Doha, Qatar – At the door to apartment 21 of a nondescript residential compound in the Qatari capital, Doha, a quiet Afghan woman greeted Al Jazeera and ushered us in out of the summer heat to tell her story.
She, her husband, and their three children are among the hundreds of Afghans who have found shelter in Doha after fleeing the Taliban.
Apologising that the room was not as tidy as she would have liked, she introduced us to her husband who was already putting fruit and water out for the guests. She asked to be identified as “Mariam” to conceal her identity.
In Afghanistan, Mariam was an access and representation advocate for people with disabilities – especially women – working with various NGOs. Her husband was a dentist. He showed Al Jazeera pictures on his phone of his patients, dramatic before and after shots of smiles.
As Mariam’s family watched province after province fall to the Taliban, their fear grew. One morning, she woke up and put out breakfast as usual, but fear had pushed her to the breaking point and the family made a dash to Kabul airport. The food sat, untouched, on the table.
They spent three days trying to enter Kabul airport, which was chaotic and teeming. Mariam had the necessary documentation and knew their names were on an evacuation list but had to plead with Taliban fighters near the airport to let them through to get on a flight to Doha.
Dual evacuation efforts
Qatar has taken on a crucial role in two evacuation processes out of Afghanistan since the Taliban overran the country about a week ago and Kabul airport was flooded with thousands desperate to flee.
Many fear the Taliban’s hardline interpretation of Islamic law, some lived through Taliban Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and are risking everything to escape so they do not have to again.
As part of a US-led and managed process, Qatar is temporarily accommodating 6,000 Afghans in its Al Udeid and As Sayliyah military bases until the US can resettle them.
The second process is a Qatari effort to bring Afghan refugees to Doha; most will likely be resettled in another country.
Applicants are screened in Qatar’s embassy in Kabul, which remains open, and those who complete the process receive clearance to travel to Doha.
So far, about 800 people have been processed; most are female students, families with children, or journalists.
The compound Al Jazeera visited has a doctor on-site around the clock, PCR testing, and daily events for kids – with an ice-cream stand that opens every afternoon.
Lolwah Rashid Mohammed Al-Khater, Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, has overseen the plan from the “operation room” in the compound.
“This is a process handled from A to Z; we make sure it is as safe as possible,” al-Khater told Al Jazeera.
“Currently this compound is almost at capacity; it hosts around 500-plus people. We are preparing another compound as a contingency plan, and it’s expected to house even more.”
The brand new compound is one of several built as accommodation for Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Relief and guilt
Despite the relief of getting on a flight to Doha with her family, Mariam feels guilty.
She is already hearing stories of female friends in Afghanistan who were turned away from their workplace by the Taliban and others who fear going out in public under the new rulers.
“The Taliban separate women from society. We cannot have a developed society without the contribution of women,” Mariam said.
“One of my friend’s [Facebook] posts said we [women] died already. All of our rights are gone.”
Mariam fears all the work she has done in Afghanistan will be scrapped now that the Taliban is in power. She insists what the group says in public is different from what it practises on the ground.
“The Taliban have changed, but they are not better,” she said.
“Before they killed people who worked with the government and NGOs. Now they are doing the same thing but not showing the world.”
There have been reports of the Taliban conducting door-to-door searches looking for people who have worked with the previous government or foreign entities.
‘They will do anything to stop confident women’
In another compound block, seven young women in their late teens to early 20s share an apartment. They are among the 167 female students evacuated.
Some met in Doha, others were classmates back home. Three agree to speak on the condition of anonymity, as their families are still trying to leave Afghanistan. They choose the names Grace, Ayshia, and Nimaar.
“We left everything, all of our past, all of our memories,” Grace said. “Everything that we did in the whole 20 years [of our lives] just passed like a second right in front of our eyes.”
The group are strong and confident in speaking of their experiences, something they say the Taliban fears.
Grace said open-minded, educated people pose an indirect threat to the Taliban, and that she would not take their reassurances at face value.
“They will do anything to stop confident women. They are scared of us because we are the generation that grew up in the 21st century,” Grace said.
The young women are eager to discuss their goals and ambitions despite their dinner – delivered 30 minutes ago – sitting on the table getting cold. Most say they want to pursue further education to help themselves and their country.
As our team leaves, we jokingly ask: “So who’s the mother hen of the house? Who keeps you all in check?”
Ayshia responds with a playful smile: “No one, we are all leaders.”