Bashir and his family reunited at Chabad of Fremont. (Photo/Bonnie Kellogg)
Bashir and his family reunited at Chabad of Fremont. (Photo/Bonnie Kellogg)

Targeted by Taliban, Afghan refugee family finds home at Chabad of Fremont — and with the Jewish community

Bashir knew down to the millisecond how long it had been since he last saw his wife and 6-year-old daughter. He has an app on his phone telling him this information in real time. But after 4½ years, or 1,640 days, each additional second of separation felt longer than the last.

Bashir, an Afghan man in his 40s, fled Afghanistan in 2018 after being targeted by the Taliban for his work with the U.S. government. Since February, he has been living with his teenage son in a storage-space-turned-apartment in the backyard of Chabad of Fremont, waiting to reunite with his wife and daughter who stayed behind.

When J. first spoke with Bashir over Zoom in early April, he had started counting the days down, instead of adding them up. He was confident it wouldn’t be long before Fatima and Amina, who had been living for months in a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi, would be arriving in the Bay Area.

“It will be a big day for all of us,” Bashir said.

That day came last week when the family finally was reunited at San Jose International Airport. It was “the best gift of our life,” Bashir said, adding that it reaffirmed “what family is about.”

Bashir and 15-year-old Yusuf ended up living at Chabad of Fremont through the help of the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-affiliated Jewish nonprofit that began airlifting hundreds of former U.S. employees and judges (including Bashir’s siblings) out of Afghanistan when the Taliban took back control of the country in August 2021.

The family asked J. to use pseudonyms for their own safety.

Bashir is a former U.S. government representative who once managed millions of dollars in aid to developing countries. He said he decided to flee Afghanistan, moving to Austria with his son in 2018, after the Taliban burned down his parents’ house and attempted to kidnap his son in retaliation for his work with the Americans.

“I was their target. They were after me,” Bashir said. “I didn’t want to face a situation where my kids come and greet me in front of my grave,” he said.

RELATED: Inside an Afghan refugee family’s new life in the East Bay, with help of JFCS

With decisions being made under duress, Fatima and Amina stayed behind, not knowing it would mean a nearly five-year family separation. By August 2021, the country was coming apart and they knew they needed to get out before the Taliban came for them.

At the Kabul airport, Fatima’s travel documents were rejected when she was identified as the wife of an “American spy,” as they often referred to Bashir. Fatima was beaten by the Taliban, Bashir told J. Amina, then just 5, was nearly trampled by people running to catch their flight out.

“She was bleeding and my daughter was bleeding. And they slept there for a night,” Bashir recalls.

He contacted every refugee aid organization he could think of to get them out, without success, until Aleph responded and said yes, it could help.

An Aleph aid worker based in Warsaw, Poland, helped Bashir draw up the documents to put Fatima and Amina on a flight. They arrived in Abu Dhabi the next day. Shortly after, Aleph also arranged for Bashir’s siblings and parents to leave.

In return, Bashir assisted Aleph, serving as a translator to help evacuate others out of the country.

“Now I feel part of the Aleph family,” Bashir said. “Aleph and Chabad and the overall Jewish community remain a key part of our lives. We will never forget their assistance.”

Meanwhile, it was time to leave Austria and head for the U.S. Bashir and Yusuf headed first to Petaluma, where Bashir knew a former colleague and friend. When Bashir got a job in the South Bay, he knew he’d need to move closer to work, and he again turned to Aleph for assistance.

“I’m like, OK, this is the call,” Rabbi Moshe Fuss of Chabad of Fremont recalled when he received the phone call from Aleph in January. “I know exactly why you’re calling me. We live in Fremont. We live in Little Kabul,” Fuss said.

Rabbi Moshe Fuss and Chaya Fuss of Chabad of Fremont. (Photo/Bonnie Kellogg)
Rabbi Moshe Fuss and Chaya Fuss of Chabad of Fremont. (Photo/Bonnie Kellogg)

Fremont is home to one of the largest Afghan communities in the country, and part of the city’s Centerville district has been dubbed “Little Kabul” because it’s a hub for many of the Bay Area’s Afghan Americans.

Fuss and his wife, Chaya, were enthusiastic about helping and offered their extra space as a place Bashir and Yusuf could spend a few weeks while waiting to reunite with their loved ones.

Chaya posted about the family on social media and emailed the Chabad of Fremont community for donations to enhance the temporary shelter. The weekend before Bashir and Yusuf moved in, people “were just showing up with furniture, and this and that,” she recalled. People bought new books, games, school supplies, even two bicycles.

“Within such a crazily short period of time, we took a storage unit and made it into a real home,” Chaya said.  Bashir and Yusuf were able to make meals and use other Chabad facilities during their stay.

The family is also getting assistance from the city of Fremont and David Haubert, Alameda County supervisor for District 1, to secure a suitable apartment. Haubert, partnering with the Fremont Afghan Refugee Fund, is working to raise money to help the family buy a car and pay first and last month’s rent.

The weeks Bashir and his son spent living at Chabad of Fremont, attending Friday night Shabbat dinners and prayer services, have bonded him with the Jewish people, he said.

“I was so touched when they said that your family is my family. And they said, you can share any problems or concerns with us. They were so open,” Bashir said of Chaya and Moshe Fuss.

The couple say their lives have been touched, too.

“Bashir and Yusuf celebrated Purim and Pesach with us and are big fans of cholent and gefilte fish,” Chaya said. “They have really become part of our community, and part of our family. We know we’ll stay friends for many, many years to come.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.