Afghan refugees reflect on life in Portland two years after Taliban takeover

Just over two years ago, the United States military ended its war on terrorism in Afghanistan.
Published: Sep. 1, 2023 at 8:50 AM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - Just over two years ago, the United States military ended its war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Since then, thousands of Afghan families have left their country to escape the takeover of the Taliban regime, many having re-settled the Portland metro area.

One of those individuals is Ataullah Momand, a father of nine who spent years in Afghan Special Forces fighting alongside American soldiers as they carried out counter-terrorism missions.

A few weeks ago, Aug. 15 was the two-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. FOX 12 caught up with Momand and his family to reflect on how they have adjusted to life in Portland two years later.

In summer 2021, when it became clear Afghanistan would once again be in control of the Taliban, any Afghan who had helped the U.S. along with their families, like the Momands, became a target.

The scenes of desperate evacuation from Kabul Air Base two years ago were cemented into the United States’ and Afghanistan’s history with thousands of people trying to flee the extremist Taliban regime.

With the help of the Portland-based group, The Afghan Support Network, Ataullah Momand eventually settled in southeast Portland after fleeing Afghanistan in late August 2021. Momand said he, his fellow soldiers, and his family’s final weeks in Afghanistan were terrifying.

“We were stuck at the Kandahar airbase for three days, we were fighting for our lives as the Taliban were taking over” Momand said through Pashto translation. “Once we got to Kabul Air Base, there was so much pressure. Everyone has seen the horrific pictures from Kabul Airport, at this time I was having trouble getting my family into the air base.”

Momand said once he was able to get his family inside, it would be another week before they would finally be able to evacuate. It was a difficult time with little food and water on the air base, and the constant threat of attacks from Taliban forces.

“It was terrifying what we’ve been through being evacuated,” Momand said. “We did not have the expectation to be here at this time. But I was telling my children during all of this, after the darkness there will be light at the end of the tunnel.”

Momand and his family would make their way to Qatar, and then to Wisconsin where they would live for six months on a military base, before finally getting settled in Portland with the help of the United States military, and local organizations helping Afghan refugees.

“I’m so grateful to be in the U.S. and very grateful for the support we’ve received so far. I’m so hopeful for the future for my kids to be educated. There is no way we could go back to Afghanistan and live a normal life,” Momand said. “I’m especially happy my daughters are enrolled in school because in Afghanistan, girls are not allowed to go to school because of the regime change.”

Momand said he, his wife, and nine children lived in a hotel during their first five months in Portland, and were able to move into a southeast Portland apartment a little over a year ago. Momand is currently working a manufacturing job at Danner boots in Portland. All of his children who are of age attend Portland Public Schools.

For Momand’s daughters, the opportunity to attend school wouldn’t have been a possibility in Afghanistan under the Taliban, where women have virtually no rights. His daughter, Saida, in fourth grade, said she loves going to school here in Portland.

“I really like going to school,” Saida said through Pashto translation. “And I think that I know English a little bit, but I want to improve my English more. I enjoy being in school with my friends.”

Zerpana Wahab is part of the team at the Afghan Support Network in Portland. A native Afghan herself, she has helped over 200 families like the Momands over the last two years who have fled Afghanistan and started new lives in the United States. Wahab said it’s hard work, but takes pride being a role model for young afghan girls who may not have thought an education would be possible.

“I am a big example for them, for the family. I am an Afghan woman, and I’m helping them so their kids can help their families and other communities,” Wahab said. “I tell them, I give my example and say ‘I came from Afghanistan, but I go to school here, go to college.’ At first it’s hard for them because of the language barrier.”

All of the Momand children agree the language barrier has been the most difficult part of being a student in Portland schools. They said their first school year, they had to rely on Google Translate to understand what was happening in class.

“The first year, we didn’t know English very well, we didn’t know the rules in school, didn’t know about anything in our school,” high school freshman Sabawon Momand said. “Now we are better. We understand what our teachers are talking about, we understand what they say.”

While the Momands miss their friends and family who are still in Afghanistan, the children have made the most of this difficult transition, and now have big dreams for their future. Sabawon Momand said his goal is to attend college after high school and pursue his career.

“I’m looking forward to go to school and get my education to be an engineer or something to do with science.”

The Afghan Support Network has helped the Momands, and over 500 other Afghan families re-settle in Oregon since September 2021.