After two years of separation, Afghan family ‘happy, blessed, grateful’ to be reunited in Kentucky

Afghan refugee Khaibar Shafaq lifted his youngest son, Ahmad Khetab Shafaq, April 2, 2023, after his wife and children safely arrived in Owensboro, Ky., from Turkey. (OSV News Photo by Riley Greif, The Western Kentucky Catholic)

By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead

OWENSBORO, Ky. — An excited crowd of friends and co-workers welcomed home the Shafaq family as they pulled up to their new house in Owensboro the evening of April 2.

It had been a journey of two long years, but at last Khaibar Shafaq — a case manager and paralegal for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro — was reunited with his wife and three children, who had flown into Chicago earlier that day.

“I feel really happy, blessed, grateful, so thankful,” said Shafaq, who offered both hugs of gratitude and introductions of his family to those gathered at his home.

Back in August 2021, Shafaq had traveled with his wife, Zuhal, daughter Farangis and sons Ahmad Belal and Ahmad Khetab out of Afghanistan to a safe location in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan that year after the departure of United States troops meant danger for many Afghan citizens — especially Shafaq, who had worked with and supported the U.S. government while aiding those displaced by the Islamic State group.

But Shafaq had not anticipated the Afghan government would collapse so quickly. In fact, after spending 20 days in required COVID-19 quarantine with his family in Istanbul, he planned to fly back alone to Afghanistan to assist those in need.

In order to cherish his quality time with his family, Shafaq had turned off his phone and did not check his email during his final day in Istanbul. They did not know their 20 days together in one room would be the last time they would see each other until April 2023.

Shafaq caught a plane back to Afghanistan, imagining he would return to Istanbul before too long.

“As soon as I landed, I learned Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban,” he said. “The kids were used to me being gone for months for work, but we didn’t expect this.”

Shafaq was trapped in Afghanistan for two weeks before learning he would be among those able to escape to the U.S.

“I sent (my family) a video telling them I’m leaving the country!” he said. “Everyone was really happy.”

Meanwhile in Owensboro, Susan Montalvo-Gesser, the director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro, had been working with her team to provide Afghan resettlement opportunities in the western Kentucky city.

The local Catholic Charities branch had helped resettle people from various countries including Afghanistan, but until now had never served such a large quantity of Afghan arrivals at once. Montalvo-Gesser estimated that they went from two or three arrivals to nearly 170 arrivals in three months.

Shafaq was one of those arrivals, coming to stay temporarily at Owensboro’s Comfort Suites Inn on Nov. 15, 2021, through the efforts of the International Center of Owensboro.

“Khaibar was one of our clients when all of the Afghans arrived in 2021,” said Diane Ford, the site director for the International Center of Owensboro. Ford said she witnessed the people of Owensboro “open their arms to the Afghans” to help resettle their new neighbors. Shafaq, especially, became a leader in the community as he helped his fellow arrivals get adjusted.

During this time Shafaq met Montalvo-Gesser, told her about his international disaster credentials, and asked if he could volunteer with Catholic Charities to help other Afghans get settled.

Catholic Charities quickly enlisted Shafaq’s expertise with translating and organizing lists and applications. And when historic tornadoes devastated western Kentucky in December 2021, Shafaq was among those hired as case managers to assist impacted Kentuckians.

Over the next year, Shafaq became a fixture in the Catholic Charities office as he led more resettlement work — which included multiple road trips per week to take other Afghan families to Chicago for asylum hearings — all the while hoping that his family would soon join him in Owensboro.

Shafaq had his asylum hearing in April 2022 and was approved in May, which opened the path for his family to apply to come to the U.S.

The Diocese of Owensboro’s bookkeeper, Mary Margaret Drury, made it her job to pray for his family every day, and during Christmas 2022, diocesan staff secretly amassed houseware items for when Shafaq’s wife and children would arrive.

On March 15, 2023, Shafaq received an email from the U.S. Embassy that his family’s application had been accepted. Their appointment with the embassy was March 20, and the next day their visas were approved.

“This was a normal length of time for this process, but also Senator McConnell’s office helped us with working on the various requirements,” said Shafaq, explaining that Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell’s staff had been incredibly helpful with local Afghan resettlement initiatives.

When Shafaq, his wife and children pulled up in front of their house April 2, the “welcoming committee” included Bishop William F. Medley of Owensboro; Catholic Charities’ Montalvo-Gesser; Diane Ford; Gilbert Mischel, a field representative from McConnell’s office; and many friends.

Earlier, the friends and co-workers had spruced up Shafaq’s home with the collected homewares and spelled out “Welcome Home” with yard signs. A large spread of traditional Afghan cuisine was provided in the kitchen.

“This has been amazing, I am so thankful for all the prayers, for Bishop Medley’s support, for the diocese,” said Shafaq.

A few days later, Shafaq said that his children already love their new city and were excited to start attending school.

Zuhal Shafaq plans to continue her education in medical school. She had previously worked at her mother’s medical practice back home and was almost finished with her degree when they had to leave Afghanistan.

Shafaq acknowledged the long road ahead for him and his family to ultimately acquire U.S. citizenship.

He said that on average, it takes “36 months for a person like me, whose case was approved, to get a green card. Then I can apply for citizenship after having my green card for five years. And that is the expedited process for Afghans!”

But for now, he is thankful for this “amazing journey” that brought his family back to him.

“Sometimes when I wake up, I think I’m in my old house, my mind still doesn’t accept that they are here in Kentucky with me,” he said.

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