KU student helps get his family out of Afghanistan, anticipates happy reunion in Lawrence after terrifying ordeal
photo by: Contributed
This summer was hellish for Ahmad Baset Azizi, a University of Kansas student who was working desperately to get his family out of Afghanistan as the Taliban overran the country.
But in the final week of August, his fear and anxiety gave way to relief and joy as he learned that his parents and three sisters had safely boarded a plane from Kabul to the United Arab Emirates — just a day before a suicide bomber struck the Kabul airport, killing 182 people.
It was a “terrifying” nine days from the time the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital until his family escaped, “but hopefully they will be in the U.S. in the next week or two,” he told the Journal-World Thursday.
Azizi, who came to the U.S. at age 16 to study music, has not seen his family in six years. He has spent dark hours not knowing whether he’d ever see them again, but now anticipates an imminent reunion in Lawrence, where they hope to live for the foreseeable future. Azizi has been instrumental in gathering the necessary paperwork and making arrangements.
When the five of them arrive, it will be with just a few clothes — they had to abandon all other possessions, along with their home and savings in Kabul — but here, Azizi says, they will have what matters most: one another and a future.
He says he is especially happy for his sisters, who will have opportunities that would not be possible under the Taliban regime, which is known for banning education and public life for women.
“They would be so limited,” he says.
Before the Taliban regained power, his oldest sister was able to obtain a law degree at Kabul University — which he cheerfully notes is “another KU.” Another sister just graduated from high school, and the youngest is 14.
‘Both are kind’
Now 22, Azizi, called Baset by friends and family, speaks English fluently and blends in easily with other students at KU, although he says he is often mistaken for being Italian or some other nationality.
He chalks the mistake up to people having notions about what Afghan men look like — big beards, turbans, unsmiling faces — and politely laughs it off.
One of his personal missions during his time in America has been to educate people about the “real” Afghanistan, which he says is not, fundamentally, the Taliban, terrorism and burqas.
“There is a rich culture, history and beauty in Afghanistan,” he says.
Azizi has of course heard stories about how Afghan evacuees are sometimes treated badly — how people like Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson have said, “It could be dangerous to have them in our state.” But he still has faith that his family will be warmly received.
“Lawrence is a good place,” he says, and, despite prominent exceptions, he thinks everyday Americans have this in common with everyday Afghans: “Both are kind.”
‘I’m going to be a musician’
Azizi was born in 1999, during what he refers to as “the first ruling time of the Taliban,” a period which lasted from 1996 to 2001, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. After the invasion, he attended a school near the Ministry of the Interior in Kabul, which became a favorite target of Taliban hostility. He says the windows of his school were shattered by explosions and he sometimes saw body parts on the streets.
photo by: Courtesy of Ahmad Baset Azizi
His family eventually deemed the school unsafe, and his father, a military officer aligned with American and NATO forces, asked him if he would like to attend another school — one that specialized in music. Young Azizi quickly agreed, thinking — mistakenly, it turns out — that he would not have to study “real subjects” like math.
“I was so happy,” he says. “I thought, well, I’m not going to study anymore. I’m going to be a musician.”
A teacher at the school asked him what instrument he would like to play. He said the piano. The teacher thought for a moment, then said, “No, you will play the trumpet.”
“I said OK, whatever, I do not know what a trumpet is,” Azizi recalls.
The teacher showed him.
“What is this, a piece of iron?” he thought. “I did not like it, but I thought saying no might be disrespectful.”
After he had learned to play a few notes, he changed his mind: “It was the coolest thing,” he says.
He discovered the bright sounds the horn could produce, and he made up his mind to master it, “to become the best trumpet player I could be.” By the time he was a teenager he was playing with the national orchestra in Afghanistan and with U.S. military bands — an opportunity that would have been unthinkable if the Taliban were running the country then, as they had banned all music, especially Western music.
When Azizi was 15, an American friend encouraged him to apply for the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, and he was accepted. From there he was encouraged to study trumpet at KU by professor Steve Leisring and then-Provost Neeli Bendapudi, who saw a CBS News story about Azizi. He has been in Lawrence since 2017.
“He is quite a young man,” Leisring told the Journal-World, recounting how Azizi would come to class after sleepless nights communicating with his family. The time difference between Kabul and Lawrence is about nine hours.
Though Azizi still loves music, his studies have expanded into global and international studies, largely in response to his family’s plight, and he expects to graduate in 2022 with three majors.
He recently completed a congressional internship with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, and his time in Washington, D.C., served him well in assisting his family back home.
“The (American) withdrawal from Afghanistan has been heartbreaking for so many, and the Azizi family is no exception,” LaTurner told the Journal-World. “Baset was a pleasure to have intern in our D.C. office this summer, and I wish him nothing but the best. We were proud to be of service.”
photo by: Steve Leisring
Azizi toted his trumpet to his D.C. internship and got the opportunity to play with the U.S. Army Band, also known as Pershing’s Own, and had what he calls “the great honor” to play Taps at the National World War I Memorial; the event was to honor the U.S. veterans of the war in Afghanistan and victims of 9/11.
“I have respect for all uniformed men and women because my father was a military officer as well,” he says. His father recently retired as a colonel, and because he had worked with the U.S. military he is now a Taliban target.
Leisring, the KU professor, flew to D.C. to see Azizi perform. He says it was “moving” to get to see his student lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
photo by: Courtesy of Ahmad Baset Azizi
While in D.C., Azizi took a lot of photos, one of which he says played a role in his family’s escape from Kabul. It’s a picture of him in a suit and tie, standing in front of the U.S. Capitol. His sister, the one with the law degree, whipped out the photo and convinced a gullible gatekeeper at the Kabul airport that her brother was a U.S. congressman; the family was allowed to proceed.
Azizi’s thoughts are now on happy times with his family. When asked what he is looking forward to the most about having them here in Lawrence, he says sitting with them, “talking about life” and eating his favorite meal — Kabuli palaw, the national dish of Afghanistan — cooked for him, for the first time in six years, by his mother.
Azizi has set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for his family’s resettlement. He is hoping to get $70,000 to pay for their transportation and their initial living expenses since they left Afghanistan with just a few items of clothing.