Just two weeks ago, things were looking up for Hewad Wardak when he was airlifted out of his home country of Afghanistan by the U.S. military, one of the more than 100,000 people evacuated as the Taliban took control.
It seemed at that time that he was on track to finally be reunited with his family in the U.S., where his wife, a U.S. citizen, had filed a visa petition to bring him to the country way back in July 2017.
But by Wednesday night, what initially seemed like a dream finally coming true had turned into a nightmare.
“We have no idea where he is,” a family member of Wardak’s told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Wardak’s move to the U.S. was meant to happen long before the Taliban seized power. According to Joshua Goldstein, an immigration attorney representing his wife, Wardak’s visa petition was approved in 2019, but “for almost two years it’s been stuck.”
The visa’s processing was apparently still underway at the Kabul embassy when Wardak, in a mad dash on Aug. 18, was airlifted by the U.S. military to Doha, Qatar, amid frantic evacuation efforts, the family member said.
Later, they said Wardak was taken to Germany and eventually flown to Washington, D.C. At some point between these travels, they said, Wardak received word that his brother in Afghanistan had been murdered by the Taliban. (The Daily Beast was unable to independently verify this claim.)
“He was crying, desperate, depressed,” Wardak’s family member recalled.
Wardak and his family in California had been in constant contact as he went through various interviews, they added. He seemed closer than ever to finally arriving in the U.S. this week.
When the family member and Wardak last spoke on Tuesday evening, they said, Wardak seemed confident that the latest army base he was being transferred to—Fort Pickett, in Virginia—would be the last place he’d have to stop before being given the necessary paperwork to fly to California.
Then, two hours later, they said they received a call from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection informing them Wardak would be “taken” to the United Arab Emirates and would contact the family again once he was there.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment.
Goldstein confirmed Wardak made it to the United States, but said it was unclear why he is allegedly set to be removed. Although he said Wardak received parole to be in the country as a refugee, Goldstein said the CBP could revoke parole for their own reasons.
“They could just say we’re not going to admit you, or we’re going to revoke your parole,” he said. “It’s not technically deportation.” Nonetheless, he said he is unaware of Wardak having a criminal record or some other “fundamental issue” that would lead him to not be let in.
“This person should not be sent out of the United States,” Goldstein said. “He’s married to a U.S. citizen.”
The family member told The Daily Beast that Wardak’s loved ones were bewildered by the news they received from the CBP.
“What the fuck do you mean the UAE,” they said, adding that Wardak has no familiarity with the country, not to mention proper documentation to be there. “He doesn’t have a UAE passport, he doesn’t have a UAE visa, he’s never been to the UAE.”
On Wednesday, the family member told The Daily Beast that they flew to Washington, D.C. with Wardak’s wife, Arzo Abdulwal, to search for Wardak. They’d gone to the CBP, and visited two camps where refugees have been taken, hoping to be let inside to see if Wardak was there.
They were rebuffed.
Abdulwali has been fighting to get Wardak to the U.S. for nearly five years. She filed a visa petition for him in July 2017.
After the couple got married in California in 2016, Wardak had returned back to his native Afghanistan to take care of his ailing mother and needed a visa to return, the family member said.
By Nov. 2019, according to records from the United States Immigration Services, Wardak’s case was sent to the Department of State for processing. But according to a federal lawsuit his wife filed in July of this year, Wardak didn’t get an interview until March of this year and had been waiting for his visa to finally be released after a long and arduous process.
The Department of State did not respond to a request for comment.
“Then all of a sudden, everything collapsed,” the family member told The Daily Beast. “The Taliban took over Afghanistan and the U.S. evacuated all their people and evacuated their embassy.”
Since the last conversation with Wardak on Tuesday, none of his phone calls have been answered and the family suspects Wardak’s phone might have been taken away.
Goldstein, who represents Abdulwali in her federal lawsuit, said he has been trying to get information about the alleged sudden transfer, but has been unsuccessful. “It’s like he’s been disappeared into a gulag,” he said of Wardak.
Goldstein said Wardak should have been in the country over a year before all of this mess, considering his visa petition was approved in 2019.
It was a familiar case for Goldstein.
He told The Daily Beast that many of his Muslim clients often faced long delays for approval for visas into the United States. Federal lawsuits like the one he filed on behalf of Wardak’s wife, he said, usually helped expose delays and speed up the process.
But that changed when the country collapsed. “While that lawsuit was pending,” Goldstein said, “the Taliban took over.”
He said he isn’t sure how the sudden change will affect Wardak’s visa status. He’s heard from other attorneys representing Afghan refugees who’d been in a similar visa-limbo and are now unsure of where things stand. “Now that the embassy is gone and the Taliban have taken over,” Goldstein said, “it’s kind of murky as to how it’s even going to play out.”
But he also said he would think U.S. officials and agencies would “bend over backwards” to make Afghan refugees like Wardak’s life easier, rather than more difficult. “They’re the most vulnerable group of refugees and the U.S. has a moral obligation to try to help them out.”
The family member said Wardak’s wife, two children, and the rest of his family in California can only wait to hear from him soon and hope for the best.
“Our country is gone,” they said. “We don’t have a country anymore with the name of Afghanistan. So our only hope is the United States of America.”