Where is Zabi Today?
An update on the Afghan interpreter who escaped Kabul with the help of his former commanding officer.
Zabi is sitting in my family room next to Corey Mazza, the former Marine lieutenant who helped orchestrate his rescue from Kabul in August, 2021. Even though they haven’t seen each other in over 11 years, they pick up right where they left off when it comes to giving each other a hard time.
“I’m not gonna be your emotional pillow,” Corey tells Zabi.
“I’m not surprised, I know that,” Zabi replies with a laugh.
Corey flew Zabi to Los Angeles to introduce him to his family and to bring him to this interview. Corey says it feels surreal to have someone from that part of his life visit his hometown after so many years, especially Zabi. “The last time I saw him — according to him — I was not happy with him in the middle of a firefight.”
Both have aged. Zabi has aged more.
Corey is 37, a father of three boys and a successful financial advisor. He looks about a decade younger than the wiry refugee.
I ask Zabi how old he is.
“Three-zero,” I repeat, not sure I heard him clearly.
It’s been a long war.
If you haven’t read about Zabi’s dramatic escape from Kabul, catch up here and here, stories I originally posted in January. It’s an especially remarkable tale because cryptocurrency helped — and nearly derailed — the perilous evacuation.
I’m not using Zabi’s real name or revealing the city where he currently lives, as his family in Afghanistan is still threatened by the Taliban because of Zabi’s work with the Americans during the war. His family tells him that if he ever returns to his homeland, “I will be killed.”
So he’s building a new life here and hoping to receive permanent residency status.
Life in America
These days the former interpreter has a social security card, a driver’s license and an old car. He pays rent on a small apartment with wages he earns driving for Doordash and working as an interpreter for non-profits helping fellow refugees (Zabi speaks five languages).
Driving makes Zabi feel like an American, he tells me, “because I never drove back in Afghanistan.” He also claims to be a calm driver — which I explain is very *un*-American.
This week, as he and Corey were reunited, Zabi says he became emotional. “It was hard for me to stop my tears,” he admits. Corey, ever the gruff Marine, refused to reciprocate. “I just told him to shut up, I don’t wanna hear it.”
Here’s video Corey‘s wife took of their reunion.
Since coming to the U.S., Zabi has never asked Corey for money, but sometimes Corey gives him cash, or money from a GoFundMe campaign launched to help several interpreters.
Before meeting with me, the two men spent the weekend going to Little League games, having dinner with Corey’s family, and shopping at Target, where they ran into another Afghan refugee. #smallworld
Meeting a fellow Afghan refugee at Target
Zabi goes shopping
The Journey From Kabul to the U.S.
I’d never heard Zabi tell the story of what happened after he managed to fight his way past the gates into Kabul International Airport, so I asked him about it. “There was all garbage inside the airport,” he says. The destruction was heartbreaking. “We couldn’t stop crying.”
He waited 18 hours on the tarmac before getting on an airplane.
From there, Zabi traveled to Qatar, then to a camp in New Jersey, and finally to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where he stayed for 40 days.
“The first days were tough,” he recalls. It was crowded. Nothing functioned. The showers were broken. (“Welcome to the Marine Corps,” Corey chimes in.) Zabi says he waited in line for hours to receive a meal that consisted of powdered eggs and a slice of apple. “We did not have enough food.”
But he survived. Again.
Yet Zabi’s story has nearly as much humor as heartache.
Little Zabi and “Big Papi”
Corey jokes that organizing Zabi’s trip from LAX to the suburbs was almost as difficult as escaping Kabul.
He ordered an Uber to bring Zabi to his house. By the time Zabi figured out how to get to the airport‘s Uber lot (believe me, that’s no small feat), his driver — Javier (4.85 stars!) — was already waiting for him. “I sent [Zabi] a screenshot of the Uber reservation,” Corey says.
On the screenshot was a prominent advertisement featuring Red Sox legend David Ortiz — aka “Big Papi” — promoting Uber.
This confused the young Afghan. He was looking for his driver but couldn’t find anyone who looked like the man pictured on his phone. Corey couldn’t figure out why they weren’t connecting. He finally called Zabi, who told him, “This guy doesn’t look like David.”
“David?” Corey replied, equally confused.
Zabi thought David Ortiz was his driver, and Javier — the real driver — did not look at all like Big Papi. Corey explained that David was part of an ad.
Welcome to America!
“We need to work on his logistics skills a bit,” says Corey.
What’s Next for Zabi?
Zabi is going through the asylum process with immigration attorney Darius Amiri, but it’s more intricate and difficult than Corey imagined. “It’s been incredibly frustrating,” he says. An appeal to the Defense Department to qualify Zabi for a Special Immigrant Visa was not successful. Corey thinks the process should be better, or at least more compassionate. ”It feels brutal, and it feels cold.”
Congress is considering a bill to speed up citizenship for Afghans who risked their lives to help Americans, but the bill has so far failed to pass, despite bipartisan support. Zabi could potentially be deported once his temporary status expires, an outcome that would most certainly be a death sentence. As much as he misses his family, his neighborhood, and his country, he never wants to return. “Even if the Taliban is not there, it’s still a danger to me.”
He has another immigration interview next week, and he feels confident the process will work in his favor. And so he’s planning ahead. Zabi’s short-term goals include learning two more languages to expand his portfolio as an interpreter. His long-term goal? “To become a successful person.”
He Still Loves Crypto…
If you’ve read the previous stories, you know that Zabi is a big believer in the potential of cryptocurrencies. “I think it’s gonna be the future replacement of physical money,” he tells me, though he’s concerned that so many people behind these digital currencies remain a mystery.
When I ask him if he still owns any coins, he pulls out his phone, while Corey shakes his head. Zabi shows a digital wallet containing thousands of KLV tokens worth about $115 in all. “I only need to own it for a year,” he explains. Then he will be rich! Corey sighs with exasperation.
A Battlefield Bromance
Zabi adores Corey, and Corey is having none of it. Afghan men are far more affectionate with each other than American men are, and Zabi doesn’t hold back his praise. “I do love him,” he says. “I have many reasons.” The main reason, though, is that when Zabi needed to flee Afghanistan, he reached out to anyone who might help. Only Corey answered, and he answered immediately. “He is a man, after 10 years, who replies to someone he doesn’t need anymore,” Zabi says, amazed.
Corey replies that he felt compelled to act when Zabi was in danger. It was clearly the right thing to do and a nice “bookend” to a war that lacked clarity. “It felt good,“ he tells me. ”It felt like you were fulfilling — not necessarily an obligation — but something that you said you were going to do.”
As he says this, Corey’s eyes start to well up, and I can tell he’s getting angry with himself for becoming emotional. He takes a moment to stop himself, pats Zabi on the knee, and then continues.
”I want him to succeed and grow,” Corey says. He wants to see Zabi raise children who go on to achieve the American Dream. “It only happens with the sacrifice of ‘Generation One.’”
As for Zabi, one thing about their relationship will never change. “I will always be his soldier,” he tells me. “Always.”
Up next: While Corey was working diligently stateside to help Zabi flee, the mission’s success depended on another Marine on the ground at the airport in Kabul. Tomorrow, we meet that hero.
Please share this story with the veterans you know. #PromisesKept