UCC congregation celebrates escape and relocation to Colorado
[ By Mark Reaman ]
One of life’s circles was completed last weekend when a family from Afghanistan was celebrated at Crested Butte’s Union Congregational Church (UCC) on a bright summer morning during and after the Sunday service. The family that escaped from their home country in fear for their lives up until the very last minute while waiting for their plane to take off, and who now are getting settled in Colorado Springs, were relaxed and happy to find themselves in Crested Butte.
“It is beautiful,” Qasem said looking at The Bench as we sat in the front yard of the UCC while his wife and three children walked to the Crested Butte Farmer’s Market. “The green mountains are very beautiful. That’s very different from our mountains in Afghanistan by our home which are very dry and brown. We like it here. The people are kind. The people in America are very kind. I want to say thank you to everyone and to my brother Bill (Kastning) for inviting us to Colorado.”
The initial connection between Mohammad Qasem Asadi and members of the UCC congregation, in particular Bill and Carol Kastning, was made 14 years ago when members of the UCC funded and traveled to help build a K-12 girl’s school in northern Afghanistan. Qasem was working with the NGO (non-governmental organization) Afghanistan-American Friendship Foundation (AAFF) and helped the UCC delegation during their trip. Bill and Qasem remained in touch and as Qasem described, “emailed each other for years becoming good friends.” So while there is a chance that some day the family could settle in Crested Butte, there are several hurdles and for the moment they are settling in Colorado Springs.
Qasem’s story is one fraught with danger. As a man who had converted to Christianity in 2004, he knew that decision could get him tortured or killed as he was then considered “an infidel. My friends and colleagues have been shot, killed, kidnapped, jailed, sentenced to hanging, blacklisted, beheaded, and forced to flee for their lives, leaving family members behind,” he related in a statement letter asking for asylum. “Because I am alive, God must have further purpose for my life.”
A dangerous story
Qasem described a life where after being given a Bible, he decided to become a Christian. He preferred the message in the Bible over the one in the Koran. “When I read the Bible, it had so many good things in it,” he said. “Everything was new to me. Unlike the Koran, it was so full of love, with so much less punishment. The first thing I learned in the Bible was that you should forgive people. This was new to me, since the Muslims always punished people. No one had to convince me to become a Christian. I wanted to learn more about Jesus and his miracles. It was strongly my wish.”
He hid his new religious beliefs from friends, neighbors and even family including his wife Maryam. Because neighbors would inform the government of those who did not follow Islam and pray five times a day and attend the mosque, he practiced the charade of being a good Muslim. Eventually he told his best friend and wife’s brother Basir that he was a Christian. Basir had kept the same secret. This led to Qasem entering a small group of a dozen other Afghan Christian men who met occasionally to discuss the Bible and pray.
“Despite our best efforts to keep our faith and activities secret, members of our home-church began to receive warnings,” he said. He was warned to stay away from suspected Christians. When the government told the NGOs that they could not employ Christians, he quit his job. It was then that he told Maryam he was a Christian. “She was terrified and extremely angry, because I had placed our family in great danger,” he described in his asylum letter. “We did not tell the children. I never quite understood why I was not targeted and killed at that time…To be safe, we ended up moving back to our old house. We simply kept quiet, and I continued going to the mosque, pretending that I was a good Muslim.”
But a neighbor described by Qasem as “a very bad man” learned he was a Christian, threatening him and ostracizing the family from the neighborhood. The neighbor’s son eventually became a member of the Taliban. “The Taliban was clear that it wanted to decrease the number of Christians in Afghanistan,” he described. “They did not want Christianity to spread and they were willing to go to great lengths to carry out their beliefs. In fact, there was even a $250,000 bounty on the heads of Christian development and aid workers and many of them, too, had also been shot, killed, kidnapped and even beheaded.”
It was then that Qasem began trying to get the family out of the country. In August of 2021 Qasem learned that the Taliban was looking for him as his name was on a list of people identified as Christians in Afghanistan. “We didn’t know from minute to minute whether we would survive,” he recalls. When the family was on the verge to escape at the Kabul Airport, a bomb went off killing hundreds and shutting down the airport. In a harrowing trip back, they returned to his hometown of Mazur where the airport was still open. After many days they were told a chartered flight was there to rescue the family.
“After all of the trauma we had experienced, however, it just so happened that the most frightening situation occurred while we were waiting to take off from the airport,” Qasem said. “The Taliban got on our plane and pulled a family off. It was because the family was Hazara. I knew the man, who also was a Christian. He knew I was a Christian, too. He never said anything, however, and much to my relief, the family was allowed to get back on plane and the flight eventually took off.”
The 28 Christians on that flight were taken to Qatar for almost two months. From there they were flown to Fort Bliss in Texas. After a month, they were assigned to go to Colorado Springs and referred to Lutheran Social Services in November. That group assisted with the family’s arrival, found them an apartment, and asked for volunteers to help them get settled in Colorado Springs. As it turns out, the guardian angels of the family in Colorado Springs are the aunt and uncle of Crested Butte’s Sarah and Martha Keene, Tim and Nancy Haley.
Tears and help
Reverend Tim Clark said Sunday’s UCC service was full, and the congregation was excited to greet the family. “There were a lot of tears, which was good,” he said. “We said a little prayer of thanksgiving for their safe passage.”
“I got pretty choked up this morning and Carol had to do the introduction because I am such a mush ball,” said Bill Kastning. “I have to say Tim and Nancy have basically adopted them in the Springs and are doing double backflips because they are that type of helpful people. Tim is trying to get Qasem into the construction trade because he is doing a menial job right now and he was trained as a plumber in Afghanistan. He could pick up modern plumbing techniques really quick.”
“He is starting the licensing process in Colorado Springs,” added Clark.
“It was our dream to have them come to Crested Butte,” said Bill. “There are two big barriers. The biggest one is that Lutheran Family Services needed them to be within a 100-mile radius for the case worker to monitor them. The second thing was housing in Crested Butte. He could walk in here and make five times the money and the kids could go to our great school which is far superior to the city school in Colorado Springs if they could magically find a spot in Anthracite Place. That housing issue has reared its ugly head. Our Crested Butte situation is impacting their desire to live here.”
Challenges are still there
“Everything is different for us now,” said Qasem. “The language, the culture. But we are all learning now. The kids are learning English and learning about the area.
Getting here was a miracle of God,” Qasem continued. “Many friends and relatives are still in danger in Afghanistan. It seems the situation in Afghanistan is getting better but there is still danger. I still email and text those friends. If things in Afghanistan change, I would maybe go back but the kids want to stay here. My youngest son says he wants to be a helicopter pilot in the army. My daughter wants to be a painter.”
The financial assistance from Lutheran Family Service is being reduced as Qasem has a job. The UCC has contributed about $2,000 toward the expected $5,000 legal bill that comes with applying for asylum, so more assistance is being sought.
“I’ve had two people that have nothing to do with the church tell me in the last 12 hours that they want to help and make a donation when they heard the story,” said Clark. “So, I know the community wants to help.”
“It’s amazing. There’s something that grabs people’s hearts about Afghanistan and this family,” added Bill. “I’ve had people put a hundred-dollar bill in my hand once they hear this compelling story.”
Qasem and the family got into the valley Friday evening and left Sunday afternoon. Maryam does not wear a burqa these days, but Clark noted she wore a pink Colorado baseball hat during the entirety of her visit, probably because of the comfort of having something cover her head. The six-year-old Nadim wanted to stay in the cool weather valley and play with the Kastning’s dog.
Meanwhile, the school in Afghanistan that brought Qasem and the Crested Butte community together is still operating but instead of being a girl’s K-12 school as originally organized, the girls leave the school after the sixth grade, when many are married off to older men. Things are different in America.
The family will likely be back to the valley and Bill said he foresees a Nordic ski lesson in their future. If you want to help the family, contact Tim or Kelly Jo Clark at the UCC or Bill and Carol Kastning.