Nazifa Haidari sits on a bench Monday afternoon with her children at McGraw Park on Bartlett Street in Lewiston. From left: Zoha, Mohamed, Nazifa and Zahra. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — “It was so amazing that I don’t have the words to express it.” With those sentiments, Nazifa Haidari on Monday tried to sum up what it felt like to be reunited with her 15-year-old son Naser and her 9-year-old daughter Zahra after three years of worrying for her children’s safety in Afghanistan.

The Haidari family’s reunion, when her children arrived at the Portland Jetport on June 6, was the culmination of a long and perilous journey that took them from war-torn Afghanistan to a new life in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

It is more than just a story of one family’s perseverance, determination and love. It highlights the importance of outside organizations and political intervention, including the Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services (MEIRS) and Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office, in bringing separated families back together.

With the Taliban set to retake control, Haidari and her family decided to flee Afghanistan in August 2021, during the waning days of America’s occupation of that country. The family had reason to fear the return of Taliban power: They were members of an ethnic group targeted by the Taliban and Haidari’s husband had worked as a driver for U.S. forces at the Bagram Airfield.

On the brink of fleeing the Taliban, however, tragedy struck. At the Hamid Karzai International Airport, the family was torn apart in the chaos and bloodshed that followed a brutal suicide bombing at the overcrowded airport. Haidari and two of her children, Mohamed, then 11, and Zoha, then 2, were separated from her husband and their two other children, Naser, then 12, and Zahra, then 7.

Although Haidari, Zoha and Mohamed, who goes by “Sami,” were able to find safety in Lewiston-Auburn, the rest of her family was trapped in Afghanistan. They were also in grave danger.



The Haidaris are Hazaras, an ethnic group that has been “targeted by different terrorist groups, including ISIS and the Taliban,” explained Sajia Roshangar, who translated for Haidari during an interview Monday. Roshangar is the resettlement intake coordinator at Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services in Lewiston.

One of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic groups, the Hazaras have suffered a long history of oppression, discrimination and violence — including enslavement and ethnic cleansing, according to Roshangar.

“No place” in Afghanistan “is safe for them,” she explained. “Houses … hospitals, schools … and even maternity hospitals have been targeted” by the Taliban in brutal raids on Hazara communities.

An ethnic Hazara herself, Roshangar said, “They don’t consider us even human beings in the majority of places. Our people are getting killed.”

After the Taliban fell in 2001, the Hazaras experienced a short-lived era of peace and upward social mobility. Many jumped at the opportunity to pursue higher education, joined the new Afghan government and military and became key American partners.


When the Taliban regained control, they revived the systemic oppression of Hazaras. To stigmatize and marginalize Hazaras, the Taliban smears them as outsiders that “don’t have the right to stay in Afghanistan.” Alienating them further, the Taliban and its supporters claim that Hazaras don’t look Afghan but “Chinese or Japanese.” More importantly, Roshangar explained, they use the Hazaras’ religious identity to stoke hatred and violence against this vulnerable ethnic group.

The majority of Hazaras are Shi’a Muslims. Not only are most ethnic groups in Afghanistan composed primarily of Sunni Muslims, the Taliban views Shi’a Islam as heretical — banning Shi’a religious education and encouraging attacks on Shi’a groups such as Hazaras.

Because Haidari had successfully found refuge in the United States, her family was in even more danger than most Hazaras. To her community, “Nazifa became a traitor and her children paid the price,” said Bonnie Lewis, MEIRS director of development/housing. 

When the Taliban still allowed young girls to go to school, Zahra was brutally attacked by the children in her neighborhood. They told her, “Your mom is in the U.S. and has become an infidel (nonbeliever)” and “You don’t have the right to come to this school,” Haidari said. Haidari learned through phone calls with her husband that the beating was so severe Zahra “had injuries on her head.”

The threat of extreme violence was so grave the family was soon forced to stay secluded inside their home. Not only were her children unable to attend school, they could not even play outside. Because her husband was unable to work, Haidari explained that she had to “pay for everything” by sending remittances to her family from the wages she earned as a restaurant worker in Lewiston and Auburn. 

In the interview Monday, Nazifa’s son Sami said his siblings’ inability to attend school was upsetting because “they weren’t able to learn” and reap the benefits of a formal education, an opportunity he said he enjoys the most about America.



While her family endured peril and persecution under the Taliban, Haidari worked tirelessly with MEIRS and Collins’ office to bring her children and husband to the United States.

“From Day 1, Susan Collins’ office was very helpful,” Lewis said. 

For her children and husband to come to America, however, Haidari needed to get them into Pakistan first — an extremely difficult and expensive task. 

“If you want to get someone out of Afghanistan then you have to get a huge amount of money,” she explained. 

Before the Taliban took over, according to Haidari, visas ranged from $8 to $25. After the collapse of the American-backed Afghan government, the cost of procuring a Pakistani visa soared in the black market from $1,100 to $2,000 per person. 


To obtain her family’s visas, Haidari spent $3,500. 

The expenses only escalated from there. 

For the six months that her children were in Pakistan, Haidari covered all of their expenses including the cost of an interpreter, the mandatory overseas medical exams they needed to enter America and frequent trips to the doctor.

Haidari said her husband was unable to leave Pakistan with her children. They flew to the United States with an agency escort. Haidari is certain that her husband will join the family in Auburn. For her, it is only a matter of time.

Nazifa Haidari and her son, Mohamed, right, walk back Monday afternoon to the Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services building as her daughters run to hug staff members at the center on Bartlett Street in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


When Haidari saw Naser and Zahra in Portland over a week ago for the first time in three years, she recalled that her heart raced and she couldn’t “wait to hug them.” 


Reunited with his siblings, Sami rushed to give Naser a hug and greet Zahra. 

After two exhausting days of travel, her siblings did not arrive until 1:30 a.m., later than expected due to delays. Zoha, Haidari’s youngest child, “was on the verge of falling asleep most of the time, but she kept it together. She’s a tough kid,” said MEIRS Director of Community Engagement Lisa Day. 

For all the children, the reunion was like a fantasy that had come true.

“The kids were shocked.” They wondered “if it is reality or if it is a dream,” said Haidari. 

The tender reunion was made even more special by the presence of the new friends that Haidari has made since coming to America.

 “When I met my children for the first time, it was amazing that the person I call my mom, Bonnie, and my best friend, Lisa, and people (who are) close to me were there to welcome my children,” she said. 


Since Naser and Zahra’s arrival, Haidari said her family has “been doing everything together.” 

Sami said that he’s been “playing games” with his siblings and that his brother is eager to play soccer after not playing it for “six months.” 

“Sami spoke not a word of English” when he first arrived in the U.S. “and now he’s an honors student,” said Day.

The family also has big dreams for its future.

Sami is looking forward to starting his freshman year at Edward Little High School and hopes to play on the school’s soccer team. Encouraged by her success with driving and English language learning, Haidari said she “wants to be a police officer.” 

Reflecting on what she hopes her children can achieve now that they’re in America, Haidari said she will “do everything to provide them with a good life” and “a good education.” She wants them to “achieve their goals, be good citizens of the U.S. and serve their community.”

Above all, Haidari and the children, throughout the interview, expressed the same feeling — that they can’t wait for the day they will be reunited with their father. 

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