Four Afghan Children Arrive in Albany After Harrowing Rescue

NEW YORK -
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Rabbi Moshe Margaretten (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia/File)

Four Afghan children arrived safely in Albany, N.Y., on Monday following the intervention of Americans, including several Orthodox Jews, who have been working feverishly to rescue Afghans as the evacuation window closes and beyond.

Rabbi Moshe Margaretten of Tzedek Association, a New York-based prison-reform advocate who has recently expanded his activism to other areas, tells Hamodia that he decided to get involved in helping these children early last week, when a friend sent him an article from CNN.com detailing the plight of a woman named Suneeta, an Afghan who now has permanent residency in the U.S and lives in Albany. (Suneeta declined to give CNN her last name, or her children’s names, out of fear for their safety.)

Suneeta’s husband had worked with U.S. troops until he went missing eight years ago, and is presumed to have been killed by the Taliban. Suneeta took her four children to Pakistan around five years ago to file for asylum — but her husband’s brother took custody of the kids against her will, per cultural rules that the father’s family has custody, and brought them back to Afghanistan. He treated the children poorly, and Suneeta’s brother managed to get the kids away from him and bring them to Pakistan. But Suneeta’s brother himself abandoned the kids in January 2020. The children, currently between the ages of 7 and 17, eventually made their way back to Afghanistan, where they have been on their own.

Suneeta had moved to Albany in 2018, with the assistance of Sara Lowry, an attorney for the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Lowry began advocating for the children to be allowed into the U.S. as refugees, eventually receiving approval – but they could never actually get visas from the embassy, ostensibly due to COVID.

Aside from a single visit to Afghanistan last spring, Suneeta had not seen her children in five years.

Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the children were at risk, alone in a country ruled by the people whose enemies their father had worked for.

“This is like a nightmare,” Suneeta told CNN, in the article Moshe read. “I’m very scared.”

“We’re just terrified that we’re not going to be able to get these children out,” Lowry told CNN. “If there are other countries that are willing to go get them, if there are journalists still in the city that are willing to be an escort for them, we are appealing … to everyone, everywhere, please help us.”

Margaretten had already used his connections in governments and elsewhere to help evacuate people from Afghanistan, though he says he cannot yet detail all the people and connections and methods for fear of jeopardizing ongoing rescue operations.

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Alex Plitsas

Margaretten made several attempts to reach Lowry, but was initially unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Alex Plitsas, a former Defense civilian intelligence officer in Afghanistan now based in Connecticut, who has been active on Twitter and announced his willingness to help rescue Americans and Afghans in danger, was contacted by CNN reporter Jake Tapper, who told Alex about the plight of the children as well as four other Afghan families in need of assistance.

“Our team established contact with the families and found out where they were located,” Plitsas tells Hamodia. “Most had papers. But these four kids were the most difficult case. They had no American papers.”

Plitsas’ team includes three other national security professionals, based in Washington, whom he can name only as Joy, Brennan, and Scott; as well as people in Afghanistan and elsewhere whom he can not identify.

Plitsas is a U.S. Army combat veteran of the Iraq War in 2008, who also was a civilian contractor in 2010 in the Special Programs Office at U.S. headquarters in Baghdad, and a Defense civilian intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2012. He left government six years ago, his final position being chief of sensitive activities in the Defense Department for special operations in counterterrorism. He currently runs the aerospace and defense practice for a management and IT consulting firm.

Plitsas’ team arranged with an Afghan family named Afzali to look after the children, after obtaining Suneeta’s consent that the Afzalis take charge of them. “Mr. Afzali fed the children and protected them as if they were his own,” Plitsas says. “We effectively made him the group leader.” And Plitsas decided to try to get the Afzalis out to America as well.

In one scene from this real-life thriller, Plitsas’ team in Afghanistan arranged “clandestine transportation to pick up the Afzalis and the children at 4 a.m. and take them to a safe location, until we were able to get ground transport to the airport for them and the other families we were rescuing.”

The road to the airport was perilous, with the Taliban policing the area jammed with people frantic to get on one of the last lifesaving planes airlifting people out of the country before the U.S. military left the country.

While details of the rescue operations cannot yet be revealed, Plitsas says he and his team “worked with sensitive U.S. intelligence professionals through direct contacts to get the children manifested onto a flight, get them to the gate and facilitate access to the airfield.”

But as they got closer to the airport, it appeared all their efforts might be for naught, as the group was unable to navigate the mass of humanity and the mess of bureaucracy to get on a flight. At one point, the group was stuck outside the airport for 30 hours, trying to gain access to no avail.

As the children waited near the airport Thursday among a huge crowd of frantic people, a suicide bomber detonated himself, killing nearly 200.

At that point, Margaretten says, “I figured those kids were probably near the airport and in danger, and I decided I absolutely had to reach the lawyer.”

Margaretten’s friend Lipa Boyarski, who works in a pidyon shvuyim (freeing captives) organization under auspices of the Aleph Institute (where Lipa’s more famous brother Zvi serves as Director of Constitutional Advocacy), was finally able to get ahold of Lowry.

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Alex Plitsas with intelligence officials in Afghanistan in 2012.

“I asked if she has any contact with the kids,” Margaretten says. “She located the kids, and our people on the ground made a connection with them.”

Margaretten’s “people on the ground” are a group of former U.S. Delta Force officers and allied Afghans, who navigate the chaotic world that is human transport in Kabul in these desperate times. To put together this group, Margaretten hired Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman who lives on a farm in New Jersey and has connections in the Middle East. During the Syrian Civil War, Kahana has worked to get injured Syrians to hospitals in Israel, and also to get the last remaining Jews out of Syria.

Margaretten appealed to the office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as well as the National Security Council, and within hours, paperwork was arranged for the children to get onto a flight. Margaretten’s team navigated the Taliban checkpoints to get the children into the airport.

Margaretten also reached out to his network of Orthodox Jewish donors, who within 24 hours pledged $80,000 for these rescue operations to save the lives of Afghans.

By Thursday night Eastern Time, through the combined efforts of many Americans who had never met them, the children were on a government rescue flight, first to Qatar, with an eventual connection to the U.S.

The frantic, lifesaving efforts were ongoing through multiple fronts; during all this time, Plitsas and Margaretten had no contact with each other. Both were dealing with Lowry, who was coordinating efforts from Albany.

Recalling the ordeal afterward in an interview with Hamodia on Tuesday, Lowry says, “We knew that we were out of time. This was our last-ditch effort, going to the media and making this so public. We had to do everything that we could, and apparently it worked.”

Plitsas’ team also managed to get out the four other families that Tapper had notified him of, as well as the Afzalis and two other families, totaling around 40 people.

Margaretten and Kahana had previously succeeded in helping to evacuate the Afghan women’s soccer team, among others. And they would subsequently help dozens more, totaling approximately 100 people by Tuesday.

“So many people have been desperately calling us, crying for help to get people out of Afghanistan,” Margaretten had told Hamodia on Friday. “We want to help everyone we can, but we are doing it order of the highest risk and most vulnerable, which these young kids certainly were.”

On Monday, the children arrived in Albany Airport, reunited with their mother at last. Lowry, Margaretten and Plitsas were at the airport as well. For Margaretten and Plitsas, it was the first time they had ever spoken to or even heard of each other.

And how does it feel to meet the people whose lives you have just saved?

“It was probably the most remarkable experience of my entire life,” Plitsas says. “I didn’t realize how emotional it was going to be. The mother started crying, and I just lost it at that point. I am a father myself, of 7-year-old, identical-twin girls.”

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A U.S military aircraft taking off from Kabul, Airport. (AP Photo/Wali Sabawoon)

“Suneeta was very emotional,” Margaretten says. “She told me that the kindness we displayed is the very reason she and her late husband chose to help the U.S. It was a great feeling to see those kids. And it was emotional for all of us. If we hadn’t gotten involved, who knows how much longer those kids could have survived. And I gave a little speech. I said to Sara, ‘You did not represent these children as an immigration attorney. You represented them as a mother, with all your heart and soul.’”

“There are no words,” Lowry says. “It was indescribable. The kids and mom came around and enclosed me in a group hug. We all just cried. I had FaceTimed with the kids before, and they had kept asking, ‘When are we coming, when is it going to happen?’ I was finally able to make good on that promise, and it meant the world.”

“Thank you to everyone who worked on this. It was certainly a team effort, and thank you to the media for helping to push this out,” Lowry says. “But our work is not done. We still have at least 20 clients in Afghanistan. So we are celebrating and grieving. And working.”

“In the U.S. Army,” Plitsas says, “we have our warrior ethos: ‘I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.’ We don’t leave people behind. There are tens of thousand of Afghans who worked with U.S. forces, and hundreds of U.S. citizens who remain in Afghanistan, and we need to get them out.”

The rescuers say their impetus to get involved in this difficult, tiring and at-times highly frustrating and sad work, comes from their senses of responsibility impressed upon them by family.

“I’m a Catholic adopted by Jews,” Plitsas says. “My step-grandfather Heinz Hesdorffer survived Auschwitz, where his mother and brother were gassed. My step-grandmother was hidden in an attic in Holland by a Catholic family who protected them throughout the war. Before she died she imparted that lesson to me: when there is an opportunity for civilians to help in wartime to save people’s lives, you do that. I looked at this as an opportunity to pay forward the people who had saved her life during the Holocaust.”

“I feel this is my duty, especially as a Jew,” Margaretten says. “Our ancestors went through similar situations so many times, having to flee persecution. Our sages say that if one saves a life, it is as if he has saved the entire world. We are using all our energy, resources and connections to save as many lives as possible.”

Suneeta plans to raise her children in Albany. And their rescuers believe the new immigrants will adapt and live happy lives in this new land, as so many others have.

“An Orthodox rabbi, a Catholic veteran and a Protestant lawyer work to help a Muslim family,” says Plitsas. “This story is as American as apple pie.”

rborchardt@hamodia.com

 

Above is a tweet by Kahana, as well as a text exchange between Lowry (in gray) and Margaretten (in blue), regarding the safe evacuation of the four Afghan Children.

Below is a tweet by Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghan women’s soccer team, thanking Margaretten for his efforts in getting the current soccer team out of the country.

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Updated Tuesday, August 31, 2021 at 5:59 pm .