The inside story of how a group of Israelis rescued Afghans fleeing from the Taliban
The Israeli rescuers were made up of former diplomats, Jewish philanthropists, an Israeli aid organization and a random set of individuals
There is no perfect science to rescuing desperate people fleeing a band of theocratic terrorists.
That is at least one of the lessons learned from an operation last month to extract 167 Afghan nationals from the Taliban takeover of their country.
Another is that trust can be built among strangers, even with people whose governments are sworn enemies and whose religious beliefs are supposedly at odds.
This is a story of an international consortium of diplomats, Jewish philanthropists, an Israeli aid organization and a random set of individual Israelis, who suddenly found themselves working feverishly together to help an eclectic mix of progressive, educated and once hope-filled Afghanis escape the clutches of a repressive and murderous regime.
To tell this dramatic tale, which spans dinner parties in Manhattan to safe houses in the Afghani province of Kunduz and features dispossessed ambassadors printing fake passports and former high school buddies-turned-gun-toting fanatics, as well as two special groups of young Muslim women refusing to give up on their dreams of freedom, I will begin on a private jet making its way from Tel Aviv to the Albanian capital, Tirana, last Thursday.
High in the sky, I met a cast of characters who until August did not know one another and certainly had no previous experience in large-scale rescue operations from within hostile territory. As they laid out for me a hodgepodge of details about their recent escapades, I realized, however, there was one obvious trait all shared: a simple and genuine desire to help total strangers in need. (Plus, all have connections in high places, which certainly helped.)
I was a guest of Israeli-Canadian businessman and philanthropist Sylvan Adams, the Self-Appointed Ambassador at Large for Israel (the title printed on his business card). Adams, who made aliyah in 2016, is known for bringing to Israel massive sporting events such as the Giro D’Italia bicycle race and superstars like Madonna and soccer player Lionel Messi. He is also an avid cycling enthusiast, owner of the Israeli national team Start-up Nation, and a strong believer in Jewish values, particularly tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
When, at the height of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, a sports journalist reached out to ask if he could pull a few strings to help extract a group of young women cyclists from the chaos, Adams, the son of Holocaust survivors, immediately agreed.
“I had no experience doing such a thing, but she gave me a job to do, and I said whatever the costs, I’ll get it done,” he told me. Soon he was calling contacts with business interests in various countries and asking them to call in favors with world leaders.
Roni Aboulafia, a documentary filmmaker from Tel Aviv, was drawn into the crisis in a similarly arbitrary way. When a journalist friend of hers, Danna Harman, asked in a WhatsApp group if anyone had the encrypted messaging app Signal and might be willing to help with a sensitive situation, Aboulafia replied. She too had no idea that soon she would be thrust into the midst of a high-stakes operation to rescue the acclaimed Afghan women’s robotics team and their families.
Harman, who lives between London and Tel Aviv, wrote about the team two years ago for The New York Times and had stayed in touch with them ever since. In August, as the Taliban rapidly took over the country, the girls asked Harman to help. Harman said she hesitated for a few seconds before agreeing. “I thought to myself, ‘How can I do this?’ Then I thought, ‘Well, why not? I need to at least give it a try,’” she told me. Turns out, she did much more than that.
The thread weaving these two scenarios together is Yotam Polizer, CEO of IsraAID. Known for helping communities in distress, Polizer’s aid organization has connections all over the world.
“It was the last days of August,” he recalled to me. “I was on vacation with my family in Japan when I got three phone calls.”
The first came from Aboulafia, asking if he could help with Harman’s robotics team. The second, from Adams, was about the cyclists. The third was from an activist in Lesbos, Greece, who said he knew a way to secure safe passage for people out of Afghanistan, if he needed.
“At first I said, ‘I don’t know,’” Polizer told me as we made our way to Tirana. IsraAID, he explained, is active in assisting refugees only after they have fled their countries of origin or being on the ground following natural disasters. Extracting people from political crises had never been within the 20-year-old organization’s scope.
“But then suddenly, it all came together,” he said.
Someone in the circumstantial group of rescuers heard about a German media outlet with a flight leaving from Kabul airport, and they tried to get the robotic and cycling girls onto that flight. But when a suicide bombing struck the airport on Aug. 26, killing dozens, Polizer realized they needed an alternative option.
Pulling on his connections in Greece, where IsraAID works with Syrian and Afghan refugees, Polizer managed to create what he hoped was a safe land route through Taliban checkpoints to the border. Utilizing Adams’s global contacts, the rag-tag group of Israelis were able to convince a neighboring country to allow the fleeing Afghans to transit through, but they still needed a third country for temporary refuge and a fourth one for permanent resettlement.
“Our plans changed so many times,” Polizer said, adding that each day new problems arose. Half of the individuals had no passports, prompting the group to enlist the help of a dispossessed Afghan diplomat who still had a machine to print Afghan passports. The initial group of 42 people eventually reached Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, on Sept. 6, but now word was out that Israelis were organizing rescue missions from Afghanistan.
“My phone was suddenly filled with messages from Afghanistan with people asking for help,” said Polizer, describing how within days he had a list of another 125 people desperate to leave, and pulled in Harman, Aboulafia, Adams and others to help again. “We thought we had it all figured out and put them on three buses following the same route, but when they arrived at the border this time, the Taliban refused to let them cross.”
The group — men, women and children — were directed to a safe house on the outskirts of Kundar, but within hours were surrounded by Taliban militants who ordered them to immediately leave the area. Suddenly, the group found itself alone, stuck at the border and fearful of what the Taliban might do. Their Israeli rescuers stood powerless on the other side — with another batch of passports.
“We did everything wrong,” confessed Harman, who the refugees now refer to as their “Israeli mother.” She said that it was the Afghans themselves who refused to give up and go home. A motley crew of female cyclists, relatives of the robotics team, employees of the previous government and contractors who had worked with the U.S. government — people who had never even met each other before their escape — are the real heroes of this story, said Harman, who also writes for Haaretz.
“Thirty years of life and we lost everything in one day.”
“We had no choice,” Mohammed Javed Khan, 27, who served as a parliamentary aid in Kabul, told me sadly on the chilly day I visited Albania. It was two weeks after the great escape, and he — and the 124 other members of this group — are staying in a dreary off-season holiday resort on the outskirts of Tirana. The swimming pool is empty and peeling, and the residents look fraught as they are forced to wait for other countries to let them in.
There is something very humbling about meeting refugees, people who have been forced to flee their homes, due to circumstances beyond their control. Most often, they must make the decision to leave at a moment’s notice, because staying could mean the difference between freedom and imprisonment — or even life and death. Without a thought, those fleeing their homes up and leave behind them the fullness of a life built and invested in over many years.
“Moving to another country is hard, it is not home,” said Khan. “If I was single, I would have let the Taliban kill me, but I have a daughter and I didn’t want her to grow up without a father, so we left.”
“Thirty years of life and we lost everything in one day,” he sighed. “We had to leave everything behind.” He pulls at his sweatshirt, “This, this is a donation, I have nothing.”
Khan tells his story modestly, but it is really thanks to his bravery that the second group was eventually able to leave Afghanistan. The Israelis’ plan B was to charter a flight for the fleeing refugees from an airport eight hours away in Mazar Sharif, but they still needed passports. Harman said they decided to send the documents across the border in a taxi and pray they would somehow reach the refugees still waiting in Kundar, but when the taxi driver was arrested and the passports confiscated, Khan was enlisted to get them back.
“I knew a guy from school [now with the Taliban] working at the border,” he said. “It was dangerous but without the passports we would not be able to travel. My wife was crying, my daughter was crying, I knew it was risky, but I had no choice.”
Khan admitted that he was scared to confront the Taliban. “They accused me of human trafficking, but I convinced them it was my passport and that I needed to take the others too,” he said, adding that he could not describe his relief when the gun-toting militant eventually handed them over.
For Khan, his wife and daughter, the horrors of the journey are now over but the worry continues, as relatives left behind now face harassment from the country’s new rulers, particularly because of rumors that their escape was facilitated by Israelis.
“Israelis and Jews have a bad name in our country,” Khan admitted. “But I don’t care about their nationality, these are the people that helped us, and we thank god that we are here.”
For the refugees, their abrupt departure, harrowing journey and uncertain future weigh heavily on their minds as they told me about the life and loved ones they have left behind.
My heart broke for one man, whose face showed pure pain as he described leaving behind his wife and 10-day-old baby. “There was no way I could stay in Afghanistan,” he said. “The Taliban were looking for me, so I thought it would be better for me to leave my family for a short time than be killed and leave them forever.”
I also felt sorrow for Fatima Sarohat, one of the cyclists from Herat. At only 19, she left behind her parents and siblings. “I’ve just finished high school and I really want to be a professional cyclist and an astronaut,” the young woman smiled. “But who knows what will happen next?”
Romaisa Khatibi, 23, who was studying medicine in Herat, is also unsure of her future. Her sister was on the robotics team and is currently in the United Arab Emirates. Khatibi is here, in Tirana, with her mother and two brothers. “I am so tired of everything after this long journey,” she lamented. “I’ve missed so much of medical school; I really don’t know what I want to do now.”
For now, the refugees remain in the Albanian resort, waiting for the world to decide their fate. Some would like to resettle in Europe, others have their sights set on Canada. One group of young men told me gleefully that their dream is to play for Canada’s national cricket team.
“I think they could be with us for many years,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who met with Adams during our whirlwind visit to the country.
The Albanian leader was also drawn into this unlikely rescue mission by chance and circumstance. Visiting New York three weeks ago for the United Nations General Assembly, Rama attended a dinner party in Manhattan. Among the guests were representatives of a Jewish family foundation with connections to IsraAID. Asked if he would allow this group of refugees’ temporary entry into his country, he immediately agreed.
“I don’t think we have done anything tremendous,” Rama, who is fiercely proud of Albania’s Jewish history, told Adams during the meeting in his office.
“I know there aren’t too many countries in the world that have been willing to take in these people, but I think it should be the most natural thing in the world, especially for the countries who worked in Afghanistan. This is about human morality,” he said.
As the sun set over Tirana and just before flying back to Israel, the rescuers sat together in a circle with the new refugees. The meeting was both moving and surprising. The Afghanis spoke about their brief time under Taliban rule and shared more details of their dramatic escape. They also asked what they could do to repay the kindness of these strangers who stepped in to help them. Adams, who earlier in the day joined the young female cyclists on a short biking trip in the area, responded to the question posed by one of the refugees: “The best way for you to repay us, is to always help other people in need.”