ROANOKE, Va. — Gripping a wrench and pulling back with all his might, Tashmorad Qara loosened the heavy cap on a fire hydrant. When the water spouted, he took a sample, closed the hydrant at a Roanoke apartment complex, then he and his partner headed off for the next one.

Qara likes his job as a water quality technician at the Western Virginia Water Authority, but it’s just not the same as his old job: flying missions for the Afghan Air Force against the Taliban. His real name is not being used for fear of reprisals from the Taliban.

Almost 10 years into his career as a military pilot, Qara, 37, became completely grounded after his evacuation from Afghanistan in 2021, when the United States military left the country and the Taliban regained power. Qara lost his career, his family and his ability to fly.

Two years ago, Qara flew the skies of northern Afghanistan in a PC-12 airplane, helping U.S. special operations forces by scouting for Taliban positions in the rugged mountains.

“I’ve done a lot of dangerous missions in Afghanistan to capture the bad guys like Al-Qaeda and Taliban,” Qara said.

“We were always chasing the bad guys.”

Equipped with night vision goggles and infrared cameras, Qara flew hidden by darkness at maximum altitudes of 12,000 to 25,000 feet — “nobody can hear us or see us,” he said.

Tashmorad Qara, left, and Orin Osmon, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot who was Qara's flight instructor in Afghanistan, tour airplanes at Star Flight Training, a flight school located at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport in Roanoke, Va.

Now, he is grounded in Roanoke, where his pilot experience does him no good because the Federal Aviation Administration does not recognize his Afghan military credentials and requires multiple steps before he can obtain a pilot license or commercial-flight certificate in the United States.

“I feel sad sometimes because I am still thinking about flying,” Qara said. “It was my dream to fly a plane.”

When he was about 10 years old, Qara watched an Afghan pilot make an emergency landing with a helicopter in his farming village in northern Afghanistan. Qara has wanted to fly ever since. “It was the first time I have seen a big helicopter,” Qara said. “People was all around, it was kind of exciting to see.”

When Qara was in high school a family friend in the Afghan military visited his village. Qara went to ask him about being a pilot and was told he needed to learn English, the language used in aviation around the world.

Qara did not know anyone who could teach him, so he bought a book from a local shop translating phrases in his native language of Dari to English

He earned a degree in language and culture with a focus on aviation from the U.S. backed National Military Academy of Afghanistan in 2012. After graduation, he underwent flight training from the U.S. military in western Afghanistan.

“I loved my job when I was flying and serving my country,” he said. “Flying is my great passion. I wish I could fly again one day, but I don’t have the budget to go to school here” in the United States.

Qara would like to get his commercial pilot license in the U.S., but he said he cannot afford the cost of flight school. His story is common among refugees who come to the United States and find themselves in a place where their skills and talents go unused.

Qara works full-time as a water quality technician for the Western Virginia Water Authority at the Crystal Spring Plant in Roanoke, and on weekends and evenings he delivers food through DoorDash. After paying bills and sending money home to his family who remain in Afghanistan, Qara said he has no money left to pay for schooling to get a flight license in the U.S.

“It’s just like a sad story, leaving my own country. We had everything, I had a good salary. I was with my family with my kids,” Qara said.

Twenty-five percent of working-age Afghans who are newcomers to the United States are professionals with a higher education, according to a report from Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that helps refugees and immigrants restart their careers.

Joshua Garner, strategic communications director with the organization, explains that talent of foreign skilled individuals often goes unrecognized by U.S. employers.

“There are 2 million underemployed immigrants and refugees in the U.S. who are unable to find jobs at their skill level. It’s very common for us (Upwardly Global) to see people who are what we typically say have survival jobs, or jobs to make ends meet, when really they could contribute so much more to our country and our economy,” Garner said.

The professional or educated population of all newcomers to the United States is growing, with 48% coming with higher education experience in 2019 compared to 27% in 1990, according to a 2021 study from the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that supports expanded immigration. However, the country is failing to leverage the skills from those educated immigrants trying to regain the career they left behind. Highly skilled immigrants are slightly less likely to use their professional skills, compared to those educated and born in the United States, according to the institute.

Family torn apart

During the chaos of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Qara did not realize that when he parted with his family to fly a mission that it would be the last time he saw them.

Qara had started a two-week assignment in northern Afghanistan when a family friend called him from Kabul and informed him the Taliban was taking over the city. Qara reached out to the helicopter squadron commander on duty who confirmed the situation.

“We didn’t know what was going on,” Qara said. “He said, ‘The mission is done.’ I said ‘Why? The Taliban are still all around.’”

The squadron leader told Qara to fly back to Kabul where he would help with an evacuation of military personnel to the neighboring country of Uzbekistan.

“It all happened so fast,”Qara recalled.

He was stationed in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, about a 10-hour drive or 45-minute flight from Kabul, the country’s capital where Qara’s family lived.

The country was about to fall back into the hands of the Taliban, an extremist Islamist regime that had controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s before the United States invasion in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks.

Qara narrowly escaped the Mazar-e-Sharif airport. He did a tactical takeoff that he learned in training to get off the ground in a short distance. He turned off his airplane lights, a dangerous act as it was getting dark, he did not want to be seen. “I made a good decision at that time,” he recalled. He saw a fellow Afghan pilot, who departed with aircraft lights on, get shot down. The pilot ejected himself and landed back in the airport and survived but was badly injured from the landing.

When Qara made it back to Kabul, the Taliban was seizing his city.

“I saw the situation was not good,” he said. The capital of Afghanistan, typically bustling with men and women shopping at bazaars, visiting historic gardens or attending university, was filled with people running in terror, frantic to escape. His commanders told him it was not safe to leave the airport, but the next morning Qara went home to see his family.

“I said, ‘I haven’t seen my family. I want to at least see my family.’”

He made it home to his then-pregnant wife and two young sons, but could not stay long because he was instructed to help evacuate military personnel. Qara’s wife handed him his passport and cash before he left.

“I didn’t think I would leave forever,” he said. “I thought, ‘I will be back.’” That’s the last time he saw his family in person.

Qara said he took flight with 50 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to neighboring countries of Afghanistan. During the airlift operation, he carried 12 Afghan military personnel aboard a Pilatus PC-12 single-engine aircraft, designed to hold seven people. Qara said a helicopter squadron commander told him to fly to Uzbekistan where the U.S. had pre-authorized temporary relocation.

“Everyone was rushing,” Qara said. The Afghan pilots were taken by surprise as they approached the border and were forbidden to land in Uzbekistan. Qara circled the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border for 45 minutes until he ran low on fuel and was forced to make an emergency landing at an airport in Uzbekistan. He would not talk to his family for a month.

Qara said when he landed his phone was taken from him and they were transported in a van with no windows to an Uzbeki military base and forced to stay in a tent encampment.

He said over the next two weeks they were held in tight quarters inside tents in the extreme heat with no showers and given stale and moldy bread to eat. “They treated us like prisoners,” Qara said.

Qara speaks Uzbeki, like many other people in Afghanistan. He chastised the military personnel for their poor treatment.

“I told them we were in a dangerous situation and they are not treating us like a good neighbor,” he said.

An Afghan commander had sneaked in a phone and texted a contact with the U.S., who two weeks later got them out of the camp and into a hotel where they stayed for two more weeks until Qara was able to get his phone back and call his family.

“My wife was shocked I was still alive,” he said. “She told me she went to the airport and try to escape but (realized) ‘I have two young kids, they are going to be killed.’”

Because of the chaos, shooting and bombing at the Kabul airport, his wife decided not to risk trying to escape.

After months of going through security procedures in multiple locations, Qara arrived in Roanoke in December 2021.

It was not safe for him or other U.S. allies to return to Afghanistan due to possible reprisals by the Taliban. Qara came to the United States under humanitarian parole and was sent to Roanoke by immigration officials because he had a contact nearby — a sister of a fellow pilot who lived near Blacksburg — and because the city is home to an office of Commonwealth Catholic Charities, one of the largest resettlement agencies in the state. More than 350 Afghans have resettled in the Roanoke and New River valleys since August 2021, with those numbers increasing.

Meanwhile, his wife and children are still on the run in Afghanistan, frequently changing locations, so the Taliban won’t find them and take revenge for Qara’s service with the Afghan military. He has yet to meet his infant daughter.

Qara desperately wants to get his family to Roanoke.

“Life doesn’t make sense for me with being away from my family,” Qara said.

“When I came here, I thought the government would help me bring my family because I used to work with the U.S. government.”

He is not alone in having family members left behind in Afghanistan and scared for their lives.

In November , the U.S. State Department launched an Afghan family reunification page on its website to help separated families reunite.

Approximately 3.2 million Afghans are displaced inside Afghanistan due to conflict, with two-thirds of the population in need of humanitarian and protection assistance, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The Virginia Department of Social Services reports that 10,782 refugees from Afghanistan have been resettled in Virginia since 2021. Nearly 90,000 Afghans have been welcomed to the United States through Operation Allies Welcome, according to the State Department. Iran and Pakistan host 85% of displaced Afghans.

“My wife blames me everyday saying, ‘This is your fault we are still in Afghanistan,’” Qara said. “I say, ‘this was a tough situation, I didn’t know,’” Qara said.

Hope and friends

Bored and tormented with loss, Qara sat in a small studio room at the Mainstay Suites Airport hotel near Valley View in December 2021 after he arrived in Roanoke. CCC provided the temporary accommodation until it could find a permanent residence. Qara knew no one other than another Afghan pilot who fled with him, and who was also relocated to Roanoke. A couple of months later, the two became roommates when CCC found them an apartment in Roanoke.

Tashmorad Qara, left, and Andreas Panagore share a moment after catching up over a traditional Afghan meal, prepared by Qara, on May, 17, 2023, in Roanoke, Va.

Qara reached out on a neighborhood social media group and introduced himself. He asked if anyone would help him practice English and show him around his new Roanoke home.

After reading negative responses to his post, with people warning others not to trust him, Qara did not expect anyone to help him.

“I think they see my name, and not trust me,” Qara said.

Somebody replied anyway.

Andreas Panagore had been following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the news and said his heart felt for the Afghan people. Panagore, 30, who moved to Roanoke from Maine three years ago and owns a landscaping company called Ecoscape, also said he empathized with Qara’s loneliness in an unfamiliar city.

“I’ve been to new places before without friends and it can be hard,” Panagore said. “I was happy to help.”

Panagore wrote to Qara through a messaging app.

“Hello my friend, you want English lessons?”

They quickly formed a friendship.

“He’s such a personable guy,” Panagore said about Qara. “It’s really difficult to not be friends.”

Qara knew English but wanted to improve his communication skills. He began to inquire about terms and phrases that he did not understand. When watching a movie, he heard a couple say “on the rocks.” So, he asked Panagore what the phrase meant.

“On the rocks = not doing well,” Panagore wrote.

Panagore started sending Qara daily slang definitions.

“Today’s slang term is chillin,” Panagore said using the voice feature. “Chillin is usually used when somebody’s just hanging out. They’re either with friends or they’re alone. They’re not really doing much of anything. They’re chillin.”

Later, in May, the two reminisced while enjoying a traditional Afghani dish of chicken karahi that Qara prepared with tomatoes and hot peppers. The two sat at the table in Qara’s kitchen, holding their phones.

Panagore laughed when replaying his voice message defining “chillin.”

“I used a slang term in the definition,” he said, referring to “hanging out.” Qara probably didn’t know what either meant.

The two discussed a year and a half ago, during a chilly day in January, when Panagore drove Qara and his roommate to see downtown Roanoke. The three of them squeezed in the front of his Ford F-150 pickup. Panagore took his new Afghan friends to Cedars Lebanese Restaurant and to get savings rewards cards from Food Lion.

In a short time, Qara’s social circle grew because of his friendship with Panagore, who introduced him to Chris and Micki Brumfield.

“They was giving me positive energy to move forward and never give up, even though I lost everything. I’ve made really good friends here,” Qara said.

The Brumfield’s were motivated to help Qara and his roommate after hearing their stories.

“The fact that they were our allies, they were helping the U.S. We wanted to help them,” Micki said.

After a couple months staying at the hotel, CCC found the former Afghan pilots a place to live and provided them with beds, blankets and basic household items.

Katie Dillon, marketing manager with CCC, explains that a variety of factors make it time-consuming to find long-term housing for refugees, including low availability of affordable housing and need for government identification.

The nonprofit was in the process of obtaining additional furnishings when the Brumfield’s jumped into action, taking Qara and his roommate shopping for clothes and household items.

“They came to my house and they saw we had nothing,” Qara said. “They brought us TV and couches, a microwave, a new grill. I thought that one day I hope we can help them, too.”

Qara and his roommate took the first job they could get when they applied at Voyant Beauty, a cosmetics factory in northeast Roanoke where many refugees find work.

CCC works with the factory on a regular basis and is thankful for their partnership and readiness to promptly hire refugees. “While the positions may not always match the refugees’ skills they (the beauty factory) are still a way for them to earn an income and establish residency while they find something more suitable,” Dillon wrote in an email.

Qara was working on the assembly line at the factory, which became monotonous after having flown airplanes. He wanted a challenge.

The factory also lacked opportunities to improve his English.

“There was no chance to speak English with anyone,” he said. “The other people there, they do not speak English.”

Chris Brumfield, who works for the Western Virginia Water Authority, told Qara about a job fair for the water authority and gave him a good recommendation. Qara landed the job.

“I am so thankful to get a job at the water authority,” Qara said. “There, at least I can learn something.”

The past year Qara has worked to expand his skills and knowledge at the water authority. He is learning to look for water breaks and leaks to troubleshoot and read meters. Qara is on his way to getting a promotion to the second step of a water quality technician, according to his supervisor, Joel Bostic, water quality assist management strategist.

“We love having him, he’s a very hard worker,” Bostic said.

Panagore and the Brumfields, also helped him navigate his way through the confusing federal departments to try and get his family out of Afghanistan. Each of them emailed Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt, whose office has started to work with the State Department on the reunification process.

“I said, ‘Hey, we need his family over here.’” Panagore said. “His office came back and said, ‘OK, we’re gonna try to start working on that.”

As that process started, another major complication erupted. Russia invaded Ukraine and refugees from Ukraine started flooding the U.S. immigration network.

After four months of sending documents to the U.S. government and answering questions for U.S. officials, Qara received an email in early June from the State Department that began:

“Dear …….……,

Your application for family reunification assistance has been received, and you qualify for U.S. government assistance to provide family reunification assistance to your eligible family members outside the United States.”

Charlotte Law, communications director for Cline, confirmed the office is working on Qara’s case but would not discuss ongoing cases.

Qara called his wife to tell her the U.S. government approved her and their children to come to the U.S., but he warned he is still not sure how long it will take for action.

“She was so happy,” Qara said. “She said, ‘I’m counting the seconds to know some good news.’”

Qara’s wife had completed two years of her nursing degree when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, he said, and banned higher education for women. The family remains in hiding, he said, while she and their children wait to come to the U.S., and as she studies English with a tutor three days a week in hopes of completing her degree when they resettle.

“I tell her to study English,” he said. “If you don’t know English it will be so difficult.”

In Afghanistan, Qara liked to fish, hunt and hike. Now settled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, he has visited places such as Apple Orchard Falls in Botetourt County and Mill Mountain.

While fishing at Smith Mountain Lake in early June, Qara set aside his rod in the boat and used his cellphone to speak to his family on FaceTime. It was night in Afghanistan, but daytime in the U.S. His youngest son cried, frustrated he was unable to be with his dad.

“My son, he was kind of mad and sad because he said, ‘Why are you not bringing us there? We are stuck here, I need a fish but I can’t find fish,’” Qara said. “It make me so sad.”

He asked his brother, who is in Afghanistan, to buy a fish from a market and take it to his family, but the feeling of helplessness remained.

Back in the pit

Qara said memories flooded his mind as he sat in the cockpit of a Diamond Star single-engine airplane, a type often used for pilot training. There was silence as he stared at the instruments and controls.

Orin Osmon, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot who was Qara’s flight instructor in Afghanistan, stood outside the airplane.

“How do you feel?” he asked. Qara smiled.

Although Qara cannot fly in the U.S., he enjoyed the experience sitting in the cockpit.

“One of my great memories was when I did my first solo flight,” Qara said.

He had bad memories too. Qara recalls the time when he lost control of the aircraft and recovered the plane after losing between 4,000 and 5,000 feet of altitude.

“I was so lucky I had altitude that night and (was) not close to the mountain,” Qara said.

The two pilots toured airplanes at Star Flight Training, a flight school located at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. Osmon, who lives in Washington, D.C., visited Qara in December and organized the visit with Star Flight management. He thought Qara would appreciate sitting in an aircraft again.

Osmon now does contract work for Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, flying a Beechcraft King Air plane to help the international agency enforce fishing rules in the South Pacific.

Osmon trained Qara during a flight screening program at Shindand Air Base in Afghanistan for about a year in 2012 and then again a few years later in Kabul. He also flew with Qara when he advanced from co-pilot to a pilot in command.

“He would come to class well prepared,” Osmon said. “He had a positive attitude. Very excited. He made it clear to the instructors there that he was glad to have them as instructors. And he had a sense of humor.”

Osmon explains that even though Qara was approved to fly by the U.S. military, the Federal Aviation Administration does not recognize documents that say he trained adequately. The FAA only accepts military pilot training if it is done in the U.S. And flight school can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000.

Osmon said he has kept in contact with about 36 of the Afghan pilots he’s trained who resettled in the United States since the fall of Kabul. Some of the pilots have been able to pursue licensing from the FAA, but most try to save money to send home to family members left behind.

“As far as I can tell, they’re kind of in blue-collar working type jobs,” Osmon said of the Afghan pilots he trained who are now in the U.S. He added: “And even though this (flight) training could very well pay off to a much better job ... if you’re trying to send money back home, you feel like it’s a frivolous act, to go pursue flying.”

After a full day of flushing fire hydrants for the water authority, Qara got in his 2004 Toyota Corolla, opened the DoorDash app on his cellphone and clicked “confirm pickup.” Minutes later he delivered McDonald’s carryout to a hungry customer. “Enjoy your food,” he said, giving a thumbs up as he returned quickly to his car to accept another delivery.

I kind of need to do this to survive to support my family, I don’t have another option,” Qara said about his second job.

He took a sip from a silver tumbler filled with coffee and put his car into drive.

“I used to drink tea back at my home, but I am getting used to it (coffee) like Americans,” he said.

Qara said he hopes to buy a house with at least two bedrooms for his family when they come. “This is one of my dream, hopefully I can buy a house someday,” he said.

Filled with American dreams and caffeine, Qara is ready for new opportunities.

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