‘It’s time to say goodbye to everything’

Atlanta-area Afghans fear for the safety of other women, girls still in their homeland

Muzhda Oriakhil remembers disguising her schoolbooks to resemble the Quran so she wouldn’t get caught studying. The fear she saw on the faces of her classmates during the Taliban’s oppressive control remains etched in her memory.

Oriakhil’s husband worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military during the war and helped bring her to America in 2014 after he arrived on a Special Immigrant Visa. Like other Afghan women who have resettled in the Atlanta area, Oriakhil worries about the women and girls still in her homeland.

“Women, especially in Kabul, have their own businesses. They are working. Young girls are going to school,” said Oriakhil, a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in Kabul and now lives in Snellville. “We are really scared for those girls and women.”

Speaking at the White House Monday, President Joe Biden mounted a forceful defense of administration’s decisions in Afghanistan amid the unfolding disaster there. He underscored that then-President Donald Trump negotiated a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May of this year and had already substantially reduced the number of American troops there.

“There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement and withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan and lurching into a third decade of conflict,” Biden said. “I stand squarely behind my decision.”

Biden, who has authorized deploying 6,000 troops to help evacuate U.S. citizens and others from Afghanistan, added that he would “continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people, of women and girls, just as we speak out all over the world.”

“I have been clear that human rights must be the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery,” he said. “But the way to do it is not through endless military deployments. It is with our diplomacy, our economic tools and rallying the world to join us.”

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.  (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times)

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Oriakhil, who works for an Atlanta-area refugee aid organization, worries about widows in Afghanistan who lost their husbands during the war and are now scrambling to support their families.

“I want the world to know that Afghan women worked very hard for their rights,” she said. “Please do not stop Afghan women from doing their jobs — from (running) their own businesses. Do not stop girls from going to school.”

Oriakhil’s friend, Shaista, a Decatur resident who asked that her full name not be published to protect family still in Afghanistan, resettled in the United States in 2017. She moved here with her husband, who worked with the U.S. government in Afghanistan. The International Rescue Committee in Atlanta helped them relocate to Georgia, where Shaista works for a humanitarian organization. She is advocating for the safety of women in Afghanistan and to make it easier for those who worked with U.S. officials in her homeland to relocate to America.

Like Oriakhil, Shaista remembers living in fear under Taliban rule. The Taliban threatened to beat her and other girls if they refused to wear burkas, full-length shrouds that can cover even the face.

“Women at that point, they were not allowed to go to school, first thing. Second thing, they were not allowed to go outside without a man,” she said. “And you needed to wear the burka. If you didn’t have that, you could not go outside.

“I was 12 years old at that point and they wanted me to wear the burka,” she continued. “I remember running with my mom from them so that they would not beat me because I did not have the burka. After that, I was so scared. Whenever I would go out, I would wear my burka.”

FILE - Displaced Afghan women plead for help with a police officer at the Bibi Amina school in Kunduz, Afghanistan, July 7, 2021. Women would be most at risk under Taliban rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it barred women from taking most jobs or receiving educations and practically made them prisoners in their own homes — though this was already custom for many women in rural parts of the country. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

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Farwah Karimi was 7 when she arrived in Clarkston from Mazar-i-Sharif in 2000.

“I remember what it felt like to be the little girl that was leaving her home with nothing but a backpack and being terrified of this group of militia that was out to kill,” she said of the Taliban. “And I thought that this was behind us. I thought that we would not see this day come again. It’s been really heartbreaking to see the country that I live in, the country that I love, walk away from the country that I was born in, the country that I was raised in.”

Tabasum, who also asked that her full name not be published for safety reasons, left Afghanistan nearly five years ago and moved to Loganville after working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army. She worries that job combined with her gender could spell trouble for her relatives.

“This is something my mother worries about. She told me, ‘We will be in more danger because when the Taliban knows that one person from our family was working for the U.S. Army and that person was a woman, they will be thinking differently about us,’” she said.

Tabasum worries most about her young nephews and nieces and their ability to get an education in her homeland.

“My sister told me, ‘I would feel happier right now if I didn’t have any kids, because I know that they don’t have a future in Afghanistan. They cannot have a good life here,’” she said. “It’s time to say goodbye to everything.”

Another Afghan woman who has resettled in the Atlanta area said her heart has been heavy the past few days as she has watched the Taliban capture Afghanistan. She asked that her name not be published out of fear for the safety of relatives, some of whom have worked with Americans and still live in Afghanistan.

“I am worried for the people who worked with the Americans as they are in great danger now,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday, speaking in Dari.

“My mother and father are still there, they’re alone in Kabul and we are very worried,” she added. “We have nights we don’t sleep thinking about our family.”

She wishes for peace in Afghanistan and wants the world to know “how broken things are there. It’s worrying not knowing what will happen.”

She concluded with this in Dari: “May God be with my country.”

Lautaro Grinspan and Paradise Afshar are Report for America corps members covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.