(Bloomberg Businessweek) — The questions were coming at me fast: “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” “Are they really Afghans?” It was after midnight in the brightly lit, busy Islamabad International Airport. I was being questioned by an official from Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and trying to quell my rising panic. As I sat across the table for what seemed an eternity, the prior four months flashed across my mind. A family of nine Afghans and I were attempting to board a flight to Athens. I glanced back at the base camp the family had set up nearby. Hopelessness was written on their faces. Farhad stood in front of them, gripping his documents—he was shaking, he later told me, from the stress. I met his anxious gaze, wanting to reassure him that we were getting on that plane.
Farhad and his family were among the thousands of Afghans forced to flee their homes after the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021. It’s been a year since the Taliban marched into the capital, restoring their control of Afghanistan two decades after a US-led coalition deposed them. The world saw desperate scenes of Afghans fleeing to Hamid Karzai International Airport, including the harrowing image of some clinging to a US Air Force C-17 and falling to their death. For about two months, there was a persistent drip of stories about Afghan refugees aided by foreign governments, the private sector, and individuals spanning celebrities and military veterans. But by October, the international press had largely moved on.
The Afghans are part of a larger story. As of May, according to the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, there were 100 million people fleeing conflict, violence, human-rights violations, or persecution worldwide. That was the largest number on record—more than 1% of the global population. At least 2.7 million of them were Afghans, making them one of the largest refugee groups along with Syrians, Venezuelans, and Ukrainians. With their stories disappearing from the daily news comes “a sense of being forgotten,” says Babar Baloch, the UNHCR spokesperson for Asia. He rattles off some more recent human emergencies—Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the Rohingya people in Myanmar—before arriving at Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. It’s a “good thing” people care about Ukraine, he says—“this is how it should be.” But, he points out, “humanity cannot be applied selectively to one situation and not to others.”
Prior to Afghanistan, my experience of what refugees go through was limited to what I’d read. I learned of Farhad and his family only 24 hours after the fall of Kabul. I was sitting at my desk in Washington, struggling to find words to describe on television what the world was witnessing, when I received a call from a friend and colleague in London, Anastasia Ellis. I heard it in her voice; she was upset. A new hire, Fraidoon Poya, was an Afghan journalist who’d been granted asylum in the UK. His family was still in Afghanistan, and he was terrified for what their life would become under Taliban rule. He wanted to get them out.
Anastasia and I had collaborated on projects and stories in Europe and the Middle East while I was based in London, and she thought my new posting in Washington could help. The US government was struggling just to get Americans out, never mind Afghans, but I promised I’d make a few calls. Somehow that led me to a mission in Central Asia.
A few weeks of calls made it clear that Fraidoon’s family was at risk, particularly because of his work as a journalist, and that foreign governments weren’t in a position to help. Working with Eduardo Jany, a former US Special Operations officer who was then working at Bloomberg, and with the support of Bloomberg LP and its owner, Michael Bloomberg, we formulated a plan to evacuate the family. The nine people leaving would be Farhad, Fraidoon’s brother; their mother, Nafas Gol; their younger brothers, Homayoun and Fawad; their younger sisters, Lina and Parmila; Farhad’s wife, Zohra; and Lina’s husband (also named Farhad) and their 2-year-old boy, Yama. They would say goodbye to their home in Herat in the northwest, and travel by plane to Kabul and then by car, trying to avoid Taliban checkpoints and seeking out any border crossing where they might get out of the country safely. Should they make it, they would go to a safe place while we’d try to find asylum for them. If all went well, I would fly to meet them and get them to their new home country.
The journey was chaotic and difficult. The family spent weeks pingponging around different crossings, assessing the atmosphere. To avoid attracting attention and to keep the group size manageable, they split up, the women and Yama in one group, the men in the other. The women tried three times to get out at a crossing southwest of Kabul, in Paktia province, despite not having visas to enter Pakistan. But on each attempt the borders would shut, or it would just seem too dangerous. In the end, they decided to dress in burqas and tell the guards that Zohra was a young bride being escorted to her wedding in Pakistan by her mother, sisters, and nephew. The women laughed about it weeks later, after they felt comfortable enough to share the details of their journey with me, but underneath the laughter, I sensed humiliation. It was the first time the younger women had worn burqas to fully cover their bodies and faces. Nafas Gol hadn’t done so in 20 years, the last time the Taliban was in charge.
Although it was a relief that the women and child were across, the men were still in Afghanistan. They ultimately spent four weeks driving and hiding along the 140 miles separating Kabul and Torkham, a border crossing in the country’s far west. During the journey, Farhad later told me, they were beaten and detained. “I don’t like to speak about this. They were very bad days,” he said.
At Torkham they made numerous attempts to get into Pakistan. Their final day at the crossing was seared into Farhad’s memory. I’d seen video footage from the site, showing a sea of thousands trying to cross. Panic erupted, and Taliban soldiers assaulted men, women, and children. The morning before the men’s fourth try at the crossing, I received a text message from Fraidoon in London, who was talking to his brothers. “They are arrested,” he wrote. Ten minutes later: “They are released.” Demoralized and bruised, the men finally made it through, even getting their passports stamped.
After reuniting, the family waited in a safe house in Islamabad for the second phase of their journey: resettlement. As they and other refugees who’d managed to get out of Afghanistan waited in limbo, potential host countries were announcing refugee quotas or avoiding the subject altogether. The UK said it would take in 5,000 Afghans immediately and 20,000 in the longer term, while the European Union struggled to come up with a unified stance. The US was conducting Operation Allies Refuge to fly out large numbers of Afghans eligible for special immigrant visas. Trying to find a place for Fraidoon’s family, a group of us networked furiously, reaching out to contacts in a handful of countries. Finally, Greece offered the family asylum.
In November, a little over three months after the fall of Kabul, I met everyone in Islamabad for the final hurdle: getting to Athens. We spent two weeks organizing, including doing visa paperwork and official interviews to ensure that the women and the baby, who hadn’t received entrance visas, could safely depart Pakistan. It was stressful, but not nearly as stressful as the exit itself turned out to be.
When it was time to go, we made our way to the airport by car without issue, arriving four hours before our 3:30 a.m. flight. I would stay with the family all the way to Athens, acting as their advocate if they needed one. Unfortunately, they did. After waiting in a long line just to enter the terminal, we arrived at the Qatar Airways desk to check in. “Where are their entrance visas?” an attendant asked me, referring to the four women and the child. I explained that the family was among the thousands of people who’d been forced to cross into Pakistan illegally, but that they’d been cleared for departure by the government. “If immigration clears you, I’ll print the boarding passes,” he said.
That was how I ended up face to face with the FIA official. At one point during his interrogation, he asked to inspect, compare, and contrast Afghan documents. I said, “Sir, with all due respect, what is Afghanistan?” He didn’t respond. Trying to remain composed, I started calling any contact who might rescue us. One Pakistani official at the airport grew annoyed. “Stop creating panic,” he said. “Let us do our jobs.” He had a point, but we were in danger of missing our flight. Nor was it lost on me that I was an American with nine Afghans, and the officials might view what I was doing as illegal.
I got through to Andreas Papastavrou, then Greece’s ambassador to Pakistan, who’d worked with the Pakistani government to get the family cleared and had secured their travel visas. He immediately headed to the airport, texting me, “I am very angry! One can never be sure about anything!”
Thirty minutes passed, and the FIA official asked to speak with the people whose passports he’d taken into possession. The women came over, and we placed Yama, the baby, on the chair I’d been sitting in. The official matched everyone’s faces to their passports, then asked them to leave and me to stay. “Remove your child from the chair,” he told them, contempt in his voice. He’d been treating me differently; I felt ashamed.
We still weren’t sure if we’d be allowed on the flight. Then, another text from Papastavrou: “I am here. Where are you?” He spotted me outside the FIA office and came rushing over, a welcome and reassuring sight. Looking distinguished wearing glasses, a mask, a button-down shirt, and a blazer, he threw an ID card labeled “VIP-Dignitary” on the table and said, “I was given assurances these people were cleared.” The FIA agent seemed taken aback. “They are under the protection of me and the Greek government,” he continued. I lowered my face mask to mouth “thank you” to the ambassador.
After a 10-minute diplomatic dance, which included some behind-the-scenes help from Muqeet Shah, the then-director of the crisis management unit at Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs—whom I’d also woken up—we were cleared. Shah later told me there were many cases similar to the family’s. He pointed out that Pakistan “had to bend its rules” and go beyond normal procedures to clear the more than 100,000 Afghans who’d arrived illegally in Pakistan for travel to their host countries and said it had played a positive role in facilitating this humanitarian corridor.
We now had less than 90 minutes until departure, and it wasn’t clear we’d make it. Papastavrou walked us back to the Qatar Airways desk, where he introduced himself and insisted that we be processed immediately. After check-in, we still had to go through immigration. It was 2:35 a.m., and the line was wrapping around the airport multiple times. The ambassador escorted us through the diplomatic queue, then to our departure gate. Farhad expressed his gratitude, and Papastavrou responded, “When I say good night to my kids, I want to meet them at eye level.” We arrived at the gate with 14 minutes to spare. Everyone hugged goodbye, exuberant. The family and I were among the last passengers to board.
Then, with the plane set to leave the gate, a flight attendant came looking for Zohra. The attendant told us something was wrong with the immigration manifest. They took photos of Zohra’s passport. But before they could do anything further, the plane started to move. Wheels up—a moment of sheer relief.
Many hours later, tears ran down Zohra’s cheeks as the plane descended over the sparkling Aegean Sea. We touched down in Athens just before noon. The family couldn’t wait to see the beach. They headed to the apartments we’d arranged and settled in for another emotional week, filling out asylum papers and reuniting at last with Fraidoon.
Eight months later, the family is still deciding what comes next. Farhad, who has a computer science degree and wants to work as a web developer, tells me work has been hard to find. Homayoun, who studied engineering in Herat, had been waiting to get into an English language program. But while they faced daily challenges acclimating to a society that mirrored very little of the one they’d known, they were fortunate compared with many of their compatriots.
According to UNHCR, almost 1.3 million Afghans remained in Pakistan as of June; at least 780,000 were in Iran. Others are in limbo in such places as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, waiting for applications and visas to be processed. Host countries around the world have been overwhelmed. Almost 10,000 Afghans who fled last year are still being housed in hotels across the UK. Canada has welcomed just over 17,000 so far, less than half of its 40,000 commitment. As for the US, it has admitted more than 81,000 Afghan refugees, according to the Department of Homeland Security, but the path forward for those without special immigrant visas isn’t clear. By and large, their struggles have taken place outside the media’s eye.
The same is true of the struggles going on inside Afghanistan. Since the Taliban resumed control, the economy has spiraled downward in the face of sanctions, global isolation, and a decline in the international aid that formerly made up more than 40% of gross domestic product. Many Afghans are confronting severe poverty and hunger. Farhad told me friends there have said to him, “We are alive, but dead mentally.”
He says the most demoralizing new reality under the Taliban regime is the one facing girls and women. Girls are forbidden an education beyond the sixth grade, while women are prohibited from traveling long distances without a male companion and are forced to cover up head-to-toe in public spaces. Farhad’s sister Lina was working for UN-Habitat before she left Herat; had she stayed, Farhad said, she would have no rights and would be relegated to her home.
Ramiz Alakbarov, the deputy special representative of the secretary-general and resident and humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, says that for the Taliban-led government, the conversation about women’s rights will “make it or break it.” If the regime allows opportunities for women to advance, he asserts, the country could unlock some of the political and financial barriers it faces. But the Taliban’s history of draconian restrictions on women and girls suggests that without intense international pressure, there’s slim possibility of that.
Before I left Islamabad, Shah, the Pakistani official, introduced me to a group of young female refugees whose safe passage he was helping to ensure. Like Lina, Parmila, and Zohra, they’d been unwilling to live without basic human rights. They’d left Afghanistan to continue their studies and professional careers. “Does the foreign press still care about us?” one asked me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth.