After fleeing Kabul, Afghan lawyers seek new life — and legal careers — in California
Masooda Qazi held her 8-year-old son’s hand tightly as she frantically tried to convey to a group of Dutch soldiers that she was an employee of the U.S. Embassy and was promised transport out of Kabul as it fell to the Taliban last year.
The crowd around Qazi was full of people similarly desperate to escape, and it was growing agitated. People pushed forward outside a security gate near the airport, erasing any space to move. Her son Habib began to panic.
“I can’t breathe anymore,” he said to his father, Hamid ul Rahman Qazi, who had been holding the couple’s younger son — Hasib, 4 — above the crowd on his shoulders for hours.
“We need to go back,” Hamid told his wife.
“No. Stay,” she said. “We will get success.”
More than a year later, the young family has resettled in the U.S. after escaping Afghanistan on a Dutch military plane, then waiting in a Dutch refugee camp for 10 months before finally receiving special U.S. immigrant visas.
They arrived in San Diego in June, Masooda had a baby girl in July, and they moved into their own apartment in August with the help of a refugee assistance program.
After so much turmoil and trauma, the young couple — who were successful lawyers in Afghanistan — said they finally feel safe.
But their quest for success isn’t over.
With help from others in the legal field in California — including judges, lawyers, law clerks and law professors — they hope to find their way back into their profession, which not only brought them together in Kabul but also provided them work they loved and a happy life before it all collapsed.
In that way, they are not alone.
More than 85,000 Afghan nationals have journeyed to the U.S. since the fall of Kabul, many through similar airport evacuations that same harrowing week in August 2021 — an effort the Biden administration dubbed Operation Allies Welcome. Many fled not only their country, homes, friends and loved ones, but also their established careers.
Those who have arrived on special immigrant visas such as the Qazis were largely admitted on the basis that they or one of their immediate family members “took significant risks to support [U.S.] military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan,” according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Many had held coveted positions in government agencies and international nonprofits. And some, like the Qazis, were deeply involved in building the former Afghan government’s legal and judicial systems. They fought to ensure the rule of law in court, worked as or helped train prosecutors and judges, and drafted legislation to root out corruption and better protect the rights of women.
Now in the U.S., those same professionals desperately need and want jobs, with some resettlement programs providing housing for only a few months. But the hurdles to reentering their old fields are substantial. Beyond the challenges of working in a new language, those in professions that require advanced degrees or other qualifications — such as lawyers — face even greater barriers.
Masooda and Hamid said they understand all that, but they are not deterred. After all, they had fought their way to the top of their field once before in Kabul, they told The Times in a recent interview, where barriers — especially for a woman — were also imposing.
“Always Masooda is saying, ‘We can do it again,’” Hamid said. “And I’m sure we can.”
Life in Kabul
Before Kabul fell, the Qazis were living lives they had dreamed of from a young age.
Masooda worked as a security investigator for the U.S. Embassy in the capital, where she interviewed and conducted background checks on embassy employees; gathered and vetted local intelligence about insurgents and the Taliban; investigated corruption, counterintelligence and harassment allegations within the embassy; and helped train embassy staff and government officials.
Hamid, who had worked for the U.S. Embassy, was working as a prosecutor in Afghanistan’s Counter-Narcotics Justice Center, where he investigated and litigated complex drug cases — some of which were referred from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Masooda, 35, was raised outside Kabul by parents who bucked tradition by sending their daughters to school beyond their primary years, despite the criticism of neighbors and friends.
The Taliban halted her and her sisters’ education in 1995, during a previous stint in power, but they returned to school in 2001 and took extra courses to catch up with their male peers and graduate from high school, she said.
Because it was her dream to work for women’s equality in her country, Masooda continued her studies in law and scored high enough on a national test to win acceptance into the competitive law program at Kabul University.
It was there that she met Hamid, now 36 — whose dream was also to practice law, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a Kabul University law professor.
Masooda and Hamid enrolled in night courses so they could work and support their families during the day. Both were competitive students, which they recall with laughter when they talk about how they met.
“I had feelings for her, and I couldn’t mention it at first,” Hamid said. “But one day we had an exam, and at the end of the exam she [asked] me, ‘Did you answer all your questions?’”
Masooda was ranked top in the class at the time, and Hamid third. Her question was a playful tease from a rival scholar.
“I said, ‘Yes, I got all my questions,’” Hamid recalled with a laugh. “After that, I got courage to tell her my feelings.”
After courting through much of law school, the couple married. They started their family just as they started their careers. She was not relegated to the home, and he did not expect her to be. They excelled.
Before being hired by the U.S. Embassy, Masooda worked in many local and international agencies, including the Independent Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of the Constitution of Afghanistan, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the European Union. She was also a legal advisor to the Danish Embassy and a legal translator and interpreter for the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.
To maintain her bar license, Masooda also had to practice law in court, she said, and she did so — working domestic violence cases, civil contract disputes and corruption cases.
Before becoming a counter-narcotics prosecutor, where he was repeatedly promoted and elevated to work appellate cases, Hamid worked as a “rule of law assistant” at the U.S. Embassy, where his duties included translating laws and other legal documents and providing legal support to embassy staff.
Before the U.S. withdrawal, their lives, Masooda said, were “perfect.”
They were both fulfilled at work. Their boys were thriving. Even while renting a comfortable, two-bedroom apartment, they had enough to support Masooda’s parents financially and save for the future.
Then, with devastating speed, it all came apart.
In April 2021, President Biden announced U.S. forces would fully withdraw from Afghanistan by that September. In July, U.S. Central Command reported that about 90% of the withdrawal had been completed. Still, many remained in jeopardy, including Afghan nationals who had worked for the U.S. and stayed in Kabul.
When the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban swept into the nation’s capital on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, many were caught off guard. The city’s capture came much sooner than many in the U.S. government and elsewhere had predicted.
Masooda had been at work just the day before, where she said she was told by embassy officials that they were still working on an evacuation plan for all of the staff. She tried to withdraw money, but bank officials told her that they were under orders to not distribute funds. She has been unable to access the couple’s considerable savings ever since.
Hamid was at work the day, as the Taliban entered the city, shredding documents that contained sensitive information, including the personal information of prosecutors and staff. Thankfully, he said, he managed to leave just before the Taliban opened the nearby prisons and released criminals whom Hamid had prosecuted — and had reason to fear.
For days after, the couple and their family hid in their apartment with curtains drawn and lights off. The embassy had told Masooda to wait for a message instructing her to get to the airport.
And so they waited.
Then, on Aug. 18, she received documentation from the embassy that was meant to get her and her immediate family into the airport for evacuation. Her Afghan supervisor told her to not wait any longer.
“Try your luck,” she recalled the supervisor telling her.
About 2 a.m., they tried to get to the airport, but failed. Again and again, they set off but couldn’t make it, Masooda said.
Finally, on Aug. 23, the family headed out once more, via taxi, with a single backpack holding food, a cellphone charger and a backup battery. When they reached the gate with the Dutch soldiers, it was early morning — and a nightmare.
Frantic people were everywhere. The Taliban was shooting in the streets. The couple’s sons were terrified, Masooda said, telling their parents they wanted to go home, or to their grandparents’ house.
“They were in a big trauma,” she said.
Finally, as the crowd continued to push in around them, Habib passed out. He was unresponsive. As his terrified parents pulled off the coat he was wearing and tried to put water on his face to wake him up, the crowd backed up just enough for the Dutch soldiers to let them through the gate.
Over the next 24 hours, the family wandered the airport, unsure where to go. Their backpack held some biscuits and juice, a bit of sausage and some French fries. They shared it with other children whose families had no food at all.
Finally, they were offered seats on a Dutch military plane bound for the Netherlands and decided to take them. Masooda thought they would maybe be in the Netherlands for a few hours at most, before connecting to the U.S. on another flight.
Instead, they were there for 10 months.
With the promise of U.S. visas, the family was segregated from other immigrant families by Dutch officials. Their kids were not allowed to go to school with the other immigrant children. They lived in two rooms with one bathroom in a former prison, cut off from the wider world as they awaited U.S. visas delayed by massive bottlenecks in the U.S. immigration system.
“We had nothing,” Masooda said of their time there, “but we were happy to be safe.”
A future in the U.S.
The Qazis landed in the U.S. on June 14, choosing San Diego in part because Masooda has three sisters there — two of them now U.S. citizens.
One picked the family up from the airport. They stayed with her for two months, until they got their own apartment in El Cajon through the help of a local refugee assistance program called Helping Empower Community Refugees.
It was also through that organization that the Qazis found their first link back to the legal world.
Masooda found herself talking one day to Janet Koenig, a group volunteer who asked about her background. When Masooda said she was a lawyer, Koenig told her she had to meet a woman named Mytili Bala.
Bala is an appellate attorney who works for Justice William Dato of California’s 4th District Court of Appeal. She serves as president of the South Asian Bar Assn. of San Diego, and in recent months she has become a leading advocate for Afghan lawyers in the San Diego region.
Bala had convinced her bar group to launch a program supporting Afghan attorneys after reading about similar efforts by the International Assn. of Women Judges. They began reaching out to their legal networks and asking for volunteers to run training sessions for Afghan lawyers on aspects of American law, or help them in the job hunt by editing resumes, running mock interviews and writing recommendation letters.
Since its start, the group has assisted about two dozen Afghan attorneys, Bala said, including Masooda and Hamid — who proved quick studies.
Among the volunteers was Max Crema, then a law clerk for U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Margaret McKeown, who taught a course for Masooda, Hamid and a couple of others on constitutional principles, the structure of U.S. courts, the civil litigation process, legal research skills and other areas of law.
Crema, 31, praised the Qazis as “dedicated public servants who had the misfortune of outliving their government” and whom the U.S. is “lucky to have.”
“They have keen legal minds and are able to grasp esoteric procedural issues quickly. They are friendly, engaged and a delight to have in class,” he said. “They are fascinated by our constitutional system and often offer interesting insights using their knowledge of foreign legal systems.”
Masooda and Hamid said they have loved participating in the courses and are grateful to all the American legal professionals helping them.
They are both on the job hunt now, looking for entry-level legal positions at law firms, government agencies and nonprofits.
“Of course we worked in much higher positions in Afghanistan,” Masooda said. “But my idea is that now we need to start step by step.”
Their boys, now 10 and 5, are thriving once more, rapidly improving their English skills and meeting new friends at school. Gone are the nightmares that haunted them for months after leaving Kabul.
As for their 2-month-old daughter, Dewa, whose name means “light” and who, through birthright, is an American citizen, Masooda said she has only the highest hopes.
She finds joy in knowing her daughter will be free to study and grow into an educated woman, who one day might be empowered to work, just like her mother, for the betterment of all Afghan women and girls.
“I will tell her the story of what was going on in Afghanistan,” she said, “and I hope she will have the feeling to help.”
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