‘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.

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‘Stranger Becomes Neighbor’: The importance of friendship