‘Stranger Becomes Neighbor’: The importance of friendship

Sep 12, 2023, 3:00 PM

Saleem wearing shades and striking a pose Saleem in military attire while in Afghanistan woman holds newborn baby Zero Unit veteran Arif Haidari holds his son in his apartment on May 11, 2023, in West Valley City, Utah, where he received an eviction notice because he was not able to pay the previous month’s rent. (Andrea Smardon Photo/KSL Podcasts)

WARNING: This story describes a possible suicide. If you are in crisis, please call, text or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “TALK” to “741741.”

On a Sunday afternoon in August, a 25-year-old man walked into a lake on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas and never came out.

Rescue workers gave up the search that night when it got too dark to see. But the next morning, they found his body. His name was Mohammad Saleem, and he was one of the Afghans who was evacuated to America after the U.S. military pulled out of the country in 2021 and the Taliban took power. Local news reports called the drowning an accident, but when Geeta Bakshi heard the news on Aug. 6, she suspected that was not the whole story.

Bakshi is a former CIA intelligence operations manager and counterterrorism expert. In her 14-year career, she spent four years in Afghanistan. In 2021, she started an organization to ensure that Afghan partners who served on behalf of the United States are supported as they resettle in America. She called it FAMIL, which means family in Dari. Bakshi met Saleem when her organization hosted an event in Texas. He and others like him are the reason she started her non-profit, and she considered him part of the larger family of veterans she serves.

FAMIL’s main mission is to support the fighters who served in the Afghan National Strike Units (NSU). Also known as the Zero Units, they were a clandestine antiterrorism force operating in partnership with the U.S. intelligence community and the military, though the American government has released very little information about them.

“Think of it like the most dangerous places in Afghanistan where it was not safe for conventional U.S. military forces to operate,” Bakshi said. “The Zero Units were the tip of the spear. They were the ones that were really putting their lives at risk to go after some of the most deadly targets.” These units have been in operation since early in the 20-year war in Afghanistan, capturing and sometimes killing targets including al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Haqqani Network, and the Taliban.

Though Americans know little about what the NSU did on behalf of U.S. interests, many of the Afghans who are now living in our communities served in these units. Bakshi estimates Saleem is one of more than 10,000 NSU veterans in the U.S. With their spouses and children, their number totals about 35,000.

When FAMIL staff and volunteers heard that Saleem had drowned, they talked to those who knew him best and examined his social media posts. What they found was devastating, but not unexpected. In fact, for Bakshi, it was all too familiar.

“We learned that he was struggling with a lot of stress, anxiety, confusion,” Bakshi said. “Even the night before that, he was feeling hopeless, and wasn’t sure what his future would look like, and wasn’t sure if he wanted to live anymore.”

Bakshi wrote a memo on behalf of FAMIL addressed to members of Congress and the administration, calling it a tragic loss potentially involving a death by suicide.

“He was really worried about his family and their safety since they had been left behind,” she said. “As a result of his work with the NSU and his affiliation with the US government, his family was at risk, and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to see them again.”

In addition to the stress of being separated from family, Saleem’s immigration status was uncertain in the U.S. The Zero Unit fighters are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas reserved for Afghans and Iraqis who helped the United States. But these applications can take years to be processed, since they have been mired in backlogs even before the mass evacuation of Afghanistan.

“It doesn’t matter how well you fill out a form,” Bakshi said. “It goes into this dark hole and you don’t know how long your process is going to take. That stress, I can’t even describe it because I’m seeing it day in and day out, you know, the panicked phone calls about what’s going to happen.”

While Saleem’s visa application was pending, the two-year temporary status of humanitarian parole allowing him and other Afghans to stay in the country expired this summer. He would need to re-apply to be able to stay and be legally employed. His work permit was also about to expire.

“How would he keep a job, earn an income, and be able to support himself and his family?” Bakshi asked. “He had seen that some of his teammates were already losing jobs, because work permits are getting ready to expire and perhaps employers don’t want to take that risk.”

Bakshi said that Saleem’s worries are all too common among the men who served in Zero Units.

“Unfortunately, this individual and others like him are still struggling with these feelings of abandonment and hopelessness and uncertainty about their future,” she said. “It’s a bit of a shock when you think about how much they’ve done for our country. It’s very difficult by comparison to look at the immigration limbo that they’re in right now.”

Two former Zero Unit members are among those who shared their struggles to build new lives in America with a new KSL podcast – “Stranger Becomes Neighbor.” Their existence in the U.S. is precarious as they try to learn English, find jobs, and afford a home, all while supporting family members at risk in Afghanistan. In the podcast, there are moments of heartbreak, but also of triumph shared with friends and neighbors. How they’re able to overcome the challenges they face depends in part on the friends they make and whether or not they are embraced by the community that surrounds them.

One former fighter from the Zero Units experienced the support of an entire neighborhood when he, his pregnant wife, and their two children moved in. Volunteers took him to job interviews, tutored the family in English, and even donated a car. One new friend – who they had only known for a couple of weeks – helped with the delivery of their baby. Given everything they had endured, the veteran said something unexpected when asked if he ever felt joy since he moved to the country.

“Yes,” he said. “Every moment is joyful.”

Could his family’s experience provide a model for how to welcome our newest neighbors into our communities? Listen to “Stranger Becomes Neighbor” to find out.

Season 1: “Afghan Arrivals” is available online or wherever you listen to podcasts. New episodes are published every Tuesday.

An extended conversation with Geeta Bakshi is also featured in a bonus episode of Stranger Becomes Neighbor, available on Apple Premium.

United States News

Associated Press

Ringo Starr on ‘Rewind Forward,’ writing country music, the AI-assisted final Beatles track and more

LOS ANGELES (AP) — There are rock stars, and then there is Ringo Starr — drummer for the Beatles, award-winning soloist, photographer, narrator, actor, activist. To call him prolific would almost shortchange his accomplishments. But it also feels right. “Rewind Forward,” out October 13, is his fourth extended play release in three years. “I’ve loved […]

41 minutes ago

File - The container ship Ever Libra (TW) is moored at the Port of Los Angeles on Nov. 21, 2022. On...

Associated Press

US government estimates last quarter’s economic growth was 2.1%, unchanged from previous estimate

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy grew at a 2.1% annual pace from April through June, extending its sturdy performance in the face of higher interest rates, the government said Thursday, leaving its previous estimate unchanged. The second-quarter expansion of the nation’s gross domestic product — its total output of goods and services — marked […]

2 hours ago

FILE - Elton John, left, and Bernie Taupin, winners of the award for best original song for "(I'm G...

Associated Press

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony live this year, with Elton John and Chris Stapleton performing

NEW YORK (AP) — Elton John, Brandi Carlile, Dave Matthews, H.E.R., Chris Stapleton, St. Vincent and New Edition will perform at this fall’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which will be broadcast live for the first time. The ceremony will be live on Disney+ on Nov. 3 and streamable afterward. ABC will […]

2 hours ago

Frank LaPere, Nico LaPere and Caroline Frank, the family of Pava LaPere, founder of tech startup Ec...

Associated Press

Man wanted in killing of Baltimore tech entrepreneur arrested, police say

BALTIMORE (AP) — A man wanted in the killing of a Baltimore tech entrepreneur has been arrested, police said early Thursday. Police didn’t release any details of the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Jason Billingsley, but planned a news conference later in the morning. Baltimore police found 26-year-old Pava LaPere dead with signs of blunt […]

4 hours ago

Associated Press

Stock market today: Wall Street moderately lower as anxiety over interest rates persists

Wall Street turned lower early Thursday as concerns over interest rates, rising oil prices and a possible government shutdown hung over markets. Futures for the Dow Jones industrials inched back about 0.1% before the bell, while the S&P 500 lost 0.2%. After more than a decade in which the Federal Reserve would quickly cut rates […]

6 hours ago

FILE - A general view shows the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. ...

Associated Press

First congressional hearing on Maui wildfire to focus on island’s sole electric provider and grid

Hawaii’s top public utility officials and the president of Hawaiian Electric are expected to testify Thursday in a congressional hearing about the role the electrical grid played in last month’s deadly Maui wildfire. Members of a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee are expected to question the utility officials about how the deadliest U.S. wildfire […]

9 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Ignite Digital

How to unlock the power of digital marketing for Phoenix businesses

All businesses around the Valley hopes to maximize their ROI with current customers and secure a greater market share in the digital sphere.

Sanderson Ford...

Sanderson Ford

Sanderson Ford congratulates D-backs’ on drive to great first half of 2023

The Arizona Diamondbacks just completed a red-hot first half of the major league season, and Sanderson Ford wants to send its congratulations to the ballclub.


OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

5 mental health myths you didn’t know were made up

Helping individuals understand mental health diagnoses like obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder or generalized anxiety disorder isn’t always an easy undertaking. After all, our society tends to spread misconceptions about mental health like wildfire. This is why being mindful about how we talk about mental health is so important. We can either perpetuate misinformation about already […]

‘Stranger Becomes Neighbor’: The importance of friendship