Opinion |

'Long Live the Taliban!' The Moment I Realized I'd Become a Refugee

'Leave the office now, go home': The morning the Taliban entered Kabul, I felt like a normal person, on my way to work, making plans to meet friends. Soon my whole world had turned upside down. I had to choose between home and freedom

Maryam Yousufi
Maryam Yousufi
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A girl sits in front of a bakery in the crowd with Afghan women waiting to receive bread in Kabul, Afghanistan in January.
A girl sits in front of a bakery in the crowd with Afghan women waiting to receive bread in Kabul, Afghanistan in January.Credit: ALI KHARA/ REUTERS
Maryam Yousufi
Maryam Yousufi

The morning that the Taliban entered Kabul, I felt like a normal person. I was on my way to the office, like thousands of others, and making plans to meet friends. But by that night, my whole world had turned upside down. I was faced with the choice between my home and my freedom.

Having grown up in an Afghanistan that was striving for democracy and women’s rights, I was a popular blogger and influencer with a young audience, telling a different story about young people and young women in Afghanistan. I felt hopeful about the future and imagined a life in Afghanistan as a writer and broadcaster.

August 15th began like any other day. I said goodbye to my family as I left home and took a taxi to work. Like all Afghans, I had anxiously followed the news that the Taliban were making gains across Afghanistan, but I still felt safe in Kabul. As the taxi drove through the streets, I saw familiar sights – street vendors, people going to work and, as always, people talking about the city, the Taliban and the future.

But all that normality collapsed when I entered my office building. It was almost completely empty. The few people who remained looked concerned and confused.

“Leave the office now and go home,” a colleague urged me as soon as I approached them. Almost simultaneously, I got a text from my sister: “Maryam where are you? Mom says come back home now.”

Maryam Yousufi's documents and photos torn apartCredit: Maryam Yousufi

I felt confused but not yet scared. I opened Facebook and Instagram and noticed posts by people talking about the Taliban and that they were approaching Kabul. I saw messages about the Taliban at the doors of Kabul, entering the city and taking power. Another message said that the Afghan government was finished... Again, the prevailing feeling was confusion. It couldn’t happen, could it?

Despite my disbelief, I decided to go back home so that I could be safe. On the street I saw people running, cars left without drivers and people saying goodbye for the last time. I heard someone say, “Goodbye, my friends, hopefully we can cross paths in the next regime, if we’re still alive.” And to this day I think about it.

On my way home I was shouted at. A group of youth hollered, “What are you wearing? Wait until the Taliban come, then we’ll see if you’re still wearing those un-Islamic clothes.” Another said “Long live the Taliban who will end your freedom.” I felt like the world was closing in on me, that everything was falling apart in front of my eyes.

At home, I opened social media again and I saw hundreds of posts saying the city had fallen to the Taliban. It started to hit me hard. I thought this is it, this is the end of our 20 years of fighting for our country.

Given the Taliban’s extremist views, now on full view for the world, my family was extremely worried about my safety.

My mother, terrified that the Taliban would be looking for me, had removed everything colorful from my room. All of my artwork, colorful clothes and documents were covered or torn up and put into black bags. She insisted that I go to a relative’s house. Seeing how afraid my mother was, I tried to be put on a brave face to keep her calm. I took some photos of my home as a memory before I left.

Jawed's story

That first day the Taliban arrived, everyone rushed to the airport. I opened my Instagram and Facebook and just watched those horrific scenes that were taking place at the airport. You would have seen those scenes too. The chaos was overwhelming. I received text messages asking if I would try to leave the country. But even as everything seemed to be getting worse and worse, I still had hope that something might change and that everything would go back to normal.

But when my friend wrote to me saying that she had left Afghanistan, the little hope that I had was gone. I had lost everything and had nothing left to live for in my own country.

After a week of shock and uncertainty I was evacuated on August 24th to the United States.

Maryam Yousufi in happier times at a fabric shop in KabulCredit: Maryam Yousufi

It's been nearly a year since those awful days. I’m now safe in the U.S. but that summer has left scars that will never be erased. I am no longer the lively, energetic, optimistic girl I was. I was always positive and hopeful for a brighter and better future for my country. But now that future seems like a passing dream, so remote I can’t relate to it anymore. I don’t know when I will be able to go back home.

As a refugee, I see so many negative stories about people who are forced to leave their home. People think that it’s a free choice and that people come to exploit the countries where they seek asylum, but nothing could be further from the truth. People leave because they have no choice at all.

I want to continue my work as a storyteller bringing attention to the issues that affect young people, particularly young refugees. That’s why I am telling my story for Sada and sharing with the world why I was forced to leave everything I had built and valued behind. I am raising my voice to tell my story.

Maryam Yousufi escaped Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban takeover and now lives in the U.S.

Her story is one of those shared in SADA – a digital storytelling project about the emotional challenges of displacement, told by refugees, launched by Amna an organization that helps communities manage the insecurity, stress, and arising from conflict and forced displacement.

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