By Brian Bearden
In the middle of the night, family members vanished, never to be heard from again.
That’s what Rona Zafari remembers about growing up in Afghanistan.
Zafari, who fled Afghanistan with her family after the Soviet Union took control, told the Rotary Club of Preston Trail that Afghanistan once was a thriving Westernized place to live.
Her father had achieved success with Afghan Airlines, which was supported by Pan Am. He served as director of operations, and moved his family to posts in Turkey and England. His daughter, Rona, started school in London.
In 1975, the family returned to Afghanistan after three years in Turkey and two in London.
The timing of their move was historic. She said her family saw the rise of socialists in society. Gradually, the Afghans who ran businesses, schools, government, fell under their influence. Zafari said the “People’s Revolution” began in 1976, turning the young, poor and elite against the king.
“The revolution was started and led by the Soviets,” Zafari said. “They were under the cover of the socialists in Afghanistan, and they went around and began brain-washing all these people.
“What the socialists and Soviets were doing was really trying to take over,” she said.
After the king was dispatched in 1973, the Afghans had four presidents in the late 1970s as the Soviets tightened control as power changed hands when one after the other was overthrown or killed.
“The socialists realized people, including the president, were catching on to what they were doing and started saying ‘We can’t fool these Afghans.’ Once the Afghans figured it out, it was too late, and they were gone. They were really gone. No one saw them again.”
Then the Soviets invaded in 1979.
“For three nights, the sky was black with Russian planes as they brought in the Red Army,” Zafari said. “After that, the government made an announcement that the president had been killed, and that ‘friendly’ forces from the Soviet Union were here to protect us. Protect us from what?”
TURNING SCHOOLS ON PARENTS
To find out which parents were loyal to the government, children were asked questions at the school.
“Even back then as a seventh-grader, I knew I couldn’t say anything or my parents would vanish. They were interrogating children, and asking what my parents were saying in our home. As children, we were frightened. Several people in my [extended] family just disappeared because they were not for the way the government was taking away our freedoms.”
Homes were routinely searched. She remembers her family burning magazines such as Time to keep the soldiers from finding the magazines and thinking their family was pro-West. One of her parents wanted to bury a gun in the backyard just in case but they did not because soldiers used metal detectors to scan the yards.
“We were not allowed to own guns,” Zafari said. “My father told my mother, ‘We can not do that. They will find it,’ And, if they found a gun, you vanished. They searched houses. They searched everything.”
One of the first moves the Soviets made was to turn the poor against the rich, she said. Her grandfather owned land in the north and became successful. The happy, proud man became a target.
“My grandfather loved buying land, and he helped a lot of people because he was able to do it,” she said. “But, then the government said he was rich, and they confiscated all of his land. Everything he owned was frozen and taken away.”
When she was 11 years old, soldiers banged on the front door of their apartment. She didn’t answer. The soldier hammered a piece of paper on the door.
“It said, ‘Your home is confiscated,’ she said. I called my father and told him. We were kicked out of our apartment because they thought we were rich.”
TIME TO GO
Rona’s mother wanted out of Afghanistan to keep her children safe. Immediately.
“My dad didn’t want to try to escape and become a refugee. My brother had crossed the border and went into Iran. For 30 days, we didn’t know where he was, but he came back and told us about the refugee camps.
“My dad asked my mother to be patient,” she said.
Her father hoped his influence at the airport and with the airline would help.
“My dad told my mother, ‘If we get out, we will do it right. I have connections.”
One of his connections suddenly left as the manager of the Afghan Airlines fled to Australia from France, her father offered to manage the airline. He was the only one left who knew how to do the job. Her father and family were allowed to move to France to manage the airline under the condition that all of their property would be frozen until they returned.
“We left Afghanistan at the same time the United States was boycotting the Olympics in Moscow,” Rona said. “I remember watching the Olympics at the airport before we boarded a plane.
“Then we we were on a plane about to take off for France but still scared that someone would still stop us from taking off and leaving. Just then, one of the pilots made an announcement that Mr. Zafari was needed at the front of the plane. …”
That sent chills through the Zafaris. It turned out to be an operational question. Her father returned to his seat, and the plane left for France. Two hours later, the plane descended.
“We were landing in Moscow,” she said. “We were frightened that at any time they might pull us off, but we took off again and later landed in Germany. That is where my mother told my dad she wanted to escape. He told her to have patience. We took off again, and we landed in France.”
LIFE IN PARIS
The day after arriving in France, her father went to the U.S. Embassy and told the Americans he wanted political asylum, and one day he would bring his family to the embassy for safety.
“He could not really trust the French police because of their socialists connections,” she said.
The Zafari’s lived in an apartment across from the Eiffel Tower.
“We had a good life in Paris,” Zafari said.
She enrolled in a three-month language program and learned how to speak French.
“After you take the language program, you are able to get into high school,” she said.
MOVING TO AMERICA
In 1982, the Afghan airlines decided to stop flying to Europe. Her family was supposed to be on the last plane from Paris to Afghanistan.
“My dad called my mom and told her to pack whatever you can. We are going to the American Embassy tonight,” Rona said.
“The next day, we were on our way to New York, and the Afghans were shocked,” she said. The family moved on to San Francisco, where they arrived and joined two uncles there. The news of his escape went around the world. Their bank accounts in France and Afghanistan were frozen but they were in the United States. They received help from churches and some assistance and soon had a place to live, furniture and food.
“My dad came to America with just a little money but used what he had to start a travel agency in Berkeley, Calif.,” she said.
Rona followed her family’s tradition of working for what she wanted. She worked through college and graduated as a paralegal. She took a job with a San Francisco law firm, and one day she saw the hours billed by lawyers and decided to go to law school.
Her journey to law school led her to Texas, where she has two children and found herself wanting another career that would keep her home more for her kids. She joined MCI and moved to Collin County in 2002. Needing more flexibility, she decided to go into insurance and opened her agency with Farmers insurance in 2005. Her son is now a freshman at UT-Austin and her daughter is in eighth grade.
“What I learned in Afghanistan is that the real Afghan people love Americans,” she said, telling the civic club luncheon in fast-growing Celina, Texas, on Friday that the Taliban in Afghanistan could better be described as people who moved into her country from Pakistan. “What I learned is that government control is not good for people. It is scary. At my dad’s travel agency in Berkeley, professors would always come in and say how good socialism was, but my dad had just escaped from socialism. He knew first hand what socialism could be like. What I know now is that freedom is good.”
Rona Zafari gives back to the community through Night of Superstars, a red-carpet charity event that recognizes extraordinary children who have overcome adversity to excel in academics, athletics and community service. She is a candidate for the school board in Allen.
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