Until recently she worked at a Home Depot checkout counter, scanning west Omahans’ purchases of paint and mulch, another smiling employee wearing an orange apron and a name tag that identified her only by an easy-to-pronounce nickname: G.
But there seemed something different about this employee, a few teenage co-workers noticed, something curious about her accent, the way she talked and moved. She seemed poised. Self-assured.
G seemed … regal.
So they started asking questions, as teenagers do. They crowded around her checkout counter during a break and asked: How long have you been here? What did you do before you worked at Home Depot?
Where did you come from, G?
She smiled and paused, buying time, calibrating her answer, as good politicians do.
She did not tell them that she is the youngest women ever elected to Afghanistan’s Parliament, or how that election made her both famous and a target.
She did not tell them about the death threats delivered to her husband, Feroz, a onetime aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. She didn’t mention the car bomb, or the day someone tried to kidnap the baby.
It is hard to explain how she and Feroz went from Kabul’s young political power couple to hiding out in Turkey to her standing behind this cash register at a west Omaha Home Depot, so G thought about it, and decided not to try.
“I didn’t want to make their heads, you know, boom!” she says, and makes the explosion motion with her hands.
Instead, she smiled at the curious teenagers. Before I worked here, I raised my kids, she said.
And that is true, but it leaves out the part where Afghan hard-liners smeared her and her husband as CIA spies and secret Christians. It leaves out the part where some Americans loathe the couple because of their skin color, their accents, their Muslim faith. And it leaves out the real reason they fled Afghanistan, a reason confirmed by U.S. military officers and American diplomats.
G and Feroz fled Afghanistan, their homeland they long worked to change, less than 24 hours after they endangered their own lives by warning U.S. officials of a possible plot to kill Americans.
“You do not know our story,” says Feroz, the first time I meet the couple. “If we tell you what we did, then maybe you will want to hug us.”
The text messages popped onto his smartphone screen early each day in Kabul, becoming a regular part of Feroz Mohmand’s morning ritual, like your cup of coffee or bowl of Cheerios.
He would glance down at a text that said: Say goodbye to your children. Or: This is going to be your last day. Or: Cooperate or else. You know what we can do to your wife. We have shown you.
He would read those texts, and then he would leave for work, riding in a car that bumped down Kabul’s uneven streets toward Afghanistan’s heavily guarded presidential palace.
Gharghashta “G” Katawazai, his wife, would leave for her job, too, accompanied by bodyguards as she attended a session of the Afghan Parliament or, far more dangerously, visited the province she had been elected to represent.
“My family was always telling me, ‘No, stop, it’s too dangerous,’ ” G says. “But he supported me,” she says, glancing at Feroz as we sit in a west Omaha Starbucks. “And that is one of the reasons I married him.”
How a lawmaker and a presidential aide came to be hunted by extremists is an all-too-Afghan story, a story that began with the hope that the toppling of the Taliban could lead to a new, better Afghanistan.
Feroz’s family returned to Afghanistan in 2002, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion. They, like hundreds of thousands of Afghans, had been living as refugees in Pakistan, where his family was running a cosmetics store.
G’s family came back that year, too, also from Pakistan. There G had graduated from high school at the top of her class, even while facing years of schoolyard bullying as an Afghan teen living in often-hostile Pakistan.
Both are from politically connected families. G’s father served as a delegate at the 2003 Loya Jirga, which hashed out Afghanistan’s new constitution. Feroz’s father and uncle worked for government ministries.
And both re-entered the country believing there were only two reasons to return to war-ravaged Afghanistan. It was home. And they could help make it better.
“I always felt like this was my country, and I had to build it. If I don’t, who will?” G asks.
She advocated for women’s rights during the Loya Jirga process. Then in 2005 she decided to run for Parliament in her family’s native Paktika province in southeast Afghanistan — a remote, undeveloped area bordering Pakistan where both deeply conservative tribal leaders and Taliban fighters have long held power.
A woman running for office was shocking enough. But she was a young single woman advocating for women’s rights and girls’ education. A young single woman so eloquent and impressive that in 2006, President Karzai himself picked her as one of six young Afghans to come to the United States — in fact, to Omaha — to attend a leadership training session at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies.
“When we met her, we were so impressed with her sense of responsibility, her perceptive qualities, her poise,” says Tom Gouttierre, the longtime director of the center. “She was just something.”
Those qualities did not endear her to the Taliban or their allies.
“How was that campaign for Parliament?” I asked G. She smiled faintly. “It was so hard,” she said.
For much of the two-month campaign, she couldn’t even travel in Paktika because of the ever-present threat of assassination. When she did, she was protected by U.S. and international forces, who provided security to female politicians after dozens faced death threats. And yet, buoyed by family connections and a new law mandating that a quarter of Parliament be female, she won.
She was now the youngest woman — the youngest person — elected to the Afghan Parliament.
As she took office, Feroz was climbing his own Afghan ladder. He started at the bottom. He started as the presidential palace’s IT guy.
“I was the guy wearing jeans and a T-shirt who would come and fix your computer and leave,” he says.
But his boss in the administrative office soon got promoted to presidential spokesman. He took the young computer guy along, because Feroz also spoke fluent English and related to people as well as he did computers.
By 2008, Feroz served as a go-between for the Karzai government and foreign embassies, frequently working with President Karzai, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. military on things like logistics for upcoming meetings.
Around this time he met a young politician named G. He offered her a ride home after a late-night meeting. They talked and talked. They realized they had the same vision for the future of Afghanistan. They talked more and more, for months. They realized they had the same vision for the rest of their lives.
“We were married in 2008, Aug. 26!” Feroz says. “It was Aug. 25,” G says, and rolls her eyes.
It was soon after the wedding that G got the warning. She was in Paktika to visit after-school girls’ programs she had helped create and to advocate for a women’s hospital she wanted to build.
The Taliban were no fan of either project. They are looking for you, the warning said. Your two-car convoy may be attacked on the way home.
G huddled with her bodyguards, and they devised a plan. She would switch to the convoy’s other car, the one that usually carried her security detail. The two cars would split up, so no attack could get both.
Her new car took the lead, rolled smoothly north through Paktika and entered a flat, dusty stretch of highway as the sun dipped in the sky.
Then she heard the explosion. She spun around in her seat and watched the cloud of smoke rising miles behind her on the highway. “I knew,” she says.
Ten minutes behind, the second car — G’s normal car — had been incinerated by an IED. Two of the couple’s friends died in the attack.
“They were like family,” Feroz says.
“I was eight months pregnant at the time,” G says.
The threats escalated over the next year, the anonymous text messages popping daily into Feroz’s phone, You are in love with the Americans. We showed you we can kill your wife. You will pay.
You will pay.
And then, one day in 2009, they almost did.
The day care called. Their longtime housekeeper had shown up to pick up Feroz and G’s son. Was that OK?
Yes, of course, except ... the housekeeper had called in sick that morning. Why would she be there to pick up the child? Something was wrong.
Feroz rushed to the day care, and found security guards detaining the housekeeper, who was sobbing.
I didn’t have a choice, she said. My husband was forcing me to take your son. I didn’t have a choice.
Feroz and G were used to the drumbeat of threats, numb to the ever-present violence that’s a fact of Afghan life. But no one had ever tried to kidnap their child.
“I knew I had to leave,” G said. “I said, ‘I need to go for a visit to Omaha.’ ”
Feroz picked up the phone, started to dial, and hesitated.
It was March 5, 2012, and life had gotten worse.
G had returned from Omaha, where she had taken their infant son and lived for six months following the kidnapping attempt. During that time, stories in an Afghan newspaper had falsely claimed that she had gone to the United States to convert to Christianity. When she did return, she rarely left the relative safety of Kabul, making only two brief and dangerous trips to Paktika province.
Feroz had moved up at work, becoming a press officer for Karzai, spending more time around the Afghan president, American military leaders like Adm. Mike Mullen and politicians from all over the world. With that responsibility came more accusations. Karzai’s aide was too close to the Indians, or the Italians, or the Pakistanis, the hard-liners said. And he is too close to Americans, they said. He’s an American puppet.
These accusations took place in a country where it had gotten ever-more dangerous to align yourself with the Karzai government and the U.S.-led coalition.
“I think Feroz is just amazing. They both are. The whole family is incredible,” says Eileen O’Connor, Yale University’s vice president for communications and a former CNN war correspondent who served as an adviser to then-Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Kabul in 2012. “He was definitely targeted for supporting a better future for Afghanistan. For supporting ... democracy, free speech, pluralism among ethnic groups.”
The Taliban and related groups were busy retaking areas of the country they had been pushed out of a decade earlier. Just weeks earlier in 2012, nationwide protests erupted over the burning of a Koran at Bagram Airfield near Kabul. And two American military officers had just been murdered inside Afghanistan’s Ministry of the Interior, casualties in a spasm of anti-American violence that threatened to spread — and endangered Afghans like Feroz and G.
It was during these dangerous and uncertain days that G learned something that caused Feroz Mohmand to pick up the phone.
The couple say she learned of an Afghan plot to attack military and diplomatic officials during a seemingly routine joint Afghan-U.S. briefing.
They say the plot’s aim was simple: Kill important Americans.
And after hesitating, Feroz dialed a contact at the U.S. Embassy and warned him of the attack.
“I knew that (after this) that was it for me in my home country,” he says. “That’s it. It’s done.”
The World-Herald is withholding a few details of this alleged plot, both because those details can’t be corroborated and because other details could endanger the couple’s family members still living in Afghanistan.
But two Americans working closely with Feroz at the time, one a highly placed official and one a military officer stationed at the U.S. Embassy, confirmed the following: Feroz did call the embassy and warn of a looming attack. That phone call prompted the Americans to cancel the joint briefing. And soon after, the military and diplomatic officials threatened by the plot left Afghanistan for safety reasons.
“Basically Feroz saved the team that was there, at least eight people,” the military officer says. “He was being a good person. He was doing the right thing.”
A day after that phone call, Feroz called G. Grab the important documents, he said. I don’t think we will be coming back.
They pulled $2,000 out of their checking account. They got a ride to the airport. And, with their son, the young political power couple of Kabul got on a plane bound for Turkey.
“We didn’t know how long we would be gone,” Feroz says. “We just knew we had to go someplace safe.”
Not long ago, if you wandered bleary-eyed into the Hampton Inn next to the Baltimore airport looking for a room, the smiling employee who greeted you at the front desk may have been a man who knows both Afghanistan’s ex-president and the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Feroz was used to being ushered into hotels at the right hand of Hamid Karzai. Now he was working in one.
G was used to TV appearances, handshake photo-ops, a chauffeured car to the Afghan Parliament. Now she was pregnant with their second child, taking the Baltimore city bus to her new job at McDonald’s.
“My son was so happy. Free Happy Meals!” G says. “I would look at him and think, ‘OK, if this makes you happy, I will try to let it make me happy.’ But mentally I was not ready for it. How could you be?”
They had fled Afghanistan for Turkey, then received help from U.S. officials who knew the couple in Kabul and sped their refugee application process to get them into the United States.
Now they were here, and they felt safe for the first time in years. That doesn’t mean it was easy.
They hopped from Baltimore to Virginia to San Diego, chasing better jobs, better weather, more opportunity. They learned bus routes and employment forms in a foreign language, learned to navigate the speed and bureaucracy of cities so very far from home. They met many Americans who welcomed them with open arms, but also grew used to the hard stares and the query that too often felt like an accusation. Where you from, again?
At a San Diego gas station, Feroz says he got verbally attacked by a man who heard him listening to Koranic verses in his car and called him a terrorist, and worse.
And then G suggested the first American city she had ever visited, the place where she had returned when her son was nearly kidnapped. It was a place where she knew people, a place that had long had a soft spot in her heart. Why don’t we move there?
Feroz agreed, which is how the young political power couple of Kabul came to live, work and raise their family in Omaha.
Today, Feroz works at Lutheran Family Services, where the 30-year-old helps new refugees resettle in the city. After a short stint at Home Depot, G is raising the couple’s two children and trying to decide what to do next.
Maybe the 31-year-old will remain a homemaker for a while longer, away from the prying questions of curious American teenagers. What did you do before Home Depot? Why are you here?
Maybe she will return to college, carve a new path, lead in a different way.
“She will graduate at the top of her class, I guarantee you that,” says Gouttierre, who has known G for a decade. “Omaha is simply lucky to have them. They will become excellent citizens here, just as they were in Kabul.”
When she is alone in the family’s small apartment kitchen or at the playground with the kids, now 7 and 2, her thoughts drift to Afghanistan.
She thinks about the girls’ schools she helped build, and the women’s hospital never completed. She thinks about the hope of 2002 and the heartbreak of 2012, the speeches, the threats, that cloud of smoke rising behind her on the highway.
She thinks about how scared she should have been, but rarely was. She thinks about how happy she was, in the beginning. She thinks about Afghanistan, how it feels unfinished.
“I want to tell you one thing,” she says inside a west Omaha Starbucks. “When I ran for Parliament, one thing I promised the people, the women and girls, is that I would be there for them, that I would help them so that one day they could replace me. Now I am afraid they can look at me and say, ‘OK, so what is the end? You become a refugee?’
“I cannot let those people feel hopeless!” G says, her voice rising. “I don’t want them to see my work as incomplete!”
She falls silent. She looks down at the table for five seconds, 10, thinking about the next sentence, calibrating her answer.
Finally she lifts her head and locks her eyes onto yours.
“So now I’m waiting,” she says. “When my kids grow up, I will go back. I will go back, and I will never hide again.”