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

Sep 7, 2021
Originally published on September 9, 2021 3:12 pm

Updated September 9, 2021 at 9:10 AM ET

On Sept. 11, 2001, Said Noor was growing up in a mountain village in Khost, a southeastern province of Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan. He lived in an agricultural valley full of apple orchards and groves of peach trees.

On that day 20 years ago, Noor listened to BBC reports on the radio about a terrorist attack that took place halfway around the world.

"At the age of 11, I just had no idea what was going on," Noor, now 31, tells NPR.

Soon, the war would come to him.

In the months following 9/11, American warplanes dropped bombs on suspected Taliban and al-Qaida leadership compounds, training facilities and smuggling routes near Noor's village of Kundi. It was believed that hundreds of Taliban fighters were hiding in Khost and planning attacks from across the border in Pakistan.

"I remember we saw the [American] aircrafts — the fighter jets — for the first time," Noor says. "The Taliban started shooting at them, and we could see the artillery rounds going up toward the aircraft but it wouldn't reach them."

Khost became an early scene of intense fighting in America's longest war. The first U.S. service member to die by enemy fire in the war in Afghanistan was killed near the city of Khost on Jan. 4, 2002.

Noor remembers sitting in the dark with his family as nearby explosions shattered windows and shook the walls of his house. He remembers how the Taliban would fire rockets from the bed of a pickup truck parked outside his home. The war, he says, happened "right in front of our eyes." For him and his family, it would define the next 20 years.

He learned English by watching Rambo III and became a U.S. Army interpreter

By 2003, U.S. troops regularly passed through Kundi on their way to Forward Operating Base Salerno, a large U.S. military base that was just a 10-minute walk from Noor's neighborhood. He saw the Americans as liberators who could topple the Taliban's oppressive rule. As a boy, he watched the Taliban harass his mother for money, drag her out of the house by her hair and beat her. His father, employed as a truck driver in the United Arab Emirates, was not home regularly.

"My family was so happy to see [the Americans], people from my village were singing and dancing," Noor says. "A lot of us kids jumped up on their trucks. We had no idea how to communicate with them, so they gave us stuff like candies and water, notebooks and pens."

When Noor was a teenager, his brother accidentally knocked over a tea kettle and spilled hot water on his baby sister. Noor says her entire body was badly burned. "My mom had nowhere to provide medical treatment for her," he says. Noor rushed his sister to the Americans.

"I brought her to the base and then they had requested a medical doctor to come down. They really saved her life," he says.

Noor wanted to learn more about the Americans. He studied English by watching Rambo III, the 1988 action flick set during the Soviet-Afghan war, in which Sylvester Stallone's character embarks on a one-man mission against the invading Soviet army.

"Afghans were really interested in that [movie] because they hated the Russians, so they really liked Rambo," Noor says, laughing. "I was just picking up English from there."

By the time he turned 17, the U.S. Army hired him to work as an interpreter. He spoke Pashto, Dari and English on the battlefield and spent seven years alongside U.S. soldiers — often in combat.

Noor wanted to protect his identity, so a platoon sergeant gave him the nickname "Gizmo," embroidered on the name tape of his uniform.

Like many Afghans who supported the U.S. military mission, Noor was targeted by insurgents.

"I was recognized by the Taliban and they would call my family," Noor says. He found handwritten death threats hanging from his family's front door. "That's when I realized I was in danger and I had to leave my country."

After acquiring a U.S. special immigrant visa in 2014, Noor left Afghanistan for the first time in his life. His parents and eight siblings stayed behind.

Noor became a U.S. citizen and deployed back to Afghanistan with the Army

Texas was a long way from Kundi. Noor chose to live there — in Houston, specifically — because some of his friends from the U.S. military lived there.

"You open up the airplane window in Afghanistan, you see the mountains and the desert and a country that's been at war for more than 40 years," Noor says. "You open the airplane window [in the U.S.], my gosh — I didn't know such a country would exist in this world."

He took a minimum-wage job in a warehouse packing cellphones into boxes and was hired as a security guard at apartment complexes and banks. But Noor missed going on missions and decided to enlist as an interpreter and translator in the U.S. Army.

Said Noor wore this U.S. Army uniform when he served as an interpreter and translator shortly after becoming an American citizen in 2017. "I always wanted to be an American soldier wearing an American flag on my shoulder," he says. "And I would talk to Afghans, I'd say, 'I'm originally from here,' and they were so proud of me."
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In 2017, he became an American citizen, and one year later, he deployed back to the country of his birth to interpret for a U.S. Army general. Noor returned to Khost province — this time as an Afghan American.

"I was proud to be back there," he says. "I always wanted to be an American soldier wearing an American flag on my shoulder. And I would talk to Afghans, I'd say, 'I'm originally from here,' and they were so proud of me."

His 10-month deployment involved meetings with Afghan commanders, police chiefs and governors across 11 provinces. In August 2018, he served as interpreter at a top-level meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the city of Ghazni, after a bloody battle between Afghan government forces and the Taliban.

Yet even when he was stationed just a few miles from his childhood home, Noor was too fearful to visit his family. He worried about the risk of Taliban retribution.

"I had a choice," Noor says. "Either stay in the Army and never see my family, or get out of the Army and bring them to America."

For him, that choice was clear. He returned to Texas in November 2018 and would spend the next three years trying to relocate his family to the United States. In the summer of 2020, he returned to Afghanistan, hoping to expedite the process.

The threats to his family grew last year, with deadly results

Noor was back in Kundi on the warm night of Sept. 10, 2020.

"When I saw my little siblings, they had grown up so much," he says. He was finally reunited with his family after four years.

Noor had been honorably discharged from the Army in July 2020 and was determined to get his parents and siblings to join him in Texas.

Said Noor looks at pictures of his family members who recently evacuated from Afghanistan. Before they got out, "I was feeling so worried, stressed, I didn't want to eat, I didn't want to do nothing," Noor recalls. "Every time I got a call from Afghanistan, I was so scared to pick it up because I was thinking I would hear bad news."
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"I was there to help with their visa process and help with all the paperwork that they had to do on their side," Noor says. "And I was going to spend quality time with my family, but it turned out to be a disaster that I was there. It turned into chaos. It turned into a memory that I will never forget for a lifetime."

Noor says a bomb affixed to a motorcycle detonated directly outside his family's house while dozens of relatives and friends were gathered to celebrate his visit. At least four people were killed and 10 others were wounded. Noor says none of the deaths were family members.

"I took shrapnel in my chest and I also took some shrapnel in my legs," he says.

"Minor injuries," he says. "I went to the doctor and was released the same day."

The blast "smashed all the windows and all the doors to my house," Noor says. "It cracked the walls."

He took a photo of the mangled bike that was blown in half. The front wheel and handlebars were still attached, covered in ash.

Noor was certain the bomb was meant for him. He believes the Taliban committed the attack. Fearing for his family's safety, Noor immediately returned to the U.S., and now desperate to evacuate his relatives, he emailed the office of his senator, Texas Republican Ted Cruz, on Sept. 22, 2020. In his letter, which NPR has reviewed, Noor describes the "very dire situation" his family faced in Afghanistan:

"I and my family have been the target and have been added to the kill list of the terrorist groups ... As a disabled U.S veteran, I am respectfully requesting you to take of your precious time out of your busy schedule to talk about the concerns, I have for my safety and safety of my family overseas."

Noor says Cruz's office never responded to this email or to a voicemail message he left in July this year, requesting to speak with the senator.

In a statement to NPR, a spokesman for Cruz said: "For the privacy of our constituents, we are not able to provide specific details of requests that are received by our office. Senator Cruz is committed to using every resource available to ensure Americans trapped in Afghanistan and others at risk are safely evacuated. To date, our office has assisted over 1,000 people in getting out of Afghanistan, and will continue to do all they can to get the Americans and countless others still trapped in the country to safety."

Earlier this summer, Noor encouraged his family to move north to the Afghan capital, Kabul. "I thought they would be safe there," he says.

Time runs out

Back in Houston last month, Noor couldn't believe what he was seeing on TV. Taliban militiamen swept into Kabul on Aug. 15. Ghani — whom Noor had met in 2018 — fled the country. The Afghan government collapsed, and the Americans began a frenzied evacuation.

"It was shocking," Noor says. He received frantic calls from his parents in Kabul. His youngest sister was terrified.

"They could see the Taliban right outside of their house," Noor says. His family "knew they were the target of the Taliban before. Now, you could see the Taliban — you see your own enemies with your own eyes right outside the street."

Noor says he felt time was running out. In another attempt to contact U.S. lawmakers for help, Noor requested a meeting with Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Texas Democrat who represents his district in Houston. His Aug. 26 request read "ASAP Urgent Issue," with the topic of discussion listed as "Family immigration, evacuation from Afghanistan." Noor says he never heard back.

With the help of a Massachusetts congressman, Said's family — pictured on his phone — was able to evacuate Afghanistan days before the U.S. withdrew.
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Fletcher's office responded to NPR's request for comment with this statement: "Over the past few weeks, our team has worked tirelessly on behalf of more than 750 people — listening to their heartbreaking and courageous stories — to expedite communication with the State Department and try to help evacuate them from Afghanistan. We were glad to hear that Mr. Noor's family was safely evacuated from Afghanistan and are sorry we were not able to be of assistance in this case."

Noor says his family waited for days outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport with thousands of others, sleeping on the ground in hopes of getting airlifted out of the country.

"I was feeling so worried, stressed, I didn't want to eat, I didn't want to do nothing," Noor says. "Every time I got a call from Afghanistan, I was so scared to pick it up because I was thinking I would hear bad news. I was like, 'Who's going to post [my family's] pictures on Facebook of their dead bodies?' "

Then, Noor received a phone call.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, who learned of Noor's story through The Boston Globe, promised Noor that U.S. Marines would evacuate his family. (Moulton, a Marine Corps veteran, recently made headlines after a secret trip to Kabul on Aug. 24 with Peter Meijer, a Republican congressman from Michigan. Their unauthorized visit drew sharp bipartisan criticism in Washington.)

On Friday, Aug. 27 — just four days before the deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan — Moulton's office called Noor with instructions. His family was to meet a Marine at a gas station in Kabul immediately and provide the agreed-upon codeword: "Tom Brady."

Noor conveyed the message to them. Hours later, his family was aboard a U.S. military plane leaving Afghanistan.

This week, Noor reunited with his loved ones at Fort McCoy, a U.S. Army installation in Wisconsin where they are among 8,000 Afghan refugees being housed and processed.

"Sometimes, I feel like I'm still dreaming about the whole situation, like how [my family was] begging for help, how they were in a dire situation," he says. "Now, seeing them, seeing the smiles on their face, they're coming to a country where they can build a bright future for themselves."

Earlier this week, Noor scheduled a morning call with NPR for an update on his family's arrival in the U.S. That morning, however, he was late to join. After apologizing, Noor explained that he had set his alarm, but it didn't wake him. For the first time in months, he says, he was finally able to sleep.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.