Two men sing to one another from separate dingy prison cells. Their jailers, who are not fluent in the language of the song, see no reason to try to understand the lyrics. It’s just a show tune, the same one their captives have been singing for weeks. What they are missing is the double meaning hidden behind the bars.
28 years earlier, Safi Rauf was born in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan, spending his formative childhood years in and out of the camp and back and forth across the border. Now the leader of an international non-profit, a TED Fellow, and the 2021 Washingtonian of the Year, Rauf came to the United States as a teenager. After completing high school in Omaha, Nebraska, Rauf spent four years as a linguist and cultural adviser embedded with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. He went on to complete a pre-med degree at Georgetown, but before he could begin medical school, Rauf found himself compelled by world events paired with his own sense of justice to begin helping refugees escape from Afghanistan following the United States’ withdrawal from the country in 2021.
Along with his two brothers, Rauf formed Human First Coalition, which is credited with having rescued more than 6,000 refugees from Afghanistan. Rauf’s decision to defer medical school and focus on humanitarian work was built on the experiences of his early life, but it was also inspired by the stories on which he grew up.
“So much of my life is shaped by watching a lot of Bollywood movies,” says Rauf. “I've always been drawn to movies, to shows that have the theme of, you know, liberation, freedom, sacrifice, fighting for the common people, fighting for other people's rights, liberating people, and giving people hope, people help.”
Rauf continues, “I actually didn't go to school in the refugee camp—I was educated and I was inspired by these characters in my life. It became part of me, growing up, to always want to do the right thing and do it for a bigger cause, something that could impact thousands.”
So, when Rauf’s girlfriend, Broadway producer and director Sammi Cannold, took Rauf to dinner with one of the producers of Les Misérables on London’s West End, who subsequently offered them tickets, Rauf couldn’t have asked for a better fit for his first musical. Rauf and Cannold joined one of Rauf’s London-based colleagues for the show, which Rauf and his friend were delighted by. With a plot set during the French Rebellion and following one heroic man’s journey to find redemption and fight injustice, the musical fed Rauf’s hunger for stories that light a fire of heroism.
So it was that Rauf found himself only weeks later driving a land cruiser through Taliban checkpoints in Afghanistan listening to “Do You Hear the People Sing” while passing legions of armed guards there to make sure those entering the country are not “working for the West.”
Because their organization and its work had been thoroughly vetted by the Islamic Emirate, which had given Rauf and his colleagues written permission to work in the country along with eight bodyguards, Rauf felt confident about his security while entering and working within the Taliban-controlled country. But after profiteers seeking to undercut Rauf’s charitable evacuation efforts went to the Taliban falsely accusing him of espionage, everything changed.
On December 18, 2021, members of the Taliban intelligence service found Rauf where he was staying in Kabul and said that they needed to ask him a few questions regarding a report they’d received about his work. After a few hours of conversation, they explained that Rauf would need to come with them to headquarters, that everything seemed in order but that he needed to give a formal written statement. Rauf went with them, thinking that it didn’t sound like anything “too serious” given that he had gone through all the appropriate channels before entering the country. But at headquarters, Rauf was put in a room with four other non-citizens, including his brother Anees Khalil and the friend with whom he had seen Les Mis in London. The group was held until after nightfall with no information, then put in a vehicle with their faces covered.
Rauf and the others were taken to a basement location made up of several 8x8 cells and each man was put in a cell by himself. The detainees had no idea where they were, why they were there, or what was likely to happen next, and the agents holding them refused to answer questions. “They were telling the U.S. we were in a hotel, and we were getting food and everything, while we were in this basement with no heat, or no blankets, and extremely cold,” says Rauf. All told, the group would be held for 105 days with little to carry them through the ordeal except their own fortitude and ingenuity. Rauf’s experience at Les Mis inspired both.
During their time in captivity, the prisoners were allowed to leave their empty cells only once a day to use the bathroom, which left many hours to fill however they could. Rauf was sustained in part by the stories of revolutionaries that he cherished, which now included Les Mis. “I am such a die-hard fan of everything that has to do with, like, liberation, with freedom,” says Rauf, who began passing the time by singing favorite songs from the show, joining his voice with his friend several cells down. Soon Rauf realized they could use the shared language of musical theatre for more than comfort.
A few weeks into the group’s ordeal, Rauf was able to recruit one of the guards to smuggle him a cell phone, allowing him limited contact with the outside world and Cannold. Both Rauf and Cannold, who had been working tirelessly alongside Rauf’s family to secure the captives’ release were overjoyed and relieved to be able to communicate. Now, Rauf needed to find a way to let his friend know about this new resource without also alerting their guards. “So one day I started singing ‘I am hearing the people sing,’” Rauf remembers, “And he understood what I meant, and he was like, ‘How often are you hearing them sing?’ And I said, ‘I can hear them sing loudly at night,’ because that’s what I was able to use the cell phone.”
The Les Mis code proved to be both undetectable—because the guards, who spoke little English, only heard more singing—and also flexible. “It became a thing,” says Rauf, “When he wanted updates, he would be like, ‘Do you hear the people sing?’ And then he’d be like, ‘When do you think you’ll hear them sing the loudest?’ And he meant basically, ‘When are we going to get out.’”
The answer to that question was neither clear enough nor soon enough for Rauf, who made the decision to go on a hunger strike in an effort to force the hand of his captors. But Cannold, who knew the slow but steady progress of the work toward Rauf and his companions’ release, worried that the strike would go too far too soon. She needed a way to convince Rauf to accept food.
Again, there was an answer in Les Mis. Cannold had the opportunity to pass a smuggled hand-written letter to Rauf that would, hopefully, persuade him to eat. However, it was also vital that whatever she wrote not give away the nature of their relationship—Rauf would only draw additional ire from the Taliban if his jailers learned about his relationship with a non-Muslim woman. Rauf remembers, “At the end she wrote, ‘Don’t forget at the end of the story Marius comes back to Cosette.’” It worked.
Rauf gained back a little strength. From his sporadic contact with Cannold, he drew the will to go on (the two, ever careful to cloak their relationship, used lyrics from “A Heart Full of Love” to communicate their affection) and learned that his plight had been elevated all the way to President Biden himself. Throughout the months of the mens’ imprisonment, Cannold and Rauf’s family were working nonstop to ensure the release of Rauf and his fellow prisoners, and eventually a tenuous deal was struck with the Taliban. In order to put skin in the game, the U.S. government had to believe that the men truly would be released.
“My job was largely to be the person working with the U.S. government to convince them that the deal with the Taliban was ironclad enough,” says Cannold, something her direct line to Rauf was able to let her do. In the weeks preceding the day the prisoners were to be freed, their jailors began to make preparations like bringing them out into the daylight for some time each day, saying, “Once you guys go back, we don't want you to look pale,” so it was clear the agreement was real.
Finally, on April 1, 105 days after Rafi had been called in for questioning, he and his fellow prisoners were handed over to the U.S. Special Forces and flown to Doha, where Rauf and Cannold, who had been staying in Qatar in anticipation of the release, were reunited.
With Marius and Cosette together again, Rauf returned his focus almost immediately to helping others find a way out of Afghanistan, exactly what the revolutionary heroes in the stories he loves would have done. “I’m sort of paying it forward,” he says, “I've always been drawn to movies, to shows that have themes of liberation, freedom, sacrifice, fighting for other people's rights, and giving hope. It's sort of my own story.”
“There were a lot of people who fought for my rights as well,” he says, reflecting on his childhood as a refugee and the hope that the narrative of his own life might inspire others. “I have to give that back…Today I am here in America, living the American dream…I couldn’t have written a better story myself.”
Human First Coalition will hold its first fundraiser at New York City’s Metropolitan Pavilion on August 15, the one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The evening will feature traditional Afghan food, music, performances, and a bazaar.
The event will honor U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who will receive the Haji Abdul Rauf Service Award for advocating nationally and internationally on behalf of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, for leading several evacuation efforts in Mazar-i-Sharif this past fall, and for being a model for exemplary allyship in resettling and providing resources for Afghans in the state of Connecticut.
Receiving the Partner Organization Award is the Archewell Foundation and its co-founders, Prince Harry and Meghan, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex for their advocacy on behalf of and generous financial support for at-risk Afghans as well as military veterans who served in Afghanistan. Accepting the award will be Archewell Foundation Executive Director James Holt.
For tickets, click here.