wandered, picturing what the coming days would look like.

The American Airlines flight that she boarded in New York the following day was all but empty — just her, 10 other flight attendants and four pilots. The pilots gave a quick brief before takeoff and the flight arrived at an Air Force base in Germany about 9 hours later.

The whole experience seemed surreal, George explained, like something out of the movies. The refugees boarded the aircraft in an orderly fashion and found their seats. Some carried a bag; most had nothing. Some wore shoes, many were barefoot. Everyone was exhausted.

George recalls bringing one Afghan woman her first hot meal in over a week, a thought that still brings her to tears. "That was everything to this woman," George said. "And it was story after story like that that we heard from these passengers. That kept us going."

The flight crew worked non-stop to care for the passengers over the next 27 hours. Aboard the flight were much-needed supplies: baby diapers and formula; amenity kits and clean clothes; crayons, coloring books and toys for the children. While the parents slept, the children set off to explore the airplane. Most people on board had never been flown before boarding the military aircraft that carried them out of Kabul.

Airline staff stocked the planes with much needed supplies, from coloring books and diapers to shoes and blankets, for hundreds of weary passengers. Photo courtesy of American Airlines.
American Airlines / American Airlines
Airline staff stocked the planes with much needed supplies, from coloring books and diapers to shoes and blankets, for hundreds of weary passengers. Photo courtesy of American Airlines.

One child, whom George believed to be about 10, spoke English remarkably well. The young man offered to help the volunteers, shuttling cups of warm tea from the galley to the passengers, all while practicing his English with the crew.

George was amazed at the courage of the passengers. Hundreds of people had piled onto a plane bound for an unknown destination and an uncertain future.

"To have that kind of trust to board an aircraft not knowing where they were going was one more layer to do as much as we could for these people," George said. "I know going forward if I have something difficult in my life, I can measure it against their difficult path that they have ahead of them."

And while George has tried to picture the lives left behind by such brave people, another Civil Reserve Air Fleet volunteer was reliving the worst experience of his childhood.

Zak Khogyani, a 53-year-old pilot for United Airlines, fled Afghanistan with his parents in 1977. He came from a politically involved family. His grandfather had served as a senator and a judge, and his father governed three provinces. Khogyani's father, who had left the country six months ahead of his wife and son, decided it was time for his family to get out of country, too.

United Airlines pilot Zak Khogyani volunteered as an interpreter to assist in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet mission to support Afghanistan evacuation efforts. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.
United Airlines / United Airlines
United Airlines pilot Zak Khogyani volunteered as an interpreter to assist in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet mission to support Afghanistan evacuation efforts. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.

Khogyani remembers well the car ride to the Kabul airport. His grandparents drove him, his younger brother and their mother in secret. In his lap, a single bag. No toys, family photos or heirlooms connecting him with his past. "Everybody knew this could be our final goodbye," Khogyani said. "I never saw my grandparents or extended family again."

He was 9 years old.

Today, Khogyani has 27 years of commercial flights under his belt. He lives in Phoenix, Ariz, with his wife and twin 14-year-old sons. And when he saw that the Pentagon was activating the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, he knew it was his chance to help.

"It was very important to me, personally, because I knew what these people were going through, what they felt and what was going through their minds," Khogyani explained. "Many of them left with nothing and it is very difficult for them to look forward because they left so many loved ones behind. I know what that's like."

Zak Khogyani, center in the front, pictured with United Airlines staff. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.
United Airlines / United Airlines
Zak Khogyani, center in the front, pictured with United Airlines staff. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.

He wrote United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby pleading for an opportunity to help. A short time later, Khogyani found himself bound for an airbase in Germany, not as a pilot, but as an interpreter.

"Khosh amadid," he told the passengers, welcoming them in Dari. "Welcome."

His words were met with confusion at first, and then relief. Then, mostly smiles. Nearly everyone aboard shared essentially the same story. As an interpreter, Khogyani was able to lend a sympathetic ear. He helped comfort and care for 1,002 passengers on three flights over the course of nine days.

When he finally returned home to his family in Phoenix, Khogyani could tell his boys missed him more than they might have let on because of how long the hugs lasted. They weren't at all surprised that their father stepped up to help. It's who he is, an American with strong Afghan roots.

"Americans are generous with their heart ... [and] taught to be compassionate and accepting," Khogyani said. "Flying these people out is just the beginning of their journey."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 5, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Zak Khogyani was bound for Afghanistan as an interpreter. Khogyani was actually headed for an airbase in Germany at the time.