By Zahra, Afghan journalist and women’s rights activist
Before the Taliban arrived in Kabul I had planned so many things. We celebrated our New Year, and as a tradition, we would refurbish our house, but I was waiting for the summer so that we could enjoy the weather. I spent a lot of money refurbishing my house, changing the design entirely and painting the walls, but I never got to spend time in the house as I had to flee. I also applied for a Master’s course in Gender Studies at two different universities, one private and the other public. I was able to start the first semester at the private university, but I wished to attend the public one. Unfortunately, I lost that chance too.
On this day last year, Kabul was falling into the hands of the Taliban. I’m sure you remember the images of the chaos at the airport and the boys who tried to flee by clinging to aeroplane’s wings which costed them their lives.
That morning, when I went to the office, everything was normal. I presented the news at 9 o’clock, and then I received a message from friends saying ‘the Taliban will come to the office.’
When the people of Kabul realised that president Ghani and his team had fled the country, the whole city descended into chaos. Everyone ran for their lives and their loved ones.
I presented a programme called Peace and Security, which reported on Taliban bombings. That programme was very dangerous for me, my life and my children were at high risk, so I asked my journalist friend in the UK to help me.
My friend called me, saying that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) offered to book flight tickets to the US and leave Afghanistan on the 17th of August. But it was impossible to reach the airport. At the time, the UK didn’t set up a scheme to evacuate people from Afghanistan yet, but my friend informed me when it did. Everything happened very fast.
When I received a call from the Ministry of Defence saying they would guarantee my life would be safe, I couldn’t believe it. I was under pressure, and I wasn’t sure about the future.
Finally, on the 18th of August, we were taken to the airport, where we spent almost two days before getting on the plane.
On my way to the airport, I saw some Talibs. My son was crying all the time. He asked me, ‘where are we going, Mummy? Where are we going?’ A very kind British army helped me, stood with me, asked me, and said to my son, ‘you are going to go somewhere else where there is peace, where is security, don’t cry, baby!’
He gave the patch of his arm, saying, ‘you are army, you should be brave.’
Once we arrived in the UK, we were taken to a quarantine hotel where we stayed for 12 days. We couldn’t go out of our room, unless escorted by an officer, and we could only stay outside for 15 minutes. The room didn’t have a table and we use to have food on our bed.
After 12 days, we were asked to continue to isolate for another 20 days, but this time we stayed with my ex-husband’s relatives. The house was very small and only had two rooms. My two children and I were sleeping in a single bed.
After 20 days, my visa would expire, and I was worried about what would happen to my children and me. So, I asked my journalist friend to help me, as she knows the system. She asked several organisations and spoke with the council, but there were issues with finding my name in the system. Eventually, my visa expired, and I had no documents. Every time I thought the police would arrest me. But they tried to reassure me, saying that the Government brought me here and that I wouldn’t have had problems.
Living with my ex-husband’s relatives was very difficult after a while, but thanks to the council and its partnership with a refugee organisation, I was given a temporary house. Unfortunately, we only stayed there for three days as I was asked to return to a hotel where they would process my case. When I arrived at the hotel, they put my name in the system and renewed my visa for six months. I was then sent an email stating that I was eligible to stay in the Uk.
Everything was getting right. At that time, I felt I was okay in the UK. After six months, I was told I could stay in the UK for three years, but I started wondering if I could return to Afghanistan after three years. Maybe after three years, the Taliban are still in Kabul; what should I do? I was quite confused about what would happen after three years, but when someone from Refugee Council saw my paperwork, they told me that I would be able to stay after that. I was surprised, no one had explained this to me before.
Whilst I stayed in the hotel, there were some short courses like basic English and highway code. One of the teachers saw that my English was a bit better, and I always helped translate for the other ladies in the hotel. I explained that I was a journalist in Afghanistan and wanted to work in the UK and help people, especially women from Afghanistan. He introduced me to Refugee Council’s employment advisor, who is helping me to find a job.
Refugee Council has helped me a lot. Despite all the help I have received so far, there are still some problems. Finding a job is difficult. I always want to apply for a job in journalism, but all the jobs are in London, which is far from where I live now. I also need to look after my children, because I can’t leave them alone, so I will have to find a part-time job.
I also wish I could continue my studies. I applied for a Master’s Degree in Afghanistan and would like to apply here too, but the language is difficult, and I need to pass the IELTS test before I can apply. I want to solve all these problems.
I used to live with my mum in Afghanistan. My children loved their grandma, and they miss her a lot. When I arrived in the UK, I asked the Home Office if they could bring my mum to the UK but they told me she can’t come because there’s no system to apply for my family in the scheme I am in.
It is very dangerous for my mum to be in Afghanistan. The Taliban searched every house, and when they came to my house, my mum was alone at home. They asked her to stay in one room, and they used the rest of the house. It was very difficult for my mum to live with Taliban in her house. She couldn’t sleep. It was a very tough time for us.
There were many others from Afghanistan in the hotel where we stayed, like an 11-year-old boy who came with his cousin and uncle. He wished to have his mum and dad with him also. Many others there were without wives or husbands, mums and dads.
We need our family. I don’t think of myself as safe because I always think about my mum. If something happens, what will happen to her? She is very old, she can’t support herself. If my mum was in the UK I could look after her, I would be able to work and she could look after my children. We are safe now as we are in the UK, and we don’t want to ask this Government a lot, but if we can have our families and a job we will support ourselves. For me this is a big problem, now I can’t work for a good salary because I don’t have anyone to look after my children and help me with my life. I have to see the end of the month the Government will pay and I have to arrange my life and how to pay.
I want the world to stay with Afghanistan and all in the world who are in danger. There shouldn’t be any difference between refugees and how people from different countries are treated. I want equality for everyone, whether they’re from Ukraine or Afghanistan or anywhere else, they should have the same rights.
Photo header: U.S. Department of Defence. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.