After five frustrating years mired in bureaucratic delays, Bahaudin Mujtaba and wife Lisa had hoped to finally bring the 10-year-old Afghan boy they’re adopting to their home in Florida this year for a chance at a different future.
But with the collapse of the Afghan government, the couple is desperately trying to get the boy, Noman, on a flight out of Kabul -- going anywhere -- before the chance to leave disappears.
In the chaos following the Taliban takeover, Noman and another family tried to get to the airport Tuesday through clogged streets, checkpoints and gunfire but were forced to turn back.
Mujtaba, who spoke to the boy and the family early Tuesday, said they hope to try again to get to the airport Wednesday.
“I have tears in my eyes this morning and my wife has tears in her eyes,” he said. “I couldn’t really say much else other than ‘Go for it’ and ‘Be careful.’”
The Taliban’s dramatic takeover of Afghanistan has reverberated worldwide, and for families like the Mujtabas, the fallout has been swift, deeply personal and potentially life-altering. Knowing the militant group is almost certain not to uphold the adoption agreements from the collapsed Afghan government, the American couple’s best hope is to get the boy out, fast.
“Once they get to the airport, it’s just a matter of waiting time. But it’s a matter of waiting a few hours or a few days,” Bahaudin Mujtaba said. Noman is currently in the custody of another family trying to leave.
Maybe they can get the boy to a nearby country. Maybe Pakistan. Wherever they go, he’s willing to fly there and meet him.
“But the first goal is to get him out of Afghanistan safely,” Mujtaba said.
It’s unclear how many among the throngs of people trying to flee Afghanistan include potential adoptive children. One other U.S. family, based in Indiana, is working with the same adoption agency as Mujtaba and is trying to get a 2-year-old boy out of the country.
Mary King, executive director of Frank Adoption Center in Wake Forest, North Carolina, is working with the families and said they had full permission from Afghan courts to bring the children to the U.S. and finalize the adoptions. They were awaiting U.S. visas, but everything changed in the past few days.
“This all came about much faster than any of us anticipated, so we don’t know,” she said. “We have put them on every list. We’ve filled out every form we’ve been told about. Their names are everywhere we can get them, as far as with the appropriate U.S. authorities. And so now we are waiting to hear what may happen next.”
U.S. adoptions from Afghanistan are relatively rare compared with adoptions from other countries, according to State Department data. From 1999 through 2019, 41 Afghan children were adopted by U.S. families. That’s far fewer than other countries in the region, including 148 children from Iran and 667 from Pakistan. Other countries, like China, Ukraine and Colombia, have seen thousands of children adopted by U.S. families over the past two decades.
The process in Afghanistan required working through the Afghan Family Court, which limited the guardianship process to Muslim parents. Families that receive permission from the court can then bring a child to the U.S. to finalize an adoption, according to the State Department.
But under Taliban rule, it’s all but certain not to be permitted now, Mujtaba said, especially from a family based in the U.S.
Mujtaba and his adoption agency have reached out to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s office for help. Mujtaba has even offered to go to Afghanistan with the U.S. military, offering his familiarity with the language and culture in return for a chance to bring the boy home.
Rubio’s office confirmed it is working with Mujtaba and the adoption agency but did not offer more details about what options the senator’s staff was pursuing.
Mujtaba and his wife agreed to adopt Noman, a distant relative, after Mujtaba met him during a visit to Kabul five years ago.
“I just basically fell in love with this little boy. And based on hearing everything, then we knew we had the means and the motivation to help him,” he said.
The child’s mother died of cancer, leaving the boy with his adult brothers and elderly father who is unable to care for him. Mujtaba described Noman as “a little boy who has big dreams.” He loves music, gets top grades in school and wants to become an engineer or a doctor -- a profession Mujtaba said the boy may be drawn to because he’s had to meet with so many doctors.
Noman appears to have diabetes and other medical issues, possibly stemming from nutrition problems, but Mujtaba said it’s not totally clear if the doctors in Afghanistan gave him the right diagnosis or the treatments.
“That’s the environment, unfortunately, that you’re in, in Afghanistan,” he said. “We’re not really sure exactly what the problems might be, once we get here. He’s fine for a period of time and then, unfortunately, he’s not.”
Mujtaba is an U.S. citizen who emigrated from Afghanistan 40 years ago. After the Taliban was displaced two decades ago, he returned in 2005 to the country of his birth for the first time in 20 years. He’s visited Noman 10 times over the past years, staying three to five weeks at a time.
His wife, who is American, has never been to Afghanistan or met the boy in person because it seemed too dangerous to bring her, Mujtaba said.
King, whose agency primarily handles international adoptions, said her agency processed another adoption from Afghanistan in 2017, but they’ve never had to deal with a collapsed government. She said her team are working with the families to get the children out, hoping to secure emergency visas amid a situation she described as “very, very scary.”
“I’m watching this as their social worker. I cannot fathom what they themselves are feeling and what these little boys are feeling,” she said.
Mujtaba, a professor at Nova Southeastern University, said that though the adoption process had felt drawn out, they were hopeful that they were close until about a week ago.
But now, he’s not sure when or if they will be able to bring the boy to his new home in Fort Lauderdale.
“I think that that’s in jeopardy now,” he said.