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An Afghan Family's Journey to Freedom, Aided by Memphis-Area Veterans

Courtesy of Scott Brady
When Nadir Shahab (right) and his family landed in Houston at the end of February, veteran Scott Brady met him in person for the first time after months of helping him coordinate a route out of Afghanistan.

By the time the last American troops departed Kabul’s international airport on August 30, 2021, more than 123,000 people had already been evacuated from Afghanistan as part of a chaotic airlift.

Despite the massive operation, the former head of Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, acknowledged to reporters that day, that the military “did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.”

“Look, there’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” Gen. McKenzie said.  

In Memphis, Kevin Rardin felt that heartbreak personally.

“I realized that Nadir and his family weren’t getting out at that time,” says Rardin, now a juvenile public defender. “It was one of the darkest days of my life. You know, I felt he had been betrayed.”

Betrayed because Nadir Shahab, an Afghan father of eight, had spent 15 years working as an interpreter for American troops. The job placed him and his family in danger from the Taliban. But his service also qualified him to move to the U.S. under what’s known as a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV).

Courtesy of Nadir Shahab
Nadir Shahab and Kevin Rardin (right) formed a bond in 2007 during Rardin's 12-month assignment in Afghanistan. They've kept in touch for more than a decade.

Rardin formed a fast and enduring friendship with Shahab in 2007 during Rardin’s 12-month deployment to Afghanistan as a member of the Army’s legal branch. WKNO first introduced the pair in September as Rardin and a group of fellow veterans organized efforts to help Shahab and his family escape.

Their continued story in the months that followed reflects the tireless behind-the-scenes wrangling and advocacy that service members and veterans across the country have sustained to ensure their Afghan counterparts are not forgotten or left behind—even as global attention has shifted to other crises like Ukraine.

“There were times we came so close to getting him out,” Rardin says. “Then at the last moment, something would happen, there would be a hitch.”

After the troop withdrawal and the handover of Kabul’s airport to the Taliban, Shahab and his family relocated to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Some private groups were having luck chartering planes out of this area.

Veteran Scott Brady, a business owner who lives in Collierville, had never met Shahab, but joined his cause through a church connection to Rardin. A graduate of West Point, Brady tapped into other networks of former service members, looking for connections to get Shahab’s name on a flight manifest.

“We’re just going to run down every option, I said, because we only need one to work,” he says. “That’s all we need so…whether you think it’s a long shot or he should be on that flight, just submit the documents, follow up, try to get in touch with people.”

Courtesy Nadir Shahab
Nadir Shahab worked as interpreter for U.S. forces for 15 years.

But the demand for coveted spots on the unpredictable flights was staggering.

You’re talking like there’s hundreds of seats and there are literally like thousands—if not tens of thousands of people—that need to get out,” Brady says.

All the while, Shahab, his wife and eight children⁠—aged six to 20—lived in fear and uncertainty. They fled Kabul with little more than clothing and piled into a dingy hotel in Mazar-i-Sharif.

“We were locked in one room, small room,” Shahab says. “There were no beds or no pillows, just blankets. Five or six blankets.”

They were prisoners of sorts. With the Taliban patrolling the streets, the family was unable to venture outside unless necessary.

“We were in huge danger there, in huge risk,” Shahab says. “Every moment, I feel that, you know, one day I will be captured by the Taliban.” 

Several close encounters with the Islamist group rattled the family, prompting them to move locations.

The veterans sent money to pay for housing and food and contacted Shahab everyday.

“I didn’t want him to think that we’d forgotten about him,” Rardin says. “We wanted to just try to keep his spirits up to know we’re doing all we could on our end, and we knew he was doing all he could on his end.”

By December, a connection secured the family a spot in a safe house back in Kabul. The move positioned them for seats on a State Department chartered flight operated by Qatar. But hope was short-lived.

“Right when Nadir got into there…it just dried up,” Brady says. “You’ve got to get the Department of State to agree with Qatar to agree with the Taliban, and it’s obviously very challenging.”

The group tried not to despair.

Courtesy of Kevin Rardin
Nadir Shahab (far right), his wife, Hamidah, (center holding flowers) and eight children at the airport in Houston. Col. David Green (second from right) is another veteran who helped the family escape from Afghanistan.

“I never wanted to think that there would be a point in which we would just say, ‘okay we’ve exhausted all options,'” Brady says.

Finally in January came a breakthrough—an anonymous service member was able to get the family’s visas transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan and paid for their flights, housing and visas in Islamabad at a cost of more than $10,000. From there, it was just a matter of time.

When Shahab received word that they would soon be bound for the U.S., he took the children to buy new clothes, fulfilling a promise he had made to them.

“We came to the place that we wanted, the place that we had struggled for for six months,” he says.

After so many setbacks, Brady was nervous until the very end.

“When we had the flight information, and I could look at the little flight tracker, and I could be like he’s on a plane and over the ocean…he’s now safe,” he says.

The family touched down at a Houston airport at the end of February. Brady was part of the welcoming committee.

“I look like I’m at Disney World for the first time,” he says. “[In] every picture, I’m like ‘yeah,’ jumping up and down.”

Shahab is now building a new life in Texas with some financial assistance from the veterans, who are also helping him look for jobs.

“I don’t have the words to explain how to appreciate these people,” Shahab says.

His children, whom he enjoys driving to school in a minivan, are learning English. Asked what he’s found most surprising about the U.S., he’s quick with an answer—the freedom.

“They’ll be great Americans,” says Rardin, who intends to visit Shahab this month, seeing him for the first time in more than a decade. “I look forward to the day they’re sworn in as citizens.”

While Rardin celebrates what his group has accomplished, he thinks constantly about the estimated thousands still left behind. He’s critical of what he sees as the Biden administration’s lack of commitment to ongoing evacuations.

“Many of these private groups are just about out of money,” he says.

With all eyes on Ukraine, he worries the window for rescuing more Afghan allies is closing.

“It’s a tragedy," he says. "In my mind, if we’re going to claim to be an exceptional nation and some people still claim that we are, then we have a moral obligation to these people."

For one family, at least, that obligation is finally fulfilled.

“Nadir is the hero of this story,” he says. “But he needed help in getting out.”

Katie is a freelance contributor to WKNO. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org