Abdul Hafiz Akbarzada packed his bags to leave Kabul on the day the United States fully withdrew its forces on August 30, 2021. He knew it was his last takeoff from the country he had always called home.
He was wearing his navy pilot’s uniform with gold stripes and his flight bag. He boarded the plane, but this time he sat in the passenger seat.
When Kabul fell to the Taliban two weeks earlier, many pilots stayed underground and refused to fly. But Akbarzada, 32, was one of the few commercial pilots to continue operating despite the chaos at the airport.
At a time when tens of thousands of people were rushing to the airport to flee the country in fear of reprisals from the Taliban, he felt his knowledge and experience were needed. During the frantic evacuation, commercial airlines provided planes to airlift thousands of people to countries including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Albania and Uganda. Akbarzada made four flights to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the last two weeks of August and airlifted hundreds of Afghans.
“There was chaos everywhere,” Akbarzada recalls. He was to fly a plane to Ukraine the day Kabul fell. To get to the airport, he had to walk for an hour and a half because the roads leading to the airport were crowded with cars. When he arrived, he found that nothing was the same.
“There was no authority, no orders, nothing,” he said. “The airport and the roads leading to it were jammed with people trying to flee. The civilian side of the airport was uncontrolled and everyone was rushing to board any plane on the ramp. There was shooting and screaming everywhere,” he said.
He had never considered leaving the country before, although he had had plenty of opportunities.
But his commitment to stay had wavered before one of his last commercial flights when Taliban operatives arrested Akbarzada and his captain as they made their way to the terminal for an evacuation flight to Qatar. They were both wearing their usual navy blue pilot suits with gold stripes, white shirts and ties, carrying their iPads, headphones, licenses and flight documents in their bags.
When the Taliban members checked their luggage, Akbarzada tried to explain that they were just civilian pilots who had nothing to do with the military or the former government. But one of the Taliban inspectors pointed a gun at him and shouted, “Shut up, infidel, I’ll shoot you!”
Akbarzada would never have thought that the Taliban would threaten a civilian pilot. He couldn’t stop thinking about his family, his pregnant wife and unborn child, his younger siblings and their future. “What will happen to them if I am threatened and disrespected as a pilot at the airport? he wondered.
So he left. Akbarzada is now among thousands of Afghans in the United States who fled their country when Kabul fell to the Taliban last summer to avoid revenge killings and persecution. Many more expect to move this year.
A dream short film
Akbarzada started in 2011 as a check-in agent for Kam Air, Afghanistan’s largest private airline. One day, as a captain and his cabin crew were walking through the terminal hallway, he noticed that everyone was holding their right hands to their chests as a sign of respect, and that’s when he knew he wanted to be a pilot. His love of flying only grew after he joined cabin crew.
He decided to start saving to go abroad and train as a pilot. After discussing it with his boss and securing funding, he eventually traveled to the United States to complete his professional aviation training. In 2017, he completed a rigorous two-year training program in Daytona Beach, Florida, and earned his commercial pilot license from the Federal Aviation Administration. He returned home as a licensed commercial pilot and made his first flight as a trainee pilot for Kam Air.
“It was a dream come true,” Akbarzada said. “I was very excited. It’s the most amazing feeling, especially when you’re taking off and landing for the first time and sitting in the cockpit controlling the plane.
With more than 3,000 flight hours as a co-pilot, Akbarzada hoped to one day sit on the left side of the cockpit as captain. He wanted to buy a house and raise his child in Kabul. This dream died when he was forced to flee.
“I had mixed emotions,” Hafiz recalled of when his plane took off from Kabul that day. “You’re sad because you left behind everything you built, happy because your family is safe, anxious because you don’t know what the future holds.”
After spending nine months at the Abu Dhabi facility known as Emirates Humanitarian City, which has housed hundreds of displaced Afghans since last year, Hafiz and his family traveled to the United States in July this year and settled in Denver. Thousands of Afghans are still living in temporary accommodation in Abu Dhabi, awaiting resettlement in the United States or other countries.
Akbarzada’s displacement cost him his sense of normalcy and peace. He was a successful pilot, about to become a father for the first time, with a loving wife and family and a bright future ahead of him. Having his son in a temporary haven with no permanent country to live in was the last thing he expected.
“There were times when I thought maybe I should have stayed and never left,” he said. “But looking at my son again, I knew I had made the right decision.”
Akbarzada’s arrival in the United States, however, gave him renewed hope for a fresh start. Since becoming a certified commercial pilot, he hopes to fly in the United States again. He is fluent in English, a skill that many Afghans lack and that prevents them from getting better jobs in America. Additionally, American airlines are experiencing a shortage of pilots, making Akbarzada’s thousands of flying hours highly desirable.
But for Akbarzada to resume his career, he will have to spend thousands of dollars and weeks to get a separate license called ATPL – Airline Transport Pilot License.
Akbarzada recently started working as a customer service agent for United Airlines at Denver International Airport, again starting in an entry-level airline position. “It reminds me of my early days as a check-in staff at Kabul airport,” he said. “I think those days taught me to be patient and to work slowly and steadily towards my goal.”
He hopes the job will help him pay his bills and fund the costs associated with the ATPL.
Like Akbarzada, thousands of highly skilled Afghans recently arrived in the United States have been forced into low-paying jobs to make ends meet. Many of these individuals previously worked in management, information technology, engineering, medicine or aviation.
Akbarzada’s temporary immigration status could also hamper his racing career. Without permanent residence, he cannot fly abroad. It could take years for Afghan arrivals to get their green cards unless lawmakers enact the Afghan Adjustment Law introduced last month. The proposal would allow Afghans to obtain permanent status outside the currently overdue asylum system.
But that did not deter Akbarzada.
“I will never give up flying,” he said. “My goal is to get back in the air and one day become a captain in the United States”
The Huffington Gt