For many New Zealanders, the news pouring out of Afghanistan has been horrifying and unrelenting. But for the 6,000 members of the Afghan community in Aotearoa, the past few weeks have been hard to bear.
An almost imperceptible tremor drifts through the air, a low hum. The deep base builds, slowly at first and then in a rush, until the space is suddenly split by the shrill scream of engines. Looking up, Nisar sees the next plane, then the next, and the next tear across the sky. He lowers his eyes, massaging his head in his hands. The sound washes through him, mingling with the despair and hopelessness that settles more heavily each day. He picks up his phone, WhatsApp still open, and hits dial. It’s the middle of the night where they are, but he knows no one is sleeping. As he gazes towards the airport, metallic facings flashing in the sun, he hears the line click. The sound of his sister’s voice, crossing thousands of kilometres and oceans, connects his home beside Wellington Airport once again to Kabul.
I meet Nisar Samim and his wife Raihana over Zoom from their Wellington home. Nisar, in a crisp navy polo shirt, sits close to the camera, Raihana in a blue-patterned head scarf beside him. Their warmth and carefully controlled stress is evident, despite the sometimes dodgy connection. As our conversation progresses, however, and they talk of their family in Afghanistan, tears become hard to mask.
Refugees, they arrived in Aotearoa with their three young children in 2019, the day after the Christchurch mosque attacks, and five years after their escape from Kabul.
Nisar, 40, is one of many educated individuals in Afghanistan’s diaspora. His family were part of the burgeoning middle class, professionals in healthcare, education, and in the nation’s now defunct army.
During the US occupation, Nisar worked as a videographer and documentary maker. He met “many Kiwis and Aussies” in the years he spent with Nato forces and the humanitarian aid organisation USAID.
A dozen years after the United States-led invasion, pockets of progress were evident in Afghanistan, particularly for women and girls as new legislation on gender discrimination was passed. However, after ballooning to 100,000 troops in 2010, the number of US soldiers began to decline, the Taliban became bolder, and Afghanistan’s middle class were increasingly targets of reprisal.
One day in 2014, one of the deadliest years for civilians in Afghanistan, Nisar and a friend were leaving work. Pulling away from the offices in Kabul, they were caught in ricocheting gunfire. As Nisar “took a U-turn and pushed the pedal”, a bullet hit the car, taking paint from the driver’s side door. When he arrived home his father, an officer in the Afghan army, told him of an encounter earlier that day. He had been stopped by strangers and questioned about his son’s work. The unknown men warned him Nisar should stop. Now. It was at that moment, Nisar says, that he realised the bullets weren’t crossfire – chances were, they were meant for him.
A year before these threats, Raihana’s uncle was driving home to Herat when he met a Taliban checkpoint. His family believe they know what happened next. The soldiers searching the car found medical documents, Raihana’s uncle had received treatment for a back injury in Kabul, the whole reason for his trip. The documents, however, were written in English. The soldiers became suspicious – was this man allied with western forces? Raihana’s uncle was shot on the spot. He had five children.
It was this, and the constant feeling of having a gun at your back, Nisar says, that made them leave in 2014. They went to a refugee camp in Indonesia where they “suffered for five years in shelters, starving”, until finally, they arrived in Aotearoa, settling in Wellington. The very next day Nisar applied to have family members at risk of reprisal join them.
Fast forward two years and he and Raihana are listening to messages from these same relatives, still in Kabul, as their lives are once again upended by conflict.
At any hour of the day their mothers, siblings, nieces and nephews will pick up the phone. Sleep right now is fractured and they are too terrified to leave their homes. Less than five kilometres apart, Nisar’s mother and sister have not dared see each other since the Taliban arrived. Instead, they rely on the increasingly shaky internet connection to stay in touch.
Conversations with Raihana’s sister in Herat, one of the first cities to be taken by the Taliban, foreshadowed what was to come for Kabul. The night before the Taliban breached the city gates, Nisar and Raihana wired money to family there. Only hours later the banks were shut. Frantic, Nisar says he called every member of his family, repeatedly, until he heard their voices. Thankfully, all were safe and locked down, and a few days later, New Zealanders were in a lockdown of their own.
For weeks now, they have been in daily contact with family. Nisar and Raihana say being together has helped. Before the outbreak Nisar would abandon work, coming home to comfort Raihana after distressing updates. Now, the support is constant, but so is the fear, and there are fewer distractions. Even the jet traffic of Wellington airport is quieter.
“It doesn’t feel like we are really in freedom. I feel like I am in Kabul,” Nisar says, hand running through his hair. Picking up essentials in the deserted streets of Kilbirnie over lockdown, he had the hair-raising feeling there was a gun pointed at his back, but turned around to find no one there. It’s a feeling he knows well, but one he hasn’t had in years.
Raihana blinks away tears as she recounts finding their 10-year old daughter gripping a device, demanding to know from Siri how Afghanistan was, if Grandma would be OK.
Nisar remembers Grandma, his own mother, hiding him in a locked room when he was eight or nine years old. It was the early 90s, a precarious time for Afghanistan. The country’s occupier, the former Soviet Union, had left, creating a power vacuum in its wake, in which factions of mujahedeen roamed the streets, calling door to door. It has stuck with them, Nisar says. “We can’t forget those memories.”
Three decades later, in 2021, reports of the Taliban making house visits are eerily reminiscent. Like many families, Nisar’s mother has destroyed all documents relating to his work with Nato and USAID, and he believes his wedding photos will meet the same fate. Nisar says his mother is holding the family together, but “I know the pain she is feeling inside.”
Back in New Zealand, a day after Nisar, Raihan and I speak, a “kōrero with our Afghan whānau” is being held over Zoom. The event is organised by Aroha Afternoons and refugee advocate Batool Ali. The topic? How Aotearoa can help with the current Afghan crisis.
A hundred people tuned into the 3pm Sunday meeting. Speakers included Afghan community leaders Amin Vakili and Raza Nayeel, law graduate Shakerah Zakeri, former war crimes investigator and lawyer Alison Cole, the cofounder of Action Station, Marianne Elliott, and New Zealand Red Cross researcher Murdoch Stephens.
It was an impassioned hour, captured in beautiful detail by artist Anne Taylor.
Community leader Amin Vakili said the country had returned to zero and outlined three possible scenarios for Afghanistan. The first two included a Taliban government, one of them propped up by the infamous Haqqani network, and the third painted a picture of violence and civil war among different fundamentalist factions. There was no doubt in his mind, however, that activists, western allies and minorities would be shut down, and thousands were in very real danger, he said. He urged New Zealanders to pressure the government to uphold its moral obligation to Afghans, and commit to a solid resettlement plan.
Recent law graduate Shakerah Zakeri echoed Vakili’s calls to the government and asked New Zealanders to speak up. Part of Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic minority, Zakeri arrived in Aotearoa as a six-year old. Watching the Taliban’s first press conference, she heard promises of rights for women and girls, amnesty for those who had worked for the allies, she was hopeful, could this be true? “I really, really wanted to believe them, but [from] what I am hearing, this is not happening at all,” she said.
Zakeri recounted one of many horrifying stories she had heard of Taliban reprisal. A story of a chef who worked with the US army, captured, tortured and beaten. His family could not afford the 700 afghani ransom for his release, the equivalent of $NZ12. Miraculously he was freed when village elders intervened on the family’s behalf. Zakeri conceded that stories like this could be overwhelming, but begged that people not move on with the news cycle.
“I plead with you to support and advocate for the people of Afghanistan,” she said. The government should follow in the footsteps of Canada and Australia and commit to a specific refugee quota. Refugees should not be seen as an economic burden. “When they come to New Zealand they are hungry to succeed and make a positive contribution to their new country.”
To meet immediate demands, Red Cross researcher Murdoch Stephens called on volunteers to help with resettlement. There was an urgent need, he said, to support Afghans who made it on evacuation flights, not to mention Kiwi-Afghans who likely had friends and family still in danger. And lawyer Alison Cole suggested today was an excellent time for people to use their democratic right and reach out to members of parliament. When we reflect on what values we want to show the world, it is quite simple, she said. “Write to every single one. Tell them what you want to see them do.”
Kōrero organiser Batool Ali’s husband, doctor Arif Ali, summed up the conversation with a call for high-level, long-term policy change. He wants to see the government create a bipartisan plan, something that can be implemented when faced with the next humanitarian crisis. While at pains to acknowledge what the country had achieved so far, he thought our politicians had been caught out. “It’s frustrating to see New Zealand has no such policy to enact in a crisis. What I see is a [need for a] long-term policy approach, so that they can respond, not just react.”
With only murmurs from the government of a second-phase evacuation, and no indication the refugee quota will be expanded, as in previous crises, Raihana and Nisar are finding it hard to stay hopeful. They were relying on Immigration New Zealand’s family reunification visa to bring their family to safety. The visa has a quota of 300 a year, unsurprisingly few of which have been filled since the pandemic. Even if the quota were to resume, Nisar and Raihana need to have three years of citizenship under their belt. They should be eligible in 2024.
Other options for leaving Afghanistan are also looking more and more remote as surrounding countries tighten their borders.
Leaving the country, no matter how you do it, is challenging, Nisar says. “We do not have a lot of money and it is not easy to do it safely.” But with food running low in his families’ homes and the cost of essentials rising, the situation is becoming desperate. “Now that I am living here I value my life, I don’t want to die. But I can tell you, living in Afghanistan, your life is not important.”
On hearing his 17-year-old niece had been accepted into journalism school in Kabul, Nisar says he felt conflicted. “When I talked, I congratulated her, but I know the future holds nothing for her [now].” And as he watches the planes from his home in Wellington, he wonders at the possibility of enjoying peace in a new country, all the while a part of him remains in his homeland, living out the lives of his friends and family there.
Aroha Afternoons was formed by Amnesty International coordinator Ruth Prentice in response to the Christchurch terror attacks. The group’s kaupapa is to facilitate “action-oriented conversations” and provide “an opportunity to connect with neighbours from different cultures and backgrounds”. The group will be hosting an event in Wellington in October to mark its second anniversary, with a variety of guest speakers, including Mervin Singham, the chief executive at the Ministry for Ethnic Communities.