Listen to this story:
On August 15, 2021, the Taliban took over Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, and retook control of the country after nearly 20 years. Tens of thousands of people have since fled, fearing a possible return to the harsh rule of the 1990s, when women were not allowed to go to school or work. But some are determined to stay. Thirty-eight-year-old Nadima’s family fled Afghanistan when she was a baby. As an adult, she returned. Now, despite fears and uncertainty, she refuses to leave again. This is her story in her own words.
I spoke to my cousins who are here in Afghanistan and have little girls; they are really scared. It made me very emotional, but I am OK.
I am not going anywhere.
I am not going to f*****g leave under any circumstances.
I was born here, I will be buried here.
I will tell you why. This pattern of running away has to be broken.
I cannot speak for everybody. I tried to tell some of my foreign Afghans that we are here to stay and they got so upset that they blocked me. It made me feel very alone.
My parents left Afghanistan in 1984 when I was one years old. They ran away, desperately in pain. My mum has told me stories of how she went through the mountains, running to Pakistan, with dogs running after them and she had blisters on her feet. They did not eat for days. They were scared, they even got robbed.
I was a baby back then, crying to be breastfed and my mum did not know what to do to comfort me.
I could never relate to the stories my mum shared of that time, even though I could understand and empathise. I would get sad for my mum because she would be so emotional.
It is hard to believe she was telling me these stories just 10 years ago. The first time she shared her experience of fleeing to Pakistan was when we first emigrated to Canada in 1999. We had been complaining about our move from Dubai, which had been our home for 14 years.
I was shocked to learn the details of all that my parents had had to endure.
I was 16 then.
My mum smiled and said, “You guys are lucky, you came in a plane, you’re getting food. Do you guys know my story, how I immigrated?”
And she was sad that her home was breaking once more. “I’m tired of moving over and over again,” she said, telling my dad she will never leave Canada again.
Now, I get to witness and experience what she went through all those years.
Friends are sending me food, things they will no longer need, plants they will not be able to look after, asking me to keep them alive.
“Yeah, please take care of my plant, please take care of …,” they say.
Some of the women I have come to know have been giving me their beauty and skincare products that they must have bought overseas, or maybe they got them as gifts.
I watch them leave, one after another.
The other day I had to help a friend pack as she prepared to leave Kabul. It was very sad but I looked at her and said, “You know, isn’t it amazing you’re detoxing, you’re giving khair [charity], you’re helping others now. Look at it this way.”
“It’s true,” she agreed.
“Come on girl, let’s make it fun,” I said, attempting to lighten the mood. “You’re packing, you’re travelling, and you’re going to share your story. You’re not running away, you have to leave because you are in a different situation.”
“You get to give me your food. I’ll have food for a week and I’ll help people that are coming to my home. I’ll tell your name to them. So this is how I’ll remember you in history: that this girl came to me, my good friend, she was leaving, I was helping her pack and she gave me all her nice clothes.”
I tried to comfort her and told her “it’s just things”, but I realised, people have memories attached to things. They have an emotional connection with objects, with gifts given by loved ones. What I see as just things may mean something to someone, even if they do not mean anything to me.
I managed to lift her spirits eventually.
I am still sorting out the stuff that she has left behind for her family and friends, thinking they may find some of these to be of value or of use.
And her relatives who have been coming to collect her possessions, which are now theirs, each has a moment when they tear up as they share a story about her: “Oh she was a good woman. May God reward her with blessings. May her faith get stronger.”
It is interesting to hear how people have been talking about those who have left the country. Instead of saying “may you have success”, they say, “May your imaan [faith] get strong.”
The language makes it sound like a posthumous farewell, with religious undertones, as if those people have not just left, but actually died. The fear of death looms large over my country so I wonder if that has caused this subconscious shift.
My parents want me out of here, but I am no longer that one-year-old they had to flee with, the one who could not speak back then.
I want to break this pattern, or at least try to.
I am going to stay here and wait for my time to speak for what needs to be done in this country. I do not feel right leaving this country for the safety of Canada, which had been my home for 20 years until I moved back to Afghanistan in December 2019. I do not want to be restricted to having just an online presence and doing lives on social media from thousands of miles away.
I do not feel that my message will be as strong once I am gone. So I am here, I can do live social media sessions from Afghanistan, and urge people to stay like I am staying in my country, for my country.
But I also feel a heaviness, a sense of responsibility, especially since some family and friends have decided to stay because I comforted them and convinced them to not leave.
“Listen, don’t go to the airport, you guys are going to get hurt, you have a one-year-old baby. I’m here, if it was that bad I would’ve run away,” I told them.
In my heart, I know it can get bad, but maybe it will get better. Who knows?
But one thing I am certain of is that I am not going to leave and make a decision based on someone’s past trauma, allowing their fears to become mine.
I have never been one to take impulsive steps. I do not make hasty decisions. I have always sat back, reflected, evaluated, looked at the pros and the cons, really weighed up the possibilities – so I am not going to change that now.
I do not follow the herd, I have never been a follower, so I am staying.
*Nadima, known to her followers as her alter ego Patinggala Kakai, is a Pashtun social media influencer focused on spreading the message of unconditional love and advocating for basic human rights for all.