November/December 2021 Issue
October 25, 2021

Syracuse teachers play critical role in Afghan family’s escape to freedom

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
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afghan family
Caption: After a harrowing journey aided by two Syracuse teachers, 15 members of the Naziri family escaped Afghanistan. Above, five members of the family await transfer to the US from a safe location in Germany. Photo provided.

This is a story about Afghanistan, oppression and basic human rights; about action, hope and perseverance — and about teachers, NYSUT members and the impact they can make in the lives of their students, their community and beyond.

When the Taliban took control of Kabul in late August, Syracuse teacher Megan Brown reached out to her former student, Basir Naziri, an Afghan immigrant who still had family in the war-ravaged country.

“I wanted to let him know I was aware of the situation and that I cared,” said Brown, a Syracuse Teachers Association member and middle school English as a New Language teacher. “I never envisioned a scenario where I could do anything to help.”

That was until a colleague told her about Zac Lois.

A fellow STA member and eighth-grade history teacher, Lois was part of a group called Task Force Pineapple, a small network of veterans scattered across the country working to evacuate Americans, Afghans and allies to safety.

“I thought, ‘Who is this guy? What can he do?’” Brown recalled, not knowing Lois is a former Army captain and Green Beret who spent 12 years serving in hotspots such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brown sent Lois a text explaining she heard he might be able to help. Lois replied, telling Brown to pass his number on to her former student. The student sent Lois’s contact info to his uncles in Kabul. And from that point on, Brown, a Central New York mother of a 5-year-old, found herself in her very own real-life action movie involving the life-or-death struggle of an Afghan family halfway around the world.

“Syracuse is a very diverse city. A lot of our students are immigrants or refugees,” said Lois. “We have a small Afghan population. I wanted to do everything I could to help.”

Lois said when Task Force Pineapple started, members studied the Kabul airport, Taliban checkpoints, and the challenges evacuees would face. That’s when he remembered the Underground Railroad and the poster of Harriet Tubman that hangs in his class.

“We had a contact on the inside with the 82nd Airborne. I reached out and explained the situation and asked if he’d be willing to help,” said Lois, adding that as thousands of people were packed together trying to fight their way through the airport’s four gates, there was a little hole in a wall where the task force secretly pulled people through.

Working under cover of darkness, the task force would communicate via cellphone with its people, sending directions, signals and instructions: Go down this path, walk 100 feet along this wall, look for a green chem light and when you get to it, flash your cellphone three times.

Lois said evacuees were sent a pineapple-patterned image. As they approached 82nd members, they would show the pineapples to indicate they were working with the task force. Once identities were verified, U.S. soldiers would bring the evacuees through the wire.

It was not smooth sailing. At one point, Naziri’s uncles were told not to proceed because the situation was just too dangerous.

“It was like running a gauntlet,” Lois said. “There were families, young children, beat pretty severely. There was one pregnant woman beaten by the Taliban so severely she went into labor right on the street. And it wasn’t just Afghans. It was Americans, green card holders; it was a mixed bag.”

Back in Syracuse, Brown’s job was to relay information she received from Lois to Naziri’s family in Afghanistan — secret codes, GPS meeting points, deployment times, even words of encouragement.

“Looking back now, I don’t know if I realized the full gravity of the moment,” Brown said. “There were times I was so tired but I knew if I fell asleep and they missed a message, that could literally be the difference between them getting out of the country. Me staying up all night in my own house is nowhere near what the family had to work through. That definitely put it into perspective.”

“Her dedication was incredible,” Lois said of Brown. “She was working as a surrogate shepherd and there the whole time.”

On Aug. 26, 15 members of Naziri’s family finally reached the Kabul airport and successfully escaped. They were among the very last, gaining freedom just minutes before suicide bombers set off a deadly explosion killing dozens, including 13 American military members.

Lois, meanwhile, continues his work with Task Force Pineapple. He said more than 5,000 people remain on the group’s evacuation list — Americans, journalists, women’s rights activists, military targets and members of the LGBTQ community. Lois is on leave from his teaching position — a request he gratefully said his administration supported fully.

“The last couple of years at school we’ve talked a lot about oppression, justice and equality, and I don’t think there is any better representation of that than this situation,” he said. “I’ve kind of had a moral crisis. I had to ask myself: If I quit (the task force work) right now, am I really setting a good example for my students about the importance of these issues?”

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