Tears for a beloved country
Like many in August 2021, Mohammad Qadam Shah was glued to his television, watching the horror unfold at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan: The crush of families attempting to make their way to the terminal, slogging through canals, knee-deep in sewage. The chaos. Babies being handed over barbed wire fences to Marines. People falling to their deaths from jam-packed cargo planes. The explosion on Aug. 26, 2021 — a suicide bombing that took 183 lives, including 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.
In a small apartment in Seattle, time turned upside down for Mohammad Qadam Shah, an assistant professor of global development at SPU. He watched the Taliban regain power as U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan, ending almost 20 years of western military presence in the country.
“It was very shocking. I mean, no one could believe it,” said Qadam Shah, who was unable to sleep. “I wasn’t thinking it would be this bad.
“It was night here. It was day back in Afghanistan and the other way around,” he said. “I think I was in constant shock.” Shock, compounded by worry. His immediate family members were there.
Growing up Ismaili
Qadam Shah was born in 1987 in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city of nearly 600,000 in northern Afghanistan, just 35 miles from the Uzbekistan border. His family is Ismaili, a subsect of Shia Islam. Their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, is a billionaire horse breeder who runs an international development organization.
There are 15 million Ismaili around the world, but in Afghanistan, they are a persecuted religious minority. “Historically [Ismailis] have been oppressed, and they have not been able to express themselves because both the Sunni and the Shia (the two main interpretations of Islam) hated them. They didn’t want them around,” Qadam Shah said.
The pressure from religious persecution, coupled with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989, caused Qadam Shah’s family to flee to Iran when he was 2.
In Iran, Qadam Shah went to a Shiite school, not realizing he was Ismaili. “For maybe 15 years or more, I was practicing that without knowing I belonged to this other group,” he said. It is not unusual for Shia Muslims to do this. It’s called Taqiya, a measure taken to blend in to the communities where they live. “So, if you are in a Sunni community, be Sunni. If you are in a Shiite community, be Shiite.”
A changing world
Everything changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when three hijacked passenger planes hit targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., with another crashing in Pennsylvania. The 19 hijackers were members of the terrorist group al-Qaeda.
On Oct. 7, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan, after the Taliban refused to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Two decades of counterterrorism and state-building efforts began in Afghanistan.
In Iran, Qadam Shah’s family faced constantly changing policies toward Afghan refugees. The government initially gave refugees access to education in the early 2000s only to change direction and pass a directive that banned education for all Afghans.
“My family decided to go back to Afghanistan for us to continue our education,” Qadam Shah said. Other families stayed in Iran, but it was the end of schooling for the Afghan children who remained there, Qadam Shah said. [In 2015, Iran allowed Afghan children to attend school once again.]
Back home in Afghanistan, Qadam Shah went to school and now worshipped in a new way: as a Sunni. “We were in a Sunni-dominant community,” he said. “This time I/we had to adapt to that. We had to learn about the way of prayer. We had to go to the mosque. We had to follow every rule they had.”
Qadam Shah entered college as a prelaw student and joined a moot court team where students argue fictional cases in front of people assigned as judges. The second year, he was quickly recruited to compete because of his strong English skills. Qadam Shah’s team won the national championship and was invited to the prestigious international competition in Washington, D.C.
“I felt that I am now part of a community that is looking at the world in a very different way.” -Mohammad Qadam Shah
Traveling to the United States opened up his world. “In Afghanistan, I was taught that only Muslims, only we are the right people,” he said.
“When I came [to the United States], I saw proof that these people were coexisting with each other and everyone was doing well,” Qadam Shah said. He began to question other foundational assumptions. “I started to think, What’s my connection with God? What’s my relationship with him? Which of these sects that I practice is the right one?”
After college, Qadam Shah married and started a family in Afghanistan. In 2014, he was awarded a scholarship to law school at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was a busy period for him, studying law and traveling between Afghanistan and the United States — his family in one country, his school in another. “We really had no time to even itch our heads,” he said.
A time of wonder
Around this time, Qadam Shah began to wonder more about what he believed. “I think, this time, God put some people in my life,” he said. It was the winter of 2018, and Shaw was in law school in Seattle. “We were desperately looking for some warm place to play soccer,” he said. “I don’t know how, but we found a place [to play] at First Free Methodist Church.”
There he met Sepehr Nafezi, an Iranian pastor who was looking to create an opportunity for Muslims to fellowship together. “We didn’t care about [Muslim fellowship], we just wanted to play in a warm place,” Qadam Shah said.
“We started to play soccer in the winter, and I got to know Sepehr. I got to know that he’s Christian, and he’s a pastor.” Since they spoke the same language, Qadam Shah opened up about his crisis of faith. “Very interestingly, he had the same dilemma, the same problem. He had gone through that, and he had found Jesus through that process.”
Nafezi introduced Qadam Shah to Jesus — not as a prophet who died, but as a savior who rose again. “It helped me a lot to look at the world in a different way, to look at my relationship to God in a different way,” Qadam Shah said.
He learned that nothing stood between him and the love of Jesus. The connection was unobstructed. “It took me around one year and then, ultimately, I decided I was going to come to Jesus and have him as my Lord and as my refuge.”
Located across the street from the SPU campus, the First Free Methodist Church mission statement hangs in the lobby: Love people, connect them to Jesus, serve the world.
“It’s one very small sentence, but it has a lot of meaning in it.” It became Qadam Shah’s mission statement, too, leading to his baptism on another chilly Seattle day. “The weather was cold. I was warm inside,” he said. After being baptized, he was presented with a T-shirt inscribed with one word: Connected.
“I felt connected,” he said. “I felt that I am now part of a community that is looking at the world in a very different way.”
In Christianity, there was nothing between him and God. “I don’t need to satisfy prophet Muhammad’s requirement or Ali or Aga Khan. I’m just connected directly to God. That’s why I was so amazed when I saw that T-shirt after baptism that said, ‘Connected.’”
The cost of faith
Connection to Jesus came at a cost. At first, Qadam Shah only told his nephew and brother-in-law about his conversion to Christianity, but somehow, his older brother found out. “My brother threatened me: ‘If you come back, I’m going to report you to the police!’” Suddenly, his entire life in Afghanistan was at risk.
“Groups will mobilize to kill you informally before any court procedure. They will either hang you, or they would stone you to death,” Qadam Shah said.
Qadam Shah’s immediate family eventually accepted and respected Qadam Shah’s decision to become a Christian, but they knew he would never be able to return to live safely in Afghanistan again. Qadam Shah applied for religious asylum in the United States rather than face death in the country he loves, and he hoped desperately that he might somehow bring his family to the U.S. someday.
While he waited, Qadam Shah did his best to keep moving forward, earning a doctorate from the University of Washington in 2019 and doing postdoctoral work at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2020, he joined the faculty at Seattle Pacific University, the same year the U.S. started to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
In August 2021, everything fell apart. On Aug. 6, the Taliban took its first provincial capital and entered Kabul nine days later with no resistance as Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani left the country. Chaos ensued.
At an SPU Senior Leadership Council meeting, Micah Schaafsma, assistant vice president for information technology, heard about Qadam Shah’s family situation and thought he could help.
His brother, Ryan Schaafsma, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, was working to help families evacuate as the country fell to Taliban forces. Ryan’s efforts included work with Task Force Argo, a group of private citizen volunteers who were working to evacuate Americans and Afghans stranded in the country. Many of the remaining Afghans had worked loyally alongside American military during the two decades of conflict in Afghanistan.
Ryan gave Qadam Shah ongoing instructions to pass on to his family: “Have them go to Kabul. Wait there until I tell them to get ready and go.”
“Kabul is no longer safe; we need to relocate your family. They can only take small bags and only what they really need.”
“When they encounter Taliban checkpoints along the way, this is what they should say.”
“At some point we need to take their pictures and send them so that they can be recognized by their clothes.”
Those were tense weeks for Qadam Shah. Finally, in October, with their asylum visas already approved for the United States, Ryan was able to place Qadam Shah’s family on an evacuation list to receive transportation out of Afghanistan. The family flew to the United Arab Emirates and are now awaiting their visas so they can travel to the United States.
Reconnecting to family
Qadam Shah hasn’t seen his family for four years. He is waiting, trying to be patient. He stays in contact with U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell’s office, waiting for word on his family. He’s moved from an apartment in Seattle to a house in a suburban neighborhood. “The neighborhood is so quiet,” he says. “I love it. It’s good.
“I would like my family to experience a life in peace here in the U.S., grow here, and be useful members of our community,” he said. Thanks to technology, Qadam Shah gets to see his family’s faces every day via WhatsApp, and he is longing to tell his family in person about the endless source of love, grace, and forgiveness he has found through his faith.
In the rush to get out of Afghanistan, his family left home with just a few bags and their documents.
“I’ve become a very active buyer at Amazon,” Qadam Shah said. “They basically need everything, and I cannot say no to their requests.” So far, Qadam Shah has said yes to pleas for a scooter, shoes, clothes, games, and a soccer ball.
It’s the things that cannot be bought that he misses the most. “I was remembering those things they didn’t bring … my photos from my childhood.”
It’s been a time of great sadness for Qadam Shah. “Sometimes I just remember my village, my people, my students — I used to teach my close friends. [I think about] the whole country, the cities, Kabul, my friends from there. I was talking to my cousin and said that I didn’t know the next time I was going to see him or when our kids are going to see each other.”
A country going backward
The most frustrating thing for Qadam Shah is that things didn’t have to be this way. He is working on a book, Built to Fail, detailing the failures that led to the utter collapse of Afghanistan today.
“As a person who studies development and political development, I could see there was a path for stability in Afghanistan, but they didn’t take it,” he said. “There were mistakes the U.S. made. There were mistakes Afghan leaders made. Unfortunately, Afghan people had no say in what their leaders decided.
“Throughout history, Afghan’s political future has been decided by others. First Britain, then the Soviet Union, the U.S. Now it’s in the hands of Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran, and countries like that. It’s just sad.”
Qadam Shah worries for Afghanistan’s girls. “For a while, you had hope the future would be different, but now, especially the girls know there’s no future for them,” Qadam Shah said.
His sister, a midwife who is still in the country, is unable to work with the Taliban in control. Two other sisters are teachers, but unable to teach. A niece is a nurse and not working.
Afghanistan’s economy and its health care system have failed. Today, more than half the country faces food insecurity, with 1 million people on the brink of starvation.
“It is just going backwards,” said Qadam Shah. Sometimes the tears flow. “One day I was driving, and I just started to cry for my country. It is in a really bad situation. One feels very helpless when you feel so weak that you cannot do anything.”
He is not alone, however. Qadam Shah has a connection that gives him strength. “I have come to believe very strongly in God’s plan,” he said. It’s a belief that keeps him moving forward, teaching students, and growing in his faith as he waits for his family.
Editor’s Note: In March, Qadam Shah’s immediate family received their visas allowing them to travel to the United States. The family was joyously reunited in Seattle on March 30, 2022.