On the morning of Aug. 16, N. Hadi and his family headed toward Kabul’s airport but soon became trapped in the crush of people trying to flee Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In the chaos, he and his 2-year-old son, Hanzala, got separated from the rest of the family. His wife and their 1-year-old son eventually managed to reach the gate, and Marines let them into the airport.
But when Hadi and his son tried to gain entry, they were turned away, he said. After hours in the heat with no water left, he struggled to hold his son and protect him as Afghans shoved their way to the front and Taliban fighters beat people back.
Worried for the boy’s safety, he pulled back and called one of his brothers for help. He asked his brother to take Hanzala, give him water and keep him safe until they could be reunited inside the airport, he said.
“I was just trying to save Hanzala’s life,” said Hadi, who worked with a private security company that helped train Afghan national police.
Four months later, he, his wife and their youngest son are in Philadelphia. But Hanzala remains stranded in Afghanistan.
After handing over the little boy, Hadi made it inside the airport and found his wife and youngest son. His brother tried to bring Hanzala to the entrance several times, he said, but the Marines said the gate was now closed. Hadi’s family reluctantly flew out of the country four days later.
They have been fighting to reunite with their 2-year-old son ever since.
Hadi said State Department officials initially gave them reason to be hopeful but they now face a new hurdle: Qatar, which oversees all U.S.-bound flights for Afghan refugees, is requiring that every Afghan have a valid passport, according to U.S. officials and refugee groups.
But acquiring a passport has become extremely difficult and even dangerous since the Taliban returned to power in August. Afghans who worked for the U.S. military or with other Western-backed organizations face the risk of being detained, beaten or even killed if they visit passport offices, according to refugee and human rights groups.
The passport office in Kabul had been closed for several weeks without explanation but reopened last week, refugee advocates said.
“It almost feels like bureaucracy is more of an enemy than the Taliban is,” said Zac Lois of Pineapple Express, a charity set up by former U.S. special forces troops to help Afghan refugees resettle in the United States. “I can’t believe that this is what’s holding us up, that paperwork is holding us up more than the Taliban is.”
Lois, a former Green Beret who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is trying to help Hadi get his son to the U.S. “I can’t imagine, from father to father, what he is feeling and I feel helpless trying to help him,” he said.
On that chaotic day in August, Hadi made it inside the airport hours after he handed over Hanzala to his brother. His wife doesn’t speak English and she didn’t have a passport, so he feared their family would have no hope of leaving the country if he didn’t join them inside the airport.
But once he tracked down his wife, she became hysterical when she realized he was alone.
“My wife started screaming, she thought maybe I lost him,” said Hadi.
For four days, he tried to arrange for his brother to bring Hanzala to the gate and have the Marines let him in.
“I wrote my son’s name more than 10 times on a piece of paper,” and handed it to the Marines, he said.
Two State Department officials worked at length to try to help him, appealing to the Marines to open the gate for the child, he said. But all their efforts failed. The troops said they had orders to keep the gate closed. Hadi recognized that if his family left the airport, there would be no way to get back in.
Hadi has a U.S. special immigrant visa due to his work with the Afghan national police. His immediate family members automatically qualified for U.S. visas. He said State Department officials told them they could be reunited with their son if he and his family left on one of the evacuation flights.
They opted to board a flight to Qatar — seeing it as their only chance to leave the country — and later flew to Fort Pickett, a U.S. military base in Virginia. His wife was allowed to fly even though she didn’t have a passport.
Refugee organizations took up Hadi’s case. He wrote letters asking for help and authorizing his brother to escort Hanzala on a flight to Qatar.
Senior officials at the State Department promised to work on the case, according to emails seen by NBC News. U.S. officials asked for a birth certificate and proof of vaccinations. But about a month ago, the officials said there was a new requirement: Hanzala needed a passport to leave the country.
The passport requirement is “a huge problem,” said Kim Staffieri, co-founder of the Association of Wartime Allies, which helps Afghans who worked for the U.S. government obtain visas. “They are putting people in a situation where they have to stay there or leave their kid behind.”
Some refugee advocates said the Biden administration has accepted Qatar’s requirement without raising major objections.
“If the U.S. really wanted to solve this problem, it could,” said one refugee advocate who asked to speak on condition of anonymity. “It’s convenient to blame it on the Qataris.”
The Qatari Embassy and the State Department declined to comment.
The Biden administration has come under criticism over its handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and refugee groups and lawmakers have urged the White House to do more to help Afghans with U.S. ties trying to flee Taliban rule.
But with the U.S. Embassy closed, the Taliban in control on the ground and the Kabul airport in rudimentary operation, Washington had a limited ability to influence evacuation efforts, said a State Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Qatar has played an instrumental role in enabling the evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans to the U.S. and the U.S. government has asked help from Qatar for certain individual cases, the official said. But the Taliban run the airport and foreign governments face a challenge working out arrangements with the regime, the official said.
Washington has had to rely on chartered flights for Afghan refugees operated by Qatar Airways, the only carrier that the Taliban have allowed to fly regularly out of Kabul. Since the Taliban came to power, the number of Afghans flying out has slowed to a trickle, with one or two chartered flights a week on average heading to Qatar, refugee groups and U.S. officials said.
Hadi said he is focused on mobilizing help to get his son out, but there are constant reminders that his boy is absent and time is passing. In video calls with his parents, Hanzala cries when he speaks to his mother and father, as he now understands his parents are somewhere else, he said.
“Mentally it hurts me when I think about this,” Hadi said. “I don’t like telling this story.”