Health and Fitness

‘It feels like people don’t care about Afghanistan anymore. We’re not European, not white’ – The Irish Times

‘Even the police say my family are innocent’

Shortly after Khatira Samim arrived into work on the morning of August 15th, 2021, she was called into a staff meeting. The human rights defender, who worked as a gender specialist for an NGO umbrella group, was told Taliban forces were closing in on Kabul and advised to go home as quickly as possible. Samim called her husband, a clothes designer, who picked up his wife and the couple rushed home to their two children. A few days later, Samim and her family went into hiding.

“My main job was to promote gender equality policies — the Taliban see that as an un-Islamic message. So they were searching for me and I was moving between my relatives’ homes. Finally, through the help of my former colleague here, I got a visa to come to Ireland. My family also got visas but their passports had expired. That’s why I had to leave the country without them.”

On September 20th, Samim left for Ireland. A few weeks later, her husband crossed the border into Pakistan with their two children, Samim’s mother and her 12-year-old baby brother.

In mid-November, the family arrived at Islamabad airport with their Irish visas and extended passports ready to travel to Europe. However, just before boarding, the family was detained by Pakistani police because their papers were deemed to have been “tampered” with. Samim’s husband was arrested, locked up and tortured. Eventually, with the support of the Irish consul in Pakistan, he was released. But nearly nine months on, Samim’s family remain stuck in Islamabad.

“The police gave their statements, the witnesses have been and gone, all the documents prove my family is innocent and had nothing to do with the tampering of visas,” Samim tells me over the phone from her home in Limerick. “They’ve arrested the travel agent who was responsible for that. Even the police say my family are innocent.”

“My mum is very sick — she has heart problems, blood pressure cholesterol and now is also depressed. My husband’s health is worse than everyone but because my mum is sick and my children are scared, he’s trying to show he’s fine.”

Meanwhile, Samim, who worked in the NGO sector, is following reports of the swift devastation of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Last week, Amnesty International published a report detailing how women who peacefully protested against oppressive rules were “threatened, arrested, detained, tortured and forcibly disappeared”. Since the Taliban took control, women and girls have lost their rights to education, work and free movement; women are arbitrarily arrested for the “moral corruption” of appearing in public without a male chaperone; and child, early and forced marriages are surging, warned Amnesty.

In the initial weeks after last year’s Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the international community joined forces to evacuate as many people as possible.

In Ireland, the Minister for Justice announced the Afghan Admission Programme would offer up to 500 places for the families of Afghans already living in the State. Separately, more than 600 humanitarian visa waivers were issued under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP), primarily for human rights workers and their families. To date, some 545 people have travelled to Ireland through this visa waiver programme, however, with Taliban-controlled borders and struggles to renew passports, about 92 people have not yet arrived.

‘I came here to stay alive’

One of the lucky ones who did get out was 25-year-old Anjilla Areezo who arrived in Dublin in October 2021. Her work with the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee NGO, which supported journalists facing violence and death threats, put Areezo in immediate danger once the Taliban were in power.

The day after Kabul fell, Areezo was offered a visa to leave the country through the Irish-led NGO Front Line Defenders. However, she was reluctant to leave her mother behind.

“My mother had been working as a journalist for more than 20 years; she even went to the airport to write about the evacuations and the Taliban beat her. She kept sending messages to supporters trying to get a visa but nobody would help her leave.” Eventually, Areezo’s mother convinced her daughter to leave without her.

“She said you’re not thinking logically, you’re a girl and the Taliban won’t let you work. You have to go abroad and make a future.”

Two weeks after arriving in Dublin Areezo was introduced, through the Irish Refugee Council, to the Dublin Unitarian Church community sponsorship group. Straight away, they arranged for Areezo to move into an apartment in Raheny, helped her find work as an interpreter and started lobbying the Government to bring her mother to Ireland.

Areezo, who was unable to complete her degree in business administration in Kabul because of financial constraints, hoped to resume her studies in Dublin. However, it quickly became apparent she was not eligible for grants and could not afford international student fees.

“You have to be in Ireland three years to access free education. It wasn’t my choice to leave Afghanistan, I didn’t want to live in a European country, but I came here to stay alive. And I’d like to study.”

Once she does become eligible for grant support, Areezo must restart her third-level education. “It’s not easy starting over from zero when you’re an adult.”

In May 2022, Areezo’s mother eventually arrived in Ireland. Seeing her for the first time in so long was “heartbreaking”, she says. “She looked so much older than her real age and it’s because she spent so long fleeing from one house to another to stay alive.”

She feels extremely grateful to the Unitarian Church sponsorship group who have “become like my family; I feel safe and happy with them and know someone always has my back”. However, with the massive outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees arriving into Ireland, she can’t help but feel most Afghans have been forgotten.

“Everyone who flees war deserves support, Ukrainians didn’t choose this war and we didn’t choose to have a war in Afghanistan. But now it feels like people don’t care about Afghanistan anymore. And it’s because we’re not European. We’re not white with blond hair and blue eyes. Our lives don’t seem to have the same value.”

‘Afghan women and Ukrainian people; we’re all victims of war’

Meena Asckry, who has been staying in the Clonea Strand hotel in Co Waterford with her husband and two young children since arriving in Ireland last October, agrees she will “never feel free” as long as “the women of my country are being tortured”.

Asckry, a law graduate and director of the Afghanistan Child Education and Care Organisation, was running literacy classes for women in her home province of Takhar in the northeast of the country when Taliban forces started taking control. “I’m so worried for all my students… Taliban know how powerful women are, they know their destruction lies in the hands of women. So they try to keep women uneducated and illiterate.”

Asckry first left Kabul in 2017 after receiving death threats from the Taliban for her work. She spent the following five years as a field officer for Concern Worldwide in Takhar province before moving back to Kabul in March 2021.

Five months later she had to pack her bags again. “The Taliban started going house to house every night, looking for women, musicians, anyone who was against their regime.”

Askcry admits living in a hotel in Ireland without working, while women in her home country face persecution, has been very challenging. However, she says hotel staff are very friendly and feels relieved her children are safe. The family is due to move into their own home in Co Clare before schools reopen in September.

She feels no resentment to Ukrainian arrivals who are entitled to more supports than Afghan families. “Afghan women and Ukrainian people; we’re all victims of war and games of power between countries.”

Asckry’s immediate priority is to find a job so she can support her children and send money to her parents who are still in Afghanistan. However, she hopes to practise law someday. “When I was a small girl I always dreamed of becoming a judge. I don’t know if my degree even works here but I hope I can continue my masters studies.”

Out of public consciousness

Shireen Avis Fisher, a judge of the Residual Special Court of Sierra Leone and previously a trial judge on the Bosnian War Crimes Chamber in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has spent nearly a year working with 10 female Afghan judges who came to Ireland with the support of Irish judges, barristers and solicitors. Fisher helped establish the Irish Justice Community Afghan Appeal to secure safe passage for judges and their families and continues to work on their integration into Irish society.

She believes the plight of Afghans should be seen “alongside, rather than in competition with any other grouping” and hopes Ireland’s response to the Ukraine crisis can offer a “template” for other groups fleeing persecution. “We must realise that there will be other displaced communities into the future, and how we respond resides obviously with Government, but also there’s an important role for vocational and professional groups to play an active role,” Fisher said.

However, advocacy services manager with the Nasc charity, Brian Collins, worries the Afghan crisis has fallen out of the public consciousness, adding that none of the applicants for the Afghan Admission Programme, which closed in March, has received a decision on their application.

A Department of Justice official said the 528 applications submitted under the programme were “currently being assessed with a view to issuing decisions in the coming weeks”. In addition, 135 joint family visas and 77 family reunification applications have been approved by the department, said the official.

“We understand there’s a lot of pressure on different departments but equally, we have an obligation to these people,” says Collins. “The conflict in Afghanistan is ongoing… It’s still very real for people who have families there and are absolutely beside themselves with worry.”

Khatira Samim is one of these people. She contacted the Government in early June pleading that her family “be saved”.

“I am worried for them and miss my children so much,” she wrote in her letter to Government officials. “Their lives are in danger in Pakistan.”

“The important thing is just to save my family’s life,” she tells me. “I’ve been told it’s just a matter of time until they can leave but that makes me crazy… Why have all the doors closed for the people of Afghanistan?”

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