We often hear politicians, academics and “experts” talking about women’s rights in Afghanistan. But the most authentic voices are of the Afghan women themselves. A woman with a truly compelling and moving story is Sarah Ahmadi, a former TV presenter and producer in Afghanistan who had to flee her country when the Taliban made it too dangerous to for her to stay there. She now lives in the northeast of England, where with great courage and perseverance she has rebuilt her life to the point where she now helps others who flee to the United Kingdom to escape the desperate circumstances in their home countries.
Ahmadi, who started in radio at age 8 as a presenter on a children’s programme in her home city of Kabul, went on after university to become a well known face on national Afghan TV. For sixteen years all went well with her life and career until the early 1990s, when the Mujahideen took over Kabul. They moved immediately to destroy the TV station and Ahmadi, like her terrified colleagues, stayed at home fearing her safety. Then a Mujahideen missile hit her apartment block; she and her husband raced to help their upstairs neighbour, a doctor.
“My hands and my husband’s hands were covered with his blood,” she recalled. They rushed him to hospital but he died leaving a widow and two young children. “I will never forget that — he died in front of my eyes,” she said.
Ahmadi and her husband, sitting shell-shocked with their small children in their partially destroyed home, realised that it was no longer safe to remain in Kabul. They couldn’t even find food in the city. “My husband used to go out and stand in a queue for two hours just to buy bread — there was nothing else to buy,” she recalled. “We didn’t eat for days — we just gave the bread to our children,” she added.
They decided to try and leave Afghanistan. They hired a bus and headed north with four other families; the intention was to go to Tajikistan and make their way to Russia and then onwards to Europe. But when they got to Baghlan Province in the north-east, they were recognised by the authorities in the north — as Ahmadi was a well-know TV personality. They were persuaded to stay by Said Mansoor Nadiri, a prominent leader in the province, who offered them a place to live and provided for their needs. Ahmadi had the opportunity to continue her work as a TV producer and presenter. She presented a programme on local TV channel, Pulikhomri TV, called “Woman”, which proved very popular.
“Baghlan was a small province and people welcomed me as a well known national TV presenter. It was a very positive experience,” she remembered.
Then, six years later, fate caught up with her family again: the Taliban captured the capital of Baghlan. They set about imposing their ruthless control over society. “They burnt down the TV station and we stayed at home for four days. We were scared — day by day and street by street came the Taliban,” she recalled. “All men were ordered to grow beards; women were not allowed to go to school; TV was banned,” she said. Once again the family was in jeopardy and had to find a way out.
Ahmadi was especially vulnerable as she was a strong advocate for education of women. “If I had stayed there they would have killed me,” she said.
In desperation, her husband turned to people smugglers. The family had savings of about $18,000 (Dh66,060), which they kept at home because there were no banks. But they didn’t have enough money to get all family members out of the country. So they decided that Ahmadi would try to get out, to be followed by her husband and three children.
“I covered myself in a burqa and with nothing but the clothes on my back, said goodbye to my family and stepped into a car driven by two male smugglers. I had been told beforehand not to ask them any questions. They warned me that if I asked questions, they would kill me,” she said.
After a long and exhausting journey, she ended up stepping out of a lorry outside the Home Office in London. When she got out, she was told that she was on her own and must find her own way. She was pointed towards the door and she went into the Home Office building and stood with hundreds of other people seeking help. She knew no English and signalled her plight through sign language.
Ahmadi was then interviewed through an interpreter and put up in a hotel in Croydon, South London. “When I arrived for a few days I couldn’t eat and I cried and cried and cried. I missed my children — my youngest child was just two years old,” she recalled.
She stayed at the hotel until she was told that she and 25 other women were to be sent to Sunderland in the North-East of the country. She had hoped to stay in London where she thought there would be more work opportunities but was told that this was not possible. So on February 28, 2002, she found herself on a bus making her way to Sunderland where six weeks later she received a visa and began to rebuild her life.
She said that she was lucky as some people wait years to have their cases resolved and some of the women who travelled with her to Sunderland were deported.
Ahmadi’s courage is truly inspirational. She went to a nearby church where she met an Iranian man who advised her about the steps she should take to apply for housing and government allowances. She enrolled in college and focused on learning English and also attended courses to gain computer skills.
She took a job washing dishes in a pizza shop so that she could be self-sufficient. As her English improved she attended university, and through her efforts found a new job using her newly acquired skills. Incredibly, she also found the energy to set up in 2004 an organisation, the Afghan British Association, to help other immigrants.
Her husband had fled with the children to Peshawar, Pakistan. “I sent money to support them, but for six months I had no communication with them because it was impossible,” she said.
Then in 2007 she founded United Community Action, a not-for-profit organisation supported by Sunderland Council, which works on behalf of asylum seekers. The family was finally reunited in the UK in 2011. Her children are doing well in their studies in the UK and her husband has found employment.
From her direct experience, Ahmadi has a clear message. No government should negotiate with the Taliban until they have secured from the Taliban leadership unequivocal agreements to respect the rights of women with regard to their access to education and work and other civil and personal freedoms.
“Their policy is no work, no study, no classes, all the people just going to study in the mosques to read the Quran, all men with beards, all women covered with burqas and not allowed to go out without their husbands or brothers,” she said. “If governments want to negotiate with the Taliban they should ask the Taliban to change their policies and then we will see,” she said.
Ahmadi also sees it as imperative that a contingent of NATO forces should remain in Afghanistan after the drawdown of troops next year to provide a measure of security to people who fear that hard won rights could easily be trampled underfoot under the new regime.
She said that for women the situation has improved in Afghanistan in recent years but these gains could very easily be reversed.
– Denise Marray is an independent writer based in London