A Boston neurosurgeon procuring medical supplies for Afghanistan amid memories of his own harried escape decades ago. The Duxbury founder of a girls’ school losing sleep as she prays for the continued safety of her staff and students. And a Newton architect marshaling funds for refugees from the torn land.
Local Afghans see themselves reflected in the faces and stories coming out of their native country since it fell to the Taliban last week. They ache as they watch the chaotic crush at the Kabul airport as thousands clamor to flee a country besieged by panic.
“I deal with life and death all the time, and I cry for my patients, but I don’t cry for myself often,” said Dr. Mohammad Ali Aziz-Sultan, a neurosurgeon at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. Aziz-Sultan, 49, was born in Afghanistan but fled the capital city with his family at age 6, when Russia first invaded in 1979.
He remembers someone warning his older brother to run home past the tanks that lined the streets and hide everybody in the basement. He remembers the corrugated metal in the bed of the Toyota pickup truck, and the massive barrel of petroleum in the middle, his small body squeezed in with so many others headed away from the city.
“As a kid, you don’t think about it. I didn’t suffer or anything; it was just a trip for me, but maybe it’s deep and buried somewhere,” he said.
From rural Afghanistan, Aziz-Sultan’s parents shuffled the family to Pakistan, Germany, and ultimately, the United States in 1981. Indiana to Virginia, Virginia to Florida, and finally in 2013, Florida to Massachusetts, which Aziz-Sultan calls “the first place I’ve felt at home since the age of six.”
Aziz-Sultan now has a spacious home for his wife and three children in a quiet Boston neighborhood. Grateful as he is, the recent upheaval in Afghanistan has made him more determined than ever to give back.
“We see ourselves as the reflections of other people there. I saw myself as a child, the same age as my son is now, and I remember how chaotic it was — being young, being desperate,” he said. “I think that’s what drew me to neurosurgery. … I always wanted to help people in the most desperate conditions because I’ve been there, and to think that it’s happening again is heartbreaking on such a massive scale.”
Pre-pandemic, Aziz-Sultan made regular trips to Afghanistan to offer humanitarian medical assistance alongside local Afghan doctors. Now, many of those health care workers fear for their own lives.
In addition to contacting nonprofits and humanitarian groups to negotiate travel for as many refugees as he can, Aziz-Sultan is also working to procure urgently needed medical supplies for Afghan hospitals. But sending equipment overseas is complicated by the tenuous political situation, which Aziz-Sultan said has made some Americans wary of offering their assistance.
“Some initial reactions were, ‘Hey, this is a terrorist organization now; we can’t support that,’” said Sultan, who warned against politicizing the humanitarian crisis. “My point is, it’s the same doctors that we’ve been talking to. It’s the same people that they’re serving.”
“We need to concentrate on how to help people in that country so they don’t die, and how to support refugees that are coming out of that country,” he said. “If you give people the same things that I was afforded as a six-year-old, my life is a prime example of the good that could come out of it.”
Praying for her students
For Razia Jan, of Duxbury, sleep has been hard to come by. Between worrying and praying for the 775 girls enrolled at her school in an Afghanistan village, and checking in nearly every hour for updates, the 77-year-old is constantly on edge.
“So far, nobody has harmed our school and that gives me a comfort that things are going to be OK,” Jan said. “People are very vigilant in that community, they watch that school ... but I really can’t tell you what tomorrow brings. This is a very crucial time.”
The Taliban, who ruled until the 2001 US-led invasion, embraced a harsh ideology that often had the greatest impact on women and girls, forbidding them education and the right to work.
Jan described the Taliban takeover as “a black cloud.”
“But I think I can see a little bit of light, a star shining, maybe a moon is rising through that darkness,” she said. “That is my hope.”
Jan left Afghanistan some 50 years ago to study at Harvard and Radcliffe, before the downfall of the Afghan monarchy, before the Taliban, before girls were treated as inferiors.
Jan witnessed that inferior treatment firsthand after 9/11 during a January 2002 visit to Afghanistan.
“What I saw everywhere I went, the girls were like shunned, beaten up by boys,” Jan said.
When Jan brought gifts for the Afghan children, the little boys wouldn’t hesitate to take the girls’ gifts away and hit them if they resisted, Jan said. It bothered her enough to chase down the boys and scold them.
It bothered her enough to spearhead a solution: Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation and the school outside Kabul it supports. (The Globe is not naming the school or its specific location out of safety concerns.)
What began with 109 students about 14 years ago has turned into a success that has educated somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 girls and has a current waitlist of more than 300 wanting to go to kindergarten, said Patti Quigley, the foundation’s executive director.
Many of the school’s graduates are now the main sources of income for their families, Jan said. Some became doctors, midwives, or journalists. Several have returned to teach at Razia’s school or in nearby villages.
“People are proud of them and that makes a lot of difference,” Jan said. “We have worked within the framework of the culture, the traditions.”
“I just want to hope and pray, everybody should, I think, whatever God you have, pray for security of these girls and that they shouldn’t be harmed and that they continue their education, because that’s the only way they will survive.”
“Every hour, every minute”
For Najim Azadzoi, communications from Afghanistan are fraught with confusion and misinformation.
“I am in touch with friends and relatives every hour, every minute,” said Azadzoi, 66, an architect and the administrator of the Afghan Community of Boston Facebook page, where local Afghans share resources, news stories, and offers of help.
He spent Friday morning sorting through urgent messages from a friend and his family in Kabul who were certain they had found an application for Azadzoi to fill out to sponsor their arrival in the United States. They sent electronic copies of their ID cards, while Azadzoi hunted for a link to the application only to discover that it was from a Colorado congressman seeking to contact US citizens still in Afghanistan.
Even so, it took some effort, Azadzoi said, “to prove” to his friends that the application wasn’t for them.
“There is a confusion; there is a lack of understanding. They think, ‘Here, the door is open. Let’s go,’ ” he said.
Azadzoi and the local Afghan community are collecting money to send to their native country. They have a goal of $10,000 by the end of this week, but with banks closed and rumors of Western Unions now closed down throughout the country, Azadzoi doesn’t know how to get the money there.
Like Dr. Aziz-Sultan, Azadzoi left Afghanistan after the Russians invaded. He and his fiancée spent a year in Pakistan, where they wed, before immigrating to the United States.
“All I had to do was prove that I was not a communist, that I was opposed to the communist regime, and my life was in danger, and I was an architect and I was teaching at the university,” Azadzoi said. “That was sufficient enough for the US Immigration to accept me as an Afghan refugee coming to the United States.”
Two years after arriving in the United States, Azadzoi graduated from MIT. His siblings soon followed him. And his three children all were born in Boston.
Azadzoi said he is waiting with everyone else to see if this Taliban is “the extreme version” of 20 years ago.
“It’s hard to trust,” he said. “We have to watch to see if they slowly change.”
Azadzoi watches a lot of news directly out of Afghanistan. Already, he’s noticed fewer options. “The number of TV stations have dropped dramatically,” he said.
But, so far, he continues to see female anchors. That will be a tell-tale sign that the Taliban of old is returning, Azadzoi said, if female reporters and news anchors disappear from on air.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.