SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Though the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan at August's end, one Sioux Falls family is still watching their former country.
"It's very hard. They [the Taliban] don't allow anyone to do anything," said Arian Wisaal, owner of the Khorasan Kabob House restaurant in Sioux Falls and an Afghan refugee who came to the United States nearly 20 years ago. "But we are hoping they can get to a different country."
The parents and two brothers of Arian's wife, Tamana, are in a northern province. Arian has family in Kabul. Both visited the war-fatigued country this summer. Tamana returned only weeks before the collapse of the Afghan army and scenes of mayhem at the Kabul airport, as U.S. military personnel flew evacuation missions while the Taliban retook the contested nation.
"They are doing OK physically, but mentally," she said of her family, pausing, "Nobody is OK over there right now."
Now, two decades after 9/11, the terrorist attack on U.S. soil planned by al-Qaida while living under safe harbor in Afghanistan from the Taliban, these two American citizens are once again torn watching the news and communicating with family in danger.
"My country is going backward," Arian said in a Thursday, Sept. 9, interview. "The Taliban are extremists."
The anniversary of Sept. 11 is one of mixed emotions after 20 years of war. U.S. veterans from conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq now are old enough to have kids who also grew up to fight in the war. The U.S. has lived under a heightened sense of vulnerability in public areas. And many Muslim Americans faced backlash in the aftermath of the attacks.
In September 2001, Arian said he was actually waiting overseas for his Visa application to be processed. He'd fled Taliban-rule years earlier, crossing into Pakistan, before taking classes in Russia. The terrorist attacks actually pressed pause on the U.S. processing his request, with officials imposing harsher scrutiny on foreign nationals with ties to Afghanistan relocating to the U.S.
"It was a sad day, a sad day for everyone," Arian said. "They must wait three more years."
In 2003, when he did arrive in Sioux Falls, he quickly gained work at a slaughterhouse. After opening a restaurant, in 2008, he returned to his homeland as an interpreter with the U.S. military. Upon coming back to South Dakota, he opened a restaurant again.
"Sioux Falls is very cold," said Arian. "But the people are very warm."
The family has three children in Sioux Falls public schools, and a daughter attending Augustana University.
A new NPR/Ipsos survey suggests over 75% of Americans support resettling Afghan allies into the United States. But Arian and Tamana know the logistics will be difficult with the Taliban now in power.
The next few weeks, months, years run ahead of the Wisaals with doubt, like many people with ties to a nation slipping back under the control of a terrorist group with a history of brutality and persecution of women.
On Thursday, Sept. 9, news organizations reported passenger flights began leaving Afghanistan again. Tamana says her family has made Visa requests. But they don't know what's next. They've reached out to Sen. Mike Rounds' office.
"They told us there's only so much we can do," Tamana said.
So the family continues to wait. They are busy with the restaurant, boasting roti to curries to lamb kabobs to baklava on Sioux Falls' Marion Avenue, with its blue-and-white trim along the walls.
In addition to their popular cuisine, they also sell traditional rugs. It's a part of their Afghan culture kept alive.
"It's an art," Arian said. "People should know how many stages — from which color, what kind of wool — to understand them."
He used to sell rugs online, but is returning to in-person sales. Arian says there's a personal touch with customers in Sioux Falls he prefers.
"It's nicer," he said. "It's nice to, you know, talk to them."