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The Ordinary Americans Resettling Migrants Fleeing War

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The Ordinary Americans Resettling Migrants Fleeing War

On the morning of August 15th, Halima, a twenty-two-year-old engineering student at the Afghan National Defense University, was sitting in her dorm room and studying for a final exam when she heard some girls screaming in the hallway. Taliban fighters had just arrived in Kabul, after the withdrawal of American troops, and were taking over the city. Halima, who is quiet, with delicate features, had grown up in a rural village in southern Afghanistan, where her father taught science at a girls’ school. Like many other young women who joined the Afghan military, she was Hazara, an ethnic and religious minority that has long been persecuted in Afghanistan, including by the Taliban.

Halima was an aspiring artist, but her father had decided that she should become a civil engineer. She had received a full scholarship at the leading military academy in Afghanistan, where, in her third year, she was first in her class of some five hundred students. “There were a few other girls in my engineering class at first,” she told me. “But, by my third year, I was the only one left.” As Taliban fighters approached the university, Halima left her textbook open on her desk and rushed to escape, grabbing only her passport. Her name and photograph were still posted on her dormitory door, which could tip the Taliban off to her identity.

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Halima had nowhere to go; her family lived hours away. “The road was too dangerous,” she told me. “And if the Taliban found out who I was, they would target my family.” She hid in the home of a kindly classmate whose father was out of the country. Soon afterward, another classmate put her in touch with “Mr. Sam” and “Miss Tory,” handlers working with the U.S. military. The handlers directed her to the basement of a house, where she hid with dozens of other women. (Halima requested that I use only her first name, to protect her family.) For the next three months, she was shuttled through a series of windowless safe houses with about eighty other female military personnel, journalists, and activists. Safe-house operators allowed them outside only to be hustled between hiding locations. “When you don’t see the sun for that long, your bones begin to hurt,” she told me, recently. Sometimes the women were crammed into spaces too small to lie down in, so they curled up their knees and leaned against one another to sleep.

Sadiqa Khalili, who was twenty-seven, had passed the entrance exam to become a pilot in the Afghan Air Force and was about to start training. “I sat in the dark, just waiting for the Taliban to come,” she told me. “Everything I’d worked for my whole life had just vanished.” Amena Haidari, twenty-eight, and Halima Akbari, twenty-five, had both worked with Afghan commando units. “We whispered to one another about whether or not we should wipe our phones and destroy our passports,” Akbari told me. For the women’s security, they were instructed not to talk to one another. Taliban fighters were raiding houses, attempting to find unchaperoned girls. The less the women knew about one another, the safer they would be if one were caught. “The Taliban tortures military girls like me,” Halima told me.

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In the darkness, Halima’s phone buzzed with threatening messages from men claiming to be the Taliban fighters who’d raided her dormitory. One sent photos of burning textbooks. “You will never read these again,” he wrote. “We will find you, you shameless girl who joined the military.” She wrote in her diary, “Why is it a crime to be a girl in my country? I’m a poor girl in a land of terror with 1000s of hopes and dreams.” She drew in a sketchpad, and, when the other women saw her talent, several asked Halima to draw their portraits. At night, some women whispered into their phones, letting their families know that they were alive. But Halima’s father had destroyed all photographs of her and deleted her number from his phone. He was frightened that, if she called, one of her younger siblings might overhear and tell other children in the village.

The women soon learned that, of the roughly eighty in hiding, only the few with passports—including Halima, Khalili, Haidari, and Akbari—would be able to leave the country. On November 10th, at a safe house in Kabul, Halima received an encrypted message that instructed her to hand her passport over to the safe-house manager. The manager left for several hours and returned with airplane tickets for the next day. “We’d been told we were leaving so many times that I didn’t know if it was really going to happen,” she said. On November 11th, the four women boarded a flight to a U.S. base in Qatar. A month later, they arrived at a military base called Fort Dix, in New Jersey. At the base, they spent their days learning English, which no one but Halima had studied before. “At night, we listened to music and relaxed, which was really a new level of freedom for us,” Halima said. Some soldiers brought Halima canvases, and she painted portraits of the women who had been left behind.

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The Ordinary Americans Resettling Migrants Fleeing War