KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Afghan air force pilot who had been promised refuge in America last fall, only to be rejected at the last minute, finally arrived on U.S. soil Wednesday with his family.
Mohammed Naiem Asadi, his wife Rahima, and their daughter Zainab, 5, have been conditionally approved for parole, a temporary status for noncitizens to come to America, U.S. immigration services said in a letter to the family.
"This is a real recognition that this man's life is in significant danger in Afghanistan," said the family's lawyer, Kimberly Motley, who came to Kabul to escort the family to America.
The family passed through immigration and plans to file for asylum in the U.S., Motley said in an interview Monday.
Asadi, a helicopter pilot reputed to have killed more insurgents than anyone else in the Afghan air force, received a rare endorsement by the Pentagon last fall to move to the U.S. with his family because he was in "imminent danger of being killed by the Taliban."
But the Defense Department later withdrew its approval, saying that senior officials had not been consulted.
The decision angered former advisers who vouched for Asadi's bid to come to America. As a major in the Afghan air force, Asadi protected the life of a downed U.S. pilot last year and, by one former chief warrant officer's estimate, had been in the cockpit for 70% of all missions in southern Afghanistan in recent years.
"It's shameful what happened on that last day, that someone changed their mind in the DOD," said Andy Miller, a retired Army chief warrant officer who helped train Asadi. "At the last minute, the rug was yanked out from under them."
Asadi and his family received death threats from the Taliban that were determined credible by U.S. investigators last fall.
The Taliban have launched attacks all over the country as U.S. and NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan, with assassinations killing politicians, journalists and military personnel. The continuing violence has raised calls for the U.S. to protect or evacuate Afghans under threat for working with them.
However, a Pentagon spokesman told The Wall Street Journal last year that so many military personnel are under threat that letting them all seek refuge in America would "absolutely gut the Afghan security forces."
Some advisers who supported Asadi's bid to come to America acknowledged that helping one of the country's few elite pilots leave the country weakens its ability to stave off the Taliban.
But in addition to threats from the Taliban, Asadi feared retribution from the Afghan military for trying to leave the country with his family.
Pilots who report threats against them often receive little sympathy and may be threatened with punishment or imprisonment, said Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan's first female fixed-wing pilot and also a client of Motley. She was granted asylum in America in 2018 after receiving numerous death threats.
After the U.S. military withdrew its endorsement, Asadi and his family went into hiding, first at Bagram Airfield and then in a house on the outskirts of Kabul while he reapplied for refuge in America.
With the family's departure from Afghanistan, supporters of the family hope to greet the Asadi family in person soon. Among these is Capt. Laurie Witherspoon, an Army chaplain who met the family as they hid at Bagram last fall. She said she began visiting the family regularly, giving stuffed animals and coloring books to their daughter.
The chaplain said she spoke with the family almost daily over the last six months.
"Lots of emotional highs and lows," Witherspoon said in a text message. "Asadi's faith, humility and courage has strengthened the roots of our international friendship."
Once the family comes to America, Witherspoon said she plans to help give English lessons to Rahima, in exchange for Afghan cooking classes.
The family's supporters in America have set up a charity drive, at https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-the-asadi-family, to help with their living expenses.
As the family prepared to leave Afghanistan on Tuesday, Zainab played with a rose and said "goodbye" to people in English as her parents loaded their luggage into a car bound for the airport.
While in the air Wednesday on the way to the family's new home, the former pilot Asadi reflected on his life growing up in a small rural village, and then flying in the skies in the war ravaging his country. He recalled the friends he lost, and thanked those who helped him come to America. He wrote that he hoped for peace one day in Afghanistan. He remained hopeful for a life without fear in America.
Before landing on U.S. soil, he wrote: "I am glad that today it was proved once again that humanity knows no boundaries and human beings can embrace each other with love in all their differences."
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.