"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.
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.
Roya, a 23-year-old data scientist, is a native of Herat and belongs to the ethnic Hazara community, which has been persecuted for over a century.
She was born in Tehran to an Afghan refugee family and moved to Afghanistan after she turned seven.
"My family fled our home, Herat, during the Soviet rule, and for as long as I remember, they desired to be back home in Afghanistan. Now that I am displaced, I can’t help but feel how I was born in a foreign country to refugees and continue to feel displaced as my parents did," narrates a teary-eyed Roya as she gazes outside the window to gather her thoughts.
'Fled to Ukraine With Damaged Charger, Novel'
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.
"I still had hopes and was watching the TV and the news reports said that the President had fled the country. He just left us and threw us to the wolves. That’s the moment I knew our future was threatened. The Taliban clicked pictures inside the presidential palace. I couldn't believe what I was watching on TV."
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.
"On the evening of 14 August, I was on the balcony of a friend’s house. There was strange silence and stillness in the city. I couldn’t hear anyone and I couldn’t see any cars on the road. Kabul is a very noisy city and that night everything was very quiet. I felt something was wrong. My friends from India and Pakistan were calling me and asking me to leave Kabul as soon as possible."Roya
As the sole breadwinner of her family of seven, she departed Kabul without saying her goodbyes to friends and family.
Recounting how her dreams of being an independent working woman were shattered when she had to flee Kabul, she reveals she didn’t even have the time to pack her bags. Having fled with just a laptop, a damaged charger, and Elif Shafak’s novel Forty Rules of Love – she was evacuated to Kyiv on 22 August 2021.
“I have four siblings and only people who were on evacuation lists were able to escape. When my boss called me and asked me to rush to the airport, I didn’t have the time to say goodbyes to my family. I am working on bringing them to Europe, when I find a home, a good job, and a country to settle down."Roya, with hopes that she can find a country in the EU to call home.
'Was Whipped By a Talib When I Was Fleeing'
“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.
“My family is still in Herat. I had no intention of leaving Afghanistan. Even on the morning of 15 August, I didn’t know at night I would be at the terminal. We were sent back by the Taliban. When they were trying to make people leave the airport, a Talib whipped me. People were looting shops, destroying chairs at the airport, fighting. I clutched on to my bag and hid in a corner so no one touched me. Finally, on 21 August, after waiting outside the airport for hours, we managed to board a flight. The US marines were firing in the air to speed up evacuation and I didn’t think twice and just followed the queue until I crossed the checkpoint of the list of names held up by NATO Army personnel.”
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.
Roya's Struggle To Make a Living in Ukraine
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.
After receiving a temporary humanitarian visa, Roya started her new life in Kyiv, where she made new friends and built new connections. She found solace in a group of Ukrainian friends who had to flee their homes in Crimea, and shared a connection with her.
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.
When Roya Knew She Had To Flee, Again
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.
“My birthday, 23 February, was the last safe day in Kyiv. There was an eerie silence in the air. I left the city and moved to Lviv after my friends urged me to. The next morning I got messages and calls from my friends that Kyiv got attacked. I woke up to sirens in Lviv and didn’t know what to do. I asked a friend and she asked me to go the basement of a temporary shelter. I spent two hours there. The whole afternoon I was searching for cash from Western Union but to no avail,” she recounts.
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.”
Finding a Mother in Warsaw
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.
“My friends picked up refugees from the border and they called me to ask me if I would take a young girl in who had fled two countries in six months, I had never hosted a refugee before, but as a mother, my heart broke for Roya. It’s been two weeks she’s here, and she’s my daughter now,” says Kerry who joins us for a cup of Afghan chai and some biscuits she brought along from the UK.
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.
'I Am Much More Than the War'
Talking about her hardships, Roya ascertains that her life is more than just escaping the Taliban’s violence or Putin’s attack.
“It's true that I went through many hardships. But my story is not a story of war, it’s not a story of struggles, it’s not Taliban’s story or Putin’s story – I have so much more to tell. I am my ambitions, I am my educational journey, I’m my career. I’m the connections that I have made, I’m the cultures that I have explored; and these are the stories that I have to tell, rather than war and misery.”
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:
“I’m tired of war. It has taken so many people dear to me. I can’t afford to lose more. I hope nothing happens to my Ukrainian friends and this torture and madness end soon.”
(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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