GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — Amid America’s disastrous exit from Afghanistan, one West Michigan-based story has emerged as a desperately needed silver lining.
The latest chapter featured a joyful reunion.
“It’s nothing you can prepare for,” explained retired U.S. Army 1st Sgt Gerald Keen, referring to the moment he reunited with Rahim, an Afghan interpreter with whom he built a close bond after the two met on an Army base in Afghanistan.
Rahim, now 29, spent five years serving U.S. troops as a translator, which made him and his family the target of Taliban death threats.
“You just are taken in by the moment, and all of your feelings are raw at the time … Just all the feelings. Very emotional,” said Gerald Keen of this week’s reunion.
Rahim, his wife and five children, ages 2-months to 7 years old, have been quarantined in a Toronto hotel since they made it to Canada three weeks ago.
“The reason we needed to go (to Canada) is because they were feeling alone,” explained Gerald Keen’s wife, Lynnette Keen.
“Things are hard. The process is hard,” said Lynnette Keen.
Gerald and Lynnette Keen had held off visiting Toronto at the request of the Canadian agency assisting Rahim and his family.
But when the interpreter called Lynnette Keen recently, she knew he needed help.
“I could tell in (Rahim’s) voice that we needed to be there, and I came home and said to Gerald, ‘we have to go,'” she said.
The Keens got tested for COVID-19 Saturday before travelling to Port Huron to await results.
“Monday night at 9:43 we got our (negative) COVID results,” recalled Lynnette Keen. “We slept from ten at night until two in the morning, got up and crossed the border at three in the morning.”
When Gerald Keen knocked on Rahim’s hotel room door, he was greeted with a giant, heartfelt hug.
“Thank you, Papa,” said Rahim, who is so close to the Keens he refers to them as “Papa” and “Mommy.”
“I missed you, Papa. It’s been a long time. I just missed you. Thanks for coming … You helped save my life. I’m very grateful,” declared Rahim.
When Gerald Keen left Afghanistan five years ago, he and his wife kept in close contact with Rahim and his family through frequent online video chats.
“It was exciting to see them (in person). It was emotional,” said Lynnette Keen. “It was family. We’ve been together for five years. It was just through a (video) screen. So, there wasn’t any awkwardness. We’re a family. We were all just finally able to be together. So, lots of hugs. Lots of kisses. Within an hour, we were having tea, sitting on the floor and eating breakfast, and the kids were crawling around.”
The Keens have worked for several years to hold America to its pledge of expedited Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Afghan allies who served U.S. troops.
But it was Canada that ultimately made it happen for Rahim and his family.
The Keen’s two-day Toronto visit was full of firsts for the Afghan family, including trips to a playground, a beach and a supermarket.
“The experience (for Rahim and his family) to go into the produce and the meat section was bewildering — for them to see all that fresh food,” explained Lynnette Keen. “It was so fun. Everything we did was fun.”
The families also visited Lake Ontario together.
“That’s the first time they’ve ever seen a beach,” explained Gerald Keen. “Water so massive as that. They absolutely loved it. Ran and jumped in it. Laid down in the sand. Rolled in the sand.”
Rahim’s wife waded into lake water for the first time.
“The look on her face and the feeling that she had was just overwhelming,” recalled Gerald Keen. “With the children playing, and the amount of water that was in front of her that she had never seen before in her life … They don’t have that in Afghanistan. Sand and rock as far as you can see. But not water.”
Gerald and Lynnette Keen said the kids are already learning and speaking English.
“They can count. They know their ABC’s. They have workbooks. They have an iPad. They’re learning,” explained Gerald Keen.
It was difficult for the Keens to return to Grand Haven, but they’re hopeful Rahim and his family will soon follow.
Once that happens, the family of seven will live in the Keen’s basement for the foreseeable future.
Gerald Keen is in the process of finishing the basement and adding a bathroom.
They’ve been providing financial support for Rahim and his family and have set up a GoFundMe account for that purpose.
The families are grateful for any level of support.
They’re also working with the office of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, to expedite Rahim’s relocation to Grand Haven, which the Afghan family calls “home.”
“The Senator’s office is continuing to work on (Rahim’s) case,” wrote Robyn Bryan, spokesperson for Stabenow’s office, in an email to News 8. “With the closing of the Kabul embassy, the transfer of his case to the Toronto embassy will allow for the continued processing of his special immigrant visa application. At this time, we do not have timeline. The Senator’s office is working on over 30 Afghan special immigrant visa cases.”
We asked Gerald Keen, a 36-year Army veteran, about his thoughts on the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan.
“Susan, you don’t want me to tell you. You can’t put it on TV,” Gerald Keen said.
“I get so upset. My blood pressure rises … What is the U.S. thinking? What are we doing? It’s embarrassing. Shameful. (Our allies) deserve better. Especially from a country like the United States.”