Roya who had just started working in Afghanistan, but within six months, she has fled two places she called home.
(Illustration by Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)
"It was a desperate situation because Afghanistan didn’t have a Poland. When Kabul fell, our neighbours – Pakistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan – closed their borders for us," says Roya (name changed), an Afghan refugee who escaped the Taliban on 21 August 2021, and six months later, fled Ukraine after Russia waged a war.
Roya escaped Kabul in August 2021 soon after the Taliban seized Afghanistan.
Now in Warsaw, she is staying with her host mother Kerry (name changed), who has welcomed her into her house. She shares how she’s had to leave behind all the people who were dear to her, first in Kabul and now in Kyiv.
She was born in Tehran to an Afghan refugee family and moved to Afghanistan after she turned seven.
The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul at a lightning speed, and their foot soldiers’ march with guns inside the presidential palace shocked NATO, the EU, and global citizens. Roya, who had just started working at a startup in Kabul and living the life she wanted, couldn’t believe that the then-president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country.
What had followed was more than 123,000 Afghans scrambling to get on US and NATO-led evacuation flights before the set deadline of 31 August 2021.
Hundreds of those Afghans fled the country and flew to Ukraine. Roya was among them. Her name was on one of the first few evacuation lists. However, her family's wasn’t.
As the sole breadwinner of her family of seven, she departed Kabul without saying her goodbyes to friends and family.
She could not bid goodbyes to friends and family
“I didn't want to believe that I’m leaving Afghanistan until I made it to Kyiv. When I landed in Kyiv, that’s when I’d believe that I finally made it. Everything was so abruptly changing that I didn’t want to give myself hope,” recalls Roya.
She was whipped by a Talib
Roya’s evacuation flight was headed to Kyiv and with only the clothes she was wearing and the three items in her backpack, she was about to land in a strange country, in a different continent.
After landing in Kyiv, Roya was looking forward to a new life. She lost her job in October and had to take up freelance projects in a Serbian company that paid in cash. Over the past seven months, Roya has earned a living in Ukraine and supported her family in Afghanistan.
She was staying with her new Ukrainian friends and was provided for by humanitarian groups and the Ukrainian government as part of assistance given to a few hundred refugees from Afghanistan.
Roya wanted to learn the language and settle down in Ukraine, where she thought she had finally found a home. However, a day after she celebrated her birthday, Russia attacked Ukraine.
She had to flee another country in a matter of a few months.
Russian shelling and air raids worsened and the offensive moved to the western regions, including Lviv. Roya recalls the day she woke up to air raid sirens, and reveals:
“I woke up and heard these sirens and I knew I had to flee again. I left Lviv on 26 February and crossed the Poland-Ukraine border on 28 February. I got in touch with a group of Polish volunteers who picked me up from the border and brought me here. It was like reliving the whole Kabul experience. I think as a therapist said, you don’t realise the extent of the crisis you are in until you’re out of it. Fleeing both these wars has got me used to crises and being a refugee.”
Without cash and just a suitcase, Roya started walking towards the Polish border. One of the volunteers who she reached out to on Facebook, picked her up from the border and brought her to Warsaw.
That’s where she met her host mom Kerry, a British national who works as a university professor in Warsaw. Roya has been living with her host mother Kerry and her 12-year-old daughter Natalie for the past two weeks. During our conversation, she welcomed me to her home, served Afghan chai, and showed me how Natalie has added Roya's name to the family wall. Roya proudly shows her damaged laptop charger that she brought along with her from Kabul to Kyiv and now to Warsaw.
Kerry is now helping Roya find a Master’s course in western Europe. The two have formed a bond and are visibly comfortable with their unexpected situation.
Kerry confirms Roya will stay with her until they find her a degree programme, either in Germany or the Netherlands.
Talking about her hardships, Roya ascertains that her life is more than just escaping the Taliban’s violence or Putin’s attack.
She insists that she doesn’t want the media to portray her as a helpless refugee who fled two wars, adding, “This journalist called me the day I was trying to flee Lviv and I was looking for cash. When I told her I was looking for money to escape, she simply asked me how do I feel at that moment. I mean that’s not the time to ask those questions. My story is all about kind people. It’s about prosperity and hope, It’s not a story about a helpless girl who fled two countries.”
Roya is trying to rebuild her life in Europe and hopes that soon she finds an equal opportunity, stability, and peace.
“As a refugee, I have the right to be treated the same as other people. Because I believe that geographical location doesn’t really define me. It’s my ambitions and character and personality that define me. I really want the world to treat me with dignity, with pride and respect, and not have pity for us. That’s not what we need. What we need are opportunities. We should be given respect,” she says, adding:
(The author is an independent journalist based out of Paris. An alumna of University College Dublin, she writes about international conflict and war.)
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