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Hiding from the Taliban. Caught in the crossfire. Sacramento children are trapped in Afghanistan

Sacramento Bee logo Sacramento Bee 9/3/2021 Jason Pohl and Sawsan Morrar, The Sacramento Bee
a man taking a selfie in a room: Ethel I. Baker Elementary School Principal Nate McGill holds his cell phone on September 2, 2021, showing a picture sent to him by the family of three students stranded in Afghanistan, as he stands in one of their classrooms on the first day of school. © Renée C. Byer/TNS Ethel I. Baker Elementary School Principal Nate McGill holds his cell phone on September 2, 2021, showing a picture sent to him by the family of three students stranded in Afghanistan, as he stands in one of their classrooms on the first day of school.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Three students from the Sacramento City Unified School District went to Afghanistan to be with a family member who was having heart problems. The children — ages 6, 8 and 9 — and their mother flew there in February and attended school in distance learning through the spring. They spent seven days crammed outside an airport, trying to come home, before bombs ripped through a crowd last week.

a man holding a skateboard: Ethel I. Baker Elementary School Principal Nate McGill reads a text during recess at the school on the first day back on Sept. 2, 2021, while corresponding with the father of three students stranded in Afghanistan. The children and their mother spend days trying to get to the Kabul airport to escape the country and return to Sacramento, Calif., where they have lived... © Renée C. Byer/TNS Ethel I. Baker Elementary School Principal Nate McGill reads a text during recess at the school on the first day back on Sept. 2, 2021, while corresponding with the father of three students stranded in Afghanistan. The children and their mother spend days trying to get to the Kabul airport to escape the country and return to Sacramento, Calif., where they have lived...

Now they're hiding in Kabul.

Two San Juan Unified students, ages 9 and 15, traveled with their mother in July to Afghanistan. Their father was dying of cancer. They went there on summer break to spend their father's final days in his homeland. Their sister in Sacramento has been trying to get them home since.

As of Wednesday, the family was still in hiding.

Two Washington Unified students are believed to have caught a final flight from the Kabul airport. With the mad dash of planes that departed the now-infamous airport, scattering people around the world, officials with the West Sacramento district said they believe the students are traveling back to the U.S.

To understand how slapdash and uncertain the past two weeks have been, just look to any of the Sacramento-area school districts with students whose family members hail from Afghanistan. Unknown numbers of kids and loved ones traveled to the country to be with family during summer vacation — a routine trip for many.

Preliminary guesses from school district officials now suggest at least 24 Sacramento-area kids remain trapped in the middle of an international incident. Most of the students are from San Juan Unified.

In the three weeks since Taliban fighters entered Kabul, families and local officials in California have waited anxiously for any word of the Sacramento-area kids' whereabouts. Some have made it back to the state.

Dozens, it appears, have made no progress at all.

Meanwhile, school districts have emerged as the primary purveyor of information about the missing kids. The problem? They too are caught in a lurch, scrambling for piecemeal details — about family trees and travel itineraries and international diplomacy.

That scramble entered a new phase this week. With U.S. troops fully withdrawn from Afghanistan, elected officials and school district employees are coming to terms with the new reality on the ground in Kabul: that students and their families face an anything-but-clear path back to Sacramento.

Taliban control of the airport throws into disarray plans of catching a flight stateside. Distrust of the new regime — whose history of oppressing women and girls — has those who remain afraid to leave the house for a potential exodus to nearby Pakistan.

They're trapped in limbo.

The numbers of those known to be trapped are likely to grow, said David Miyashiro, the superintendent of Cajon Valley Union School District in San Diego County. He, along with a local congressman and a tactical team on the ground in Kabul, helped coordinate the extraction of nearly two-dozen students last month.

It was among the first high-profile cases of students stranded in Afghanistan.

"There are thousands of students and children there in the same predicament that will start to unfold, I think, in the coming days and weeks," Miyashiro told The Sacramento Bee in an interview Wednesday night. "Our story was first because we knew them. We knew they were there and raised attention to it.

"But now that there's no travel out of Afghanistan, I think that Afghanistan families will start to show up as missing in school districts in California, in Virginia ... and in other pockets across the southern United States where there are large Afghanistan families located."

Sacramento resident Huma, her husband, and her three Ethel I. Baker Elementary students are among those still in Kabul. Baker Elementary Principal Nate McGill connected The Sacramento Bee with the family this week. They went to the airport multiple times in hopes of getting on a flight home to Sacramento, where they have lived for four years, but to no avail.

Speaking to the Bee this week, Huma said shots were fired by both the Taliban and U.S. forces. Huma said she was shot at. She said families were tear gassed as the U.S. forces tried dispersing the crowds, as many people crouched over to cover their children.

"Can you imagine we spent seven days in this crowd area firing?" Huma wrote in text messages.

The Bee is not publishing the family's last name to protect their identities out of concern for their safety in Afghanistan.

Huma never made it into the airport. She said she no longer felt safe waiting for a flight, and left the airport on Aug. 30 — the same day the last U.S. troops left the country. Since then, the couple, along with their children — Faizan, 8, Pakiza, 9, and Raihan, 6 — have been hiding in a Kabul home.

"They are crying too much, they are scared too much," Huma said. "They are even asking many questions. 'Mom why can't we go to the U.S.? Mom, will the (Taliban) kill us?' I totally lost my mind when I see my kids were shouting and crying."

Some 120,000 people seeking exodus from the country were flown away in the days after hopeful evacuees flooded the tarmac and crammed into a military transport plane, officials said. Despite a bombing last week that killed 13 service members and scores of Afghans who'd waited outside the gate, the flights continued.

President Joe Biden has since stressed that anyone who has papers to come to the U.S. will be able to travel here. But experts and officials have questioned how that's possible, given the vast number of unknowns in the country now under Taliban control.

Practically speaking, it's uncertain what type of international travel will be possible or how the logistics and operations will work at the airport. "We are essentially giving the airport back to the Afghan people," said Ned Price, a U.S. State Department spokesman.

For Huma and the dozens of other Americans and U.S. legal residents stranded there, it's even less clear now than it was at the height of the chaos.

"I am very depressed," Huma said. "I got many panic attacks. I don't know when I will be normal."

In Sacramento, concerns and confusion have ratcheted up in recent days.

Sacramento County is home to one of the largest concentrations of Afghans in the country. One out of every nine Afghan natives living in the U.S. resides in the Sacramento region. About 9,700 Afghan people live in the county, more than any other county in the U.S., according to census data. Another 2,000 live in Yolo, Sutter, Placer or El Dorado counties.

School districts reported having about 1,500 students with direct connections to Afghanistan enrolled at the start of this year. While some of those relatives might be U.S. citizens, many are not. For years, students have traveled from Sacramento to Kabul to visit loved ones, including grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Now, they're scrambling to try to get them asylum applications and fearing for their lives.

Joshua Stinson, a Mira Loma High School English teacher, led a widely attended information session last month instructing San Juan Unified School District students how to fill out asylum applications on behalf of their relatives and send them to elected officials.

"I will mail the letters to them myself," Stinson said. "I do this all the time."

Districts across the region have stepped into the fray, clamoring to figure out how many of their students might be in Afghanistan or elsewhere trying to get home.

That hasn't been easy. Districts don't keep tabs on kids' summer plans anyway, even when they might involve going out of the country. Officials have been pulling attendance records and trying to determine who has missed classes, narrowing their search from there.

When Sacramento City Unified school officials reached out to families, such as Huma's, over the summer to confirm they planned to attend school the upcoming school year, Huma and her husband did not respond. School officials conducted a home visit, later learning the family flew to Afghanistan to visit Huma's ailing grandmother.

"There was no indication at that time that it was unsafe for them to come back," said McGill, the Baker Elementary principal.

Classes began Thursday for Sacramento City Unified schools, so it may take a while before officials learn just how many of their own students are stranded.

McGill and others have reached out to U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif. While he said officials have been hands-on and attempted to help bring the kids back, efforts have fallen short.

For their part, elected officials have tried to lean on the State Department, with mixed results, said a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif. More than 6,500 people have contacted the congressman.

"Our office has been in close contact with the San Juan Unified School District, and have urgently flagged the students' information with the State Department and Department of Defense," a spokesman said. "We have not received an update."

McGill said it's incumbent upon elected officials to make sure all of its constituents are safe.

"We are working to continue to push, and we are essentially reaching out to anyone with any influence or power in this situation," McGill said. "This needs to stay on the forefront of everyone's minds until everyone comes home."

While the the State Department has long discouraged travel to Afghanistan, it has also advised against flights to scores of other countries for reasons spanning violence to COVID-19. Tourists regularly flout the advisories, too. For families in the U.S. whose loved ones have stayed in Afghanistan, not traveling one more time to see them was simply not a viable option, many say.

"If you didn't have access to bring your parents to see their grandkids, would you take your grandkids to see your parents?" said Miyashiro, the superintendent in Southern California. "I mean, it's as simple as that."

On Aug. 16, district officials in San Diego's East County started getting word that some students would not be able to attend the first day of classes because of canceled flights. "We realized, as this unfolded in the media, that they were in danger, and that they might not make it back, period," Miyashiro said.

Officials worked phone lists, tapped community leaders and contacted local congressional offices — connections to the Afghan community that Miyashiro said had been built over years.

Soon, Miyashiro was in touch with "a tactical ground team of spec-ops."

Seven of the eight families were extracted in the next 72 hours, he said.

"Had we not done anything, then our headline would be the same as Sacramento's: 24 students in El Cajon stranded," he said. "Because they were not going to make it out, not without extraction."

They know where an eighth family is and are attempting to find a way to get them out.

He said he has been advising districts to help connect families to elected officials and the State Department. Getting families on that radar is the first step to getting them back to the U.S. "even if it doesn't look good right now."

"It's dire," Miyashiro said. "But as long as we keep the attention to it, we can get these people home."

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