‘Darkest Days of Our Lives': El Cajon Families Rescued From Afghanistan Talk About Their Experience

Starting Aug. 16, the Cajon Valley Union School District in San Diego’s East County community of El Cajon began tracking at least 8 local families who had gotten stranded in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s takeover

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What to Know on Sept. 1, 2021

  • As of 5 p.m. on Sept. 1, the Cajon Valley Union School District said 38 San Diego-area residents had been rescued from Afghanistan, including 21 students who attend schools with the Cajon Valley Union School District
  • At one point, there were at least 8 San Diego-area families stranded in Afghanistan during the Taliban's violent takeover, all with children who go to school in the Cajon Valley Union School District in east San Diego County
  • The CUVSD said one family from El Cajon was left behind in Afghanistan; the district is “exploring strategies to rescue and bring them home.”

Some San Diego-area families who were stranded and then rescued from Afghanistan during the Taliban takeover spoke out about their experience Thursday, as the district gave new details on the one family still stuck in Afghanistan.

"We had the darkest days of our lives, and we experienced such a horrible time that we could ever imagine. It all happened in one night," said a Cuyamaca College student, who did not provide her name.

We had the darkest days of our lives, and we experienced such a horrible time that we could never imagine.

Cuyamaca College Student, Now Safely Home in San Diego County

She said her husband and several other family members are still stuck in Afghanistan.

A father of five kids, who declined to provide his first name and went by Mr. Faizi, spoke about how difficult it was to leave Afghanistan even though all of them had legal status in the United States.

“It wasn’t so easy for us, for those people who were in the Kabul airport who were waiting to cross the gate. With five kids, families, it was not easy to pass the gate,” Faizi said.

Faize said he was stuck for four days inside the base with no shelter, and with nothing.

Faizi said he sent multiple emails to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the U.S. Embassy until he got in contact with Family and Community Engagement (FACE) who then helped him and his family leave.

I want to say thanks to those who helped us in Afghanistan, especially the Marines. I want to say sorry for those people who lost their lives. Marines or Afghans, they are part of our family

Mr. Faizi

Another father, Mr. Furmulli, described the past weeks as a "bad dream" saying, "It was a very tough time over there. It was like a bad dream we had for the past 14 days. So, finally, we made it, but we have a lot of people over there waiting for the help."

Fraidoon, a Family and Community Liaison for the Cajon Valley Union School District, worked directly with the stranded families. Fraidoon criticized the United States and called on the government to do something for the thousands still stuck in Afghanistan.

“We still have thousands of families, invisible families, who are still stuck in Afghanistan, who are U.S. passport holders, green card holders, SIV holders,” he said. “We are not just talking about one family, my family, it’s about a thousand people who are invisible, who need our help to get them out of Afghanistan."

Since around Aug. 16, the Cajon Valley Union School District and Congressman Darrell Issa – whose district includes the central and northeastern part of San Diego County, including El Cajon – have been tracking at least eight El Cajon-area families who were stranded in Afghanistan.

Several East County families who were stranded in Afghanistan while visiting loved ones have made it safely back to San Diego County.

The families include children who attend various schools within the Cajon Valley Union School District. According to the district, the families had been on summer vacation visiting extended family in Afghanistan weeks before the Taliban took control of Kabul.

As the takeover unfolded, it became clear that returning home to San Diego County was going to be difficult. Little by little – and with much communication with the CVUSD and Issa’s office – the families began safely returning home to San Diego.

According to Howard Shen, spokesperson for the CVUSD, as of Sept. 1, a total of 38 members of these San Diego-area families had been rescued from Afghanistan, including 21 kids who are Cajon Valley students. One family has not yet made it back to San Diego but is in the U.S.

Shen said one El Cajon family that includes three CVUSD students and one toddler was “left behind” in Afghanistan after the full withdrawal of U.S. troops on Aug. 31.

“We are exploring strategies to rescue and bring them home,” Shen said via email.

Dr. David Miyashiro, Superintendent of the CVUSD, told NBC 7 that the one family who is left is 15 hours away from Kabul which is one of the main reasons they have not left the country yet.

Miyashiro said they have been communicating with the family through WhatsApp but said as they were trying to get all families out, they were all moving from house to house trying to avoid the Taliban.

One local family stranded in Afghanistan is now safely back in the U.S., but there are at least 18 other students from the Cajon Valley Union School District still stranded. NBC 7's Dave Summers reports.

The school district said they are offering counseling services to all the children to help them process what they experienced in the past weeks.

San Diego Students Stranded in Afghanistan: A Timeline of How It Unfolded, Day by Day

Aug. 31, 2021:
Shen said Tuesday that four of the local families were now safely back home in El Cajon. Those families include seven adults and 14 students in the district. Some of those students were even able to return to school on Monday to what Shen said were “the open arms of their teachers and classmates.”

Shen said two other Cajon Valley families were in the U.S. Tuesday, flying home to San Diego County. Another family is safely out of Afghanistan, he said, and also on their way home to the U.S.

On Tuesday, Rep. Issa told NBC 7 his office has been in contact with around five families in or near Kabul, Afghanistan, who are sheltered in place in what appear to be, for now, safe havens.

"Two of the family units got through the checkpoints but were not extracted. After multiple attempts, they went back home. We’re now looking for alternate ways to get these individuals out," Issa said.

Now that U.S. military and State Department personnel have left the country, Issa said there is no easy way to extract the families. The system for extraction, which included documentation and verification with the State Department, broke down over the last few days, according to Issa.

“We’re dealing with some tough situations and some very traumatized individuals and doing what we can to stay in touch with them, but it’s a very fluid situation," he added.

Issa said he expects El Cajon to receive thousands of Afghan refugees because of the city's existing Afghan population and ties to the region.

"I know that San Diegans will do everything they can to help those who have helped us," he said.

Aug. 30, 2021:
The CVUSD said some more of the students of the families who had been stranded in Afghanistan were safely back home in east San Diego and were even able to return to school on Monday.

Several East County families who were stranded in Afghanistan while visiting loved ones have made it safely back to San Diego County.

Aug. 27, 2021:
By Aug. 27, two of the CUVSD families were en route to San Diego from Afghanistan, Congressman Darrell Issa's office said. Those two families included seven people – three adults and four children.

At this point, Issa’s office said those two families marked six El Cajon-area families that had been evacuated from Kabul since the Taliban takeover. Across those first four San Diego-area families, there were seven adults and 16 children.

NBC 7's Dave Summers speaks with Congressman Darrell Issa about the families from the San Diego area who are stranded in Afghanistan.

“This has been an around-the-clock operation, and individuals inside of government and outside of it deserve our deepest thanks. But more members of our community still need our help. The mission is to bring our people home, and we will continue to do it,” Issa said last week.

The CVUSD and Issa's office continued to work together to keep track of the CVUSD families stranded in Afghanistan.

At least 18 other students from the district with five other families are still not home, however, reports NBC 7's Rory Devine.

Meanwhile, the CVUSD said counseling was available on school sites for students having difficulty processing the situation, students with questions about the impact of the crisis in Afghanistan on their missing classmates.

"The Cajon Valley Family And Community Engagement Department is ready and able to support Cajon Valley families and connect them to needed resources," CVUSD continued in its statement. "Cajon Valley Union School District Community and Staff wait with open arms for the safe return of all of our families."

There are at least 18 other students from the Cajon Valley Union School District still stranded in Afghanistan. An Afghan woman, whose family is still stranded, worries for the safety of them. NBC 7's Rory Devine reports.

Aug. 26, 2021:
On Aug. 26, the Pentagon confirmed there had been an explosion outside Kabul airport that ended with casualties, further throwing the U.S. evacuation efforts into turmoil. The initial blast outside the airport’s Abbey Gate resulted in a number of U.S. and civilian casualties, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Twitter.

Officials confirmed Thursday that 13 U.S. service members had been killed in the Kabul attack. Many of those service members were stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County.

Ten of the 13 service members were stationed at Camp Pendleton. Military families and people in the San Diego are saying their feelings are still raw after the brutal attack. NBC 7's Kelvin Henry reports.

In an emotional speech from the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden said the Aug. 26 bloodshed would not drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan earlier than scheduled.

“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday said he is sticking to his Aug. 31 Afghanistan evacuation deadline, adding that “each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”

Aug. 25, 2021:
On Aug. 25, one of the San Diego area families – six local students and their mom and dad – were able to safely return to Southern California, a liaison working with the families told NBC 7.

The CUVSD confirmed that the El Cajon families who were stranded in Afghanistan had traveled separately to the country for summer vacations to see their grandparents, cousins, and other relatives. Most of the families came to the United States on a special immigrant visa after having worked for the U.S. government or U.S. military in Afghanistan, officials said. The visa allows only the person and their spouse and children.

At least 113 Afghans were killed and 180 injured in Thursday's attacks outside Kabul airport, according to an unnamed Afghan Health Ministry source. 13 U.S. servicemen were also killed.

The district said many of the families left for their vacation to Afghanistan in early May and June, months before the crisis unfolded and the president of Afghanistan fled as the Taliban seized power.

“Just like you and I, they had used the summer to go back to see their relatives," CVUSD Superintendent David Miyashiro told the AP last week. “No one felt that were going to be unsafe or unable to return.”

The CVUSD said the families of the students had reported to the district that the students would not be able to start the school year on Aug. 17 because the kids and their parents were in Afghanistan, unable to get out of the Kabul airport.

The superintendent said the families are particularly scared because of the Aug. 31 deadline for the United States to end its withdrawal.

Issa also spoke of the importance of getting the local families safely out of Afghanistan before Biden Administration's Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops.

“This could end at any time and that is one of the reasons we are trying to get them out,” Issa told NBC 7 San Diego on Wednesday night. “We don’t want any Americans to be one of those people clinging to the helicopter at the end.”

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