CAMBRIDGE — By late August, the Tokhi family was a well-oiled media machine. Nearly every local news outlet had contacted them, asking for an interview with one of the only Afghan restaurateurs in the Boston area.
“Welcome to Helmand,” a smiling Ali said when a reporter walked in the door of his beloved East Cambridge eatery on Aug. 26. Zarmina, the wife of owner Ali, offered a glass of ice water. Sadaf, their 19-year-old daughter, wore a black tee with a heart in the colors of the Afghan flag emblazoned on the front.
The interview was the family’s fourth that week, with the United States in the midst of a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. A correspondent from WHDH stood outside, her camera positioned perfectly to capture the turquoise awning that reads “Cuisine from Afghanistan” in gold cursive letters. Inside, Ali told stories of being a child in Kandahar, shared his hopes — soon to be dashed — that American troops would remain past President Biden’s Sept. 1 deadline, and relayed dispatches from his family still living in the country. All the while, his phone buzzed with WhatsApp messages.
Six thousand miles away, his sleepless cousin, Mohammad, was sending Ali pictures of his three daughters — ages 6, 4, and 1 — huddled inside a home in Kabul as the recently victorious Taliban paraded outside. He was desperate for a lifeline to the United States, a glimmer of hope amid an ever-darkening reality. Earlier that day, Mohammad’s supervisor at the NGO where he works had alerted him to several passenger planes with rare open seats. But the road to Hamid Karzai International Airport was gridlocked. The family crept along for several hours in traffic before turning around in defeat.
Hours later, a boom reverberated throughout Kabul. More than 182 people were killed that afternoon when an ISIS-K suicide bomber waded into the desperate crowd outside the airport. The near miss left Mohammad racked with further despair. Relying on luck was no way to keep his family alive.
Five days later, on Aug. 31, the last American troops would leave Afghanistan, ending two decades of military occupation and Mohammad’s hopes of escaping by air. The month of August seemed to reintroduce Americans to a war they’d all but forgotten. All of 2020 had passed with the three major news networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — devoting just five minutes to Afghanistan coverage, according to a media analysis newsletter, the Tyndall Report. But the US withdrawal brought the conflict back into the headlines. It also brought reporters and cameras to the doorsteps of places like Helmand, where worried Afghans like Ali could provide some local connection to a crisis unfolding halfway around the world.
That interest dimmed as quickly as it arrived. The news cycle moved onto booster shots and the infrastructure bill, and the images of desperate Afghans dangling from planes and soldiers cradling babies faded from view. But those who remained in Afghanistan, and their family members abroad, lingered in a kind of purgatory, aware that the attention was fading quickly even as the situation worsened by the hour.
Though bound by blood and a shared love of their homeland, Ali and Mohammad, whose full name is not being used to protect him from retaliation by the Taliban, live starkly different lives. One is a striving immigrant owner of an award-winning restaurant in a global hub of education and innovation. The other, a father haunted nightly by volleys of gunfire and by what the future holds for his three young daughters. Both want the same thing: a better outcome for their children and for Afghanistan.
“My love for Afghanistan is boundless,” said Mohammad, who like thousands of other Afghans has a pending visa application to the United States. “But when you are thinking about the future of your children, you cannot see one here.”
Helmand, named after the longest river in Afghanistan, is located in the shadows of Kendall Square’s gleaming towers in an old brick warehouse that’s a vestige of the neighborhood’s industrial past. Lit by a soft, crackling glow from a giant fireplace and a clay bread oven, the restaurant is a warm and welcome reprieve from its corporate surroundings. Aromas of hot peppers, garlic, mint, cilantro, minced lamb, eggplant, and pumpkin fill the air. The place is never without diners, but a hungry wanderer can usually find a seat in the cavernous dining room dotted with knickknacks from Kabul and Kandahar.
Ali gives the impression that he’d move the Hindu Kush mountains to accommodate his guests. While revamping the wine menu on a recent Tuesday, he positioned a cart at the front of the restaurant where guests could pour a sip from 10 different bottles and rank them on a nearby piece of paper. His peppy step, crisply pressed dress shirt, and indefatigable smile disguise the burden he carries as one of the only members in his family with American citizenship — and their greatest hope for escaping the Taliban regime.
For years, Ali worked under members of the Karzai family, a clan of dedicated American restaurateurs with eateries in Baltimore and San Francisco and a brother serving as the leader of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai — the coiffed, charismatic, and contentious president of the country from 2001 to 2014 — often dined at Helmand when visiting Massachusetts, going largely unnoticed by the diners tucking into soft stewed lamb beside him.
Even for the Tokhis, it is sometimes hard to reconcile their life in Cambridge and that of their family back in Afghanistan. Like many American business owners these days, Ali is plagued by chronic staffing shortages that force him to work seven days a week as a host on top of managing supplies and payroll. There’s hardly time to meet with immigration lawyers and monitor visa applications for the dozens of family members relying on him to help get them out.
On the weekend after the deadly explosion in Kabul, Ali and Zarmina’s eldest daughter, Sadaf, protested the United States’ withdrawal at a demonstration on Boston Common alongside some 100 Afghans and allies. Sadaf was set to leave for her freshman year at UMass Amherst the next day, but class selection and dorm decorations were the last thing on her mind. As an Afghan woman shared stories of life under Taliban rule — decapitations in the middle of the street, fingers sliced off for having painted nails, and public hangings — a pep band from Northeastern played a pop song titled “Shut Up and Dance” in a neighboring plaza, unaware of the brutal memories being shared nearby.
Three weeks later, Sadaf admitted, with some shame, how her attentions had shifted.
“Now that I’m here at college it’s been difficult for me to keep up. Sometimes I feel guilty,” she said from her dorm one day. “I worked so hard to get here, but I understand my privilege. Women in Afghanistan have gotten all this taken away from them overnight. These people who also worked so hard are now just trying to find safety. It’s such a luxury to focus on education.”
Back in Afghanistan, Mohammad’s daughters are much younger than Sadaf. But the two eldest are acutely aware of the change that’s occurred in the past three months. The family left their home in Kandahar on July 31 as the Taliban were closing in. On the perilous 10-hour drive to Kabul, Mohammad realized he might never see his home city again.
“You were not thinking about return. If you did come back, then life would not be happy again here anyway. We accepted that this was the last day of our being in Kandahar,” he said.
The family spent two months in Kabul, rarely leaving the house after the Taliban seized control of the capital in mid-August. Mohammad had tried to protect his daughters from overhearing conversations about the regime, but in the close quarters of their three-room rental, the fear had seeped through. The 6-year-old started to cover her head with scarves in an attempt to comply with the Taliban mandate that women and girls who have hit puberty not show their hair.
At one point his 4-year-old blurted: “The Taliban are going to kill us.”
Stunned, Mohammad countered: “What is the Taliban? Why would they kill us?”
“They are the ones who do the bomb blasting,” she responded.
“What are bombs?” he asked.
“Things full of little bullets that destroy,” she said.
Mohammad’s voice started to shake while recounting the conversation. “How does she know these things? How does she know what shrapnel is? What does that do to a 4-year-old’s mind?” he asked.
As he spoke, a succession of gunshots thrummed in the background. Out of options in Kabul, they had returned to Kandahar three days prior. Music was now forbidden. Saturday night card games had stopped. The streets were devoid of women. A day earlier, his relatives had witnessed a man taken from his home and shot dead in the street by Taliban militants.
Mohammad spent the next week driving two hours roundtrip after work to the nearby border crossing into Pakistan. He wanted to assess the viability of fleeing by land. The Spin Boldak-Chaman border in southeast Afghanistan often teems with commuting merchants from both countries who sell food and scrap metal. But these days it is overrun with droves of Afghans hoping to escape Taliban persecution.
Typically, those with a national identification card from Kandahar can cross over without an issue. But after the Taliban took over, Pakistan started restricting entry, leading to a bottleneck of hundreds of people, some in wheelchairs, or hooked up to IV fluids, or carrying luggage on their backs, or with toddlers by their side. A violent skirmish erupted between the Taliban and Pakistan at the end of September that killed soldiers from both sides. The following week, large cement blocks the size of sedans blocked the border gates. Mohammad crossed another escape route off his list.
He’s holding out hope that his visa application, which has been stalled for months, will make headway soon, especially now that Ali has enlisted a team of immigration lawyers in Boston to help his family’s case. The 8½-hour time difference means that when Mohammad lays his head down at the end of a long day, Ali is just beginning his duties at Helmand.
Each afternoon, he checks if anyone has responded to his several job postings on Indeed. He combs through inventory and payroll. And then, beginning at 5 p.m., the diners start to appear, and he glides from table to table to check on guests. Occasionally, someone will ask if he is from Afghanistan. His eyes light up at the question, at the chance to share a bit about the homeland he’d planned to visit with his kids last summer before the pandemic grounded international travel.
But by midnight, the stream of worried messages on his phone begins anew. On Friday, Ali woke to news that suicide bombers hit a mosque in Kandahar, killing at least 50 on the Islamic holy day. Mohammad and his family were uninjured, but family members of his friends died in the blast.
“I realize the magic of Afghanistan is gone,” Ali said. “Kandahar was a city, a wonderful city, full of life just like here in Cambridge. But it has collapsed. No games, no money, no music, no future, no nothing. It is dead. ”