GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Gerald Keen received the best birthday present of his life Monday.
The Afghan interpreter with whom Keen built a close bond in Afghanistan touched down safely in Canada Sunday night.
“So, Papa, happy birthday to you,” Rahim Haidary said to Keen in an online video chat Monday.
“Thank you, Rahim,” Keen responded. “This is the best present you could give me … For you to get out of Afghanistan and into Toronto. You and the kids are safe.”
Keen, a retired U.S. Army first sergeant of Grand Haven, and his wife Lynnette Keen love Haidary like a son; he calls them papa and mommy.
“I dropped to my knees Thursday when Lynnette got the call (that Haidary secured a flight to Canada),” Gerald recalled. “Just, ‘thank God.’ It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I broke down and cried just from pure joy.”
Keen first met Haidary, 27, when the two worked on the same U.S. Army base in Afghanistan in June 2016.
“I could communicate and talk with him very well,” recalled Gerald, who noted he had sons Haidary’s age. “He opened up to me, and I opened up to him. It never stopped. It blossomed from that day forward. I made a promise before I left (Afghanistan) that I would not stop until I got him to the United States.”
Through daily video chats, the Keens have also developed a close bond with Haidary’s wife Kamrina and the couple’s five children, ages 2 months to 7 years.
“They didn’t give me birth,” Rahim Haidary said of the Keens. “But they give to me the same love like my parents who give to me the birth … I’m so thankful of (the Keens). I don’t have the words how to tell them, ‘thank you.’ They did everything for me. I can’t forget it.”
The Keens have been helping Haidary and his family financially as well. To that end, the Keens created a GoFundMe account that has raised $10,520 as of Monday night.
The Haidary family is currently quarantined for two weeks in a Toronto hotel room per COVID-19 precautions. The couple both received the COVID-19 vaccine before the family flew out of Kabul.
The Keens have been working nearly five years to help Rahim Haidary secure a Special Immigrant Visa to get him and his family to America.
Rahim Haidary worked for several years as an interpreter for U.S. troops, which made him the target of death threats by the Taliban. The U.S. had promised those who worked with American troops expedited consideration of visa applications.
“I think it’s impossible to fully comprehend the level of danger that he lived with every single day,” Lynnette Keen said from her Grand Haven living room Monday.
Lynnette Keen said Rahim Haidary and his family were particularly at risk when they journeyed from their village to Kabul.
“They have Taliban checkpoints, and … if he were to have been stopped, he would have been killed. But he had to get to Kabul to be able to fly out,” Lynnette Keen said.
Rahim Haidary was among 18,000 Afghan applicants stuck in America’s Special Immigrant Visa pipeline until Canada stepped in and expedited his request.
Rahim Haidary is grateful to Canada, though he’s determined to make it to West Michigan.
“I’m happy for Toronto,” Rahim Haidary told Target 8 in a video chat. “But my … home will be Michigan. I’m coming to Michigan very soon, hopefully.”
The Keens hope Canada is just a stop on the way to West Michigan.
They’re seeking advice from an immigration attorney regarding next steps in their effort to bring the Haidary family to Grand Haven.
However, the Keens have already scheduled a trip in two weeks to visit the Haidary family in Toronto. The Canadian border has reopened to Americans who are vaccinated against COVID-19.
“This is (Rahim’s) story. This is our story,” Gerald Keen said with tears welling up in his eyes.
“How we’re going to change not only his and Kamrina’s life and the kids’ lives, but for generations to come. This story will always be told in this family forever. You can’t forget where you came from. We’ll never let them forget where they came from. But we’ll let them always remember the day they came here for opportunity and a chance at life. Hope,” Keen added.
Target 8 first reported on the Keen’s efforts in April.
“He’s a young, smart kid,” Keen previously told Target 8. “We went through some pretty hard times with the Taliban, and the camaraderie that we built, and the trust that we built, I mean, I trusted him my life. I kind of took him under my wing.
“He’s just as much a soldier as I am because he helped the Americans and the coalition through the worst times of the war,” Keen added.
Keen was terrified that when U.S. forces left Afghanistan completely — expected to happen by the end of the month — the Taliban would come for Rahim Haidary.
“He’ll be the last one killed if they find him,” Keen previously said. “They’ll kill his brothers, sisters, kids, wife and then, they’ll kill him. And they’ll behead him. They have no remorse.”
The Biden administration has been working to get thousands of Afghan allies like Rahim Haidary out of reach of the Taliban before the troop withdrawal is done. Not all of them are being brought straight to the U.S. — some are being flown to other countries while their visa requests are processed.
Rahim Haidary, whose name Target 8 is now using because he is safe, previously told Target 8 that he hoped to get his five children to the U.S. so they could get a good education.
“One day they will be officers,” he said when he was still in Afghanistan. “They will be doctors. They will be engineers.”
And, he said, he hoped to repay the Keens for all the help they have given him.
“I am just wishing that one day, I will support them,” he said.