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KU student helps family escape Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, find new home in Lawrence

Ahmad “Baset” Azizi is a KU political science student, not a congressman. But that’s what his older sister claimed as she showed a picture of Azizi to an officer at the crowded Kabul airport on Aug. 24. Her family was desperately trying to escape Afghanistan after it fell to the Taliban.

This story was enough to catch the U.S. military officer’s attention. The family emerged from the chaotic crowd and onto a plane headed for Abu Dhabi, where Azizi’s parents and three sisters are safe, waiting to continue their trip to their new home in Lawrence.

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Azizi, who has raised nearly $50,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to cover the cost of their resettling, hopes they will arrive within the next week.

For Azizi, his family’s liberation is a kind of déjà vu. The 22-year-old grew up in Kabul during the first Taliban rule. He attended grade school across the street from the Ministry of the Interior — a primary target for terrorist bombings and violence — before his family whisked him away to music school.

“It took me a couple weeks to learn a few notes on the trumpet. I liked it, so I said, ‘OK, I will work hard to become the best trumpet player I can,’” Azizi says.

At age 14, Azizi arrived at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. At 16, he was invited to the KU School of Music, as one of the only Afghan trumpet players in the U.S. Now he’s just one semester away from graduating with degrees in music, political science and international studies.

Courtesy of Ahmad "Baset" Azizi Ahmad “Baset” Azizi plays trumpet at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Although music served as his departure from Afghanistan, politics is his way of embracing his heritage.

“I’m a peace ambassador,” Azizi says. “I want to show the real and beautiful face of Afghanistan, with its rich history, culture and food.”

The view from the hill

Ahmad Baset Azizi during his congressional internship

Azizi’s love for international relations drove him to Washington, D.C., for a congressional internship under Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-KS). This opportunity allowed him to “give back, because people in Kansas are so open-minded and kind, and I appreciate my education,” Azizi said.

This passion is also a way to honor his father’s career as a military man. But this legacy immediately made Azizi’s father a target for Taliban retribution, having assisted the U.S. government and NATO military efforts for the past 20 years.

“The Taliban [were] steps away from our door. They [were] asking our neighbors to show them the collaborators, government workers and those who have connections or relatives in the U.S.,” Azizi said in a Facebook post.

Azizi believed he was one of the few Afghans on the hill when Kabul was taken over by the Taliban. During that time, he tried to help his family escape by tapping his connections in the very institution that made Kabul a more dangerous place for them.

Leaving everything behind

Azizi knew something bad was coming when the U.S. announced it would withdraw its troops from the country. He remembered studying this same kind of scenario in his political science classes, when it happened in Iraq and gave way to the rise of ISIS, and it gave him an eerie sense of foreshadowing.

Back in July, Azizi told his dad he needed to organize their paperwork to get them out of the country. This gave them the edge they needed by the time they left, with almost no time to spare.

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“I didn’t think the country would fall in a matter of days,” Azizi says. “We quickly made five plans for them. If the first didn’t work, then hopefully the second would, and so on.”

When they had clear directives from Azizi, his family left home for the airport in the early hours of the morning. They locked the door behind them and left everything behind.

“My dad always had the opportunity to live in the U.S. or Europe, but he wanted to stay in Afghanistan,” Azizi says. “But now he was willing to leave the country. When you have a family, you’re not just a military guy anymore. I believe he only agreed to leave not for his own safety, but for the safety of his family, especially my three sisters and my mom.”

The Taliban’s takeover has threatened women’s rights across the nation, including access to education and protection from gender-based violence. Azizi’s sisters are grateful for the opportunity to find a better life elsewhere but plan to keep fighting for the other women left behind, who face an uphill battle of fighting for equality at the risk of their own lives.

“I am in contact with my friends in Afghanistan and they are not allowed to go to school anymore. Girls are staying at home and Afghanistan is returning to the dark ages of the first Taliban-ruled Afghanistan again,” Azizi’s oldest sister says. We are withholding her name because of safety concerns.

She graduated with a law degree from Kabul University, where Monday the new chancellor announced that women are banned from attending or working as instructors.

“As I graduated, my only hope was to work in the judiciary system to stand and defend women’s rights in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I could not work due to the corrupted government and dark views of the terrorist groups in Afghanistan,” she said. “I am committed to continuing working to stand with women and work to defend women’s rights in Afghanistan.”

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Coming to Lawrence

After six years apart, Azizi is looking forward to reuniting with his parents in Lawrence.

“I’m just excited for them to be safe,” he says. “I’m grateful to be with them again, share meals, just see them and hug them in person.”

This crisis situation was a difficult and perhaps life-defining one for Azizi.

But he’d do it all over again, because as he says, “you just have to try and do whatever you can to make life comfortable for your family.”

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