By Darlene Powell
Kevin Haidary is lucky to be alive.
The Afghan refugee survived multiple assassination attempts and threats while working for the U.S. State Department back home. He eventually made his way to America, using the skills he learned as a teen refugee in Pakistan to open a successful business in Chadbourn, North Carolina.
Now a United States citizen, Haidary, 42, first fled Afghanistan, the country of his birth, in 1994, when his family escaped to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion. He dreamed then of coming to the U.S., but it would take years of work and dedication supporting the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to get him here. But Haidary would not walk away from his fellow Afghans.
Seeking a better life as a refugee
The Taliban and al-Qaida didn’t treat refugees well in Pakistan, particularly Haidary’s people, the Hazaras. Haidary said that Hazaras, an ethnic Muslim minority group, are peaceful people who do not support terrorists nor extremism.
Unable to go to school in Pakistan, Haidary worked as a child laborer doing odd jobs to support his family and get an education on his own.
“My parents didn’t have the right to work,” he said. “Since (I was) 11, I have been working.”
Haidary started learning English in a course that he paid for. It started at 10 p.m. In order to pick up his schooling from where he left off in Afghanistan in seventh grade, he and friends “had to lease a place and private tutors would come,” he said.
After completing 10th grade in Pakistan, he applied to a refugee school, but the struggle did not become easier. “Every day I used to wake up at 5 a.m. to take computer classes,” he said.
Then he rode a bike 45 minutes to an auto body shop to work.
His motive was “to learn English, learn a skill, and get out of the country to seek a better life.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Haidary focused on information technology to help rebuild Afghanistan. He became certified by Microsoft as a network enterprise solution architect.
“IT didn’t exist in Afghanistan,” Haidary said.
There wasn’t infrastructure to speak of when he returned to Afghanistan in 2004, so he brought back the expertise and the fluency in English needed to work as an interpreter and an internet communications specialist.
Haidary described being driven to his family’s original home west of Kabul and not recognizing it because of the destruction all around. “When we fled our house in Kabul it was a nice area,” Haidary said.
Yet he persevered. His first job in Afghanistan was through the State Department as an IT manager.
“That built a good experience in Afghanistan,” Haidary explained. But it was not without danger. Six team members were shot in an attack by terrorists, and within hours there was another fatal attack on a transport team. Haidary was supposed to be on one of those trips but had a last-minute conflict, sparing his life.
“The U.S. citizens and everyone had to flee the camp,” Haidary said.
Back in Kabul, he applied with the United Nations Organization for Migration, helping to establish telecommunications networks for the newly established American University of Afghanistan. He also supported the Department of Defense with much-needed satellite systems and worked with the U.S. Special Forces in shared missions.
Living and leaving a life in Afghanistan
“I had built a very good life,” Haidary said, having employed more than 120 people in his own telecommunications firm. “Nevertheless, I was very cautious,” he added, noting that he survived three kidnappings. In May 2014, President Barack Obama announced that America would withdraw all but 9,800 troops, and that those forces left would support the Afghan military.
Haidary’s work in assisting the United States would help him, his wife and five children. Under the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, Haidary qualified for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) which authorizes visas to eligible Afghans who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government. So he and his wife settled in the United States in January 2015.
Haidary’s resettlement benefited from public-private partnerships such as the Department of Homeland Security and Global Connections, a refugee resettlement support center and nonprofit in Wilmington.
Kathryn Polk is the founder and director of Global Connections. She said that its goal is to “provide support and relieve the load of federal agencies.” The most gratifying part of her work this past year has been learning about Afghan culture.
Understanding the Afghan culture is important in resettlement and supporting those left behind. Haidary helped found World Hazara Council U.S.A., which in addition to trying to aid more immigrants, “provides advocacy and humanitarian assistance to at-risk Hazara and at-risk and marginalized communities in their time of need.”
Haidary is now the group’s chairman. He doesn’t shy away from speaking out against the genocide of the Hazara by the Taliban.
The Hazara community has been a target of discrimination for generations. Haidary said that when Hazaras travel outside their home districts, they are targeted by extremists and even face atrocities such as “being pulled off a bus and beheaded.”
From immigrant to local job creator
With thousands of perilous miles separating him still from his father and fellow Afghans, Haidary set about seeking economic opportunities in the United States. His search led him to the unlikely spot of Chadbourn, where he converted a former mobile home lot at Five Points on U.S. 76 west of town into an auto salvage yard and reconditioned car sales lot.
Along with his brother and brother-in-law, and a few other employees, Haidary created an enterprise that filled a gap in the Columbus County area. Haidary acknowledged that people see him, don’t know his story, and look at him suspiciously. But he has, through this endeavor, “turned junk into U.S. dollars” and created economic opportunities in an area where many are needed.
Gary Lanier, director of Columbus County Economic Development, said that the path to creating Haidary’s auto salvage was not easy. He needed help with the building permit process, zoning issues, and restrictions on the property. Lanier said Haidary just wants “a good, safe place to live, and to provide for our children.”
A long road ahead
Haidary still has a “help wanted” sign out front of All Model Auto Parts Salvage Yard, and is looking to hire tradespeople. He currently employs five people; he could use as many as 10. “We have a lot of opportunities,” Haidary said. “We could not only help ourselves. We could help our families, our community, the state, and the country.”
But his home half a world away is never far from his thoughts. While Haidary and his family are safe from the genocide in Afghanistan, people there live in constant fear. Many do not have water and heat this winter.
“I don’t have hope for Afghanistan,” Haidary said, where the Taliban rule with an iron fist and the country’s children are trained to keep bandages in their backpacks to treat wounds from a blast until medics can reach them.
“How can a kid walk on the street?” Haidary asked. “That is a question no parent should have to face.”