Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Migration

The Daily Hustle: Waiting in Islamabad for evacuation

Rohullah Sorush Roxanna Shapour 7 min

When the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan returned to power in August 2021, thousands of Afghans who were working for NGOs left Afghanistan, fearing harassment by Afghanistan’s new rulers, or just taking an opportunity to start a new life elsewhere. Many have already found their way to Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Others are still waiting in third countries, such as Pakistan, for their asylum applications to be reviewed and the next chapter of their lives to begin. In the latest instalment of The Daily Hustle, AAN’s Rohullah Sorush hears from an Afghan man who has been living in Islamabad with his young family for nearly two years. He told us how they are coping with the wait by studying, improving their skills and cherishing the small joys life has to offer. 

Afghan refugee children attend a class at the Estiqlal Lycee High School in Islamabad. Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP, October 2023.

In February 2022, I got an email from the US State Department telling me that my family and I should go to a third country so that they could process our evacuation applications, which would take 12 to 14 months. It was one of those cold winter days in Kabul. My wife was sitting near the bukhari (woodburning stove) reading a story to my two daughters. I handed her my phone so she could read the email. She took a deep breath and nodded in the direction of our already-packed bags. They’d been carefully packed and waiting for the past six months – four suitcases, one for each of us, with all the things we’d need to start our new life in America. There was also a backpack with our documents – passports, marriage and birth certificates, degree certificates, employment records and, most important of all, family photographs and keepsakes. Tomorrow, we’d say our goodbyes to the few family members and friends still living in Kabul and begin making arrangements for the overland journey to Islamabad. A month after the letter came, we joined the hundreds of other Afghan families waiting in Islamabad to be evacuated to the United States. 

The old life in Kabul

I was born in Kabul, near the military high school in Pul-e Sukhta, in 1996. I grew up in a rented house in the same neighbourhood with three brothers and two sisters. Ours was a happy middle-class family. My parents put a lot of stock in education and pushed us not to settle for a mere high school diploma, but to strive for a university degree. They also made sure we learned English and how to work with computers, the skills that, they said, would stand us in good stead when we entered the workforce and started our professional careers. They were wise indeed. The English and computer skills my parents insisted on helped me pay for my university education. I taught at a private institute and did some tutoring on the side to earn enough money for the tuition at the private university where I studied for a Bachelor in Business Administration degree. In 2012, with my degree in hand, I started working as a finance officer for an NGO that offered English classes to university lecturers and students; it had funding from the United States. 

Those were happy days. I used to wake up early and have breakfast with my family before heading to work. I had a deal with a taxi driver who’d pick me up every morning and drive me to the office. In the evenings, after work, I used to walk home with a colleague who lived in the same neighbourhood. We wanted to get a bit of exercise after sitting behind a desk all day to stay healthy and keep our weight in check. During those long walks through the streets of Kabul, we’d share a piece of warm bread and talk about our plans for the future. 

I had a good salary and my brothers worked too, so we were able to increase our savings. Soon, there was enough money for each of us, brothers and sisters, to get married, one after another. I got married in 2015 to an educated woman who taught at a private primary school. My wife loved teaching young kids. She worked at the school during the day. In the afternoons, working at home, she prepared the next day’s lesson plans and marked her students’ homework. When she had time, she helped my brothers’ wives with chores around the house. In time, my brothers and I saved enough to realise my parents’ long-held dream – we bought our own house, although sadly, it was too late for them to see it. 

But they did get to meet my two beautiful and intelligent daughters – one is seven years old and the other is five. Like my parents, I had a lot of plans for my children’s future. I wanted them to study, excel in school and have their own families. Most importantly, I hoped they’d become successful career women and serve our people. But the best-laid plans are often at the mercy of forces beyond our control and decisions made by men in faraway rooms can scatter even the tightest-knit of families to the four corners of the earth. This is what happened to my family. All my siblings have already left Afghanistan with their families. I am the youngest and was the last one to remain in Afghanistan, hanging on to the hope that one day we’ll all be together again living in our house in Kabul. But all that is in the past now. Today, I wait with my family in Islamabad for an aeroplane to take us to a new life in America, far from everyone and everything we know. 

Time to leave Kabul 

By the time the Taleban entered Kabul, I was already worried for our safety. Even before the fall of the Republic, my brothers and I had received threats because we worked on US-funded projects. It wasn’t long before we started hearing rumours about people being detained [by the new authorities]. Then, one day, armed men came to our house looking for me and my brothers. Luckily, I wasn’t home and both my brothers had already left Kabul before the fall. Living in Kabul had become risky not only for me but also for my family. So, like many others, I applied for the US government programme to be evacuated. We sold our family home and moved in with some relatives who had a spare room. We started selling all our belongings in preparation for our departure from Afghanistan. We kept some money to live on and sent the rest to my brother in Europe. 

The six months we spent waiting to hear about our application were tense and gloomy. The NGO I worked for had closed down, so I had no job to go to and nothing to distract me from my perilous situation. We spent our days at home, helping around the house, tending to the children and trying not to draw too much attention to ourselves in the neighbourhood where we were staying with family. 

Waiting for the future to begin

Life here in Pakistan hasn’t been easy. I have no job here, and we must make do with what little money my brothers can send us. It has taken far longer than 12 to 14 months for the US government to process our application. In fact, we‘ve only just received our case numbers – 21 months after we arrived in Islamabad. Time passes slowly when you’re waiting for the future to start, and the uncertainty takes an emotional toll on the whole family. But we can’t go back to Kabul. 

For one thing, there’s no one left in Kabul to go back to. All my siblings and their families have already left Afghanistan. There’s also my wife’s well-being and my daughters’ future to consider. In Afghanistan, my wife can’t work and my girls can’t go to school after they finish primary school. In Islamabad, the girls are in school and my wife is taking English and computer courses. But we’re living here on expired visas and the Pakistani government has started a campaign of rounding up Afghans and deporting those without visas – and sometimes even those with valid visas. In November, the US embassy gave us letters to show to the Pakistani police if we’re stopped on the street, so they do not deport us. 

Making lemonade in Islamabad 

They say when life gives you lemons you should make lemonade. That’s exactly what my family and I have been doing in Islamabad. We’re trying our best to take advantage of the opportunities available here so we don’t spend our time in idleness. We enrolled the girls in a local private school, where they also have two hours of English instruction every day, and my wife is taking English and computer classes. But there isn’t enough money for me to also take courses, so I spend my time improving my English and learning new skills online. It’s important for my wife and daughters to be proficient in English when we arrive in America so they can hit the ground running. 

We live in a pleasant neighbourhood in Islamabad, where many other Afghan families also live. It feels like home having so many Afghan neighbours; most of them are in the same boat we’re in. In the mornings, I walk my daughters to school through the bustling streets, which are full of people on their way to work. I enjoy my morning walks, especially through the park after the rain, where the air is delicate and smells of wet grass. On my way home, I usually stop at one or two of the shops that cater to an Afghan clientele to pick up some provisions for my wife and catch up on the neighbourhood gossip and news from home. This morning ritual makes life interesting and keeps me connected to something outside our stagnant life – thriving, lively and filled with possibilities. 

We live on a very tight budget and must be careful with money. I can’t work here in Pakistan, so we rely on the generosity of my siblings, and we can’t take that for granted. It’s enough to pay the rent, my daughters’ school fees, my wife’s courses and our living expenses, but there isn’t much money for entertainment. Sometimes, when we have the time and some spare cash, we visit one of the many beautiful religious, cultural or historical sites in Islamabad, but mostly, we spend our free time in the park near our house. The important thing is that we’re all together in a safe place. We have a roof over our heads and the girls can go to school. 

For now, this should be enough. It has to be. There’s nothing else to do but wait. And while we wait, life goes on and there are precious days and moments we’ll never get back – time passes and children grow up. We can’t give in to despair. The only thing to do is to make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt, make good use of our time and plan for the future. Our children will learn by our example that no misfortune is insurmountable and that the taste of lemonade – sour and sweet – is an inescapable part of life. 

Edited by Roxanna Shapour 

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Afghans in Pakistan Daily Hustle evacuation Refugees

Authors:

Rohullah Sorush

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Roxanna Shapour

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