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How an Afghan ladies’ college principal fled the Taliban | Refugees

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On a chilly November day, Aqila Tavakali and her 14-year-old son brace themselves in opposition to an icy wind as they stroll the a number of blocks from their non permanent residence to his new college.

Abolfazl says goodbye to his mom on the nook, and Aqila watches as he disappears by the yawning doorways of the primary entrance.

Newtonbrook Secondary, simply north of Toronto, Canada, sprawls throughout a whole metropolis block. Greater than 2,000 college students from grades eight to 12 attend the varsity.

With basketball courts, a swimming pool and a big auditorium, the varsity presents the kind of schooling 44-year-old Aqila might solely dream of offering when she was principal at a ladies’ college in Kabul, Afghanistan till October 2021.

She wipes a tear from her eye in a futile try and stem a torrent from streaming down her cheeks.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t take into consideration my college students at Sayed ul-Shuhada,” she instructed Al Jazeera. “They had been very poor economically, however they had been additionally very sensible.”

Aqila, her husband Musa, a 47-year-old former taxi driver in Kabul, and their three kids, aged 9, 14 and 22, are among the many estimated 1.2 million Afghans who fled their nation after the Taliban seized energy in August 2021.

A photo of Aqila and family at Toronto Island.
Aqila and her household in Toronto, in November 2022 [Courtesy of Brennan Leffler]

In Afghanistan, Aqila had devoted herself to enhancing circumstances for her feminine college students. Sayed ul-Shuhada was one in every of only some excessive faculties within the Hazara neighbourhood of Kabul. Greater than 7,000 ladies attended the varsity in three shifts a day, from grades one to 12.

When Aqila was appointed principal in 2013, ladies had been hungry for schooling, however assets for them had been scarce. They took lessons outdoors, sitting on the bottom within the components whereas boys had been taught in lecture rooms indoors. So Aqila launched into a years-long fundraising marketing campaign to assemble new buildings for the rising variety of feminine college students.

However her success made her and the varsity a goal.

‘Their intention was to cease ladies from studying’

In Could 2021, a number of automotive bombs exploded outdoors the varsity gate simply as ladies had been leaving their lessons. Eighty-five folks had been killed, most of them younger girls. When she spoke to Al Jazeera two months after the assault, she was nonetheless mourning their loss.

“It was like the tip of the world,” Aqila mentioned, the photographs of blood and our bodies and the frantic households trying to find their daughters nonetheless uncooked in her thoughts. “Their [the attackers’] intention was to cease the ladies from getting an schooling. No matter manner, they needed to cease them.”

Even earlier than the bombing, Aqila had began receiving nameless threats. Messages and telephone calls from unknown numbers, warning her to cease her work or face severe penalties for persevering with. “They mentioned they know the place I’m dwelling, and the place my daughter goes to school. They mentioned they’d kidnap her if I didn’t cease going to my job.” At about this time, the Taliban was gaining territory across the nation, with province after province falling underneath their management. Nonetheless, few believed that Kabul would fall imminently, although American forces had set a September deadline to depart.

However the Taliban did take Kabul, and took over the remainder of the nation, in August that yr, and virtually instantly stopped all ladies from attending highschool. Aqila did a number of interviews with Afghan media, calling on the group to reopen faculties for older ladies. Her kinfolk nervous that she was placing herself, and her household, in larger hazard. When the threats began to come back extra regularly, she determined she had no alternative however to depart.

A photo of three women sitting on a bench. the one in the middle is holding a cane and the one on the left has a cast on her foot.
Aqila, in July 2021 when she was principal of Sayed ul-Shuhada ladies’ college, sitting with college students injured within the Could 2021 bomb assault that killed 85 folks in Kabul [Mellissa Fung/Al Jazeera]

“It was actually onerous for me,” she confessed. It might be the second time Aqila fled her nation. She had left for Iran together with her mother and father and siblings when she was a young person in 1994 because the Taliban rose to energy, returning in 2005, 4 years after the US invasion that toppled their rule. “When Hamid Karzai turned president [in 2001], he requested folks to please come residence and rebuild. And I used to be a kind of many 1000’s of refugees who got here again to Afghanistan with the hope of rebuilding the nation.”

This time, although, getting out of Afghanistan would show to be one of many largest challenges Aqila has ever confronted. Regardless of quite a few makes an attempt – together with by international acquaintances – to get the household on the manifests of the international airlifts, it proved unattainable. And going to the airport was rising extra harmful by the day.

Within the days main as much as the ultimate withdrawal of Western forces on August 30, 2021, the world watched in horror as heartbreaking scenes had been broadcast from Kabul airport. Tens of 1000’s of determined Afghans crowded outdoors, some climbing over the blast partitions and hanging onto the wheels of evacuation flights taking off, earlier than falling to their deaths.

After the ultimate flights left, alternatives to flee the nation dissolved.

Aqila turned discouraged. The Taliban issued a decree that every one girls in senior positions ought to cease going to work. However she resisted and returned to Sayed ul-Shuhada to run the first college for the youthful ladies.

A photo of Aqila and Mahnaz.
Aqila together with her former pupil, Mahnaz Aliyar, in Islamabad, after they fled Afghanistan [Mellissa Fung/Al Jazeera]

“The Taliban had been coming regularly [to my school],” she mentioned, her eyes nonetheless flashing with disbelief in any respect that unfolded throughout these tense weeks. “And they’d refuse to recognise that I used to be the principal, talking solely to [my male colleagues]. It was very painful for me.”

‘We simply ran to the border’

Their plight captured the eye of Canadian journalist Brennan Leffler. That September, he, together with a gaggle of associates, determined to use to a authorities programme that enables Canadians to sponsor and resettle refugees, with an upfront pledge of their very own cash that might help the household by their first yr. The programme was arrange years earlier to assist settle Syrian refugees; the group of associates was suggested to use in anticipation that the federal government would revive it to assist the 40,000 Afghans Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had dedicated to convey to Canada.

Then they linked with a non-profit organisation, Journalists for Human Rights, that labored to convey at-risk Afghans to Canada. Their record already had 500 names on it. It appeared overwhelming. However Brennan managed to get Aqila and her household’s names on this record.

The best problem was getting the household in another country when 1000’s of individuals had been desperately making an attempt to do the identical factor. Seats on personal flights had been promised by varied personal residents and NGOs who had been organising them, then cancelled on the final minute with out giving causes, as they waited with their luggage packed to go to the airport.

With choices to depart dwindling by the day, the non-profit helped them get visas to Pakistan in October 2021, after two excruciating months of ready, and preparations had been made to drive them from Kabul to Islamabad. They quietly bought their residence and most of their belongings, and Aqila mentioned goodbye to her colleagues at Sayed ul-Shuhada. After which, within the early morning hours someday in late October, a automotive got here to select them up from their residence to take them out of the town. Exhausted, nervous, and afraid of the Taliban guards on the border, they waited in line on the Torkham crossing for eight tense hours earlier than their passports had been lastly stamped they usually had been waved by.

A photo of a group of people sitting in wheelchairs and trolleys.
The queue on the Torkham border crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan [Courtesy of Mahnaz Aliyar]

“There’s about 10 metres to the border,” Aqila recalled, “and once we acquired our passports again, we had been so completely satisfied we simply ran the ten metres to the Pakistan facet. And we lastly might breathe.”

In Pakistan, the household stayed at a guesthouse with different Afghans who had fled. The non-profit that helped them depart Afghanistan coated most of their bills since they had been unable to work or go to highschool in Islamabad.

Their first weeks within the metropolis had been spent sightseeing and having fun with the freedoms that had been being taken away from them again in Afghanistan. However as weeks become months with no phrase on after they may get to Canada, a way of unease crept in. What if their sponsors’ utility was rejected? “We began pondering, what if this doesn’t work? What if we will’t get to Canada? Would we’ve to return to Kabul? As a result of we misplaced all the things. We are able to’t return.”

In Toronto, Brennan was rising extra pissed off by the day. “We had been making an attempt all the things,” he mentioned. “I imply, I used to be making an attempt all my sources. I had a former army one who was primarily based in Kabul who knew some folks [in the Canadian government] and was pushing them. However nobody was getting anybody out. There was a gaggle of Canadian generals who had been making an attempt to get individuals who had labored with them and risked their lives throughout the battle they usually couldn’t get them out.”

A photo of (from left to right|) Mahnaz, Brennan and Tamanna.
Aqila’s daughter Tamanna Sharifi, proper, with sponsor Brennan Leffler and Mahnaz Aliyar, in Toronto in November 2022 [Courtesy of Brennan Leffler]

Though Canada had dedicated to taking in 40,000 Afghan refugees after the autumn of Kabul, fewer than 28,000 have made it to the nation for the reason that programme began in August 2021.

How Afghans are handled versus Ukrainians

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Canada’s focus shifted to accelerating the method for Ukrainians fleeing their homeland. Greater than 140,000 Ukrainians have since arrived in Canada, with near half one million purposes accepted, resulting in accusations that the federal government has a two-tiered refugee system.

“They allowed Canadians to convey [Ukrainians] in on their very own accord,” Brennan identified. “And so they had been giving out visas for Ukrainians to get right here inside days, which I believe is nice. I believe that that’s the way it ought to have been for Afghans, as effectively.”

Heather Barr, affiliate girls’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, instructed Al Jazeera Canada isn’t alone. “You possibly can’t escape noticing the distinction in how Afghans are being handled versus how Ukrainians are being handled. And it’s unattainable to not assume that at the very least a part of what’s occurring is about racism and Islamophobia.”

Al Jazeera made a number of requests to talk with Canada’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship however acquired no response.

A photo of four people in a park at night.
After fleeing Afghanistan, Aqila and her household lived in Islamabad, Pakistan for almost a yr earlier than they acquired approval to maneuver to Canada [Mellissa Fung/Al Jazeera]

Within the meantime, the Taliban have, prior to now 18 months, rolled out one restriction after one other, principally directed at girls. First, they reneged on a promise to re-open faculties for ladies above grade six. Then girls had been forbidden to depart the nation and not using a male family member, or “mahram”. In December 2022, girls had been instructed they may now not attend college, after which had been banned from working for all non-governmental organisations, together with these delivering badly wanted help to a ravenous inhabitants. The Taliban have introduced again public beatings and executions, silencing Afghan girls even additional.

“It’s one factor after one other,” Heather mentioned. “The record retains rising so I don’t suppose that there’s any cause to suppose that individuals who’ve needed to flee are going to have the ability to return safely anytime quickly.”

Those that haven’t been capable of depart are rising extra determined by the day. Asraa, who Al Jazeera isn’t figuring out by her actual title as a result of security issues, used to work for the federal government of former President Ashraf Ghani. She travelled across the nation engaged on anti-corruption initiatives. Asraa was not capable of depart the nation after the Taliban took energy; as an alternative, she stayed and began serving to out as a trainer at an underground college for ladies who’ve been shut out of their schooling.

In the previous few months, she has acquired threatening telephone calls and messages with larger frequency, warning her to cease what she is doing. Her household fears she can also be placing them at risk. Asraa is now desperately searching for a manner out of Afghanistan, however discovering that her choices are very restricted.

“I’ve by no means been pressured to depart my nation,” she mentioned tearfully, her voice tinged with anxiousness. “However now I really feel there may be hazard … and I’m nervous about going to Pakistan as a result of I do know the scenario there may be not good for Afghans.”

A photo of Aqila and Ali with Ash, Brennan's dog in Toronto
Ali and his mom, Aqila, with Ash, their sponsor Brennan’s canine, in Toronto in November 2022 [Courtesy of Brennan Leffler]

18,000 Afghans returned

Doorways have closed in every single place to Afghans determined to flee the Taliban, and lots of who managed to depart the nation have discovered themselves caught in limbo in third nations like Pakistan, with alternatives and funds rapidly working out.

Support businesses have mentioned it’s onerous to estimate the variety of Afghan refugees in Pakistan as a result of most are undocumented. Many have determined to return residence, with hopes of going to Canada, Australia, or Europe extinguished. The UN Workplace of Migration estimated that, within the three months from April to June 2022, virtually 18,000 Afghans returned to their nation, regardless of its financial system collapsing and rising insecurity.

For Aqila and her household, the information that they had lengthy been ready for got here by virtually a yr after they fled Afghanistan. Their sponsors’ utility was accepted and 11 months after they left their homeland, they lastly flew from Islamabad to Toronto final November, the place Brennan and his associates greeted them excitedly, prepared to assist them begin this new chapter of their lives.

“It’s an entire new nation, an entire new tradition,” Aqila mentioned, just a little hesitation in her voice. “There’s a lot to be taught.”

A photo of five people standing in an airport with a baggage cart with suitcases between them.
Aqila, left, together with her husband and youngsters, checking in for his or her flight to Toronto, at Islamabad Airport in October 2022 [Courtesy of Mahnaz Aliyar]

Inside weeks of arriving, her two sons, 14-year-old Abolfazl and nine-year-old Ali, had been enrolled in native faculties, whereas Aqila and her husband Musa, together with their 21-year-old daughter Tamanna, began intensive English lessons. Aqila worries about how onerous it could be to get a job, and whether or not she should retrain. Musa – who doesn’t but have a job, however is engaged on enhancing his English – wants listening to aids, so their sponsors began a brand new spherical of fundraising.

The price of dwelling in Canada is one other concern; housing is dear and rental residences for a household of 5 are onerous to come back by. Their sponsors are financially dedicated to supporting them for a yr; after that, they are going to be on their very own.

However Brennan isn’t nervous. “I do know it’s been a shock to them how a lot issues price,” he mentioned. “So, that’s going to take an adjustment. However they’re powerful folks. They’re sensible folks. They’ll determine it out and we’ll be there to assist them.”

Aqila is aware of she and her household have a possibility that many others again residence can solely dream of.

“I used to be speaking with my kids the opposite day and I instructed them that the sponsors have labored so onerous for us,” she mentioned. “Our response to their work ought to be that you just examine onerous to change into physician or good engineer. Then [my daughter] instructed me that, ‘Mum, if we change into something, inform us to change into the perfect in that discipline, whether or not that be a salesman or something, and we’ll give a response to their love by being the perfect human beings and greatest residents of Canada’.”

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