'They become our family:' US farming couple rescues Afghans

Ihsanullah Patan, left, a horticulturist and refugee from Afghanistan, sits for a portrait last month with Caroline Clarin, right, whom he worked with in Afghanistan, and her wife, Sheril Raymond, at his home in Fergus Falls, Minn.

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — The U.S. soldiers called them “Caroline’s guys.” They transformed farms in a war zone — risking their lives for the program she built, sharing her belief that something as simple as apple trees could change the world.

The university-educated Afghans helped turn land in an overgrazed, drought-stricken and impoverished region in eastern Afghanistan into verdant gardens and orchards that still feed local families today.

In the process, the 12 agricultural specialists, all traditional Afghan men, formed a deep, unexpected bond with their boss, an American woman who worked as a U.S. Department of Agriculture adviser in the region for two years.

Now Caroline Clarin is trying to save them one by one, doing it all from the 1910 Minnesota farmhouse she shares with her wife, drawing from retirement funds to help a group of men who share her love of farming.

Clarin has helped get five of her former employees and their families into the U.S. since 2017, while her wife has helped them rebuild their lives in America.

Since the Taliban seized power in August, texts from those remaining have grown more urgent and Clarin says she can “feel the panic increasing” as winter approaches and food shortages grow. She has stepped up her efforts, working endless hours, diligently tracking their visa applications. She calls senators to apply pressure so they don’t languish like the thousands of other visa applications in the backlogged system for Afghans who supported the U.S. government during the long war.

She’s driven by fear her team will be killed by the Taliban, though the new government has promised not to retaliate against Afghans who helped the U.S.. She also wants to give them a future.

Since U.S. forces withdrew, more than 70,000 Afghans have come to the United States and thousands are languishing at U.S. military bases as resettlement agencies struggle to keep up.

Clarin knows she cannot save everyone, but she’s determined to help those she can.

After she left Afghanistan in 2011, she was consumed by anger over her program being gutted as the U.S. government changed its priorities.

“When I got on the plane, it was like leaving my family on the helipad,” she said. “I felt like I deserted them.”

The most recent of her friends to escape was Ihsanullah Patan, a horticulturist who waited seven years for a special immigrant visa. After he texted her that two of his close friends had just been killed, Clarin withdrew $6,000 from a retirement fund to get him and his family on a commercial flight to Minnesota before the Taliban took control of the country this summer.

When Clarin picked them up at the airport in Minneapolis at midnight for the three-hour drive back to Fergus Falls, she was consumed with joy.

“It was like my son came home,” she said.

Patan arrived in Minnesota with saffron, Afghan almonds and 11 pounds of Afghan green tea to share. He also gave Clarin and her wife, Sheril Raymond, seeds of Afghanistan’s tender leeks for their garden.

He was the first member to join Clarin’s team after she was sent to Paktika province. A confident, young university graduate, Patan spelled out what was needed in the region. It would become the basis of her program: Seeds, trees and the skills to plant gardens and orchards.

Patan considers Clarin and her wife family. His three sons and daughter call them their “aunties.”

Surrounded by farmland stretching to the North Dakota border, the town’s skyline is dominated by grain elevators and the spires of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, a reflection of the region’s Scandinavian roots.

The only other Afghan family in town is his cousin’s. Sami Massoodi, who has a degree in livestock management, also worked for Clarin’s team in Afghanistan and arrived in 2017. He and his family lived on their farm before they got established in Fergus Falls.

“In Fergus Falls, they have really good people, really friendly people,” Patan said as he drives his minivan down the tree-lined streets to pick up his 5-year-old daughter at a Head Start program.

It is a place where neighbors pay unannounced visits to say “hi” and people greet the postmaster by name. It is also staunchly Republican. Fergus Falls is the county seat of Otter Tail County, which voted twice for former President Donald Trump.

But people in town say friendships and family take precedence over political views, and there is broad empathy for the struggle of immigrants since many people’s parents, grandparents or great grandparents came from Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Only months after they arrived, the Patan family already feels at home in large part because of Raymond.

“When we bring in a family, they become our family,” Clarin said.

Clarin has vowed to get all her guys out. Since the Taliban took control of the country in August, she has been starting most days around 3 a.m. when she quietly makes her way to her basement office, hours before she heads to her job in Fergus Falls as a U.S. Department of Agriculture wetlands restoration engineer.

“When we bring in a family, they become our family,” Clarin said.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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