A Family's Escape From The Taliban Came Down To A Code Phrase: 'Tom Brady'
Updated September 9, 2021 at 9:10 AM ET
On Sept. 11, 2001, Said Noor was growing up in a mountain village in Khost, a southeastern province of Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan. He lived in an agricultural valley full of apple orchards and groves of peach trees.
On that day 20 years ago, Noor listened to BBC reports on the radio about a terrorist attack that took place halfway around the world.
"At the age of 11, I just had no idea what was going on," Noor, now 31, tells NPR.
Soon, the war would come to him.
In the months following 9/11, American warplanes dropped bombs on suspected Taliban and al-Qaida leadership compounds, training facilities and smuggling routes near Noor's village of Kundi. It was believed that hundreds of Taliban fighters were hiding in Khost and planning attacks from across the border in Pakistan.
"I remember we saw the [American] aircrafts — the fighter jets — for the first time," Noor says. "The Taliban started shooting at them, and we could see the artillery rounds going up toward the aircraft but it wouldn't reach them."
Khost became an early scene of intense fighting in America's longest war. The first U.S. service member to die by enemy fire in the war in Afghanistan was killed near the city of Khost on Jan. 4, 2002.
Noor remembers sitting in the dark with his family as nearby explosions shattered windows and shook the walls of his house. He remembers how the Taliban would fire rockets from the bed of a pickup truck parked outside his home. The war, he says, happened "right in front of our eyes." For him and his family, it would define the next 20 years.
He learned English by watching Rambo III and became a U.S. Army interpreter
By 2003, U.S. troops regularly passed through Kundi on their way to Forward Operating Base Salerno, a large U.S. military base that was just a 10-minute walk from Noor's neighborhood. He saw the Americans as liberators who could topple the Taliban's oppressive rule. As a boy, he watched the Taliban harass his mother for money, drag her out of the house by her hair and beat her. His father, employed as a truck driver in the United Arab Emirates, was not home regularly.
"My family was so happy to see [the Americans], people from my village were singing and dancing," Noor says. "A lot of us kids jumped up on their trucks. We had no idea how to communicate with them, so they gave us stuff like candies and water, notebooks and pens."
When Noor was a teenager, his brother accidentally knocked over a tea kettle and spilled hot water on his baby sister. Noor says her entire body was badly burned. "My mom had nowhere to provide medical treatment for her," he says. Noor rushed his sister to the Americans.
"I brought her to the base and then they had requested a medical doctor to come down. They really saved her life," he says.
Noor wanted to learn more about the Americans. He studied English by watching Rambo III, the 1988 action flick set during the Soviet-Afghan war, in which Sylvester Stallone's character embarks on a one-man mission against the invading Soviet army.
"Afghans were really interested in that [movie] because they hated the Russians, so they really liked Rambo," Noor says, laughing. "I was just picking up English from there."
By the time he turned 17, the U.S. Army hired him to work as an interpreter. He spoke Pashto, Dari and English on the battlefield and spent seven years alongside U.S. soldiers — often in combat.
Noor wanted to protect his identity, so a platoon sergeant gave him the nickname "Gizmo," embroidered on the name tape of his uniform.
Like many Afghans who supported the U.S. military mission, Noor was targeted by insurgents.
"I was recognized by the Taliban and they would call my family," Noor says. He found handwritten death threats hanging from his family's front door. "That's when I realized I was in danger and I had to leave my country."
After acquiring a U.S. special immigrant visa in 2014, Noor left Afghanistan for the first time in his life. His parents and eight siblings stayed behind.
Noor became a U.S. citizen and deployed back to Afghanistan with the Army
Texas was a long way from Kundi. Noor chose to live there — in Houston, specifically — because some of his friends from the U.S. military lived there.
"You open up the airplane window in Afghanistan, you see the mountains and the desert and a country that's been at war for more than 40 years," Noor says. "You open the airplane window [in the U.S.], my gosh — I didn't know such a country would exist in this world."
He took a minimum-wage job in a warehouse packing cellphones into boxes and was hired as a security guard at apartment complexes and banks. But Noor missed going on missions and decided to enlist as an interpreter and translator in the U.S. Army.
In 2017, he became an American citizen, and one year later, he deployed back to the country of his birth to interpret for a U.S. Army general. Noor returned to Khost province — this time as an Afghan American.
"I was proud to be back there," he says. "I always wanted to be an American soldier wearing an American flag on my shoulder. And I would talk to Afghans, I'd say, 'I'm originally from here,' and they were so proud of me."
His 10-month deployment involved meetings with Afghan commanders, police chiefs and governors across 11 provinces. In August 2018, he served as interpreter at a top-level meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the city of Ghazni, after a bloody battle between Afghan government forces and the Taliban.
Yet even when he was stationed just a few miles from his childhood home, Noor was too fearful to visit his family. He worried about the risk of Taliban retribution.
"I had a choice," Noor says. "Either stay in the Army and never see my family, or get out of the Army and bring them to America."
For him, that choice was clear. He returned to Texas in November 2018 and would spend the next three years trying to relocate his family to the United States. In the summer of 2020, he returned to Afghanistan, hoping to expedite the process.
The threats to his family grew last year, with deadly results
Noor was back in Kundi on the warm night of Sept. 10, 2020.
"When I saw my little siblings, they had grown up so much," he says. He was finally reunited with his family after four years.
Noor had been honorably discharged from the Army in July 2020 and was determined to get his parents and siblings to join him in Texas.
"I was there to help with their visa process and help with all the paperwork that they had to do on their side," Noor says. "And I was going to spend quality time with my family, but it turned out to be a disaster that I was there. It turned into chaos. It turned into a memory that I will never forget for a lifetime."
Noor says a bomb affixed to a motorcycle detonated directly outside his family's house while dozens of relatives and friends were gathered to celebrate his visit. At least four people were killed and 10 others were wounded. Noor says none of the deaths were family members.
"I took shrapnel in my chest and I also took some shrapnel in my legs," he says.
"Minor injuries," he says. "I went to the doctor and was released the same day."
The blast "smashed all the windows and all the doors to my house," Noor says. "It cracked the walls."
He took a photo of the mangled bike that was blown in half. The front wheel and handlebars were still attached, covered in ash.
Noor was certain the bomb was meant for him. He believes the Taliban committed the attack. Fearing for his family's safety, Noor immediately returned to the U.S., and now desperate to evacuate his relatives, he emailed the office of his senator, Texas Republican Ted Cruz, on Sept. 22, 2020. In his letter, which NPR has reviewed, Noor describes the "very dire situation" his family faced in Afghanistan:
"I and my family have been the target and have been added to the kill list of the terrorist groups ... As a disabled U.S veteran, I am respectfully requesting you to take of your precious time out of your busy schedule to talk about the concerns, I have for my safety and safety of my family overseas."
Noor says Cruz's office never responded to this email or to a voicemail message he left in July this year, requesting to speak with the senator.
In a statement to NPR, a spokesman for Cruz said: "For the privacy of our constituents, we are not able to provide specific details of requests that are received by our office. Senator Cruz is committed to using every resource available to ensure Americans trapped in Afghanistan and others at risk are safely evacuated. To date, our office has assisted over 1,000 people in getting out of Afghanistan, and will continue to do all they can to get the Americans and countless others still trapped in the country to safety."
Earlier this summer, Noor encouraged his family to move north to the Afghan capital, Kabul. "I thought they would be safe there," he says.
Time runs out
Back in Houston last month, Noor couldn't believe what he was seeing on TV. Taliban militiamen swept into Kabul on Aug. 15. Ghani — whom Noor had met in 2018 — fled the country. The Afghan government collapsed, and the Americans began a frenzied evacuation.
"It was shocking," Noor says. He received frantic calls from his parents in Kabul. His youngest sister was terrified.
"They could see the Taliban right outside of their house," Noor says. His family "knew they were the target of the Taliban before. Now, you could see the Taliban — you see your own enemies with your own eyes right outside the street."
Noor says he felt time was running out. In another attempt to contact U.S. lawmakers for help, Noor requested a meeting with Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Texas Democrat who represents his district in Houston. His Aug. 26 request read "ASAP Urgent Issue," with the topic of discussion listed as "Family immigration, evacuation from Afghanistan." Noor says he never heard back.
Fletcher's office responded to NPR's request for comment with this statement: "Over the past few weeks, our team has worked tirelessly on behalf of more than 750 people — listening to their heartbreaking and courageous stories — to expedite communication with the State Department and try to help evacuate them from Afghanistan. We were glad to hear that Mr. Noor's family was safely evacuated from Afghanistan and are sorry we were not able to be of assistance in this case."
Noor says his family waited for days outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport with thousands of others, sleeping on the ground in hopes of getting airlifted out of the country.
"I was feeling so worried, stressed, I didn't want to eat, I didn't want to do nothing," Noor says. "Every time I got a call from Afghanistan, I was so scared to pick it up because I was thinking I would hear bad news. I was like, 'Who's going to post [my family's] pictures on Facebook of their dead bodies?' "
Then, Noor received a phone call.
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, who learned of Noor's story through The Boston Globe, promised Noor that U.S. Marines would evacuate his family. (Moulton, a Marine Corps veteran, recently made headlines after a secret trip to Kabul on Aug. 24 with Peter Meijer, a Republican congressman from Michigan. Their unauthorized visit drew sharp bipartisan criticism in Washington.)
On Friday, Aug. 27 — just four days before the deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan — Moulton's office called Noor with instructions. His family was to meet a Marine at a gas station in Kabul immediately and provide the agreed-upon codeword: "Tom Brady."
Noor conveyed the message to them. Hours later, his family was aboard a U.S. military plane leaving Afghanistan.
This week, Noor reunited with his loved ones at Fort McCoy, a U.S. Army installation in Wisconsin where they are among 8,000 Afghan refugees being housed and processed.
"Sometimes, I feel like I'm still dreaming about the whole situation, like how [my family was] begging for help, how they were in a dire situation," he says. "Now, seeing them, seeing the smiles on their face, they're coming to a country where they can build a bright future for themselves."
Earlier this week, Noor scheduled a morning call with NPR for an update on his family's arrival in the U.S. That morning, however, he was late to join. After apologizing, Noor explained that he had set his alarm, but it didn't wake him. For the first time in months, he says, he was finally able to sleep.
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