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His Family Fled Afghanistan 30 Years Ago. Now He's Watching It Happen Again

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In a matter of weeks, the United States airlifted over 120,000 people out of Afghanistan. For many of them, it is just the first step in a journey to rebuild their upended lives. Haris Tarin knows this firsthand. His own family fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 30 years ago when he was a small child. Today, he's co-founder of the Afghan-American Foundation and working to help the current wave of refugees. Our co-host Leila Fadel caught him yesterday.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Let's start with why your family fled Afghanistan 30 years ago and what it's like to watch it happening now to a different generation of Afghans.

HARIS TARIN: Well, Leila, my family fled when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and over a million people were killed, and over 6 million people were displaced. Many Afghans fled, and we were one of those families. And we escaped through the mountains and by night on camelback and the backs of donkeys and made our way to Pakistan and eventually settled in the United States. And seeing the images and the personal experiences that I'm now having with refugees over the past two weeks has really triggered some of those same feelings of a traumatic experience, again, that I'm reliving and so many Afghans are reliving.

FADEL: Now, you're working with refugees right now. When you talk about watching their experience and reliving your experience, what are some of the people you've met, and what's happening to them?

TARIN: Well, there is an immense amount of anxiety and fear. Most people left overnight with maybe a cloth sack or a small suitcase as the Taliban were chasing them or the Taliban were trying to prevent them from going to the airport. People have lost everything overnight. One of the gentlemen that I spoke to said that they tried to put pictures and some memorabilia in a cloth sack and run towards the airport because they didn't know if they'd ever be able to make it back.

FADEL: Yeah. You know, I think a lot of the stories we hear are about getting to safety and very few about what it's actually like to leave your entire life and your homeland behind. Can you talk about the resettlement experience?

TARIN: The resettlement experience is difficult. I remember it as a child. And I remember the pain of my father when he found out just a couple of years after he settled in the United States that his mother died, and then his sister died and his brother died. And there was this constant feeling of guilt, of survivor's guilt, that we made it through, but our families didn't, and they continue to suffer. And having to relive that again twice in one lifetime is extremely painful and traumatic for so many people.

And I know I was just talking to my mom recently, Leila, and she just said it's happening all over again. What happened? Why did this happen? And the children that I have seen - I can see it in their eyes. I can see it in the eyes of the mothers who are crying and the fathers who don't know what type of life they'll be able to provide for their children. And so mothers and fathers constantly are asking, will my children be OK?

FADEL: What do you tell them when they ask that?

TARIN: All I can do is provide my personal experience. I can't make any promises to them, but I can say I've gone through it. I know how it feels. I can hold them, and I can tell them that I ended up being OK, and my family ended up being OK even though we struggled. And so will you.

FADEL: Yeah. Is there any story that sticks with you of the refugees that you've spoken to over the past few weeks as you've helped people through?

TARIN: There's a couple of stories. One of the refugees that I met actually gave me a piece of gum, and it was his last piece of gum that he had purchased from Kabul, Afghanistan. And he said, I want you to keep this. I want you to keep this with you to remember that, you know, you helped out. This was our land, and we're not leaving it by choice. And he took the wrapper, and he gave me the actual piece of gum. And he said, this is something that will bind us through this process.

FADEL: That's Haris Tarin, the co-founder of the Afghan-American Foundation. Thank you for speaking with us.

TARIN: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETIT BISCUIT'S "SUNSET LOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.