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After Taliban takeover, an ex-Afghan Air Force pilot recounts journey from Kabul to Jacksonville

Close-up of a pilot with a mask on inside an airplane
Catholic Charities
/
Courtesy
Hakimullah Hamim joined the Afghan Air Force in 2015 before the government collapsed to the Taliban.

Hakimullah Hamim is adjusting to his new life as a married, 30-year-old data analyst for an insurance firm.

It has been a year since Hakimullah Hamim, an Afghan refugee, arrived in Jacksonville.

Adjusting to a new home and a new job as a data analyst for Stillwater Insurance Group, the 30-year-old has found a new life with his wife in North Florida. But he remembers the tough journey it took to get there.

In 2021, President Joe Biden pulled U.S. Troops from Afghanistan, ending nearly 20 years of occupation in the Middle Eastern country. As Americans left, the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist militant group, rose to power. The Taliban forcefully took over cities, towns and government buildings in various Afghan provinces. Hundreds of people flooded the Kabul International Airport apron in August of 2021, hoping to escape the country in response to the takeover.

But some Afghans like Hamim fought back.

He was a pilot for the Afghan Airforce. He joined the armed forces in 2015 to fight the Taliban.

But one day changed everything for Hamim and his squadron: On Aug. 12, 2021, the Taliban invaded Kandahar and seized its government buildings and offices, according to the Associated Press. The conquering left Hamim and his team without direction.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Hamim said. “That day we didn’t do anything.”

He returned to his home in Kabul. The next day, he found banks shut down, roads closed across the city and military bases empty. The Taliban would soon invade the capital.

“So, I had to call my squadron,” Hamim said. “’What’s the plan?’ They told me they don’t have any plan yet.”

Side by side of a pilot with a mask on, and man seated at a desk
Catholic Charities
/
Courtesy
Hakimullah Hamim is now an analyst for Stillwater Insurance Group in Jacksonville, Florida. He said the transition to the office job after being a pilot for six years was difficult.

After that, Hamim said the government collapsed and there wasn’t anyone in command to lead the Afghan Airforce. President Ashraf Ghani had left the country on Aug. 15, 2021.

Some pilots took their air crafts and flew to Uzbekistan. but Hamim stayed behind. He was given an opportunity to escape by American allies who helped instruct Afghan Air Force pilots in the past. They told him to apply for visas and get to the Kabul International Airport, he said.

There was a catch, though. He could not bring everyone. He and his wife left without his mom and his brothers.

“It was hard to leave them alone,” Hamim said.

It was a challenging trip. Even though the airport was just a mile from his home, Taliban forces had already entered the city and surrounded the airport. It was chaos: people crying and shouting.

Taliban forces let Hamim and others through on a bus. He said they didn’t check his ID, so they didn’t know he was a yearslong enemy of the Taliban.

He was able to board a flight — not as a pilot, but as a passenger.

Landing in the United Arab Emirates, he waited more than two months for an approved flight to the U.S.

After getting one, he found refuge in Fort Pickett, a military base in Virginia, where other refugees were housed. He was there for two and a half months.

At Fort Pickett, he worked on multiple applications for rehoming in the U.S. Once those applications were completed and processed, he and his wife left the camp for Jacksonville and arrived on Jan. 14, 2022 at midnight. They stayed at an Airbnb two weeks before adjusting to a new home and occupation.

Hellai Nozai, a program manager at Catholic Charities, helped Hamim settle into Jacksonville.

“I’ve been in their shoes, and I know what they’re going through,” Nozai said. “I had to start from zero.”

Nozai also came to the U.S. from Afghanistan in 2015. At the nonprofit group she works for, she wants to make sure people like Hamim have opportunities to adjust.

“It was difficult, but now we’re good,” Hamim said.

Hamim still communicates with his family in Afghanistan every day. He said they are safe, but he has hope to see them again.

“I will try to bring them here.”

He hopes to return to the skies as a pilot once more.