Pownal couple supports former Afghan study abroad student so his family can escape Taliban

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Vermont homestay family sets up GoFundMe to cover airfare and travel for former Afghan study abroad student's family

POWNAL, Vt. (NEWS10) — Ziaulhaq Zia says his childhood in Afghanistan was punctured with constant worry, on the run from the Taliban.

“When I was little in the 90s, we had to escape over the border to Pakistan twice because of the Taliban taking over the province where we lived. I know how it feels like to be scared, to run for your life,” Zia says.

He says when he heard there was a chance for him to study in the US, he worked hard to pass the tests. That first step into a different world, he met Jeanne Davis and Bruce Wheat of Pownal. They gave Zia a home away from home in 2009 while he completed a year of high school.

“It was called the ‘YES’ program,” recalls Wheat.

“It was a post-9/11 program to help people develop more understanding of what Islam and Muslim people were like. Discover these were just kids. Great kids,” adds Davis.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful school year. He came here, he lived with us, he went to high school every day. He had a decent amount of English to start with, and these kids bonded as a group and with the high school students,” she goes on to say.

Davis and Wheat say they loved helping Zia try new things, like baseball and shrimp, for the first time. Over time, they grew to love Zia as a member of their own family and invited him to stay the following year and graduate from Mount Anthony Union High School. Then came a tough decision for Zia — to stay in the US or go home to his family in Afghanistan.

“I sat [my parents] down and told them it’s not safe for me to go back, and if I do, I won’t be able to go back to my hometown. I would have to be constantly on the road or on the run,” he explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

So Zia decided to stay, get his green card, go to college, and then eventually start working. He says he’s always kept in touch with his family in Afghanistan and his host family in Pownal. So all were devastated by the recent strife as the Taliban surged to takeover the gaps left by US troops.

“Fifteen days is not enough. A week or two weeks is not enough. I understand there are bigger things at risk, but there are people like my family who helped the troops. They should’ve been protected. They should’ve been given a chance to get to safety. They weren’t given that chance. They were left behind,” Zia says.

“We would talk on the phone maybe once a month, and I’d always ask how his family was doing. But in this situation, it was like we all found out at the same time from the news, it happened so fast,” says Davis.

Zia says his older brother worked for US troops as security guard for two years and his younger brother worked as a medic for the Afghan National Army. They had no hope of living peacefully in their village, so they tried to join the crowds swarming Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

“Obviously, there are thousands and thousands of people trying to get through and show their documents to the soldiers,” Zia says. “Two hours after my family left, finally got tired of waiting and went to rest, the bomb went off in the exact same place, in the same gate where they had been standing.”

Zia says since his family couldn’t escape by plane, they decided to try escaping to Pakistan, as they had when Zia was little.

“Families, friends, people they knew, it was happening to everyone. People were getting beaten up, they were getting killed left and right. They had to escape. They had to find some smugglers to cross the borders,” Zia says.

The smugglers took every penny, but Zia says his family was able to register as refugees once they made it to Karachi. Their relief did not last long, because Zia says he got the devastating news Wednesday that officials in Pakistan sent soldiers to where his family was staying, forced them on a bus, and deported everyone right back to where they started in Afghanistan.

“In the past, such things like these deportations did not happen. I don’t know why the Pakistani officials are letting that happen. I don’t understand it, but it’s not just my family it’s a lot of other families too,” he says.

While Zia works to call the UN and look for help, his stateside family offers their support. Davis and Wheat set up a GoFundMe page to cover airfare and travel costs.

“For all the verbiage the Taliban might spew about being different, I don’t believe it,” says Wheat. “People in other cultures have pressures that we don’t understand. It’s hard to put ourselves in their shoes, but we’ve just grown to understand that they have really tough lives and we hope to help them.”

“He’s part of our family, so his family are our family. We don’t know them personally, we know some little stories that he tells us, but the friend of my friend is my friend,” says Davis.

They say the hope is to get Zia’s family to another country where they can fly to join him in the states. They’re now thousands of dollars closer to that goal thanks to dozens of donations.

“It’s just really heartwarming for these people to come forward, even people that we know but who only knew Zia peripherally,” says Wheat.

“I sent out 50 thank you notes last night and got wonderful messages from people saying that they wanted to do something, and that’s what they could do. I think some of the people know him, but others just understand this is a family in need of help,” says Davis.

“They’ve been very, very supportive and I can’t thank them enough,” Zia says.

He also has a message for his parents, brothers, sister, and their families.

“I would hug them and tell them to stay strong. I will tell them to continue the fight, continue to keep trying getting our families to safety. Don’t give up, and there are a lot of people who are trying to help you,” he says.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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