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A man couldn't flee Afghanistan. Then an unlikely friend from the past stepped in

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After having to flee their country, tens of thousands of Afghans around the world are now trying to rebuild their lives. Robby Brod of member station WHYY tells the story of one man who struggled to get out and was rebuffed until he got help from an unlikely friend from the past.

ROBBY BROD, BYLINE: The year is 2002, just one year after the 9/11 attacks. Amir Sidiqi is just starting high school in Wallingford, Pa., 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia. Sidiqi is 14 years old and struggling to adjust to Strath Haven High School. Sidiqi's mom is American, and his dad is Afghan. He refers to himself as halfhgan (ph). Being halfghan in 2002 meant he often heard kids making Islamophobic remarks as he walked by. But then, his high school teacher stepped in. Kevin Haney is a 6-foot-6, 260-pound self-described teddy bear who kids across the school literally look up to. Haney decided to speak up for Sidiqi who was being harassed. Amir Sidiqi and Kevin Haney are sitting in front of a bonfire in Haney's backyard, talking about his freshman year and first period English class.

AMIR SIDIQI: One of the first things I do recall was Mr. Haney coming up to me and asking me, did anybody ever give you a hard time for, you know, your background? And I want you to feel comfortable here. And if anybody ever does give you a hard time, you let me know, and I got your back.

BROD: Kevin Haney says he was just protecting a student.

KEVIN HANEY: I just wanted to make sure that he felt like not only my classroom was a safe space but the building itself, you know, the larger community was a safe space for him as well. That mattered to me.

BROD: Soon after high school, Sidiqi joined the Air Force, then moved to Afghanistan to work as a military contractor, working on various construction projects. His brother had a copper mine, and Amir sidiqi helped run the mine. He married an Afghan woman, and they had a daughter. It was only his second time in Afghanistan, and he was struck by its natural beauty.

SIDIQI: You have mountains. You have valleys that are just green and lush. You have watermelons that are literally the size of Mr. Haney's arms. And, you know, nobody sees or enjoys any of that. Nobody sees the value behind the country. Nobody sees why anybody would want to be in Afghanistan.

BROD: Sidiqi was enjoying his life working for the U.S. government and even running a coffee shop in the embassy. Then, in August, Taliban attacks intensified in Sidiqi's Kabul neighborhood. The State Department advised him to leave, but he was unable to get visas for his wife and daughter. He desperately tried to flee with his family. His first attempt to leave through the Kabul airport was disastrous.

SIDIQI: People started rushing in. At that point, they started firing into the crowd, where a number of people were shot and killed.

BROD: He eventually turned around, exhausted and dejected. Just a few days later, that same gate Sidiqi and his family tried to flee through was the site of an ISIS attack that killed over 100 Afghans and 13 U.S. Marines. After seeing the chaos on the news, Kevin Haney messaged him, asking how he could help.

HANEY: And then he sent back to me, if you're still a man of God or if you're a man of God, pray.

BROD: Haney spread the word on social media and soon after heard from a friend at the State Department who offered assistance. Sidiqi told Haney he felt confident he would finally be able to leave the country. And then? Radio silence. Haney heard nothing from him for days as he nervously watched the situation in Kabul deteriorate. And a few days later, he hears a knock on his door.

HANEY: I opened the door. I yell out, yo, he comes back. We hug each other. Maybe I'm romanticizing it too much, but I don't think I am. Seeing him at my door I'll take to my grave.

BROD: Amir Sidiqi says he'll never forget what his old teacher did for his family.

SIDIQI: It's something that I'll appreciate for the rest of my life, something I'll remember for the rest of my life, and like you said, take it to the grave.

BROD: Amir Sidiqi plans to return to Afghanistan in the future. But for now, he's enjoying spending his nights swapping stories and reminiscing in front of a crackling fire with his old teacher, a teacher he now credits with saving his life and that of his family.

For NPR news, I'm Robby Brod.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILA BRAZILLIA SONG, "A ZED AND TWO L'S") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.