LAKEWOOD, Ohio — As Afghanistan was was collapsing and the government was disintegrating, the family of a Lakewood man was stuck in the middle of it. As the Taliban swept across the country taking providence after providence, Aziz Solemanshah, a refugee of Afghanistan that currently lives in Lakewood, watched and waited helplessly, wondering if he'd see his family again.
Solemanshah immigrated to the United States in 2006 after his father, whose safety was very much at risk at the time, fled to neighboring Russia. He and his wife have two young children, a 3-year-old and 6-month old.
Solemanshah said his wife and children, along with his sister in law and her two children, traveled to Afghanistan earlier this summer to visit family for the first time in five years. At the end of the three month trip, the group was to depart Afghanistan and return home on Thursday.
However, after Taliban forces began racing across the country, capturing provincial capitals and large swaths of the country, Solemanshah and his brother-in-law made the decision to cut the trip one week short. By that time, however, the Taliban had set its sights on Kabul.
"I called [my brother-in-law] and I said, 'what’s going on, when are you going to fly out?'" Solemanshah said. "He said, 'there are no flights. The situation is very bad. The Taliban is all over. There will be no flights over here.'"
By that time, commercial flights in and out of Afghanistan were canceled. Solemanshah said his family then received word that United States citizens and green card holders should report to the US Embassy in Kabul in order to be evacuated from the increasingly unstable country. When they arrived, throngs of people were camped outside the front gate to the embassy.
"My wife said, 'We are not sure how the hell we are going to get out of here,'" Solemanshah said. "People are pretty scared. The Taliban never changed. They are the same regime, the same people. They are just trying to to show to the world that they changed but people believe they haven’t changed at all."
Solemanshah was growing increasingly concerned considering his past employment in 2012 as a cultural adviser and translator for US and coalition forces. By assisting American forces, Solemanshah worried that might make his family a target for the Taliban.
"They were shady people at the beginning and they are even shadier right now. They are animals. They are uneducated," Solemanshah said. "All they know is how to kill people. People are scared. People are very scared. People don’t want to live a life from 25 to 30 years ago. Things have changed. You see girls in skirts and girls going to school. There are a lot of opportunities for people."
As Solemanshah's family remained camped outside the US Embassy, his brother in law provided hour-by-hour updates. As the hours dragged on, his hopes increased as embassy officials began allowing a limited number of people inside the gate. However, each time, the crowds of people tried to rush inside.
"My daughter, she got scratched and crushed between people. She almost died. They tried the first time and they tried the second time," Solemanshah said. "I thought that I’m not going to see my daughter again. I had the hope that everything was going to be okay and they were going to be coming. The question was coming to my mind: when? There was a question mark. The 'when' part was bothering me a lot."
After two unsuccessful attempts to get inside the gate, Solemanshah said he received a call from his wife early Tuesday morning that the family had managed to make it inside and they were due to depart for Qatar later in the day. The family has since flown from Qatar to Kuwait before a long flight to Washington D.C.
"No matter what's going on over there, [they're] safe," Solemanshah said.
The US State Department has opened up special immigrant visas for Afghans and Iraqis, designating 19 different cities as possible resettlement sites, including Cleveland. Global Cleveland, a non-profit that aims to connect immigrants with resources and assistance in transition to life in America, said Cleveland has demonstrated time and time again its welcoming spirit and ability to take in refugees, sometimes hundreds of them in a given year.
"There is a great tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan right before our eyes, as tens of thousands of people flee the Taliban, fearing for their lives and the lives of those they love. Cleveland is ready. Cuyahoga County is ready," said Joe Cimperman, the president of Global Cleveland.
He continued, "We, as a community and as a people, are ready to answer the call and open our doors to our Afghan brothers and sisters in need. With open arms we will accept the Afghan people. Cleveland has welcomed people from across the world in the past century and we are ready to do so again. We are a welcoming city, a welcoming community, and a welcoming people! The world is watching. History shows us we have done this before. Our hearts tell us we need to do this again."