This pilot flew hundreds of refugees to safety in the US from Afghanistan

Written by Staff Writer at CNN

On the same day that the United States granted permanent asylum to over 1,000 Afghan refugee applicants, a pilot is being hailed as a hero for helping to evacuate thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Najibullah Zadran, a Hennepin County, Minnesota native, helped stage more than 300 arrivals from a cramped Afghan airfield in January 2018, ahead of Donald Trump’s vow to cut all refugee resettlement from the country.

The full story is covered in an upcoming CNN film.

Now the pilot, who shared his story with the US State Department before they denied the refugees a visa, is being hailed as an official hero for his role in saving lives.

The flight was organized by Unity in the Sky Alliance — a network of medical responders and relief organizations in the US, UAE, Bangladesh, Norway, Switzerland, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan and Kenya.

The group set up the flight to get evacuees, in fear of their personal safety, safely out of harm’s way after being ordered by the United States government to stop accepting asylum-seekers from the war-torn country.

The pilot helped orchestrate the evacuation of nearly 1,000 Afghan refugees. courtesy unity in the sky alliance

“We have this high respect for him as a humanitarian and a hero. He is very, very kind,” said 18-year-old local resident Imaan Haider, who has lived in the Twin Cities since she was five.

A tale of hope

“The conditions there were terrible. The temperature was freezing and the rangers were basically cold, too, because they couldn’t be transported to another country, they couldn’t come across the border. They were getting more and more afraid, more and more agitated.”

Zadran, 44, completed his medical studies in Iraq and his MBA at the University of Minnesota’s Excelsior Campus while working as a pilot, caring for the smallest of patients at clinics across Pakistan.

When the US government stopped accepting Afghan asylum-seekers in late 2017, the Unity in the Sky Alliance stepped in to help deliver hundreds of patients from Kandahar, one of the country’s larger cities, and their relatives.

“So many times people came to their offices and I was the only one to see their eyes open and to see that there was hope and happiness, because the last few years were so much filled with suffering and pain,” he said.

Asked why he thought the United States government halted all refugee resettlement, he said, “Because the last few years have been very, very bad for the Afghan people.”

Despite the initial setback, after months of planning, the flight was successful.

The flight transported some of the world’s most vulnerable people to safety. courtesy unity in the sky alliance

Meanwhile, in Kandahar, political leader Ashraf Ghani signed a series of landmark deals with the United States on June 6, welcoming it back as a key ally.

Two days later, the United States unveiled a new action plan, ushering in the expansion of services in over 60 US consulates across Afghanistan.

‘Safe passage’

The flight left the Kandahar International Airport on Jan. 31, landing at Connellsville International Airport, just outside Connellsville, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 31 — and collecting around 200 of the passengers.

As part of the evacuation, medical staff treated patients for common medical emergencies as well as providing psychological and mental health support. A US public information officer at the airport and local residents still recognize Zadran as the pilot who helped evacuate over 1,000 people.

“In my city, in a small community like Connellsville, it’s a lot of people that know the captain,” said Zadran.

At a demonstration of gratitude, local residents took over the runway, presented Zadran with a gift, and serenaded him with playing their own trumpet.

“The refugees who arrived were very happy, they were just so happy to have somebody on the ground who is just like us who knows their stories and their stories of suffering,” Zadran said.

“The pilots are like family, for me.”

The full CNN film on the Hennepin County pilot, “Safe Passage,” will air this Sunday, September 9, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

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