It reads like a fantastical plot: Afghanistan’s government falls to the Taliban, a group bent on undoing decades of progress. Thousands desperately trying to escape the incoming radical regime are left stranded and families are wrenched apart. Many of them are at risk of being arrested or even killed.
A New York Chasidic rabbi steps in to help evacuate Afghan families, judges and prosecutors, and the former Afghan women’s national and regional soccer teams, overseeing privately funded rescue missions in the war-torn country, evading Taliban checkpoints and arranging safe passage via neighboring countries.
For Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, this is all in a day’s work. The intrepid rabbi, a member of the Skverer Chasidic community, has worked tirelessly across communal lines through his organization, Tzedek Association, to provide legal and humanitarian aid to prisoners—and anyone else in need, Jewish or otherwise. “For a decade, we’ve been working on criminal justice reform,” Margaretten told Chabad.org, “and we’ve formed close working relationships with officials who are also passionate about criminal justice reform, religious rights and humanitarian issues.”
Owing to his reputation as the man who takes on the impossible, as the Taliban closed in on the Afghan capital of Kabul, Margaretten got a call. Would he be able to help evacuate the last known Afghan Jew in the country? After finalizing plans and different avenues of escape, Margaretten learned that the man, the final remnant of Afghanistan’s ancient Jewish community, declined to leave his home country.
With the infrastructure now in place, Margaretten turned to see who else he could evacuate. A contact informed him of the plight of the Afghan national women’s soccer team; their lives would be in danger if they didn’t escape. It would take political connections, operatives on the ground and funding—lots of it—to get them out. “I said, ‘Give me a few hours,’ and I reached out to several members of the Chasidic community for funding,” Margaretten said. “They responded immediately, and then I was able to call the team and give the go-ahead.”
The race was on.
Battling hostile conditions on the ground and dodging checkpoints littering the area, Margaretten’s team helped soccer players from the national team and two other regional and junior teams and their families make their way safely to the airport, where they were flown to Australia.
“This could not have been done without the help of many players, including Khalida Popal, the national team’s former captain, who championed the effort,” said Margaretten.
Then, Margaretten was alerted to the plight of another Afghan family. Rabbi Lipa Boyarsky of Chabad-Lubavitch’s Aleph Institute, an organization with which Margaretten has worked closely in the past, sent Margaretten a CNN report detailing the story of Suneeta, an Afghan woman living in Albany, New York. Suneeta, too afraid to use her last name, had four children under 18—the youngest just 7—hiding out in a Kabul apartment. Suneeta’s husband had worked with the U.S. military and disappeared eight years ago and is presumed dead. “It’s clear he was killed by the Taliban,” said Margaretten. When Suneeta fled to America, she was forced to leave her children in the custody of her husband’s family—a common practice in that part of the world, where custody is traditionally transferred to the man’s family.
Since her arrival to the United States in 2018, Suneeta had been working to secure visas for her children to be reunited with her in Albany. But now, as the Taliban recaptured Kabul, the task hit a fever pitch. Her children were stranded in Kabul, where their late father’s occupation placed them in grave danger.
After trying to contact Suneeta via CNN with no luck, Boyarsky managed to put Margaretten in touch with Suneeta’s attorney, Sara Lowry, of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), a nonprofit group.
That was Thursday, August 26. The same day an ISIS-K terrorist blew himself up at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International airport, unleashing his deadly payload on the crushing mass of innocent people desperately seeking a better life outside their ravaged homeland. The attack claimed the lives of at least 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. servicemen.
“Bombs are exploding outside Kabul airport,” Margaretten recounted his feelings on that fateful day, “and the article said the children were near the airport.” He got Lowry on the phone, who confirmed that the kids were at the airport’s north gate. “I called my people, and we had a contact go watch the kids outside the airport.” That was at around 3 p.m.
Meanwhile, on the bureaucratic front, Margaretten was frantically working with Washington to get the children’s papers in order. “At 8:30 p.m., I get a message from the White House. The paperwork was ready.” The ground team helped the kids navigate the Taliban checkpoints and gain entry to the airport. “By 9 p.m., they were safely under U.S Army protection.” That night, they were flown to Qatar, where they stayed until Saturday night—“Qatar was so overwhelmed, you couldn’t get a flight,” Margaretten explained—when they boarded a U.S.-bound flight. Sunday afternoon they touched down on the safe shores of America, thus ending a weeks-long nightmare.
“The Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] spoke about how Maimonides would help anyone in need,” Margaretten reflected. “You don’t need to be Jewish. The Torah teaches that ‘One who has mercy on God’s creations will merit Divine mercy.’ When these lives were in danger, I felt that Jews should be the first to save them.”
In all, he’s saved 61 souls and is committed to saving as many more as he can.
The team is still helping more escape, even after the withdrawal of the final U.S. troops from Kabul, now via land routes, a treacherous avenue.
To protect the safety of all involved, Margaretten cannot reveal many details of ongoing operations. But he can share that his team just rescued a group of former Afghan judges and prosecutors. “They were high-risk,” he explained. “The Taliban goes door-to-door looking for such people. They had to pass through many checkpoints. Even once they reach a border (he cannot divulge which border), there are still more checkpoints to cross.” Thankfully, most of the group has already escaped in peace.
Margaretten’s own family background inspires his life-saving work. “As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the horrific images of men, women and children desperately trying to flee for their lives from Afghanistan is a kick in the gut,” he said. “There is no question in my mind that the success we’ve seen has come solely from the blessings and the Hand of God, and we are committed to continuing to fight to save every life that we can.”
By Mendel Super/Chabad.org