An Afghan Interpreter Recounts His Family's Harrowing Escape From The Taliban Said Noor was 11 in 2001, growing up in an Afghan village. He later served as a U.S. Army interpreter, moved to Texas and became a U.S. citizen. Then he had to help rescue his family from the Taliban.

A Family's Escape From The Taliban Came Down To A Code Phrase: 'Tom Brady'

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a story this morning that captures the sorrow and struggle and occasional miracles of the past 20 years, the 20 years since 9/11. The attacks and their aftermath affected millions of lives on multiple continents, so you could take the emotions in this one story and multiply them by millions. The tale spans the globe, beginning a little bit west of us here in Islamabad. Cross the mountains at the Afghan border, and you would soon arrive at the home village of the man we're about to meet.

SAID NOOR: First name Said Noor - and I'm 31 years old.

INSKEEP: On September 11, 2001, Said Noor was a boy in a mountain village.

NOOR: I was living in Afghanistan, Khost province. I was probably around the age of 11.

INSKEEP: He was growing up in an agricultural valley.

NOOR: They have, like, apricot, and they have apples. They have, like, peaches.

INSKEEP: The village was global in some ways and in others incredibly remote. He was near an international border with Pakistan, the Russian army had occupied his country in the years before he was born, and his father sometimes worked in Dubai. But a trip to any major city from the village took many hours on broken roads. There was no phone, and Afghanistan's Taliban rulers allowed no TV broadcasts of any kind.

NOOR: What I remember there - like, in the entire village, my family were the one with the TV. I mean, we secretly had a TV that we had to put a bunch of pillows in the windows. The sound of the TV wouldn't come out in case the Talibans were passing by. We were just, like, mostly using it to watch movies and stuff.

INSKEEP: Oh, DVDs, I guess in that era or VHS of some kind.

NOOR: Yeah, mmm hmm.

INSKEEP: Because there was no news channel, it would be a long time before most Afghans saw images of destruction at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon in the United States. Said Noor's first view of the war was when it came to his valley a few weeks later.

NOOR: I remember the aircrafts. Like, we saw the fighter jets for the first time, and the Taliban start shooting them with the mortars and start shooting them with artilleries. And we could see the artilleries' rounds were, like, you know, going up toward the aircraft, toward the fighter jets, but it would not reach them. And after that, like, the fighter jets were flying over them, and we heard a big boom. That's when they dropped bombs on them. So we were so quiet. We were just spending our times in the dark days and night. We didn't want to turn anything on. We thought, like, Americans or the fighter jets are going to see it, and they're going to drop bombs on us.

INSKEEP: At first, the Americans had very few troops on the ground. But as the years went on, they sometimes passed through the village and established a base nearby. Said Noor was fascinated. He followed the Americans and tried to talk with them. And then, one day, there was an accident. Someone spilled hot water on his baby sister and badly burned her.

NOOR: Then I was like, Mom, let me take her to the Americans, you know, because they were outside. Then I took my little sister there. And the medic sighed. Like, he felt really bad. And they called the other medics, so they all came and started work on her, you know, try to treat her. And they gave me a piece of paper. They wrote something in English on it. They were like, bring her to the base. And then they had requested a medical doctor, like, a real doctor to come down. They really saved her life. Now she's a grown girl. You know, she goes to school.

INSKEEP: Was that, then, when you asked to work with the Americans?

NOOR: Yes.

INSKEEP: He wanted to be an American interpreter. And as he grew into his late teens, he worked on his English by watching DVDs of American films on that TV in his parents' house. He loved "Rambo III," an old movie from 1988 where Sylvester Stallone's character goes to Afghanistan to fight invading Russians.

NOOR: He had a movie, like, killing the Russians.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

NOOR: So Afghans were really interested in that because, you know, like, they hated the Russians. So they really like Rambo killing them. So we were watching those, and I was just picking up English from there.

INSKEEP: So Sylvester Stallone was your English teacher.

NOOR: Yeah.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) That's great.

NOOR: (Laughter) How to respect him as a teacher.

INSKEEP: Yeah - simple and direct sentences in those movies, as I recall.

NOOR: Yeah. I mean, my English was still, like, not that good. But I was able to communicate, you know?

INSKEEP: When U.S. military units finally hired him, he was so excited, he did not even ask how much he would be paid. As the years went on, American troops would rotate out of Afghanistan. Said Noor remained and welcomed their replacements.

Did you accompany troops into combat?

NOOR: Yes, I did.

INSKEEP: He recalls sitting beside an American soldier who was talking and suddenly stopped. Said turned to see why and realized the man had been shot.

NOOR: So I was recognized by the Taliban. And they would call me. They would call my families like, you know, like saying that - they were threatening us, saying that I have to quit my job, you know? And I also found letters - they posted night letters on my door and the front door to my house.

INSKEEP: Night letters, meaning?

NOOR: Yeah, like, threatening letters.

INSKEEP: Mmm hmm.

NOOR: And they were signed. They had like a stamp, and they had signatures of the Taliban commanders, Haqqani networks on the bottom of that letters saying that I was under their kill list - you know, they're going to come after me; they're going to kill me. And that's when I realized that I was in danger and I had to leave the country.

INSKEEP: He applied for a visa to the United States. Unlike so many other U.S. interpreters, his request was granted. And in 2014, he moved to Houston, Texas.

NOOR: I knew some of - some troops like, you know, some of my friends, like, from the military.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

NOOR: So I knew some of them were living here.

INSKEEP: He worked in different jobs. He recalls packing cellphones in boxes and being a security guard. Eventually, he became a United States citizen and decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. The military found him valuable for his language skills, and they ordered him to deploy to Afghanistan. He returned to his home country as an American, an interpreter for an Army general.

Were you able to go see your family?

NOOR: I just didn't want to put them at risk, you know, because if people see them, like - my family coming on base, you know, then they had to leave, so they have to take that risk. So I was not able to see my family.

INSKEEP: And I guess you couldn't just march over to see them 'cause you're in uniform.

NOOR: Yeah, I could not do that.

INSKEEP: After four years in the Army, the separation was too much to bear. He left the Army so he could return to Afghanistan, this time as an American civilian, and concentrate on helping his family emigrate to the U.S. In the fall of 2020, he returned to the valley where he'd grown up, the mountain valley outside Khost, and stayed at his parents' house.

NOOR: So I was thinking, like, I was going to do that, and I was going to spend quality time with my families. But it just turned out to be a disaster while I was there. You know? So things were not, you know, turn out as I expected them to be.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

NOOR: Like, the Talibans brought out a motorcycle IED, and they placed it in front of my house, and it went off.

INSKEEP: A motorcycle IED, an improvised explosive device on a motorcycle.

NOOR: Yeah, mmm hmm.

INSKEEP: So they just parked a motorcycle in front of your house, and it exploded.

NOOR: Yes.

INSKEEP: Who was there at the time?

NOOR: My family and my friends and some close relatives.

INSKEEP: Was anyone hurt?

NOOR: Four people killed and 10 others wounded. And I got wounded myself. But at least I sustained minor injuries. I was able to go to the doctor, you know, and be released the same day.

INSKEEP: This is a hard question to consider, but I feel I should ask it just to know what's on your mind. Are you pretty certain that that motorcycle exploded outside your family's house because of you - that the Taliban had committed that act of destruction to get at you?

NOOR: Yes, I'm pretty sure. I'm 100% sure about it.

INSKEEP: Said's effort to get his family out now became urgent. He helped them to apply for visas under the U.S. policy allowing family reunification. He then helped his mother, father and six brothers and sisters move to Kabul, where they would be safe while they waited.

NOOR: They were calling me as the Taliban were making their progress. But I told them, like, I moved them to Kabul; they're not going to go to Kabul because that's where the president is.

INSKEEP: Indeed, he was until the weekend the president left.

NOOR: They could see the Taliban right outside of my house. And my family, especially my young siblings, they were, like, really scared. They freaked out. They knew they were the target of the Taliban before. Now you could see the Taliban - like, you see your own enemies with your own eyes right outside of the street, you know?

INSKEEP: What was their visa status as the Taliban took over?

NOOR: You know, when the Taliban took over, I thought they were going to speed up the process, you know? Like, everything else changed. The government collapsed. You know, the Taliban took over. But the status of their visa never changed.

INSKEEP: The family tried to reach the airport. They slept outside the walls, and one was showered with tear gas. In Houston, Said called his member of Congress and his senator. He didn't hear back, but he also talked with reporters, and his story came to the attention of Congressman Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who'd been criticized for visiting the evacuation. Moulton is also a veteran, and his office called one of his military contacts at the airport, who sent Said's family to a gas station. American troops were ranging outside the airport to bring people in safely. When the troops appeared, the family gave the agreed upon password - Tom Brady. Hours later, they were on one of the last planes out. They arrived at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin over the weekend, and Said was flying out to meet them during this week of September 11.

NOOR: Sometimes I feel like I'm still dreaming about the whole situation - you know? - like how they were begging for help, how they were in a dire situations. Now, seeing them, you know, seeing the smiles on their face, coming to a country where they can have, like, you know - work on themselves and build a bright future for themselves.

INSKEEP: The relatives he brought over include his sister, the one who's burn injury triggered the relationship with Americans that eventually transformed his whole family's life. Having been treated so long ago by an American doctor, she wants to be one.

NOOR: She has a chance to be 100% right now. And that's what she believes in, you know? She said - and when she got on those flights, she says, I must start thinking about my future again. I want to be a doctor. I said that's - you know, that's something you will do it in this country. You know, nobody's going to stop you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS AND BONOBO'S "LOOM")

INSKEEP: Said Noor gave us the latest update on his story Saturday morning. He apologized for being late for the call. He'd set an alarm, but it failed to wake him. For the first time in weeks, he says, he's finally able to sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS AND BONOBO'S "LOOM")

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