Afghans who escaped Taliban takeover look to resettle around the world

Her departure from Kabul reminded her of some “zombie movie,” the young woman said. It was an experience she could describe only as “dehumanizing, terrifying and very traumatizing.”

When she woke up in a lakeside resort in Uganda, she found it impossible to square her new surroundings with the chaos of leaving. Nearly four months later, she is still reeling, stuck in the East African country, uncertain when she will be able to leave.

“It feels like we are prisoners,” she said. “I am just angry.”

The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for her safety. She is among some 124,000 civilians who were evacuated from Kabul in a U.S.-led airlift after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August. Most fled on U.S. military aircraft. Others escaped on commercial flights, or private or allied planes. They were uprooted and scattered across the globe. Her account is similar to those of many other Afghans who remain stranded, unsure how to reach a new country where they can find permanent residence.

As of Dec. 24, more than 75,000 Afghan nationals had arrived in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security, with about 25,000 of them still living at military installations. About 2,500 Afghans are at U.S. bases overseas, waiting to be processed.

[Thousands of Afghans evacuated during U.S. withdrawal awaiting resettlement]

For thousands of other Afghan evacuees, the future is even less certain.

No international organization appears to be keeping track of the people in this abrupt and vast diaspora — or coordinating their care. Officials with the U.S. military, the State Department and DHS did not provide The Washington Post with any assessment of how many of the Afghans evacuated by commercial, private or allied flights are outside the U.S. pipeline, or where they are located. The United Nations refugee agency, whose staff supports refugees in some 130 countries, says it cannot provide numbers on how many Afghans have left since the Taliban came to power because it was not involved in the evacuations.

The Post contacted 194 governments around the world (hearing back from 41 of them), conducted dozens of interviews and collected government statements to find out where Afghans have fled. The analysis found that they have ended up in more than 40 countries.

In addition to the Afghans who were airlifted, thousands are reportedly crossing into Iran every day.

The Post interviewed Afghans in Albania, Australia, Germany, Mexico and Uganda who left their homeland after the Taliban takeover. Host governments and nongovernmental organizations are helping them get by. They are in various phases of the migration process, with some in more stable situations than others, but they remain united in their heartbreak over leaving Afghanistan so suddenly, their guilt about those left behind, and their feeling of disorientation in new surroundings.

AUSTRALIA

Noor Mohammad Ramazan built a career showing off the wonders of Afghanistan. As a tour guide, he had spent the past six years taking foreigners around the ancient citadel in Herat, the breathtaking architecture of Mazar-e Sharif’s Blue Mosque and the deep turquoise waters of the Band-e Amir lakes in Afghanistan’s first national park. His adventures were documented by YouTubers exploring the country.

“I just wanted to show Afghanistan’s beauties,” he said. “It was a shame nobody was talking about that and they were only talking of its explosions.”

Now the 33-year-old is far from those treasures, living in a small community outside Melbourne, Australia, with his wife, Masuma, and two children. Fearful that the Taliban would punish him and his family for catering to Western travelers, he obtained an Australian humanitarian visa with the help of a former client who knew an Australian senator. The family left Kabul on Aug. 23. After more than a week in a military camp in Dubai, they landed in Melbourne, where Ramazan felt safer but disoriented.

In Afghanistan, he said, “you live with your cousins and family members and classmates.” But in Australia, he said, “you don’t know your neighbors.”

While the government gives them money, it is not enough, Ramazan said. He applied for work as a translator and also hopes to publish a collection of his own short stories — tales based on Ramazan’s experiences growing up under Taliban rule.

His family is building a new life, and he is grateful for the freedoms and the feeling of peace. But he is worried for the brothers, sisters, parents, uncle and cousins he could not take with him.

“They are fine, but they are terrified,” he said. “We are terrified as well.”

Albania

Miraqa Popal, 34, wakes up in Albania each day and sees the ocean.

“I am lucky,” he said from an Adriatic seaside resort in Lezhe where he and hundreds of other Afghans have been staying after escaping Kabul. “At least I was able to leave. And to hopefully start a new life.”

Albania is temporarily hosting 2,400 Afghans who fled Taliban rule as they wait for permanent homes. Popal applied for a Canadian visa but is still waiting to hear back. He does not know any Afghans who have left Albania.

He is thrilled with the care he and his family are receiving, but he misses his seven-room house in Kabul, with a big courtyard where they used to throw parties for relatives who now remain in Afghanistan. In Albania, they have two rooms: one for him, his wife and three kids to sleep in; the other a small kitchen, where they cook simple dinners of tomatoes, onions and eggplant.

Popal once traveled the world directing coverage for TOLONEWS, Afghanistan’s largest news channel. After nearly four months, he resumed working for the organization as a transcript editor. It feels great to be back, he said, but he misses being in the field.

“It’s hard to work online,” he said.

Germany

Nasir Sultani and his sister Masooma arrived in Krakow, Poland, in August and were mesmerized by the medieval architecture, the kindness of the people. They loved it there, but they felt they could not stay.

The job and education prospects in Poland were not promising, friends told Nasir, a human rights activist. So they crossed into Germany in hopes of finding American officials who could help process his sister’s U.S. resettlement application; she applied after working for a U.S. company in Kabul for two years, but has not received a case number.

Now living in a Berlin refugee camp with migrants from Syria, Iraq and Russia, they feel lost in the shuffle. They do not know if they will be permanently resettled in Germany, let alone the United States.

“I want to find some way back to Poland,” Nasir said in November, adding that he regretted their decision to move on to Berlin. But he still yearns for Kabul. “No matter where I go, it doesn’t look like my homeland.”

Uganda

In Uganda, an Afghan woman feels trapped.

It is not uncomfortable in the apartment where she is staying, but there is nothing to do. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for her safety, spends her days writing and watching “Downton Abbey” on Netflix, waiting for responses from the U.S. Embassy. They have not come.

“It’s a beautiful country,” she said of Uganda, “but it’s wasted on us.”

Uganda’s foreign minister, Gen. Jeje Odongo, said in a phone interview this summer that his government had accepted 51 evacuees on a transit basis in late August after receiving a request for assistance from the U.S. government.

There have been small glimmers of happiness: The woman tends to stray kittens she found in the area. Their fluffy pink ears provide comfort.

She hopes to start a new life in the United States but has bittersweet feelings about leaving her beloved Kabul and worries about her family and friends still there.

“It had everything but safety,” she said of Kabul. “It’s like if an amazing human had cancer and you couldn’t save them.”

Mexico

Nilofar Quraishi and her husband, Zabihullah, were so close to escaping. They had made it into the airport in August and were waiting on a flight to get out. But days passed and Nilofar, then five months pregnant, was starting to feel ill.

They decided to go back home, leaving the airport through the same gates where a terrorist attack would kill more than 180 people just hours later.

Unable to escape through the chaos of the airlift, they looked for another way out. One month later, Zabihullah, who taught civil engineering at Kardan University in Kabul, decided to try again after friends said they could help him if he made it to Mexico.

They crossed into Iran, saying Nilofar needed special medical care for her pregnancy. There, they received a tourist visa to Mexico.

To pay the airfare, they sold Nilofar’s jewelry. But when the flight from Istanbul to Mexico City landed, they were turned away.

“I told them, as a human being you know my country is destroyed and we are under threat of the Taliban,” Zabihullah said. “They told us, ‘No, sorry.’ ”

The couple was sent back to Istanbul, only to find out once they landed that the Mexican Foreign Ministry had changed its mind and would let them in.

Now in Mexico, their journey has only begun. Nilofar, who worked for an Afghan media outlet, gave birth to their first child, Oswah, a girl with dark hair and big brown eyes, on Dec. 15. But parenthood feels bittersweet.

“We feel so happy for our baby,” Zabihullah said. “But I wish I could have our parents see and care for her.”

Their hope is to raise Oswah in Canada, where Nilofar’s aunt lives, and they have appealed to the government for a visa.

In another month, Zabihullah said, funds from a nongovernmental organization supporting their stay in Mexico will run out. They cannot support themselves.

“Every day and night, my Nilofar is crying because of the current situation,” he said.

About this story

Editing by Reem Akkad. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design by Dwuan June. Copy editing by Dorine Bethea and Martha Murdock. McKenzie Beard, Caroline Cliona Boyle, Heather MacNeil, Aneeta Mathur-Ashton, Vanessa Montalbano, Megan Ruggles, Nick Trombola and Carley Welch with the American University-Washington Post practicum contributed to this report.

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