With church’s help, Afghan’s first female fighter pilot and family settling into new life in US

A Blackhawk helicopter flies above a parked A-29 Super Tucano aircraft at Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan Oct.7, 2017. Afghanistan’s first female fighter pilot had to be evacuated from her country, with her husband, after they received death threats from the Taliban. Now resettled in Owensboro, Ky., Hasina Omari and her family are safe from danger. (OSV News photo//Omar Sobhani, Reuters)

by Elizabeth Wong Barnstead, OSV News

OWENSBORO, Ky. (OSV News) — At age 33, Hasina Omari has survived familial disapproval of her career choices (becoming Afghanistan’s first female fighter pilot), nearly 370 flight hours of night and weekend missions, and expecting a baby while escaping the Taliban’s takeover of her home country.

Today she is happy to live with her family in Owensboro, where they have been assisted by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro while resettling in the United States, safely out of danger.

Ever since she was a child growing up in Afghanistan, Omari wanted to become a jet pilot. And throughout her childhood, her family and friends affirmed this idea.

Until she grew up — and the encouragement stopped.

A few Afghan women have become pilots in recent history — including Niloofar Rahmani, the first female fixed-wing pilot for the Afghan air force — however, it was still not seen as a socially acceptable role for women in Afghanistan.

“But I didn’t give up,” Omari told The Western Kentucky Catholic, Owensboro’s diocesan newspaper . “I tried to convince my family for seven years. . .They weren’t convinced, especially my mom and my big brother.”

She said her twin brother supported her, and her older sister tried to help her get admitted to a pilot school in India, but it proved too expensive.

“But I tried and tried,” said Omari.

Finally, “my father said OK” but told her “that I must be like Mustafa Qahraman!” she said, in reference to a famous pilot in Afghanistan history. “My father loved him.”

Her mother continued to struggle with the idea of Omari becoming a pilot. “I told my mother this is my wish; this is what I want to do. . . “My mother finally accepted this is what I want to do,” said Omari.

Omari began working with the Afghan air force and went to the Czech Republic in March 2016, where she studied fixed-wing. She received a scholarship and financial aid for her studies from the United States. After 15 months of training, she returned to Afghanistan. She and one other woman were the only females in the program.

Omari applied to fly fighter aircraft, which took nine more months of study. Before too long, Afghanistan’s first female fighter pilot was doing “day and night missions, weekend missions; I worked hard,” she said.

She ended up flying a total of almost 370 hours worth of missions.

She did not limit herself to her work as a pilot, either. Omari also helped with Afghan women’s equality and education initiatives, assisting as an interpreter, and spreading awareness about drug abuse.

When she married her husband, their families — especially her in-laws — argued that she should quit her job and become a housewife like other Afghan women. With her husband’s support, however, Omari pressed on with her professional calling.

Then they began receiving threats from the Taliban.

After about eight months into her role with the Afghan air force, her husband, who worked in Afghanistan’s government, received a message from the Taliban wanting him to work for them. They also wanted Omari to quit her job and stay home as a housewife. Otherwise, the Taliban’s message said, they would kill them.

Omari and her husband ignored this threat and continued with their jobs — until a family member of her husband received a letter from the Taliban threatening to kill Omari and her husband. Her husband’s family had already experienced the death of several relatives at the hands of the Taliban, and they knew to take this threat seriously.

Omari and her husband received help to evacuate from Afghanistan, and traveled around to several countries in hopes that a moving target would be harder for the Taliban to discover.

Not long after, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. This came after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021. According to Global Conflict Tracker, despite initial promises to “to respect human rights,” the Taliban steadily reimposed its strict interpretation of sharia-based law on the country.

“When Afghanistan fell, I was seven months pregnant,” said Omari.

Omari and her husband, together with approximately 150 other U.S.-supported Afghan pilots and their personnel, had to make an emergency landing in Tajikistan. The Afghan pilot group’s devices were confiscated, and they were detained in a sanatorium in a rural Tajik region.

“It was a really bad journey,” said Omari. “We were not allowed to talk to our family, even to tell them we were OK. It was really, really tough.”

She said of the 150 pilots, she and one other woman were the only females present.

Thankfully, “my husband was there with me, but the other girl was on her own,” said Omari.

The tension continued to rise as international governments debated what to do with the Afghan pilots.

“They made my pregnancy political,” said Omari. “They were telling people that I couldn’t be moved, that I was in pain, but it was all lies. Everyone was blaming me; it was hard.”

In not being able to leave, “I was really worried about my baby while I was there,” she said.

Eventually Omari obtained a mobile device, with which she secretly texted her American flight instructor that she was, in fact, healthy and safe.

“In my ninth month of pregnancy, the U.S. Embassy withdrew us,” said Omari, explaining that they were flown to the United Arab Emirates. “They had me say I was seven months pregnant, or else I would not have been allowed to travel!”

Her child was born nine days after they landed.

After seven months in the UAE, their family of three was flown to the United States and taken to Virginia, where they stayed for 21 days. Next they were sent to Evansville, Indiana, where they lived for seven months.

Then with the help of Khaibar Shafaq of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro, they applied for asylum. They moved to Kentucky in November 2022 with help from Catholic Charities and the International Center of Owensboro.

Omari is grateful for the slower pace of life in the small Kentucky city. She and her husband have welcomed a second child and in December 2022, they were granted asylum.

“There are more Afghan families here in the community,” said Omari, adding that she appreciates “talking with each other, giving to each other, and I even have American friends, too!”

Down the road, Omari is open to considering future aviation opportunities, but that will be a while since she is still working on obtaining her green card. For now, she is happy to be safe with her family.

No matter where their paths lead them, “all women are great women,” Omari remarked. “Whether doing big things for society or staying at home with children, I appreciate all women.”

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