Afghan refugees in the United States have been watching in despair as heavily armed Taliban fighters take control of the country they left behind.
Seven Afghans and Afghan Americans spoke to The Washington Post about following the fall of their homeland from afar. They shared memories of war and foreign invasion, oppression under Taliban rule, the promise of democracy and freedom, and the excruciating pain of watching their nation plunge into turmoil once again.
Somaye Sarvarzade was a month-old baby when her mother carried her on the back of a motorcycle as they fled Herat in western Afghanistan, across the border with Iran and into the city of Mashhad. She would live there for the next 20 years.
The Soviet-backed Afghan communist government had forced her family out of their home, using it to host Soviet officials, Somaye said.
In 2008, seven years after the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban government, her family went back to Afghanistan. With the promise of democracy came hope for women, she said. She started working with UNICEF to help bring education to remote areas and became a living example that higher education (including a master’s degree from Stanford University), a career and a life of her own was possible.
That sense of possibility was wiped out in a matter of days after the Taliban took control of major cities, including her hometown of Herat, where her cousins told her they were not allowed into the university on Saturday, she said.
Speaking from Virginia, where Somaye and her husband fled in 2020 after she said they received threats from the Afghan government, the now 36-year-old said no one factor led to this moment.
“It’s Pakistan funding and harboring the Taliban, it’s the U.S. withdrawal, it’s Iran, it’s the Afghan corrupt government, the president leaving without a fair explanation to our people, it’s the media forgetting about Afghanistan after two weeks like they did in 2001,” she said.
“Everyone failed Afghanistan,” she added. “Everyone failed the people.”
Somaye said she is terrified for the safety of her mother, who is in her 60s and lives in Herat, and her brothers in Kabul.
“She lived through all of that trauma and now she has to live it all over again, and it’s so unfair,” she said, sobbing.
Born to Afghan parents in New York City, Aisha Wahab was elected to the city council in Hayward, Calif., in 2018.
As Afghans in the Bay Area frantically look for ways to assist those back home, she is helping organize protests, vigils and fundraisers for people to send money to Afghanistan.
But equally important is “to make sure elected officials in [the House] and the Senate are held accountable to the promise they made to the Afghan people,” she said, referring to vows to expedite special visas for eligible Afghan allies and offer humanitarian aid.
As an Afghan American, Aisha feels proud of her roots.
“Knowing where you come from, you will always feel a certain connection to your ethnicity and your roots,” she said. “I am an American, but that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy and celebrate Afghan culture, heritage — and the beauty of this country is that we all come from somewhere.”
Rather than criticizing the U.S. withdrawal of its troops (at some point, the United States had to go, she said), Aisha described its execution as “disorganized and disappointing,” and argued that the Taliban takeover was a long time coming.
“We knew this was inevitable, but we still have a role to play,” she said.
Bashir Sadat still remembers the lush garden his parents built over the years at their home in Istalif, a small village about 25 miles north of Kabul. He lights up remembering the pear trees, the flowers and the cherry trees.
Surrounded by verdant orchards and grapevines, Istalif is known for its picturesque views and turquoise pottery. But in 1998, the Taliban sacked and burned the village, driving thousands of people out of their homes.
Bashir’s home was pillaged and the family’s cherished garden was destroyed.
Bashir, now 29, arrived in the United States in 2017 to do a Ph.D. in education and technology at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania after the Taliban attempted to kidnap him, he said.
On Monday, he stood outside the White House holding a white sign with a single word in Persian: traitors.
Words failed him when he tried to describe the moment he saw images of the Taliban sweeping into the Afghan capital, where his eight brothers and three sisters recently fled to and are currently in hiding.
“It’s like you are watching the people you love the most in the world from afar and they are staring at the future, and there’s nothing but a big, black void,” he said in tears. “There is no hope.”
For more than four decades, Rona Popal has worked with Afghan refugees in the United States, becoming a firsthand witness to the thousands who have fled their nation’s violence.
Born and raised in Kabul, she and her husband moved to New York City when she was 19.
In 1996, when the Taliban first took power, she founded the Afghan Coalition, a nonprofit organization that offers social services, legal counsel and mental health services to the Afghan American community in Fremont, Calif.
She now expects another exodus to arrive, which she admits makes it difficult to feel hope for her country, and easier to feel rage and disappointment.
“I see history repeating itself and can’t do anything about it because the Afghan government, the United States, the international community, the Taliban, they all had a plan,” she said, “but they all left the people vulnerable and in the dark.”
Unanswered questions surrounding the decisions that led to the fall of Kabul and the country keep her awake at night.
“Why did the U.S. stay for 20 years?” she asks. “Why did everyone just leave? Why?”
Arash Yaqin, 43, pointed at the protesters outside the White House holding the tricolor black, red and green Afghan flag and somberly said, “That is no longer our flag.” The Taliban uses a white banner with a black inscription of the shahada, the Arabic term for the declaration of faith in Allah.
Born in Afghanistan, Arash fled the civil war in 1991 and lived as a refugee in Russia and Europe for two decades. In 2009, he returned to Kabul with the dream of helping rebuild his country and being part of “the big development train,” he said with a sardonic grin.
He worked as a United Nations capacity-building adviser for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and later as a senior cultural adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Arash came to the United States in 2016 with his wife on a special immigrant visa for Afghans. He is now a graduate student and researcher at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of national security, intelligence and international affairs.
The collapse of the country was not surprising, he said, but rather an expected result of “missed policies and strategies.”
But the efforts to rebuild the country and promote democracy hand-in-hand with the United States and the international community didn’t do enough to help those who suffered the most from the nation’s turmoil, he said.
“We focused on the elites, on the successes in urban development, but we lost the hearts and the minds of the people,” he said. “Our eyes were set in the future, probably forgetting what was happening around us.”
“In this blame game, we have to blame ourselves too,” he added.
Music was his ticket out.
Baset Azizi’s talent for playing the trumpet led the now 21-year-old to pursue a formal musical education in the United States. He left Afghanistan to join the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan when he was 16.
But leaving is never easy, he said.
Baset was born in 1999, during the first Taliban rule. Memories of his childhood include lying underneath the tables of his first-grade classroom as glass scattered all over notebooks. His school was in front of the Ministry of the Interior — a constant Taliban target for bombing.
Currently a student at the University of Kansas, he studies political science, international studies and music. He is also an intern for Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kan.) and said he is “passionate about public service and helping people understand both the East and the West.”
When his relatives and friends told him Kabul had fallen, he was so shocked he couldn’t eat or sleep for days, he said.
His father has worked in the army most of his life and with American troops, which Baset worries puts his parents and three sisters in Kabul in great danger, so he is trying to help them get out.
“I am hopeful they will be safe,” he said. “If I can’t be hopeful for them, then it is a game over.”
Life in America is good — different, but good. Muzhgan Hakimi no longer has to walk 45 minutes to get to school and endure harassment for pursuing an education. “You are a girl, you should be home!” she remembers men yelling at her. And then there were the bombs. The fear that would never go away.
Four years ago, she and her parents and four siblings fled the relentless violence in Afghanistan and came to the United States. She was 12 years old.
They resettled in Alexandria, Va., a destination she didn’t know much about but that would soon become the place where she learned what being safe feels like.
Now 16, Muzhgan loves playing soccer. She loves ultimate Frisbee even more. What she likes most, though, is the freedom to have a hobby.
When the news arrived of major Afghan cities falling to the Taliban, that sense of security vanished, she said.
“Now I don’t feel safe anymore because my people are starving and suffering,” the high school student said this week, standing outside the White House, where she joined hundreds of other protesters.
“I feel broken,” she said with tears streaming down her soft eyes, an Afghan flag draped around her shoulders. “But all of us who are here, are not ready to give up, even if our parents have.”
The Washington Post’s Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.