We're ending our Afghanistan series today with a first-person account of a teenage girl who, until very recently, lived under Taliban rule. She was banned from school and, because her father worked with the U.S. government, her family had to go into hiding. This is her story of fighting for her education and her life.
I've had the privilege of speaking with Setare from her new home in Canada. She is brave, bright and a voice of hope for girls in her country and around the world. I am honored to present her story.
It’s very interesting to write about your life. There are lots of forgotten and unforgettable memories that come back to you. You will be happy with some and sad for others.
Before I was old enough to go to school, I had the same life as every other child. But my parents were educated and made me learn the English and Persian alphabet, which was not typical for other girls my age.
One day my father took me for admission to first grade in private school. They said, “She is too young and we can’t accept her.” My father told them, “Please ask her some questions. If she can't answer, then we will come back next year.” They asked me some questions about the Persian alphabet, so I sang the alphabets in a rhythm that I learned from my parents. They said, “You were very good at it.” I replied, “I know English, too.” Soon I was admitted to first grade.
Two years of school passed like a wind. I loved school and made friends in my classes. In the middle of third grade, my father’s job relocated from Herat to Kabul so I started at a new school there. It was a little more difficult for me, but I worked hard and graduated to fifth grade.
Because of security issues, my parents decided to temporarily move our family to India and so I changed schools again. This time, I gained admittance to an English-based private school, which meant I was able to improve my English quickly. After almost three years in India, we came back to Afghanistan. This time my parents and I agreed to join a public school instead of a private one.
COVID-19 affected Afghan schools a lot. For almost one year, schools were closed and there were no online classes available. Still, I wanted to study more English so my parents found a good academy for me.
In July 2021, the war started — the Taliban on one side and the government and Mujahidin on the other. Schools closed because of the risks of attacks. The school principal received several warnings from groups related to the Taliban to close our school and ban girls from attending. The Taliban began to gain power over different areas in Afghanistan. If they came to where we were and took over the government, they would make the same rules as they implemented 20 years ago.
After the Taliban took control of the government, bad days started. My father couldn’t go outside because he had a background of working with the U.S. government. We lived in the area of Herat that connected the west to the center of the city. Directly outside of our house, there was a Taliban checkpoint, operating 24 / 7. My father had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) in January 2020. He was waiting for a call to arrange our evacuation flight from Kabul. But the call never came.
My father started selling our furniture to cover the daily expenses., “When can we buy furniture back again?,” I asked. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine soon,” he answered.
In September 2021, when the school year started again, we were shocked to learn that the Taliban prohibited girls in grades 7-12 from going to school. Girls who were studying with hopes of pulling their families out of poverty or making Afghanistan a better country now had to sit at home without any education. They had dreams to change the world, but the world changed their dreams.
I was in tenth grade by this time and it was unbearable. Before the Taliban took control, I used to be very active, spending most of the day outside, studying at school. I loved to learn, but now my life was completely changed. I had to be at home mostly. Shopping became my responsibility because my mother was ill and it was not safe for my father to go out. I felt like a bird inside a cage.
At that time, my father was more active on Twitter because he couldn’t go out. One day there was a Tweet from one of the famous activists about schools in Afghanistan and the situation of girls. My father wrote the first comment on that post and mentioned that his daughter was in the tenth grade and she was at home, wondering why girls cannot go to school when education is a human right.
A producer for BBC radio messaged us in response and asked to interview us about the girls’ education ban. We agreed even though it wasn’t safe to do so. WhatsApp and other social media sites weren’t so secure in Afghanistan. But we agreed hoping that our interview will help bring attention to our SIV case and we will get the call for the second evacuation. Half an hour later, a BBC reporter called and spoke to me and my father. The next day the piece was on their website.
We weren’t positive that this plan would work for us or not, but a few days later, we got a message from a BBC employee saying that the United Nations requested to play a part of the interview on UN TV and they needed our permission due to copyright law. We said yes.
A week later, in the middle of night we got a call, telling us: “You have to arrange to reach Kabul tomorrow, because the day after tomorrow is going to be your flight to a country in Africa.”
It was very difficult to get out of the house and it was impossible to get out of the country. Still we packed until morning, even though we weren’t able to take most of our valuable things with us and somehow we managed to get the flight tickets. We reached Herat Airport by changing our appearance. When we were inside the airport, I was feeling sad that I couldn’t say goodbye to my friends. I couldn’t even call them until we got out of the country, because there were chances that they recorded the phone calls and tracked us. We finally arrived in Kabul.
The flight was postponed due to some issue with the Taliban. We had to stay in Kabul for one week and were told the next available flight was arranged, but would depart from Mazar-e-Sharif not Kabul. We got three options for where to stay until our visas were processed: UAE, Tajikistan or Albania. We chose Albania.
Getting to Mazar-e-Sharif was the next challenge. On the eighth day in Kabul, we got the flight tickets and made a fake reason for going to Mazar-e-Sharif, in case we got asked. One of the Taliban outside Kabul International Airport asked us, “Why are you going to Mazar-e-Sharif?” My father tried to hide his fear, “We are going to attend a friend’s wedding.” My mother and I were shaking with fear that we might look suspicious. We got out of the car for the first security check and I saw one of the Taliban checking a person’s cell phone. It was our luck that my father’s phone was with me and they never asked a woman for the phone. It’s a shame for them even to speak to women. Fortunately, we passed all the security checks safely and we got the boarding pass and felt a bit relieved. We had safely reached Mazar-e-Sharif by using a fake story about a non-existent wedding party for a non-existent friend. We stayed there for three days in a safe place.
October 13, 2021, our family and 352 other people — NGO workers, women's rights activists and former government employees — boarded our flight. I was looking at my parents, amazed. I couldn’t believe that we were getting out of the country.
At that time, I was just happy that I could leave with my family, although I was bothered by the feeling that I was leaving all our relatives, grandparents, classmates, friends and birthplace behind in a bad situation. I was wondering, "What if we aren't able to come back one day?"
We arrived in Albania in the middle of night. It wasn’t clear how long it would take for the U.S. to process our visa. My mother’s health was worsening and because Albania’s healthcare system wasn’t good, we chose Canada as our final destination. It would be faster than waiting to move to the U.S. After almost four months of stay in Albania, we finally had our flight to Canada on February 22, 2022.
After a 14-day quarantine and COVID-19 vaccinations, we stayed for 20 days in a hotel. During this period of time, I did a second interview with BBC radio. Whenever I watched videos or read the news, I got so emotional, remembering the days that I was suffering from the same situation. In the second interview, I shared two main messages:
First, I told the girls of Afghanistan: “I know it is a difficult time, but please don’t lose hope. Fight for yourself. If you raise your voice, I and each and every person outside the country will join you. You are not alone now.”
The second message was directed to all countries: “Please don’t recognize the Taliban as a government, they are just liars. They are lying that they are working on schools. They are doing nothing except sitting on their hands, enjoying themselves as they watch the country break.”
On April 1, 2022, we moved to our rented house, and my mother started her treatment. After a few days, my brother and I took an English assessment to enroll in school. We started at our new school on April 20, 2022. The education system is new for us, but we have started getting used to it.
I have decided that no matter which field I study, I am also going to continue supporting girls in any way I can. I hope that Afghanistan will be free as soon as possible and I will be able to go there and help those in need.
Thanks for reading my story. To be continued…
— Setare Golzari
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cover photo credit: Setare Golzari