The chaotic last days of the U.S. military’s operations in Afghanistan in 2021 left many citizens of both countries to fend for themselves in a panicked race to escape the Taliban. Philadelphia-based author Jeffrey Stern’s latest book, The Mercenary: A Story of Brotherhood and Terror in the Afghanistan War, chronicles his time as a journalist and teacher in that country and the U.S. military withdrawal in the summer of 2021 through the eyes of individual Afghans trying to evade the wrath of the Taliban, and foreigners attempting to help.
While he was in Afghanistan, Stern met Aziz Royesh, founding principal of Marefat High School, which taught art and critical religious and political studies to boys and girls together, in defiance of Taliban law. A member of the Hazara, a persecuted ethnic minority group, Royesh was one of thousands targeted by the Taliban when they came back to power. Thanks to the combined efforts and talent of several compassionate, concerned Philadelphians — including Stern, Inquirer reporter Trudy Rubin, and former State Treasurer Joe Torsella — Royesh and his family of 10, made it to safety in the U.S., and now reside near Washington Crossing.
Here, Stern recounts the story of how he met and befriended Royesh and his family, and how colleagues and friends in Philadelphia stepped up when needed most. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christina Griffith: How did you come to befriend Aziz Royesh and his family?
Jeffrey Stern: It would have been 2007, shortly after I’d gone to Afghanistan. I stumbled into this low-level job at the American University of Afghanistan, got a little house and a little stipend to support my habit of trying to, you know, be a war correspondent for basically $0.
My Afghan boss, who had gone to America when he was 13 or 14 and been educated there, was very supportive of me trying to sneak out and write when I could, so he started saying you say you want to write meaningful, interesting stories about what’s going on here. You should go out to the slums where there’s this school … Once a week, he went from the University to the school to teach an English class, 45 minutes to an hour away. One day, he couldn’t make his regularly-scheduled class, so he asked me to go in his place. I couldn’t say no, because he was my boss.
At the time, there was a dirt road to Dashte Barchi, which means “the desert of Barchi.” It’s crowded and bumpy, and you get to this place, walk in and it was just this really amazing place full of energy.
The people of this region speak Dari, a dialect of Farsi, and Pashto, but in the cities, it’s a lot more Dari. I’ve learned a little bit; at my peak, I could do a very basic errand on my own. I learned just enough to get myself in trouble. I would learn a greeting, and I would practice it and get it just right so that sometimes, I could fool someone into thinking I knew what I was talking about. And then disaster would ensue. Actually, I got arrested once because I got a little bit cocky, and I tried to get a haircut…
You got arrested trying to get a haircut?
I was forced into a humility that I think I wouldn’t have otherwise had, and I think a lot of other Westerners and foreigners, in a sense, didn’t have, because there’s a bit of an attitude of I’m here to do important work, and everyone is so inefficient and such a pain in the ass.
I thought because I speak English, I can teach English; it didn’t really occur to me that those are two different things. I didn’t really know any of the grammar rules. I started trying to teach, and [the students] started correcting me. One of the kids raises his hand, and he goes, Sir, in the name of the Prophet, we think we’ve taught you more than you’ve taught us. And it was in the sweetest way, and they all kind of laughed, and it was just like, I have to spend more time here. I started going back roughly once a week to teach English, but really, just to hang out and talk in English to a group of students.
So my first memory of Aziz Royesh is him standing outside that classroom with a smile on his face that was like, It’s nice of you to come, but also … You’re an idiot.
I’m actually really grateful for that because it’s such a special relationship to me. When things got really intense, that helped me a lot to be able to, in the midst of everything, just make some dumb jokes, and have him make some dumb jokes. His kids too, are all like that. He’s something between a father figure and older brother figure. He’s a really special person, but he also has a mischievous streak and sense of humor, you know?
In the midst of all of this, probably about five years ago, he got really into The Hunger Games. He can give you a very detailed Ph.D.-level analysis of how The Hunger Games is a perfect demonstration of Afghanistan. And so … he started calling me “Drunk Haymitch.” Every email was, My Drunk Haymitch. My Dear Drunk Haymitch, how are the visas going?
You came back to Philadelphia in 2010 to work at the National Constitution Center, which hosted Aziz and a group of his students for a few weeks as part of Being “We the People”: Afghanistan, America and the Minority Imprint, a photo exhibition by students from Marefat High School in Kabul and Constitution High School in Philly. What happened when they returned to Afghanistan?
We stayed in touch on and off. Aziz, he just never gets ruffled, when bad things happen. He’ll get amused. The only time I’ve seen him really worried was 2012. The Obama administration was talking about the “Zero Option.” There was talk of, as we wind down Afghanistan, pulling all the troops back. They were beginning a drawdown. Aziz was like, How could they do this? Everything will be lost, why would they do this? Can you tell Obama not to do that? I was like, yeah, just …
Hold on, lemme get him on the phone.
And so Aziz, in a bit of desperation or inspiration, was like, I’m gonna run for president. He’s from a very small minority group, the Hazara. He’s the wrong religion. They’re Shia; everyone else is Sunni. He’s been an outspoken proponent of coeducation, which is appealing to some people and disqualifying to others. But he thought it would maybe create space for his vision of civil society. He wasn’t going to become president, but a campaign could generate a safe space for what he’d been building.
For some reason, the idea occurred to me to try to document that in a film, which I had never done before. At the same time, I was trying to figure out if I was going to write a book. At some point, I was like, Oh, obviously, this is the book. So it started as a countdown to the end of the NATO mission, which was winding down, and Aziz’s campaign for president, which, shortly after getting the little book deal, he was no longer running for president, but there was still a sort of … different members of the community trying to prepare for whatever comes next. So it’s 2013. I’m working on the book that was about the school and about him and about also, this not-quite Zero Option. That became my 2017 book, The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War.
Fast forward now to spring 2021. And there’s the Biden announcement. I began talking to people, friends, and supporters of the school in England, but in the U.S., it ends up being really, people from Philadelphia, people from the Constitution Center nexus: [former Vice President of Government Relations] Hugh Allen, [the former CEO] Joe Torsella, and [Philadelphia Inquirer] journalist Trudy Rubin.
Aziz and his family needed to get out of Afghanistan. What happened?
Hugh was, like he is in most things, the guy kind of quietly putting things in position to succeed, and giving the little, You might want to ask person X question Y; she’s in position to help.
Trudy is one of the best journalists working. All over the world, I’ve come across people who revere her. But I’m not sure people really know how much she does off the page too. People ask her for help, and she can’t help everyone, but there are books to be written about the things she never wrote about. You know, if someone translated for her for five minutes once, she remembers that person, and when that person gets in trouble 15 years later, she’s figuring out how to get them out from afar.
So, she’s met Aziz, she knows the school, she’s helped me in a bunch of ways connected to the school, and she answered every call. But she was also trying to tell people about the disaster that was about to happen, both in her column, but also in her meetings at the White House. She knew a lot of Afghans she was desperately trying to get out too, and still is.
In addition to alerting principals on the National Security Council about what was going on, she connected us to Senator Bob Casey’s office, to Ambassador [to Afghanistan] Ronald Neumann, and to General Allen [then-Commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan]. She actually got General Allen to arrange a fellowship for Aziz and support for his family at the Brookings Institute in Washington. No one appreciated that it was functionally impossible to get visas.
Like Trudy, it’s kind of impossible to summarize what Joe Torsella did. But he also got contacts from the state and the U.N. involved. He also helped get Senator Casey’s office involved, got Governor Wolf to write a letter, and other ambassadors and executives to put pressure when and where we needed it and to sign on to letters. He also somehow kept a cool head throughout the weeks of round-the-clock work, and while I definitely fucked up some relationships, he steered us toward engaging with people in a way that made it easiest for them to help.
He combined a humanitarian heart with political tact. That was really important from both a team management/crisis management point of view, but also because we were venturing into actual diplomatic crises we couldn’t quite see. There were periods of time when we were leaning really heavily on the Qatari government, times when we were leaning on the Rwandan government, times we were interacting with operatives saying they represented a government but where the lines were a little hazy. And, there were times when I asked U.S. officials, for example, to help amplify a request to a Gulf government without realizing there were serious conflicts. So there were just a lot of minefields we had to try to navigate. They were invisible to me; Joe was often able to anticipate them and steer us around them.
A huge part of this what do we do next was Philadelphia people, just tapping their contacts, and this is sort of a silver lining because as it accelerated and became a horrible time, there were people doing everything they could to help … It wasn’t even possible for there to be ulterior motives.
So that wild few months turned into a wild few nights. It was right after Kabul fell that Aziz and his family got out. I describe some of that in The Mercenary. They ended up at a Qatar base for a while, then in Quantico, and eventually settled in Pentagon City, Arlington. A nice little setup, but it was a little bit weird because, literally, the backyard was the Pentagon. That’s where they were until, like, a week ago.
How did the Royesh family end up here?
I was born here, I grew up here. When my parents first moved here, my mom was working at Conrail as a young corporate lawyer. There was this older boss in the general counsel’s office, Charles Bramham, who’s a really sweet guy and kind of looked after her. He and his wife were, I think, my parents’ first friends. They had this old house in Washington Crossing, with a pond and a pool. And we would go out there, and it was like going to my grandparents. They were these weekend trips where we drive for — you know, at the time, it felt like we drove for days, but it was like 30 minutes. We lived in Mount Airy, which was a very lovely area, but still, going out there was like going into the 1940s.
The Bramhams both passed away last year. And Diane Bramham, one of their daughters, said that they have this old house that they inherited and didn’t want to get rid of. They wanted to be useful. They thought of me.
I didn’t even know, honestly, that Aziz and his family had any interest in moving. Aziz’s oldest son, Abuzar, who is also an amazing person, and their daughter-in-law, were based in Northern California, and they had moved to the East Coast.
It’s a very bizarre situation because, you know, it’s been two years of begging people to, Take this family or take that family, and all of a sudden, I have this offer, and I don’t really know what to do with it. And so I wrote to our group, Does anyone know anyone? I can’t think of anyone who needs this. And Abuzar was like, Actually, my parents, my dad, and my family want to move. One thing led to another, and I barely had to do anything; I connected Diane to them, and then it just sort of happened.
So now I’m trying to help Aziz enroll his kids in school. And it occurred to me that while Aziz has figured out how to educate thousands of kids from 13 provinces in Afghanistan, skirting the Taliban rules, I had one job, which was to enroll two of the kids in junior high and high school, and I already fucked it up, I enrolled them in the wrong district.
But that’s about right. That also kind of sums up our relationship.
Jeff Stern’s latest book is The Mercenary: A Story of Brotherhood and Terror in the Afghanistan War.
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