One bright sunny afternoon in June 2011, David Failla and John Burt put their careers on hold to help 86 Afghans escape the Taliban and their new home in the relatively safe northwest quadrant of the country. Failla was an editor at ESPN and Burt was a five-time U.S. Olympic marathon runner. After the two created an ad hoc nonprofit called Suraya — translated, “good” — Failla tracked down the children, parents and spouses of 26 athletes, officials and media personnel whose names he had scrawled in English over photos in a notebook the day before they disappeared.
About 20 of those people came to Washington to receive awards on the 45th anniversary of the Watergate break-in from the Center for International Private Enterprise, a partnership of business executives that sponsors award dinners.
The night before the Nov. 9 gala, eight of the Afghans traveled by motorcade from Kabul to the center, which occupies a neoclassical building that was the West Wing of the old White House. The caravan passed security in downtown Kabul and riders made their way to the secure entry point for the gala.
Failla said he was nervous, but he felt comforted when the Afghans exchanged a hug with Mike Driscoll, a former top State Department official who now sits on CIPE’s board. That gesture, Failla said, gave him hope.
Some family members and Afghan officials had been smuggled out of Afghanistan by diplomats after they heard government officials were discussing an internment or deportation effort. Although few if any of the Olympians talked about training for the 2012 Summer Games, the locals saw them as heroes.
“You feel you’re on the side of the angels,” Failla said.
Apoliniar Tursunzada, a 53-year-old high jumper who had competed in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, received a standing ovation when he came on stage, he said. “I don’t want them to leave us at this time,” he said. He also remembered that when he competed in Atlanta, he felt so out of shape that he was passed over for the final jumper, and he was embarrassed when he watched on television the next day. In Kabul this time, he qualified for the second round.
“Now,” he said in the documentary that aired later that evening, “I feel like I’m an Olympic athlete.”
— The Associated Press