By S.W. Rotary Peace Fellow

Life under the harsh and brutal rule of a terrorist Taliban junta is filled with severe risks and challenges for a peacebuilder, human rights and women’s rights activist, and a professor who teaches modern studies. Born and raised in a war zone, I, Saleem (my anonymous name) was highly enthusiastic about studying abroad to help transform the war-torn society into a more peaceful one, ensuring that everyone, including women and men, girls and boys, can access their basic legal rights to education and work. For that reason, I pursued opportunities to study peace, conflict analysis, and development studies at prestigious Asian and US universities through prestigious international scholarships.

In 2014, while completing my Fulbright fellowship at one of the most prestigious US universities, my relatives and close friends insisted that I stay in the US as a refugee. However, I had a completely different goal for myself and my country. At that time, I believed that living and working in my country could help thousands of young women and men have access to education and employment, as I have achieved. In addition to being a university professor, I have had the opportunity to work within Afghan civil society, focusing on human rights, women’s rights, education development, and peacebuilding. Working on these critical issues has always been risky and filled with sacrifices, and I am no exception. For instance, I lost relatives and colleagues who served, especially economically disadvantaged families who were victims of war.

Losing friends and loved ones never marks the end of my story of struggles; instead, it gives me further strength. This is because I believe in the principles of the republic, democracy, and the rule of law. Even before the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with its critical security situation, my brave colleagues and I were busy organizing conferences and events to foster hope and optimism while celebrating important international days. Unfortunately, we were often overlooked, and there was a fear that Afghanistan would return to the 1990s when the Taliban ruled the country, and education was banned for girls, there was no freedom of expression, and many other basic rights were denied.

I remember I was sitting in my office with an open window on the third floor of a commercial plaza in the heart of the city, finalizing the revised draft of a technical proposal for a women’s empowerment project, when my team and I heard the news of the collapse of an eastern province (Kunar, Afghanistan). Meanwhile, listening to the spontaneous speech of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who said, “Things are under our control,” still gave us hope, as war had become a common part of our daily lives in Afghanistan. To be more cautious and extra careful, I moved to Kabul the night before it completely fell into the hands of the Taliban.

On August 14, 2021, early in the morning around 4:20 AM, as I got up for the Fajir Prayer, local media channels were announcing the victory of the Taliban. In fact, they entered the city just before the President left the presidential palace for an unknown destination using Presidential Palace Security (PPS) helicopters, considered the riskiest flight. With the departure of the president, hopes for a bright future in Afghanistan also departed. Since then, I have lived in hiding, frequently changing my location and staying away from my family. As a husband, a responsible father to two kids, and a responsible brother to four sisters and four brothers, I can no longer support their education and basic needs. I used to support my brothers and sisters in pursuing higher education, especially my sisters, so they could access quality higher education. My sisters were able to pursue undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and computer education, which are now exceedingly rare or impossible in current-day Afghanistan.

Living under a constant high-security threat for the past year and a half, I have reached out to all my previous employers, requesting relocation and emergency evacuation. For various reasons, these efforts did not yield tangible results, but they did provide essential moral and ethical support. Luckily, on January 5, 2023, I was contacted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) with the opportunity to relocate to a third country with legal documentation, including passports and valid visas. However, this relief was accompanied by the challenge of securing visas for my family. The process was marred by an exploitative and inhumane black market where a visa, legally issued for 8 USD (a process that took 40 working days with over an 80% refusal rate), was available for 1000 USD.

Now, far from where I grew up, I’m holding onto the hope of a better tomorrow. Every day blends memories of home with new experiences. As a teacher and someone who’s always tried to make a difference, I’ve been surprised by financial troubles I didn’t expect. But I’m staying strong, believing in better days to come, God willing (Inshahallah). I want to make a positive impact here, with the same energy I’ve always had.

 

At U4C, we are truly moved by SW’s unwavering spirit and commitment to forge positive change amidst adversity. His story is a beacon of inspiration, reminding us of the power of maintaining hope and making an impact, even in challenging times. We stand in solidarity with SW, drawn together by his resilience and enduring optimism. Together, we’re more than just a support network; we’re a community of inspired individuals, eager to amplify the light SW has kindled and to illuminate the path toward a brighter future for all.

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