Fatima and her family. / IRENE ORTIZ

'I can't forget about what's happening and I cry for my family'

Fatima Ahmadi, 26, an Afghan refugee, is starting a new life in Malaga, far from the danger and threats from the Taliban

IRENE ORTIZ

A nightmare. A reality. Tears pour down 26-year-old Fatima Ahmadi's face as she recalls the pain and heartbreak of having to leave her little house in Kabul, with all its flowers. Having to go in the knowledge that she would never return, or even see her family again. Saying goodbye and leaving a whole life behind. And all taken away from her by the stroke of a pen without her consent and for no reason other than being a woman.

It is eight months now since Fatima managed to escape from Afghanistan with her two children and her husband, Habibullah Afzali, 29. The country had become an inferno and her pain is as intense now as it was on the very first day.

Fatima Ahmadi had a dream life in Afghanistan. Although hers was an arranged marriage at the age of 22, she was able to finish her university degree in environmental sciences, something unusual in a country where women are often overruled when they become wives. But the Hazara ethnic group of which they are part, Habibullah says, is more open-minded than many.

The Hazaras are one of the ethnic groups most persecuted by the Taliban, for being Shia

Fatima worked for several organisations fighting climate change and pushing for sustainable development, including the National Environment Protection Agency, but that came to an end when the Taliban took over the country.

Thanks to a grant awarded to her husband by Malaga University to continue his IT studies, and the help of feminist groups of which Fatima was a member, they were able to escape the danger.

Cultural impact

"It became traumatic, living in Afghanistan," Habibullah says, containing his breath to stop himself crying. The Hazaras are one of the ethnic groups which are most persecuted by the Taliban because they follow the Shia faith in a country where most people are Sunni. As well as forbidding women from studying, working or leaving the house alone, as they do in general, the Taliban kill families such as theirs for simply belonging to this ethnic group.

"There came a time when, if anyone asked us, we didn't dare admit that we were Hazaras because it was too dangerous," says Habibullah, who will never forget the desperate cries of children during a shooting at a school 500 metres from their house.

The date of 15 August 2021 was a "black day" for all women in Afghanistan, Fatima says. And although she says she is happy now because she, her husband and their children are safe, it still pains her to think about her family who are trapped there.

"There is no hope for the future there because the Taliban do not allow women any rights. They want women to stay at home and not live their lives the way they want to," she says. Her sister, for example, has had to stop going to school and now feels that plans for the future only exist in dreams.

Living in a present where only the past exists is hard, and so is remaking a life in a country so different socially and culturally to one's own. This young Afghan woman admits that it has been quite a cultural shock. The lifestyle in general, women's freedom, rights and equality without discrimination are some of the things which came as the greatest surprise. She admits that in Spain "people are much more sociable and charitable than in Afghanistan," so they feel very comfortable here, although there are some habits she is not able to give up.

On 7 May 2022 the Taliban made it compulsory for women in Afghanistan to wear burqas again. Even wearing one, they are not allowed out of the house unless a man is with them, and not just any man, either. Habibullah Afzali says the Taliban now check the occupants of cars, asking for proof of the relationship between the man and the woman, just as they do in the street. One of Fatima's sisters who was being taken by a neighbour to visit another sister, was threatened because he was not her father, brother or husband.

Now, this young refugee is also suffering because of this sense of insecurity. She is distressed at not being able to feel independent, when she was, before the Taliban took over.

Fortunately, she has never had to wear a burqa, although she says she had to cover her face completely to get out of Afghanistan. In fact, "now the Taliban arrest the male relatives, the fathers and brothers, if they don't force the women to wear the hijab properly," Habibullah says.

Fatima is used to wearing the veil because it is part of traditional dress for Afghan women, but she is not afraid to leave her dark hair uncovered, and pinned up in a bun. She knows that here in Spain she can dress differently if she wants to, but says she doesn't feel comfortable wearing clothes that she didn't wear in her own country.

Adapting

The aftermath of what happened continues to affect everyday life for this family. The nightmares occur almost daily. "Our daughter Sana, who is three, often wakes up screaming in the night," Fatima says.

Coping when you are not in a good mental state is "very difficult", and Habibullah says his wife is losing her hair because of post-traumatic stress. "I can try to forget the pain I felt, but I can't forget about the situation and the fear and I cry for my family," she says.

Now Fatima Ahmadi and her family are starting a new life on the Malaga coast. Thanks to the support they have received from the Spanish Refugee Aid Commission, they are living in a small apartment in the city centre. They want to learn Spanish so they can communicate, and Fatima's greatest wish is to do a master's degree in environmental sciences so she can work in the field she loves so much.

"I will definitely have to find a job to be able to provide my children with everything they need," she says. She knows it won't be easy or quick, and although right now she feels happy because, as she says, "feeling safe is one of the greatest things ever," the same question keeps going round and round inside her head: "Will we ever be able to go back to Afghanistan?"