Najia outside their apartment complex in Philadelphia. (Emily Whitney)

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Najia gave birth to her second daughter at a hospital just south of Indianapolis. It had been about two weeks since she and her husband, Ghulam Danish, arrived in the U.S. They’d left their home near Kabul in all of 10 minutes — scooping up 3-year-old Angela and fleeing for the airport.

The newborn’s name, Eliana, paid homage to her unwitting role in their passage. “It means ‘God answered’,” Danish said. “She was a VIP ticket for us when we were getting through.”

Because his wife was so heavily pregnant, he said, the guard in Kabul had a soft spot for the family. “He just took a glance at me, at Najia, at Angela. Najia was too heavy and Angela was without shoes — we were in a very bad situation. He tried to ignore us, and then he said, ‘Come in.’”

By the end of 2021, four months after the Taliban took over the government and instituted Islamic fundamentalist rule, more than 2.6 million Afghans were hosted internationally as refugees, while another 3.5 million were internally displaced, according to UN figures. The U.S. is 22nd on the list of countries resettling Afghans, with a total of 76,000 by last year. An estimated 800 have been resettled in Philadelphia.

Sitting in their living room in Northeast Philly late last year, Danish and Najia were able to take the time to enjoy a midday treat while watching their children play. 

Black tea and a spread of dates, walnuts, and chocolates sat on the table. Angela, now 5 years old, practiced her splits and other gymnastics moves, or sprawled across the carpet with colored pencils and papers. Eliana, just turned 1 year old, trekked back and forth with a cheeky grin, swerving toward the table to nab some more chocolate.

Although this is their second Philly apartment in just nine months, the couple is determined to press forward to establish a new beginning — one with freedom of opportunity, career advancement, and raising daughters as “independent women.”

Danish spins Angela as they spend time together during the morning on his day off from work in Philadelphia. (Emily Whitney)

A nick-of-time escape 

If Najia and Danish had waited until Eliana was born to leave the country, they wouldn’t have been able to get her a passport in time. The clock was ticking.

Both had been working with U.S.-connected organizations in Afghanistan, so their immediate escape was urgent. Najia had transitioned to working in humanitarian aid before the Taliban takeover, but Danish was still involved in translation of reports for the U.S. forces. A Taliban checkpoint happened to be right beside their home, so he was constantly afraid his neighbors might leak details. “If we were caught, we could have been killed immediately.” 

On Aug. 15, when Kabul fell, Najia and Danish were already in the process of leaving. Their passports were in the Indian embassy; it was shut down, so they had to enter the Taliban base and talk with their commanders to retrieve them.

Meanwhile, a friend was advocating for them to get what’s known as a special immigrant visa, or SIV. Five days after the takeover, he called and told them, “It’s time to go.”

They rushed to the airport where they found a heavy crowd — thousands of people trying to flee. “I was thinking that it will be hard for me to walk or move forward with such a situation. But we deal,” Najia said. She was 9 months pregnant. Angela lost her shoes in the melee. Danish had a rib injury. The soldier let them pass.

Danish in front of his car before for his daily commute to CHOP in Philadelphia in October 2022. “We do miss our country, but we have a strong feeling of making this our new home. We are not looking back. America is a land of dream and opportunity, and we know it.” (Emily Whitney)

Once inside, they waited at a site for evacuees until dark, and then Danish told an American soldier his wife was pregnant. They were moved along. Around 3 a.m., they arrived at an area where people were camping. It was a field. It didn’t have toilets. But they were offered packaged army food and water. And they felt almost like they’d made it, despite not yet leaving the ground.

“Even though I was in Kabul, I was feeling like I was somewhere else because we were safe,” Danish recalled. “Although we were just a few miles away from our home, we were thinking we were not in our country.”

The next morning, Najia appeared to be going into labor. Medics were able to get her on a military plane to Qatar — “a VIP situation,” Danish said.

Close to 500 others were on the plane with them. Oxygen was low. Space was lacking. People  started falling unconscious. Many had been injured in the chaos of getting into the airport. “I saw one without ears, the bullet cut the ears,” Danish said. “I saw one without legs.”

In Qatar, Najia saw a doctor at a U.S. base and her condition stabilized — the labor was a false alarm. After two weeks, the family was evacuated to Philadelphia.

Running a marathon…and washing dishes

Upon arriving in the U.S., the family was first sent to Camp Atterbury, a military base in Indiana. Women and men were separated, and Najia’s baby was due any day.

When she started going into labor, she called Danish on the phone. The ambulance arrived, but not everyone could ride in it, so father and daughter stayed back. They waited anxiously until around 1 a.m., when a nurse called to tell them Angela now had a baby sister.

Soon after Eliana was born, the four of them were placed into a facility for families, with separate rooms equipped with a fridge and indoor toilet. “That barrack became the newborn babies barrack,” Danish said, recalling 13 births at the camp. “I was literally the only English speaker.”

When their documents cleared on Nov. 13, 2021, they moved to Philadelphia. 

Najia prepares a snack for her daughters in their apartment in Philadelphia. (Emily Whitney)

Their first accommodations were in the Marriott Hotel near City Hall, and Danish picked up running as a stress reliever, learning every corner of downtown on his practice routes as he got in good enough shape to participate in the Philadelphia Marathon

In January 2022, he took a job at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as a service worker. The family rented an apartment nearby, but didn’t feel safe there. They moved to the Northeast, where they found other Afghan friends and appreciated the lack of density. “The streets are a little wider,” Danish said, “which we needed.”

Last year, Najia got a position as a wellness liaison for the Philadelphia immigrant services nonprofit Nationalities Service Center (NSC). She offered emotional support, and does interpretation, working often with immigrants from India because she knows five languages, including Hindi, Pashtu, and Dari. Her goal is to go back to school, get another master’s or a PhD, and begin a career in finance or accounting. 

Danish, with a bachelor’s in finance and an MBA in marketing, was drastically overqualified for the position washing dishes at CHOP. He has now started working at the NSC.

Meanwhile, Najia successfully gave birth to their third child, another girl.

Learning a new culture, and worrying for those left behind

Adapting to life in the U.S. is more than finding jobs and a house. Danish and Najia are establishing friendships, but slowly. They don’t yet feel integrated into American culture, but they’re hoping to — while still maintaining connections with their home culture. And the two are very different, Danish said.

“In Afghanistan, people get to know each other at the workplace more. Afghans are more hospitable in that sense… our house is open for you, we offer what we can offer.”

He’s also noticed people are more money-centered and emotionally attached to material things. In Afghanistan, he said, “there are people who don’t have money but can still live a happy life. Although we don’t have a lot of money, we don’t worry about losing this or losing that — I left my two houses in Kabul.”

Najia stocks up on groceries for the week with Eliana in tow. Typically, Najia and Danish shop at Acme as well as a Middle Eastern store to get foods like bread and lamb similar to those back home. (Emily Whitney)

Najia appreciates greatly that they had each other throughout the process. 

“You will miss your family, you will miss the food, or you will miss the environment that you were living in before,” she said, but they’ve managed to adapt. She described how Danish would take the family out to explore and discover new opportunities, telling them, “It’s life; leave the bad things, take the new things.”

Some things can be replaced, while others can never be the same again. The grieving process of leaving home is not over, and they are beset by memories of families left behind.

Danish had been helping his stepbrother and stepsister when the couple fled, and he worried there was no one left to support them. Fortunately, they both evacuated last year. “There was such a relief for me,” he said, “At least my sister is safe. She can live a life in Europe…she’s not with me, but at least she’s safe.”

Together with his Afghan friends, Danish organized a demonstration in Philadelphia in October 2022 to raise awareness about the persecution of Hazara people, the ethnic group he and Najia belong to. (Emily Whitney)

Najia still has a huge family in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, and they’ve been financially struggling after Afghanistan’s recent economic collapse. And they’re in danger, she said.

Last fall, a Taliban soldier beat her younger brother with the head of a gun, sending him into a coma for more than three days. A couple of years ago, her older brother was killed by poisoning. 

“A lot of Afghan people feel very betrayed… They are tired of war,”  Danish said. “The U.S. forces came, took the Taliban power out of Afghanistan, and let one generation study, let one generation see the fruit of democracy, the fruit of freedom. And then just installed back the same Taliban after spending billions of dollars.”

At the demonstration on Oct. 9, Angela and other children place a rose in memory of each of the 19 people killed in the bombing. (Emily Whitney)

A bright future for the girls

In Philadelphia, Najia believes the future is bright for their children — who have many opportunities they would not have in Afghanistan, especially because they’re female.

“If they study hard, if I support them, if their father supports them, [I’m] 100% sure that they [will be] someone in the future. And the only thing they need is our motivation,” she said. Back in her country, schools would be closed to them, but here, “I can see their futures are bright. They will be independent women.”

She believes in empowering women to be successful. “[I’d] just like to be someone for myself and to be an independent woman. This opportunity we didn’t have.”

The Taliban does not believe in women’s equality or women’s education, Danish said. If they ever allow girls to go to school, it’s in a controlled manner, he said.

“They have changed the university curriculum — they have put [in] a lot of religious books instead of scientific books. They have shut down the faculty of arts and movies and filming. They have shut down everything which is very important to society.”

Najia and Angela discuss where she can play at the park while Danish buckles Eliana into her stroller. (Emily Whitney)

He plans on getting a job in marketing, moving the family out of the dense city, and buying a house in the suburbs. One day, he hopes to start a business of his own. “That was one of the reasons that I chose to study for my MBA,” he says. “The U.S. is a wonderful place for business.”

The couple’s long-term dream is to be surrounded by mountains, just like they were back in Kabul. “Najia and I want to see a mountain in front of us, in back of us,” Danish said.

For now, they’re living in Northeast Philadelphia and putting in the energy to raise their daughters.

Danish thinks the eldest, Angela, will be a leader, because of her natural maturity. He sees the same resilient spirit he had when he was young, wanting to engage in challenges. They enrolled her in gymnastics classes — and she has excelled. “I hope,” said the proud father, “she can one day become a champion.”

Angela in the family bedroom in Philadelphia in October 2022. Sometimes she asks her parents when they will see their relatives since her memories of Afghanistan are still strong. (Emily Whitney)
As they prepare to run errands, Najia sits in the back seat with her daughters. (Emily Whitney)
Najia and Danish at Acme with both girls along for the ride. (Emily Whitney)
Danish loads groceries into the trunk while Najia takes care of Eliana. (Emily Whitney)
Angela tickles her little sister Eliana in the car. (Emily Whitney)
Danish and Najia have a midday tea break at home, albeit distracted by the girls’ activities. Taking time for tea and treats in the late morning is typical rhythm of life they maintain from Afghanistan. (Emily Whitney)
Eliana falls asleep in her father’s arms at home in Philadelphia on Sept. 6, 2022. (Emily Whitney)
Afghans in Philadelphia demonstrate in October 2022 after a suicide attack on an educational center in western Kabul that killed at least 19 people — mostly young women. (Emily Whitney)

Emily Whitney is a photographer and photojournalist who focuses on promoting organizations that advocate for justice and enable opportunity through my creative services. She has worked in Africa, Central...