DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (AFNS) —
Everything was normal at home, until the Taliban came. Then the university closed, and people were crying in the streets. The news said airplanes were coming to pick up those that worked with the U.S., who were in danger. Everyone was running to the airport because they wanted to get out of Afghanistan. The airport was full of people, close to 15,000, and many were women and children. Some people stayed there for five to six days, with no food or water. The military arrived and my supervisor told us that because we were helping a television station, they wanted to take us with them to America. We went to the airport but split up when the Taliban began shooting in the air to scare us. I did not run away because I was not afraid. Thirty minutes later, a giant aircraft landed on the runway. More than 500 of us waited in line to step onto the plane with an eagle head on its tail, which read, ‘Dover, 10186.’
This was the scene Zarafshan “Zaro” Mirzaie witnessed during her final day in her home country of Afghanistan during Operation Allies Refuge.
To date, OAR is the largest non-combatant evacuation operation in U.S. history, involving close to 800 civilian and military aircraft from over 30 nations aiding the evacuation of more than 124,000 people from Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 14-30, 2021.
OAR and Operation Allies Welcome united a diverse group of military members, civilians and Afghan evacuees with the purpose of locating and creating a temporary safe haven that offered shelter, support and vital resources. But for Tech. Sgt. Ashley Majewski, 436th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron dental facility manager and logistics noncommissioned officer in charge, and Zaro, the 2,311th Afghan evacuee to arrive in the U.S., OAR and OAW provided them with something far more unexpected: Family.
Now, one year later, they reflect back on the events that brought them together.
“Everyone was sitting on the floor of the plane, holding on tight to the [tie-down rings] that were near us,” Zaro said. “It was very hot and hard to breathe. We traveled to Qatar … then Germany … and then we flew to Washington, D.C.”
Zaro recalled her first moments in the U.S.
“When we arrived, we were separated and traveled to different safe havens,” she said. “My group was sent to New Jersey. Some families became separated, while a few people were screened for ties to the Taliban. There were many pregnant women, some even gave birth as we traveled. There were also many unaccompanied children. The military gave each of us a badge number, making it easier to identify us and provide medical care. They moved us into old buildings and built villages for us to feel more at home.”
Around the same time Zaro arrived, Majewski deployed to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, as part of Task Force Liberty in support of OAW. She worked as the protection cell noncommissioned officer in charge, dealing with situations such as sexual assault, child abuse, underage brides and domestic violence cases.
“It was the best and hardest experience I have ever had in my entire life,” Majewski said. “I was really integrated and spent all day, every day with the women: getting to know them, helping them learn English and preparing them for when they would resettle in the U.S.”
Majewski described the early days of OAW as organized chaos, as three villages were created to help the Afghans acclimate. One village had 30 tents, housing around 700 Afghans each.
“There were so many people, it was difficult to find who I was looking for at times,” she said. “Many were afraid to talk to me, in fear of being sent back to Afghanistan, or losing their current accommodations. Women specifically were nervous to trust us and speak up, even to female service members. My job afforded me the opportunity to integrate more and become a confidante for many Afghan women.”
In addition to her primary duties, Majewski opened a beauty salon to provide a safe and empowering work environment to the female evacuees, where they could experience what it would be like to work in the U.S. The salon was also where she first met Zaro.
“She came to me after I had just opened [the salon] to ask if she could help paint nails,” Majewski said. “She was one of the few women who came to the U.S. with nothing and no one, so we bonded a lot in the fact that I was teaching her everything.”
Majewski said she, Zaro and 14 other women worked at the salon. They had close to 90 customers in the salon a day and had to turn away more.
“It felt good to provide a purpose for the women, while giving myself an outlet during a stressful time,” she said. “I had lost my father the third day of my deployment, so Zaro and the other women are where I put my focus.”
When Zaro found out she was being resettled in Texas, both she and ‘MJ’ were devastated.
“I did not want to go to Texas alone,” Zaro said. “But MJ told me that I would do well and to give it a chance. She was always supporting us and trying to help everyone that was working in the salon.”
Soon after her arrival to Texas, Zaro regularly called Majewski in tears, confiding that she was experiencing harassment from some of the male Afghan evacuees who were resettled in the same hotel. The situation eventually came to a head when a man came into Zaro’s room while the cleaning staff were inside and refused to leave.
“He would always come to my room and offer me things,” Zaro said. “When the cleaning lady opened my door, the man came through and wouldn’t let me close the door. It was very scary, so after I spoke to my case manager, I called MJ.”
With her leadership aware and supportive of the situation, Majewski decided at that moment that she had the resources to help support Zaro and bought her a one-way ticket to Delaware the same night as the incident. It’s been a decision she hasn’t regretted, as Zaro has been a pillar of support for her as well.
“I couldn’t imagine not helping her,” Majewski said. “After I lost my father, it felt like she filled the void and gave me a purpose when I needed it. In many ways she helped me more than I helped her.”
Majewski and Zaro currently live together with their three dogs, as they journey through the process of formal adoption. Majewski plans on passing her military education benefits to Zaro, who, after being inspired by the events of OAR and OAW, aspires to become a nurse and join the Air Force. Until then, being each other’s support and family is more than enough.
“I’m enjoying every single moment that I have with MJ,” Zaro said. “She is the person for me that I always wished to have.”