“This man is our brother in Christ, and in his humanity, and he deserves all the love, the time, the attention in assisting him to safety that any member of our family would,” Wicks explained.
Kareem’s pleas to CNA coincided with rising aggravation with the Biden administration among refugee advocates for what they saw as a lack of resolve to help vulnerable Christians get out of Afghanistan.
“I’ve got a list of hundreds of individuals desperate to get out … now being hunted by the Taliban or other groups,” Sam Brownback, the Trump administration’s religious freedom ambassador, told Real Clear Politics last week.
Two charities headed by conservative commentator Glenn Beck, The Nazarene Fund and Mercury One, raised more than $28 million to charter 20 airliners capable of ferrying thousands of Afghan Christians to safety.
But Beck repeatedly charged that officials within the State Department and the U.S. military were obstructing the airlift, though he said that the charities still managed to fly some 5,100 Afghan Christians and other civilians to countries other than the United States. Beck’s rescue claims have not been independently verified.
More recently, others have made similar allegations about State Department interference in charter flight rescue operations. A Sept. 6 report by Fox News cited three aid group officials who said they have been unable to secure the necessary approval from the State Department to land charter flights in a nearby country.
And Rep. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who served on a Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan, made the same claim in a series of tweets last week.
The State Department has denied that it is obstructing refugee charter flights, and on Sept. 7 Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken pledged to assist non-government organizations and other groups working to transport Afghan civilians out of the country. Yet Blinken acknowledged that the logistics of doing so have become more difficult since the U.S. withdrawal.
"Without personnel on the ground, we can’t verify the accuracy of manifests, the identities of passengers, flight plans, or aviation security protocols. So this is a challenge, but one we are determined to work through. We’re conducting a great deal of diplomacy on this as we speak,” Blinken said during a visit to a refugee staging facility in Doha, Qatar.
Stuck outside the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate, the main checkpoint for evacuees, Kareem was convinced prior to the Aug. 31 deadline that his life hinged on getting on one of the U.S. military and civilian airplanes he watched taking off, one by one, some only half-full.
“Please help me,” he wrote in his first email to CNA.
“I will be shot or hang(ed) I don't know but talibaans looking also for afghans converted to christians. They will find me. I am begging you for help, any kind of help. I don't want to die. Save my life.” (CNA has edited some of the punctuation in his messages for clarity.)
On the morning of Aug. 27, Wicks was exchanging messages with Kareem when she began receiving news bulletins about a suicide bombing at the Abbey Gate, the same location where Kareem was waiting for a miracle.
“There has been a blast at the airport,” Wicks wrote.
“Are you okay?
“[Kareem] are you there?”
There was no response.
The suicide bomb attack by a regional affiliate of the Islamic State, ISIS-K, killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 100 Afghans. Scores more were injured.
An hour passed with no word from Kareem. Then two. Then three.
Wicks feared the worst.
Finally, a new message flashed on her laptop screen.
“Yes I here still hoping after blast on refugees gate. I was on that gate at morning.”
“Oh my gosh,” Wicks wrote back. “I thought you were dead.”
“No I got lucky or maybe your prayer,” Kareem replied. “I would send pictures but talibaans beating people.”
Hours later, Wicks received a voice message from Kareem. He said he was hiding in the corner of a building near the airport.
In the brief recording, his weak voice is shot through with loneliness and fear.
“I am so hopeless that there is no one coming for me, to help me and save my life,” he said.
‘What will they do to me?’
Kareem’s despair deepened as the hours and days passed by, with no fresh hope of rescue.
In one especially trying period, Kareem developed a fever and began to consider surrendering himself to the Taliban.
“Please do some thing,” he wrote.
“Does Christian Life matters or not,” he asked. “I am suffering every hour every day. I don’t know what Jesus decided for me.”
Wicks and Bermudez tried to encourage him to hold on, and continued reaching out to their contacts. “We keep working and fighting. Stay hopeful, brother,” Bermudez wrote.
But Kareem was terrified. His mind fixated on rumors that the Taliban were torturing people with what he called “skin punishments.” At one point, Taliban soldiers were whipping people outside the airport gates with cables, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“Taliban Wolfs are around me. They will hunt and eat me,” he wrote. “My heart is swelling. What will these animals do to me? Oh god,” he said.
“I am a human. I have rights. I am a human,” he wrote. “I’m not ready to die. I want to live my life.”
Wicks said later compared her experiences communicating with Kareem with keeping vigil at the bedside of a loved one preparing for death.
“Each of us is called to accompany the Suffering Christ. It might be someone you’re close to, someone in your family,” she said.
“God, in his Providence, asked that it be this person, 5,000 miles away.”
It was difficult “to encounter such darkness and to see the depths of this evil so closely, that a man would be hunted for his faith,” she said.
Kareem, for his part, clung to his human lifeline. “Please just stay with me [a] little more. Just talk to me,” he wrote.
Kareem remains in periodic contact with CNA, but it is now too dangerous for him to communicate on WhatsApp, especially in English.
Wicks and Bermudez continue to advocate for him, but there is little else they can offer him now other than their prayers.
Kareem told Wicks and Bermudez he is grateful for their efforts to help him.
“You two [are] keeping me hopeful and strong these scariest days of my life,” he wrote.
“I wish Jesus give me more life to meet you one day,” he continued.
“I will never blame you for this. You tried everything possible I know,” he told them.
“I love you two and others who tried to help me.”
Most recently, Kareem sent a video message to CNA, asking that it be made public if he should die.
“It is hard to survive in this hell, because this land is not for Christians,” he says in the nearly 8-minute-long video.
He says that the Taliban have the names of Christian converts whom they are hunting.
“I know I am one on that list,” he says. “But I’m not afraid. Jesus is with me … Jesus is watching me.”
Shannon Mullen is the Editor-in-Chief of CNA. He previously worked as a features writer, investigative reporter, and editor with the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. He has received numerous national reporting awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.