Faizullah Abdalli is a 19-year-old living in an Afghan refugee camp in the United Arab Emirates with his three younger orphaned siblings. They are awaiting permanent resettlement.
I am writing this from my temporary home in a refugee camp, where my three younger siblings and I have lived since fleeing Afghanistan last October. Here, trapped in our limbo, we have been watching another refugee crisis unfold halfway across the world in Europe. We understand too well the kind of pain that Ukrainians forced from their homes by the Russian invasion are experiencing now.
Ever since the Taliban conquered Kabul last August, the lives of millions of Afghans have been marked by fear and hardship. Those of us who were lucky enough to escape the country – including the 10,000 people crammed into the refugee camp alongside me – live with a terrible uncertainty about what the future has in store. Due to the large influx of applications, many countries have not yet been able to grant permanent resettlement to refugees like us, leaving us suspended in countries like the UAE that grant temporary visas. Sometimes refugees are sent back to Afghanistan if they do not secure permanent visas within two months.
For my sisters, my brother and me, the journey out of Afghanistan involved painstaking and risky preparation. Fortuitously, by the time the Taliban fighters entered Kabul at the end of August, I had already prepared my family’s documents, knowing that we didn’t have a future under the inevitable new regime.
When my parents were alive, they actively supported the building of a more tolerant and peaceful Afghanistan – work that put a target on their backs, even in the previous Ghani government. My mother, Sharbat, was a women’s-rights advocate, while my father, Sameer, worked as a driver for a U.S.-based NGO, ferrying foreign visitors between Helmand and Kabul in his car. He endured years of threats from those who loathed his affiliation with an American organization. I remember how, after one attack near Kandahar, my father was forced to drive into a ditch to escape a hail of bullets; he ran several kilometres back to our home, his clothes torn and bloodied. But in January, 2020, those threats finally led to his death; two years after our mother died of cancer, my father was murdered by the Taliban.
As the oldest sibling, I suddenly found myself, at age 17, carrying the responsibility for my entire family. The life I had been living up until then – going to school, playing football and spending time with friends – came to an abrupt end. But I didn’t have time to feel sad or angry. All I could think about – all that mattered – was that our family survived.
The memory of what the Taliban did to our father was still raw when I decided that my siblings and I had to abandon the family home once they were back in power. The thought of seeing my sisters, Daywa and Taleeba, or our younger brother, Beran, killed in front of my very eyes was too much to bear. I sent endless, pleading e-mails to my father’s former employer in the U.S., but conditions on the ground conspired against us: Planes had been grounded and an overland crossing into Pakistan became too dangerous and complicated to arrange. After Kabul fell, we went into hiding in the basement of a close family friend.
My fears of the Taliban turned out to be entirely founded. One day, I learned that the Taliban had visited our family home, and when its soldiers didn’t find us, they ordered our neighbours to help with the search. This made me even more determined to flee Afghanistan and I continued urgently reaching out to anyone I could, anyone whom my father may have helped. “The only hope of my family is first G-d Almighty, then you,” I wrote in one e-mail. “Please help my family leave Afghanistan. I am sending my family pictures and documents to confirm that my father worked with you.”
In the meantime, I tried to keep up my siblings’ spirits. We played games and I told them stories to pass the time. We were too scared to go outside.
Then, in mid-October, a ray of light pierced the darkness of our lives. My e-mails to the U.S. came to the attention of the Aleph Institute and the Jewish Humanitarian Response initiative, which was helping to co-ordinate rescue for female Afghan judges. The rescue team put us in touch with a judge who was awaiting evacuation. Together, we travelled nearly 300 miles over land from Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif, our hearts convulsing with fear each time we were stopped at Taliban checkpoints.
We spent the next eight days at a safehouse in Mazar. On Oct. 25, a plane flew us to Abu Dhabi, the start of the limbo in which we now live. As we sat on the tarmac waiting for the plane to depart, I felt as if I was dreaming.
It all still feels surreal. I feel relief that none of my siblings have fallen into the clutches of the Taliban. I feel blessed that I have the rest of my life still ahead of me, with my dreams of studying for an MBA. I feel a surreal desire to kick a soccer ball again. I feel pride when my siblings tell me that they have the same burning ambition to make something meaningful out of their lives. And I feel immense gratitude, particularly when I learned that our evacuation was only possible because of the generosity of private U.S. donors, including Mr. Gordon Caplan, who generously contributed and enlisted others to fund our plane out. I was able to thank him personally during a very emotional Zoom call recently, and that was just another thing I had to learn: how to thank someone for saving their entire family. The Aleph staff has also been with us every step of the way, and they have become like family.
This is why, despite everything, I dare to hope.
Still, it is impossible right now to imagine our future. As the world becomes aware of the global refugee crisis, I ask that you please don’t forget us. There are tens of thousands of native Afghans, just like us, with no country to call their own.
Will we ever see our homeland again? I honestly don’t know. As millions of Ukrainians have recently discovered, that is a question that sadly every refugee finds themselves asking at some point. I do know that should I get the opportunity to return to the ravaged land of my birth, it will be because the Taliban have again been banished from power. Should that time come, I will do whatever I can to ensure that I am one of those in a position to help shape a happier future for Afghanistan. I hope I can carry that out.
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