'Easiest decision I've ever made:' United Airlines volunteers help in Afghan evacuation

  • United Airlines' Artemis Bayandor of Naperville, right, and Maureen Macaluso, another volunteer, helped transport Afghan evacuees from U.S. bases to the United States in August.

    United Airlines' Artemis Bayandor of Naperville, right, and Maureen Macaluso, another volunteer, helped transport Afghan evacuees from U.S. bases to the United States in August. Courtesy of United Airlines

  • Afghan evacuees board a United Airlines flight at Dulles International Airport. United and other U.S. carriers assisted the military in transporting Americans and Afghan evacuees.

    Afghan evacuees board a United Airlines flight at Dulles International Airport. United and other U.S. carriers assisted the military in transporting Americans and Afghan evacuees. Courtesy of United Airlines/Chris Kleponis

  • United Airlines flight attendants purchased toys and activities for children evacuating Afghanistan after volunteering to help along with 8,000 other employees.

    United Airlines flight attendants purchased toys and activities for children evacuating Afghanistan after volunteering to help along with 8,000 other employees. Courtesy United Airlines

  • Artemis Bayandor, 6, and her sister, Andia, 3, are pictured on their way to school in Iran in 1988, just before her family fled for the United States.

    Artemis Bayandor, 6, and her sister, Andia, 3, are pictured on their way to school in Iran in 1988, just before her family fled for the United States. Courtesy of Artemis Bayandor

 
 
Updated 9/7/2021 6:41 AM

In 1988, a frightened 6-year-old fled tumult in Iran and boarded a jetliner on a journey to France and later America.

The kindness of strangers -- flight attendants -- provided some solace for Artemis Bayandor, who was leaving the world she knew behind.

 

The Naperville resident paid it forward 33 years later, on a United Airlines plane empathizing in Farsi with shellshocked families escaping Afghanistan.

On Aug. 22, the U.S. Department of Defense activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to help move Americans and Afghans evacuating the country after President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw troops Aug. 31. While the military handled flights in and out of Kabul, other carriers including United took passengers from bases in the Middle East and Europe to U.S. destinations.

Chicago's hometown airline has flown 13 international Afghan-related missions in the last week alone, carrying hundreds of citizens and Afghan evacuees with help from more than 8,000 employee volunteers ranging from pilots to medics to translators.

Watching media coverage of the American evacuation and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, "I felt super-helpless until United sent out a communication asking if anybody who speaks either Farsi, Dari or Pashto could help," said Bayandor, a former UA flight attendant who works in corporate safety.

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"As soon as I saw the language Farsi -- I speak it fluently -- I immediately sent off an email. It was the easiest decision I've ever made. I knew I wanted to help and here I am," Bayandor explained Thursday while waiting in Germany en route to Qatar on her second volunteer trip.

Bayandor's first flight left for Bahrain Aug. 26 and returned Aug. 28. As weary Afghans, some carrying their possessions in grocery bags, came on board, "I started speaking to them in Farsi," she recalled. "They looked at me and their eyes went wide. It was a shock. So many were so thankful and said, 'We can't believe that an American airline has Farsi-speaking people working (there)!'"

Many Afghan passengers who worked for or assisted the U.S. government feared for their lives. "When they were stepping on board they were scared that they were being sent back to Kabul," Bayandor said.

When reality set in, "I could see a change. They were anxious ... but they were finally safe, and were finally sleeping. They slept a ton."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Bayandor befriended a "very pregnant" woman who gave birth to a daughter 37 hours after arriving in America. "She sent pictures and said, 'You're going to forever be her aunt.' In 20 hours, we built an incredible bond."

Multiple women "asked questions about what their possibilities were and how I got into this career. There was an excitement that was awesome to see."

She listened to a mother and two daughters who showed their scars from climbing barbed wire fences while on a circuitous and risky route to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

At Taliban checkpoints, guards "berated them and threatened them. It took them three days to get through the gates in Kabul."

The stories stirred memories of 1988 when Bayandor's family left the chaos of the Iran-Iraq War, initially on a flight to Paris "by whatever means my mom figured out. I'll never forget ... how kind the flight attendants were and how they inspired me. My dream was to be a flight attendant."

Last month, "it was really amazing to come full circle. To have little girls that were playing with me and asking questions about what I do and how it all works. Hopefully we've inspired the new aviators on board our flights, too."

Your voice

Reader and Rosemont resident Robert Stawik says last week's column on O'Hare noise should have mentioned his town.

"The new runway is right in line with Rosemont elementary school," Stawik wrote. "When planes take off to the east, they are so loud that you can't have a conversation outside and houses shake. When will there be any relief?"

Got a comment or question on transportation? Drop an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Gridlock alert

Watch for delays on eastbound North Avenue (Route 64) in Villa Park starting Wednesday as IDOT crews repair pavement. Two left lanes will be closed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Thursday.

One more thing

The Chicago Transit Authority is requiring COVID-19 vaccination for all of its workers by Oct. 25. Those who do not comply will face disciplinary action.

Metra is not mandating shots for employees. At Pace, "our (nonunion) employees need to be vaccinated by Nov. 1. We are working with our (union) employees to also get vaccinated," Executive Director Rocky Donahue said.

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