Fleeing Afghanistan | Sahar’s Journey

By Helen Denham

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Fleeing Afghanistan | Sahar’s Journey
Photo by sedrik nemeth In Switzerland, Sahar’s paintings have been featured in gallery shows.
Sahar Rezai fled the Taliban and Afghanistan in 2016 when she was just 14 years old after witnessing heinous atrocities brought against her family and her community. When her story was brought to my attention, I knew immediately it needed to be shared by as many people as possible. It is humbling to be a minute part of her experience and to be granted insight into her harrowing journey. It is also a gift to learn about what brings her hope in a reality that is so starkly different from what most of us (in our privilege) can comprehend. Sahar has many layers to her: she is a gifted painter/artist, an advocate for women and girls, and she also lives with cerebral palsy. As I interviewed Sahar, I was shocked by the fact that her community was constantly terrorized by the Taliban despite the fact that there were nearly 100,000 American troops on the ground during the peak of the U.S. occupation, who were supposed to protect them. She wonders, “How did the U.S. forces not reach these terrorists? And why did they leave my people alone? The hope of all Afghans was in them.” The Last 20 Years Before we really dive in, here is an overview of what the last 20 years have looked like in Afghanistan leading up to the USA’s recent departure on August 30th: Following 9/11 in 2001, President Bush sent U.S. troops to Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and implement a Western-style democracy. They saw some success in the early days (hospitals and schools and such were built), but there were many underlying issues and widespread corruption. Seven years later, Obama initiated a massive uptick in troops on the ground, almost 100,000 soldiers were in Afghanistan at the time... but the Taliban was still putting up a fight. In 2014, American soldiers transitioned out of major combat and began training the Afghan army to fight the Taliban. On August 30th, 2021, Biden ordered all American troops to leave Afghanistan. Upon their departure, the Taliban completely and immediately took over. “‘Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,’” Mr. Biden said, accusing the military of laying down their arms after two decades of U.S. training. Some former Afghan warlords mobilized private militias, while other Afghans joined volunteer militias, many of them armed and financed by the government. “The Taliban overtook a string of provincial capitals before moving into Kabul—a frightening development for many who thought that they could build a life under the protection of their American allies.” (NYTimes) What was it like to live through this war? I interviewed Sahar over WhatsApp for a few weeks to bring you this conversation (she currently lives in Switzerland). She is a deeply compassionate, intelligent, multi-dimensional, and brave young woman. We cover some traumatic experiences, so please be aware of that as you read (Trigger warning).
Helen Denham: Sahar, I would love to know about where you grew up and perhaps a memory or two that you cherish.

Sahar: I was born in Herat…, one of the most beautiful cities in Afghanistan. The weather is very nice there, good climate. Of course, I do have good memories, like my family would go to the parks and the cinema and restaurants together. We had many good things when I’m ignoring the bad memories.

HD: Can you help us understand the reality of growing up in Afghanistan?
Sahar: I was part of a Shiite minority in Afghanistan, and as a girl who lived in Afghanistan, I was persecuted with all of my being. I was also born with a disability (I have cerebral palsy… my mom told me my legs did not seem normal since the day I was born) and people saw me as a sinner. They would say, “Your religion is wrong and you are an infidel. Your parents are sinners.” I was not acceptable in society, and I hated the humiliation. I lived in Afghanistan in fear.

One night our house was attacked and I saw the Taliban by my side. They beat my father in such a way that he fell unconscious on the ground. They pulled my mother’s hair, beat her, and raped her in front of us...the children. I see the Taliban as wild animals that come from the mountains… they have no compassion. They
will not have mercy on women and girls. They will not pay attention to the disabled. I think of the people of my country who are trapped by the Taliban and my heart goes out to them. No one is safe. The Taliban will stone women…no artists are allowed to thrive, no actors, no children, no disabled people. They are killing our people and the world is just watching.

HD: How did you end up getting out of Afghanistan?
Sahar: When I was 14, we were smuggled out. We went through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and then made it to Greece. We were in the back of a car for that time, going to an unknown place for all we knew. Lots of desert and no light in the darkness. The conditions were very difficult. We made it to Greece on an inflatable boat, then got on a truck and made it to Switzerland. We had some biscuits and water, but it was so hard. Especially with a physical disability, it was unbelievably difficult.

The United States has been in Afghanistan for 20 years. How did the U.S. forces not reach these terrorists? And why did they leave the people alone? The hope of all Afghans was in them. My family eventually took refuge in Switzerland and this country did not formally accept us as refugees. My family and I are constantly suffering from this issue. We have repeatedly told ourselves that we wish we had not taken refuge in Switzerland. We bring our suffering to a safe place and we are humiliated here, as well. It is very difficult; there have been multiple suicide attempts within my family.
I wonder now, what will happen to me and my Christian family regarding the Taliban government. What will happen in our unknown future? Where should we flee to? We are not accepted here, but if we go somewhere else, I fear they will not accept us either. I will share the story of my life and the unknown situation I am in now with the people of the world so that the world knows what will happen to us Afghans.

HD: What sparked your family’s conversion to Christianity?
Sahar: When my mother was in Afghanistan, she met an American family and converted to Christianity. She did not tell us anything, she didn’t dare because she was so scared for our safety. She only told her closest friend because she knew he had suffered from Islamic rule as well. But he betrayed her and that’s when the Taliban found and attacked my family. When we finally arrived in Greece after escaping, my mother dared to tell the truth and we all went to church together for the first time. It was a sense of beauty that I cannot describe. I personally felt very peaceful. We came to feel that Islam is a lie, and we had seen the most extreme part of Islam which was/is horrifying.

HD: What gives you hope? Is there anything that has helped you to relieve your pain?
Sahar: Having hope for me is not knowing what I’m waiting for and being okay with that… because I think if you know what the future will look like it tends to ruin things. Even if you know you’ll have the best life, it can make you wonder, “Is that all?” When I wake up in the morning I want to try to do new things because life is unpredictable and we’re only in this lifetime once! Just live.

Photo by Sedrik Nemeth In Switzerland, Sahar’s paintings have been featured in three gallery shows.
HD: Tell me about your beautiful artwork. What do you love about painting?

Sahar: Painting helps the world to hear my voice so that I am not ignored. I am a voice for thousands of women and children. I prefer to portray oppressed women and children who have been harmed. Painting is a way of calming my mind too. Yes, a form of meditation. I hope to find people who will support my art so that I can start a school in the future for women and children who could not go to school. I wish to defend human rights because I have always faced injustice.

HD: What does a day in your life look like now?

Sahar: I feel a kind of “homelessness” without a nest. I am someone who has come a long way on foot from the other side of the world, but Europe doesn’t give me the right to be recognized as a refugee and does not give me a proper safe haven. I have insomnia, my family suffers from mental health issues—from my little sister to my father, the head of the family. We feel we have no place on Earth. We wake up every day in Switzerland in fear that we will be deported back to Afghanistan even though we’ve done our best to work with the Swiss community.

My family and I have learned the language of this country, we all went to school, my father has been working, my mother serves the church. I have also studied, painted, shown at a gallery three times, and once I won an award for best poet and writer. My brother, Ali, became a Swiss karate champion! We are okay. We have done a lot with the Swiss community but we do still feel out of place here. Nevertheless, I am hopeful for a better life. n
Children in Afghanistan. Sohaib-Ghyasi
Sahar won an award for best poet and writer. Photo taken by her father, Abdulsamad Rezai.

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