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“I don’t know when we see each other again” – living in and fleeing from Afghanistan

Aina* is a 21-year-old girl who experienced a lot. She agreed to tell us the story of her life: from being brought up in the patriarchal culture of Afghanistan to going to study abroad. And also about the traumatic separation of the family during the evacuation from the country.
Early childhood

For Aina, her family has always been incomplete — her parents’ arranged marriage lacked love. While her mother finished her education in the seventh grade, her father was studying in Pakistan. At that time, Aina was living with her mother in her parental grandparents’ house in a small town in the south of Afghanistan. When Aina was 7, she moved to Pakistan with her mother and three siblings. Mom took care of the children’s constant contact with the English language, which they mastered perfectly.

Despite the move, the relationship between the parents did not improve. After a few years, dad left the family for good and remarried. This forced mum and children to return to Afghanistan. Aina and the eldest sister were already old enough that they had to be taken care of by their father’s family, so they moved in with their grandparents. Meanwhile, Aina’s mother and her two younger siblings moved to her brother Faazel* in Kabul.

School years in the shadow of the Afghan patriarchy

In Afghan culture, custody of the older children in the event of divorce is assigned to the father or the father’s family. For Aina, moving to her grandparents, unfortunately, also meant the end of her education. Perhaps she would never have taken up further education without the help of uncle Faazel, her mother’s brother. The maternal uncle’s involvement in raising nieces is very unusual in Afghan culture, but in this case, it has proved to be an unexpected blessing. The uncle persuaded the grandparents for a long time that the children should continue their education, and he was lucky to achieve his goal.

Photo of the village where Aina lived with her grandparents, source: Wiki Commons / Laura Goodgame, U.S. Air Force

Aina started her education in Afghanistan from the second grade of primary school, and her intelligence and great results made her finish several years of an elementary school in one year. Unfortunately, after some time, she lost her greatest supporter — uncle Faazel left for Ireland. The children were forced to leave school but, determined to learn, they took part in online lessons.

It got dangerous in their town at that time. One day her grandparents’ house was robbed. The thieves took all the electronics and valuables. Unfortunately, this event became a source of rumors. Neighbors and family were dishonored and worried about rumors of alleged sexual abuse of the girls. The father’s eldest brother, instead of looking after his nieces and showing them support, suggested that the “problem” would be solved by marriage. Their mother, concerned and anxious, could do nothing. The girls called their father, begging for an intervention, but received no help from him. Aina felt a burden of responsibility. She was the one who quarreled with her family the most, and the easiest way to get rid of a “difficult” family member was marriage.

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In this difficult moment, the sisters again found help from uncle Faazel, who, after returning from Ireland, persuaded his father’s family that the girls should stay with him. The girls’ father even declared financial support. Uncle, devastated by the way Aina and her sister had been treated so far, wanted to refuse to accept the money, but the culture took over. If the girls’ father did not send the funds, his family might find that the father is not supporting the daughters and decide to marry them.

Hosting the girls, their uncle encouraged them to enroll at the American University in Afghanistan, although studying there was viewed by the Taliban as treason. Due to their talents in science, and despite their shortcomings in computer skills, they went into a preparation program and received scholarships. Before class started, they worked because there was no overflow at my uncle’s house. He had to provide for his own family, so he could not afford much, supporting his sister and her four children at the same time. For example, he was unable to pay for the internet access. The girls divided the received scholarships and salaries not only among themselves, but they also financially supported the education of their cousins.

By an unfortunate twist of fate, they had to stop their studies — the scholarship program delayed the payment of tuition fees, and they were crossed off the list of students. However, this problem was also solved by their uncle. He suggested the girls apply to universities abroad. With the help of the Yalda Hakim Foundation, Aina’s sister applied to the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan and Aina to Georgetown University in Qatar. They both got in and received scholarships. However, more dangers began to accumulate for the sisters.

Yalda Hakim is a BBC journalist, founder of the foundation, and one of the most famous Afghan women in the world. Born in Kabul, she fled with her parents to Australia, where she gained her education and quickly became a fulfilled journalist. She set up a foundation under her name to support the education of Afghan girls.
Unstable situation in Afghanistan and going abroad

Secretly from her father’s family, Aina’s sister left for college, while Aina herself was to start classes in Qatar six months later. However, her departure was in danger. In the summer of 2021, the family met at a wedding, where the sister’s absence caused a great surprise. Grandfather, probably suspecting Aina’s plans, wanted to keep the girl at his place and he pressed her even moren to get married as soon as possible. One of her uncles even followed her to Kabul to persuade her to do so. Uncle Faazel advised her to leave for Qatar as soon as possible — the risk was increasing. And not only because of her father’s family. The Taliban were taking more and more territories and the country became very dangerous.

All her life, Aina had heard of fighting, most notably between the American armed forces and the Taliban. All sides of the conflicts were evoking a sense of danger. She clearly remembers how the KPF, a paramilitary group of Afghans, fought against the Taliban in a nearby village, and it was the KPF, managed by the CIA, that then killed many women and children. Daesh (the so-called Islamic State) was also active in Afghanistan . As Aina says, while Daesh and the Taliban say they are different, their actions are just evenly terrifying. To protect children and very young girls (13-year-old and so) from forced marriages to militants, families had to resort to trickery. The siblings introduced themselves as married couples, and entire communities worked together to safely escape the oppression.

Interpreters working for the international services have long-lived in constant danger. Many of them received death threats that, after a few days, became reality. Rocket explosions have become common in Kabul. Though everyone expected the blows, they always caused fear. Aina recalls that she was afraid — not of her own death, but that her friends and loved ones would die. Attacks escalated in 2021 after the Americans negotiated with the Taliban.

American soldier with an Afghan translator, source: Wiki Commons/ DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini, U.S. Army

Although Aina felt insecure for most of her life, the last summer was one of the most difficult for her. Her father’s family continued to insist on her marriage, and the Taliban threat grew ever more real. On the one hand, Abas*, Aina’s younger brother, who has always had a great passion for teaching, may have become a target for the Taliban. While in Kabul, he organized activities for the neighborhood children and was sometimes supported by the Americans. This meant that another family member was becoming a traitor in the eyes of the Taliban.

On the other hand, the work of uncle Faazel in the Security Service posed a huge threat. Aina has already heard about the first murders of people from the security services, as well as members of her mother’s family. Faazel stopped visiting his family outside the town because the usual Taliban road control could have ended in his death. Living in constant danger, he never told his extended family where exactly he lived. Aina hardly left the house anymore. When one day she decided to go to the store, she saw blood on the street. The shopkeepers advised her to return home — someone had already been murdered that day.

Until the last moment, Aina was not sure if she would be able to leave the country. When she received a visa and a ticket to Qatar, the Taliban already took over 11 out of 34 regions. At the airport, she was asked why she was traveling alone, and she was afraid that she would be arrested. She relaxed only before boarding the plane when she met another Afghan woman on her way to college. Two weeks later, the Taliban took over the country.

Evacuation of the family from Afghanistan

Aina, being in a safe place thousands of kilometers from home, still felt no peace. In Afghanistan, she left her mother, siblings, and her beloved uncle. They applied to any potential organization that might allow them to escape, and eventually, Abas was noticed by the American program for RISE educators. While the boy went through the stages of the program recruitment, the organization managed to help him, his mother, and the youngest sister in the evacuation. After the Taliban took over the country, thousands of people tried to do what Aina managed to do — leave. The departure of Abas and the rest of the family was carefully organized — they left a specific hotel at a fixed time. Despite this, they spent three nights on the street outside the airport before being able to board the plane.

During the transit of refugees (including Aina’s family) in Qatar, something amazing happened: Aina was invited to help as an interpreter, so she had a chance to meet her loved ones, knowing that they might never see each other again. Aina’s family went on to Albania, where, in a refugee camp, they await the results of their brother’s recruitment to the RISE program and, most likely, further evacuation to the United States.

Let’s build peace together!

Afghans were welcomed by the President of Albania. After testing for COVID-19 and a short stay at the hotel, they were given a room at the camp. They live in good conditions, have access to food and there is a park and a beach nearby. In Albania, Aina’s brother got a chance to teach refugee children — his abilities and activism were appreciated.

However, Aina and her family members in Albania cannot come to terms with the fact that Faazel, her beloved uncle and brother, has remained in Afghanistan. He had to leave his family behind to live in hiding. The Taliban are accusing him of stealing government money, and neighbors have said they are asking about him in the area by showing his picture. The danger is enormous — uncle’s friends who were caught are no longer alive. Aina’s mom mentally broke down.

Aina complains that her behavior resembles what the Americans did in leaving Afghanistan unsupported. But can it be compared at all?

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*names changed

Main photo: IsaaK Alexandre KaRslian/Unsplash

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