September 30, 2022

‘We Are the Flour Between Two Millstones’

5 min read

We have a saying in Afghanistan: people live by their sorrows, not by their years.

A year after evacuating Kabul when the Taliban overran the city I called home for nearly a decade, these words come back every time I look at my face in the mirror. My hair is gray, my forehead lines are deep. When I send my photos to my mother, who still lives in Afghanistan, she writes, “What did you do to yourself?”

The morning of August 15, 2021 started as a normal work day, but within hours my family and I had to pack our lives into a few bags and leave the country. We left everything behind, from diaries to books to family photos.

My life and the lives of millions of other Afghans were turned upside down.

We are still trying to understand what happened. Our physical selves are the most visible reminder of how our lives changed so suddenly that summer day—a reminder that we still exist even though we feel so alien in these new lands that call home. There is nothing like what we ran away from.

I am currently in the United States, and although I am physically safe, my mental health is anything but. Everything is very different here, and I have no idea how most things work: Where do I park my car? How do I pay my bills? And, by the way, how does American health insurance work?

As we boarded the heavily loaded American cargo plane that seemed to scream as it took off from Kabul International Airport, the American soldiers on board told us where to sit but failed to tell us how much our lives were on the line. It will be difficult.

So now I need to work hard to avoid paying my rent, otherwise I won’t be able to rent again. Did you know they check your credit score when you rent a house or car? But when you’re brand new to the country, you don’t have it.

A sense of loneliness creeps up on me, and I think it might be here for a while. Life in America seems to be centered on the individual. The people I see walking around the streets are happy with themselves. They don’t have such big families in Afghanistan. They don’t see their relatives as much as we do. They seem too busy – too busy to make a meaningful connection with someone like me.

In Afghanistan, there are greeting customs that everyone follows before actually interacting. “How are you? How’s your family? How’s your work going?” We always laughed about it in Kabul, but now I miss it so much.

It was a year of troubles, worries and sorrows for many Afghans. And with an almost palpable distance between my new American neighbors and myself, I reached out to my Afghan friends scattered around the world.

They, like me, invested so much in a government and a way of life that we never expected America to go after it after it fell or the Taliban shut down.

When I asked my friends how they were doing a year after we ran away, their answers made me cry. I was never known as an emotional person, and almost always prided myself on being silly. Even when I was a baby, my parents took me to the doctor because I never cried.

But now, almost no one I know in Afghanistan or outside the country is doing well.

And I cry. Often.

Khalid Abdi, a school friend of mine, was leading a huge project for Afghanistan’s state-owned electricity company. He was doing very well in his career before the Taliban took over.

Despite receiving several offers to work abroad, he preferred to stay in Afghanistan. But last month he told me he had lost everything after the new Taliban government canceled the project.

Khalid is still in Afghanistan. He finds no way to go.

“I might be 100 years old,” he said. “I can’t sleep for days and nights, I’m mentally destroyed.”

There is no life and no future in Afghanistan, there is total darkness.

Arooj Hakimi, a former journalist with Reuters in Kabul who fled to the West, faces similar problems. “I have worked very hard and devoted a decade of my life to freedom of expression,” he told me. “But with the Taliban taking over, I lost everything. It’s so painful, it’s not possible to describe it in words.”

Oroj, 33, said she had aged a lot in the past year. Immediately after the fall of Kabul, the grief of the destruction of Afghanistan was evident on his face. She said the streaks of gray hair seemed to grow overnight, and when she FaceTimed with friends and relatives, they kept changing her face.

She lived in Kabul, and ate dinner around the same table in her parents’ house with her mother, father, siblings and often extended family. But now his fans are scattered in three different countries. “My sisters are stuck in Afghanistan, my parents are in Pakistan and I am in another corner of the world.”

Oroj first experienced refugee life as a child in the 1990s. His father was employed by the Soviet-backed government, and was forced to leave Afghanistan when the Taliban took power in 1996. Last summer, he again had to seek refuge in the same country, Pakistan.

“The last year feels like a hundred years to me,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot and I’ve lost a lot.”

A lot of friends I talked to felt the same way. As the stories add up, I can’t help but think of another saying that we have in Afghanistan: We are flour between two millstones.

I shudder to think of my generation being reduced to powder, caught between the problems of being refugees and watching the Taliban destroy the country we grew up in.

But for now, all we can do is wake up, look at ourselves in the mirror, and hope that today will be better, if only a little.

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