After the Taliban takeover, a former Afghan Air Force pilot recounts his journey from Kabul to Jacksonville
It has been a year since Hakimullah Hamim, an Afghan refugee, arrived in Jacksonville.
Adjusting to a new home and a new job as a data analyst for Stillwater Insurance Group, the 30-something found a new life with his wife in North Florida. But he remembers the difficult journey it took to get there.
In 2021, President Joe Biden withdrew US troops from Afghanistan, ending nearly 20 years of occupation in the Middle Eastern country. As the Americans left, the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist militant group, took over. The Taliban have forcibly taken over towns, villages and government buildings in various Afghan provinces. Hundreds of people flooded the apron of Kabul International Airport in August 2021, hoping to flee the country in response to the takeover.
But some Afghans like Hamim fought back.
He was a pilot for the Afghan Air Force. He joined the armed forces in 2015 to fight the Taliban.
But one day, everything changed for Hamim and his squadron: on August 12, 2021, the Taliban invaded Kandahar and seized its government buildings and offices, according to the Associated Press. The conquest left Hamim and his team directionless.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Hamim said. “That day, we did nothing.
He returned to his home in Kabul. The next day, he found banks closed, roads closed across the city, and military bases empty. The Taliban would soon invade the capital.
“So I had to call my squadron,” Hamim said. “‘What is the plan?’ They told me they didn’t have a plan yet.
After that, Hamim said the government had collapsed and there was no one in charge to lead the Afghan Air Force. President Ashraf Ghani had left the country on August 15, 2021.
Some pilots took their planes and flew to Uzbekistan. but Hamim stayed behind. He was given the opportunity to escape by American allies who helped train Afghan Air Force pilots in the past. They told him to apply for visas and go to Kabul International Airport, he said.
There was a catch, however. He couldn’t bring everyone. He and his wife left without his mother and brothers.
“It was hard to leave them alone,” Hamim said.
It was a difficult journey. Although the airport was only a mile from his home, Taliban forces had already entered the city and surrounded the airport. It was chaos: people were crying and screaming.
Taliban forces let Hamim and others pass on a bus. He said they hadn’t verified his identity, so they didn’t know he was a longtime enemy of the Taliban.
He was able to board a flight, not as a pilot, but as a passenger.
Landing in the United Arab Emirates, he waited more than two months for an approved flight to the USA
After obtaining one, he found refuge at Fort Pickett, a military base in Virginia, where other refugees were staying. He stayed there for two and a half months.
At Fort Pickett, he worked on several applications for relocation to the United States. Once these requests were completed and processed, he and his wife left camp for Jacksonville and arrived on January 14, 2022 at midnight. They stayed in an Airbnb for two weeks before adjusting to a new home and occupation.
Hellai Nozai, program manager at Catholic Charities, helped Hamim settle in Jacksonville.
“I’ve been in their shoes and I know what they’re going through,” Nozai said. “I had to start from scratch.”
Nozai also came to the United States from Afghanistan in 2015. At the nonprofit group she works for, she wants to make sure people like Hamim have the opportunity to adapt.
“It was tough, but now we are good,” Hamim said.
Hamim still communicates daily with his family in Afghanistan. He said they were safe, but he hoped to see them again.
“I’ll try to get them here.”
He hopes to return to the skies as a pilot once more.
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