“#Journalist and Afghan translator finally reunite on US soil”
They’re thankful to see each other again.
In late November 2020, journalist Toby Harnden was in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, researching his new book, “First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11,” and working with a resourceful young translator and medical student named Rohullah Sadat.
A year later — the day after Thanksgiving — the pair were reunited outside of New Jersey’s Fort Dix under very different circumstances. Harnden was taking Sadat, now a refugee, to his Virginia home, where his erstwhile translator will live in a spare room as he navigates his new life in the United States.
“I am going to Toby’s house,” Sadat, 29, told The Post. “It’s exciting and emotional. I hugged him, and it was an amazing feeling.”
Harnden, who had driven three hours to the Garden State to pick up Sadat, had brought along his dog, Loafer, for the trip. Sadat and the pooch bonded immediately.
“Generally speaking, people in Afghanistan aren’t used to having dogs as pets. But Loafer is a rescue … so they have a lot in common,” Harnden told The Post from the road.
“I have to take Rohullah to some place that is classically American, like Cracker Barrel,” he added.
After a harrowing few months, Sadat is finally getting a taste of America.
After the US withdrew from Afghanistan in late August and the Taliban subsequently seized power in the region, Sadat, like many of his countrymen, was desperate to flee.
With no help coming from the US government, Harnden brought attention to Sadat’s plight through social media and harnessed connections who facilitated his dangerous escape from Afghanistan. First Sadat flew to Doha, Qatar, where he spent a few weeks before finally heading to the US on a humanitarian parole visa.
For the last 36 days, Sadat has been living in a refugee camp at Fort Dix — along with nearly 9,000 other Afghans — where he took classes to acclimate to life in the US.
“We had culture classes and driving classes. They teach you about everything; how to go to the barber and what to tip waiters. They told us how to treat women and to respect them. In America, ladies are very kind so we don’t have to take it seriously if they smile at you. Don’t think they are in love with you,” Sadat explained.
They were also taught life-coping skills, such as patience and accountability. There were lessons on American history and geography. Sadat was particularly interested in Alaska and Hawaii, since they are physically detached from the mainland. And he played volleyball, basketball and football with troops on the base.
“We beat the troops in volleyball, but football is new for us. You need a special technique to throw the ball accurately,” said Sadat, who played cricket in his native land.
He also had his first traditional turkey dinner on Thursday. During his time at Fort Dix, the polyglot, who speaks six languages, found himself acting as an interpreter for his fellow refugees. But he was eager to leave and embark on the new phase of his life.
“When you visit the camp, everyone is Afghan so you don’t feel like you are in America. You feel like you are in Kabul,” he said. But with Harnden as his established close contact, he was able to leave as an “independent departure.”
Most refugees remain in the camp until the government finds them housing. Currently, they are placing them in states such as Kentucky, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, according to Harnden.
“He was pretty keen to get out. If you have no relatives and connections, the government is finding housing. It takes time,” said Harnden.
The British-born US citizen, who has written two books on Afghanistan, said they will eat Thanksgiving leftovers for dinner. And Sadat is eager to try local seafood delicacies such as shrimp and crab legs.
This weekend, they will meet with members of Team Alpha, the subject of Harnden’s latest book, which chronicles the CIA’s early invasion of Afghanistan. They will visit the grave of Alpha Team member and first American casualty Mike Spann, who died there 20 years ago on Nov. 25.
Harnden said Sadat will continue to have assistance from Team Alpha members, including retired CIA officer David Tyson, Spann’s widow Shannon and a New Jersey-based doctor.
“There’s a Dr. [Abul] Azim who is an Afghan-American and left in the late ’90s. He is a central figure in this little informal group helping Afghans. He is talking to them every day [and] seeing them through this process because he knows a lot about the system,” said Harnden.
Sadat, who was in his final year of medical school before leaving his homeland, has his own agenda.
“I want to continue medical school,” Sadat said. But before he starts the complicated process of continuing his education and becoming a doctor, he hopes to find a job and secure his green card.
As Sadat drove with Harnden to his new digs in Virginia, he reflected on the horrors he witnessed while trying to escape his homeland. He saw desperate people fall off planes, watched women get trampled to death at the airport in Kabul and was trapped on an overcrowded, hot bus for more than 24 hours.
“It’s a nightmare for me and I cannot get it out of my brain. I cannot forget [those who died or continue to suffer], and I feel guilty,” he said, adding, “But I feel lucky and grateful, too.”
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