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Story Publication logo August 23, 2022

‘We Left Everything:’ Afghan Refugees Reflect on Their New Lives in the D.C. Area One Year Later

A woman sits on the floor next to a row of paintings that are on the floor propped up on a white wall

August 15 marked the one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan that prompted tens...

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Masoud Hamnava was a music and television star whose career kicked off when he appeared on reality television competitions in Afghanistan. He also founded a media company that makes historical documentaries. He fled the country because it is no longer safe for musicians. Image by Valerie Plesch/DCist/WAMU. United States, 2022.

August 15 marked the one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, which prompted tens of thousands to flee the country in fear for their lives. Images of the chaotic scenes at Kabul’s airport as thousands of desperate Afghans scrambled for spots on the remaining planes as the last U.S. troops withdrew were projected around the world.

While hundreds of thousands of Afghans are still in the country waiting for their long overdue special immigrant visas, close to 76,000 Afghan evacuees have relocated to the U.SThousands resettled in the D.C. region, which has been home to a vibrant Afghan community for decades. DCist/WAMU spoke to five refugees about what they left behind and what it means to build new lives.

Their answers have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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Rukhsar Habibzai, 24 Cyclist and coach, Afghanistan’s National Women’s Cycling Team

Rukhsar Habibzai joined Afghanistan’s National Women’s Cycling Team in 2013 when it only had 15 members. By the end of 2021, it had grown to around 65 women from across the country. Habibzai was a coach and captain and often faced challenges as a female cyclist. Despite this, she went on to establish a womens-only team called the Cheetah Cycling Club. She hopes to reactivate it in the U.S. for Afghan refugees and anyone else who likes to ride. Habibzai was also studying to become a dentist. She had a single final exam left when Kabul fell. She was inside the airport during the August 26 explosion that killed close to 200 people.

She still suffers from PTSD from the attack. Since resettling in northern Virginia, she has found work at a dental office and joined Virginia’s Blue Ridge Twenty24, a professional national cycling team based in the Roanoke Valley. Some of her teammates are Olympians. She hopes to compete in the 2024 or 2028 Olympics.

Everyone was saying an explosion was going to happen and I was just waiting for it. It’s the worst feeling that I’ve ever had in my life. I still can’t forget that time and that feeling. The first pain is having to leave your country, the other pain is knowing that terrorists are occupying your country. So there was a lot of pain in my heart. I was waiting to die.

Cycling is my passion. I’ve always loved it, but there were a lot of limitations for girls. Cultural and religious barriers made it very difficult for me to ride a bicycle, not only for me but for all my teammates. My dream was to make it part of our culture, but unfortunately the Taliban came and all of our wishes and dreams were buried.

It was very difficult to stay in Afghanistan. I was looking at my bike and crying for all of my dreams, for the women, for everything we achieved over the past 20 yearsit all suddenly felt like nothing.

I left all my bikes, my life, my tiny world, my room, my bookseverything. It was very difficult to leave my loved ones and my family. Fortunately, they’re now here with me.

I remember the first time I went riding in America I felt like I was flying in the sky. I was thinking that no one was harassing me, no one was looking at me. In Afghanistan, my mind had to be ready before we went out; my brain would be in 1,000 parts: I had to look on my right side, back side, left side, all to control the team so that no one would harass us or attack us. But here I felt very happy, I kept yelling “Yeah!” I was yelling on the bike I was so happy. I started crying, yelling, laughing, and crying.

It’s not easy to ride and work. Other cyclists can handle that but I am a refugee. It’s very difficult for me. I started my life from zero. I will try my best. I’ll never stop working hard for my dream, I will work harder, harder, harder and one day I will participate in the Olympic Games, maybe one day I will be a gold medalist!

I wish one day that my country will be free.

Mohammad Khalis Mohammad Baig, 27 — Employment Specialist, Ethiopian Community Development Council

In Afghanistan, Mohammad Khalis Mohammad Baig had a successful finance and accounting career where he provided financial services to different U.S. government agencies as well as NATO. When Kabul fell, Baig, his wife, and their two young children were evacuated to Virginia’s Fort Pickett, where they stayed for five months. He wanted to resettle in northern Virginia because of the existing Afghan community and the fact that his former colleagues had also resettled there.

Baig and his family did not receive much assistance from resettlement groups, which meant that he mostly had to find a job on his own. Now, he’s using the experience he gained to assist fellow Afghan refugees in their own job search. He has 60 active cases of people he’s helping with all aspects of finding work, from driving them to job interviews, to helping them prepare for the interviews, to editing their resumes, and arranging for English language classes.

For almost 3 months, I went through a difficult situation. I started a job in painting which I have never done in Afghanistan. It was my first painting job, and even though it wasn’t my field, I had to do it because I needed to support my family. They only gave me like $5 an hour so I did it for 3 months.

It will be difficult for me to start studying in my field for the next year or two, but I know I can do it because this is the country where you can achieve your goals. Afghanistan was also the country where everybody had hopes and desires to be doctors, engineers, or dentists. But nowadays, if you ask somebody in Afghanistan, “Do you want to be a doctor?” they will say no, because they know in the future there will be nothing.

Every day when I get up, I feel that it’s my new life and I can do whatever I want, especially for my education. If I want to be an accountant, I can. I will try, I will study hard. This is the place for opportunity.

Now I have the opportunity to help Afghan refugees, it’s a great thing to be helping people. They also went through the same situation that I went through, so I try to help them stay relaxed and calm and humble. I try to help them understand the processes here, so that they can have a better life here.

I hope to help not only Afghans but also Ukrainians, or other people who are coming to the U.S. Helping all refugees is my duty, it’s my responsibility.

Asal Forotan, 16 — High school student

Asal Forotan was an outgoing high school student at Afghan Turk High School, a private school in Kabul she long dreamed of attending. She still remembers the day when she was accepted. “It was the happiest moment in my life,” she said. She spent three years at the school and was ready to finish the 10th grade when Kabul fell. She and her sister and parents were able to evacuate to Albania, where they spent seven months at a seaside town before finally resettling in Landover, Maryland. She still doesn’t know which grade she will enter this fall, though she hopes it will be either the 10th or 11th grade.

Forotan recently got a job at Marshalls, her second job since arriving in Maryland. She says that one day she wants to be a pilot. She often reflects on her life in Kabul: how everything changed since the day the Taliban captured the capital, the time she spent with her friends at school, and everything she left behind.

It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and my sister and I didn’t know anything—that we would leave our home, our homeland, our everything in 10 minutes. I could never have believed that I would soon see the Taliban close schools for girls.

Now it has been a year since the fall of Kabul, a year since we left everything, but it’s still hard to even think about. We didn’t just leave our countryI left my friends, I left my dream of graduating from Afghan Turk High School. That dream is incomplete; I will never achieve it.

When I talk to my friends they tell me: “We don’t have any school right now, we are not going to school.” I feel really bad for them. Some of them say, "You’re so lucky that you’re out of Afghanistan." I am here, but every piece of me is there: my friends, my house, my school, my dreams.

I could be one of them. I could be in Afghanistan and stay at home all day. I can’t even say how I’d feel; it’s hard to even think about that. I look back and think: How did all of this happen? I never thought that this situation would happen in 100 years.

I feel so bad for my best friends who are still in Afghanistan. Theirs is a story that I cannot get used to: Afghanistan has no place for girls anymore.

I am grateful I at least have my family here. They’re healthy, they’re with me. I try to give myself hope that everything will be alright.

Mohammad Hossain Nickhah, 29 — Journalist

Mohammad Hossain Nickhah was the head of the Herat regional office of his newspaper, the Hasht e Subh Daily, one of the most popular newspapers in Afghanistan. He and his wife, Elham, couldn’t evacuate until two months after the fall of Kabul. They were forced to go into hiding as the Taliban searched house to house for journalists or people affiliated with the Afghan or U.S. governments. He and Elham arrived in Arlington on February 12, and they quickly enrolled in an English language course at Northern Virginia Community College. Nickhah was also quick to apply for his driver’s license. He then found work as an Uber Eats and Grubhub driver where he earns between $80 to $100 a day, usually starting at 6:00AM and working until the evening, with a break for lunch in the late afternoon.

It’s good for a start, but it’s my dream that one day I’ll work in a job related to my degree and previous work as a journalist.

We should accept that our life has changed. It’s hard for me though, because my previous daily work was going to the office where I would write the news or reports and send and respond to emails. Food delivery is very hard for me, especially the first day I started because driving in the U.S. is very different than in Afghanistan.

It was my big dream to see the U.S. and now that I’ve accomplished that dream, my new big dream is that one day I can return to Afghanistan and the Taliban will no longer be there.

I have to work for my savings and our cost of living in the U.S. I don’t have another choice. But my dream is to one day work with a media organization in the U.S., maybe in radio. My first media job in Afghanistan was in radio. I love radio and the newspaper.

Masoud Hamnava, 28 Singer and media worker

Masoud Hamnava’s singing career started when he was selected from out of a thousand other contestants for one of the 12 coveted spots on the 2009-2010 season of the reality television show Afghan Star. He was the youngest contestant. He went on to win third place before he was selected to compete on another popular show called Super Star. Soon, he was performing in concerts broadcast on televisions around the world. He also founded a media company in Afghanistan, Kabul Media Group, that specialized in historical documentaries and employed 11 young men and women. His singing career often drew threats from the Taliban, via letters and phone calls. He was able to evacuate with his sister a few days after Kabul fell. A few months ago, his parents sent him photos of his instruments which Taliban fighters had destroyed while conducting house searches. One fighter used a rifle to tear down a poster of Hamnava performing at a concert. Since coming to Virginia, he’s been able to sing at different Afghan events, including the One Journey refugee festival at the Kennedy Center. He’s also found IT work at a data center.

Suddenly, in 24 hours, the situation changed. I left 20 years worth of earnings, studies, work, and accomplishments. We got a chance to escape Afghanistan but without our family, without our parentswe left everything. I came with just one pair of clothing and shoes.

I am still struggling to find a job that I love but because of the situation and the expenses, I have to do anything I can.

There was no chance to stay in Afghanistan because the Taliban said live music is forbidden. How is it possible to live in that situation? The Taliban knows every person in the music industry, they can find anyone.

Music is the only thing that makes me calm. When I arrived here, the first thing I tried to find was an instrument. This is the only thing that I have. I can play keyboards, tabla, and a little guitar.

It makes me comfortable; it gives me courage to fight the situation that I’m in.

A lot of times when I’m alone, or tired, or thinking a lot, or feeling sad, I play my harmonium and sing to myself. Without music, nothing else makes me calm. Singing gives me a lot of hope.

Reporting for this story was made possible with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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