As Friends, we know that the Library is filled with interesting and often times gripping stories. The stories are usually in book form; however, in our case, there’s an interesting and gripping story in the person(s) of our Library Director, Zahir Mahmoud and his family. From a comfortable early life to a country racked by civil unrest and foreign invasion, to a harrowing escape, followed by a long and at times seemingly interminable immigration process; and to success in their adopted country, the story of Zahir and his family could certainly fill the pages of a book on our library’s shelves. As the saying goes, the book would be a good read. Based on an interview with Zahir in his office, this small article could serve as a book jacket.
Zahir and Fakhria were married in 1975. They lived in their hometown of Kabul, Afghanistan. Zahir had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kabul University and had served his year of universal military service. From 1975 to 1979, Zahir worked in the library of the British Counsel’s office in Kabul. Fakhria had completed her studies at the Teachers’ Institute. She taught school for a year before their first child, a daughter named Neelab, was born.
In 1979, years of friction and conflict between Russian and the Afghanistan government culminated in a Russian invasion and takeover of the country. Among other things, the Russians closed down anything and everything associated with any pre-invasion British or American presence. With typical understatement, Zahir recounts his feeling that his work at the British Counsel’s office promised to make life difficult. Indeed, a few of his relatives had been imprisoned.
By the Summer of 1980, Zahir and Fakhria had determined that they and their small family–their first son, Mustafa, had just been born–should depart, i.e., escape, from Afghanistan. At the time, leaving the country was viewed by the Russians as a criminal offense, particularly for educated young men with prior military experience (Zahir qualified on all three counts) who might be joining resistance fighters in nearby countries. The rules for women and children were not as severe, but leaving Afghanistan as a family was still a major and dicey undertaking. Zahir prepared for his escape by converting possessions into cash and hiring a local guide to assist in their departure. He put his plans into action in September, 1980, when the family traveled to Jalalabad to be nearer the border with Pakistan.
Zahir was the first to leave Jalalabad. Starting at midnight in the company of his guide, bluffing his way through a checkpoint while dressed in local clothing and speaking a local dialect he had picked up in earlier years, Zahir traveled for over 27 continuous hours by taxi, foot, and mule over a mountainous route where others had been robbed or killed through areas that bore the scars of fighting between Russian troops and Mujahideen, eventually arriving in Peshawar, Pakistan. With only her protection being local clothing and a cover story that she was seeking medical treatment for her children, Fakhria left Jalalabad by bus two weeks later, traveling with the guide, their daughter Neelab, then three years old, and Mustafa who had been in this world for all of 40 days. For those two weeks, Fakhria did not know whether Zahir had made it to Pakistan. For his part, Zahir was waiting anxiously for his family to show up in Peshawar. One can only imagine their reunion.
Once in Pakistan, Zahir realized that they should move on. Zahir applied for a United States visa and purchased airline tickets to Istanbul, Turkey. The family remained in Turkey for six months, living in a settlement area. During this time, the visa came through, but, for reasons which Zahir says are still unclear to him, entry to the United States required another six months of waiting, this time in Italy near Rome. Throughout this time, with no work available, the resources Zahir had put together for the whole escape were wearing thin.
Fortune smiled on Zahir and his family when The Congregational Church in Kingston, Rhode Island arranged a sponsorship to support their immigration to the United States. The sponsors were Tina and Steve Letcher. Steve was a physics professor at the University of Rhode Island, while Tina was a poet who taught literacy at a local prison. Shortly after arriving in Kingston in 1981, Zahir landed a factory job at a computer chip company in Providence and Fakhria found a job at a local daycare facility.
With gainful employment, self-supporting and living independently in the U.S., some people in Zahir’s position might consider their mission accomplished. But with Letcher’ encouragement, Zahir went on to earn a Master’s degree in Library Information Sciences at the University of Rhode Island in 1983. From there, he went to work at the Falls Church, Virginia Public Library. In 1989, Zahir took the position of Assistant Library Director here in Waynesboro, and the Mahmouds established themselves in our town. A second son, Alexander, was born in 1992, and all three children graduated from Waynesboro High School.
Today, Zahir is the Director of the Waynesboro Public Library, having been appointed to that position in 2002. Fakhria has been in the banking business for 26 years, and she is now a Branch Banker at the BB&T branch in town. Neelab has a B.S. in Microbiology from Virginia Tech, an architectural degree from the University of Oregon, lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children, and is working in her own startup architectural firm. Mustafa graduated from Virginia Tech and is working in pharmaceutical marketing in San Francisco. Alexander recently graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in urban development.
All in all, a story well-lived and worthy of telling.